MERCUTIO O then I see Queen Mab hath been with you:
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomi
Over men’s noses as they lie asleep. (1.4.53-58)
Mercutio completes the couplet and then twists back into blank verse; the line of monosyllables initially maintains the momentum and pace of the stichomythia before becoming much more discursive and strange, as if those monosyllables, the tightly controlled rhymes of the preceding lines suddenly expand. Queen Mab seems to be Shakespeare’s invention as a title for a fairy queen – or quean, prostitute; she’s immediately undermined – no tinsel fairy this – and indeed fairy could mean witch or hag; when the astrologer Simon Forman saw Macbeth in the early seventeenth century, he described the witches as ‘three fairies or nymphs’. Mab might be the Celtic Mabh, (Welsh, ‘child’), another fairy name. And midwife is problematic too, perhaps closer to wise woman or cunning woman, delivering babies but also providing both love potions and abortions. This shifting, uncertain identity becomes oddly, vividly precise, however, because the speech is about to change scale, imagining a succession of tiny things. Fairies are small (as they are in Midsummer Night’s Dream – Peaseblossom, Moth, Cobweb, Mustardseed – it’s the play most closely related to this speech, which seems at times to be an off-cut or out-take from it). The first tiny thing is the figure carved on the stone set in an alderman’s ring – that it’s worn on his forefinger suggests it might be quite a large ring – but still tiny, too small to be properly seen, unless you zoom in close. And, in an oscillation characteristic of this speech, the precision of the agate-stone and the forefinger is followed by something much vaguer: she comes … drawn – implying some kind of carriage or chariot – but here the horses are, as it were, before the cart, only they’re not horses but little atomi, little (tautological) little things, (even little invisible things), not, as yet, described in any other terms than their littleness, drawing something that we can’t, as yet, see. And they’re small enough, these tiny things, that they can flit across the faces of sleeping men, as fleeting and insignificant as the touch of the hand that might brush them away. So much is packed into these first few lines: enchantment and (threatening) (female) sexuality; things that are tiny and precise or, equally, minute and vague – and bodies, human bodies – here the finger, and the nose. Body language, again, vividly imagined, dis-embodied, enchanted, estranged.