Noses and tails (1.4.77-88)

MERCUTIO     Sometimes she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,

                        And then he dreams of smelling out a suit;

                        And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail

                        Tickling a parson’s nose as ’a lies asleep,

                        Then he dreams of another benefice.

                        Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,

                        And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,

                        Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,

                        Of healths five fathom deep; and then anon

                        Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,

                        And being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two,

                        And sleeps again. (1.4.77-88)

Getting faster still, I think, and weirder, partly because of the noses; the repeated citation of noses is both ridiculous (because noses are ridiculous; they are also, phallic, if you’re feeling Freudian) and very particular in its physicality: the tickle, the sneeze, the sense of a dream as being fleeting and intense as perfume. The suit that the courtier smells is not clothes but rather a petition that he can advance at court on behalf of someone else, who will pay him a fee, referring to the assumed self-interest of courtiers. Similarly, the greed of the parson is invoked: a parishioner has paid their parish dues with a pig, which the parson may well eat, as he dreams of getting the income from yet another parish. It’s not clear how the pig’s tail relates to Mab – has it been amputated from the pig for her to hold, or has she grown a curly tail herself? Either way, the rapid alternation between noses and tails is grotesque (and phallic), albeit the conventional anti-court and anti-clerical satire lightens it a little. Driving is more intense than galloping, more pressure, wheels as well as hooves; it’s as if Mab’s chariot is cutting the soldier’s own throat. His first imaginings are violent and swaggering: cutting an enemy’s throat, breaching a wall (as in, Once more unto), setting an ambush (the ambuscado makes it sound Spanish, a touch more swagger, but also evoking the vanquished foreigner); the Spanish blades the much-fetishized swords of Toledo, the best blades of all Europe. (There is, again, an edge of sexual violence). And then an enormous drink, drinking healths, making extravagant toasts and oaths and downing it all in one. There’s so much stuff going on.

And then it shifts. There’s a significant medial caesura – one of those jump cuts – as Mab no longer brings dreams of feats of arms, but of terror. It’s left slightly unclear as to whether she drums in his ear (probably), or whether there are, suddenly, drums in his ear (less likely); the effect is the same – loud, ominous, the sound of an imminent attack, perhaps – but the grammatical ambiguity makes it more unsettling still. The repeated ands, as well as the lists, make it faster and faster, and more intense, breathless. The soldier is the first of Mab’s victims to wake, and he is terrified (but, in another half-line, sleeps again; this is how swift and confusing dreams are).

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