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 fore-finger of an alderman,[60]
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;[70]
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight,
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O’er ladies o’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:[80]
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier's nose,
And then dreams he 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 dreams, he 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,[90]
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage:
This is she—

Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace![100]
Thou talk’st of nothing.

True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind, who wooes
Even now the frozen bosom of the north,
And, being anger’d, puffs away from thence,
Turning his face to the dew-dropping south.

Notes from Romeo and Juliet, Kenneth Deighton ed., London, MacMillan, 1875

57. Queen Mab. The origin of the name Mab is uncertain, and Shakespeare, according to Thoms, is apparently the earliest writer to give her the title of queen. He mentions that Beaufort, in his Antient Topography of Ireland, speaks of Mabh as the chief of the Irish fairies, and adds that the word Mab is Celtic, meaning both in Welsh, and in the kindred dialects of Brittany, a child or infant, “and it would be difficult to find an epithet that better befits Shakespeare’s description of the dwarf-like sovereign.” If Shakespeare was the first to apply the designation of Fairy Queen to Mab, that designation seems to have been a well-recognized one, for Jonson in his Satyr, written in 1603, speaks of “a bevy of Fairies, attending on Mab their queen.”

58. the fairies’ midwife, the fairy whose “department it was to deliver the fancies of sleeping men of their dreams, those children of an idle brain” (Steevens); see line 94, below.

59. In shape ... agate-stone, in size no bigger than the small figures engraved, or cut in relief, on agate stones set in rings. Shakespeare again refers to these figures as symbols of diminutiveness, in Much Ado About Nothing iii. 1. 65, where Beatrice is said to compare a tall man to “a lance ill-headed“ and a short one to “an agate vilely cut”; while in ii. Henry IV i. 2. 19, Falstaif, speaking of his page, says “I was never manned with an agate till now.”

60. On the ... alderman. In the first quarto for alderman we have burgomaster, the Dutch equivalent of our mayor, and Steevens points out that in the old pictures of these dignitaries the ring is generally placed on the fore-finger, whereas in England it appears to have been more commonly worn on the thumb.

61. atomies, only another form of atoms, the Lat. pl. of atomus, atomi, being treated as an English singular; literally something so small as to be incapable of division; cp. As You Like It iii. 2. 245, “It is as easy to count atomies as to resolve the propositions of a lover.”

63. long-spinners’ legs, what children call a ‘daddy-long-legs,’ but different from the common spider; cp. Midsummerr Night’s Dream ii. 2. 21, “Hence, you long-legged spinners, hence!”

64. cover, awning, hood.

65. traces, that by which the vehicle is drawn.

68. grey-coated gnat, what Milton, Lycidas, 28, calls the “gray-fly,” either the trumpet-fly, or possibly the cricket.

70. Prick’d ... maid, taken out with a needle from the finger of a lazy maid. It was of old popularly believed that small parasites were sometimes harboured in the flesh of the fingers of lazy persons. Nares quotes Beaumont and Fletcher, The Woman Hater, iii. 1. 111, 2, “Keep thy hands in thy muff and warm the idle Worms in thy fingers’ ends.”

71—3. Her chariot ... coachmakers. Lettsom would place these lines after 1. 58, as “it is preposterous to speak of the parts of a chariot before mentioning the chariot itself”: joiner, carpenter, grub, worm; the squirrel and the grub, because the former is fond of cracking nuts, and the latter of boring its way through the shell, both eating the kernel and so hollowing out the shell which thereby becomes fitted for a coach for fairies.

73. Time out o’ mind, from time immemorial.

74. in this state, with this pomp and splendour.

76. court’sies, bowing and cringing in the presence of those whose favour they seek to win.

76. straight, straightway, immediately.

80. Because ... are, allusions to the sweatmeats eaten by ladies to sweeten the breath are very common in the old dramatists, and one of the names given to them was “kissing-comfits,” as in Merry Wives of Windsor v. 5. 22.

82. smelling out a suit, scenting out some appointment, office, etc., for which he might become a suitor to the king, or to those high in his favour. As courtiers have already been mentioned, it has been proposed to substitute ‘counsellor’s’ here.

83. tithe-pig, a pig given to a priest in payment of tithes, or tenth parts of the parishioner’s annual income.

85. another benefice, i.e. an increase to his income by his being presented with a richer living, better church preferment, or perhaps a living in addition to that already held by him, it being common in those days for priests to hold more than one living at a time.

88. Spanish blades. The toledo, a sword made at Toledo, in Spain, was in high favour formerly, the steel of the blade being of great excellence and finely tempered.

89. Of healths ... deep,... of cups which no thirst could drain dry; the pledges drunk to the health of friends, mistresses, etc., are put for the cup from which they are drunk.

90. Drums in his ears, he dreams that the signal for battle has been sounded by the drums, and he must up and arm.

91. swears a prayer or two, his vocabulary is so largely made up of oaths that even when in his alarm he tries to remember a prayer, he cannot do so without an admixture of blasphemy; cp. As You Like It ii. 7. 150, “Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard.&rdquo

92. And sleeps again. Cp. Macbeth ii. 2. 22—5, where, during the murder of Duncan, the sleeping chamberlains start up in their sleep, “There's one did laugh in's sleep, and one cried ‘Murder’: I stood and heard them; But they did say their prayers, and address'd them Again to sleep.”

93. That plats ... night. “It was believed that certain malignant spirits ... assumed occasionally the likeness of women clothed in white; that in this character they sometimes haunted stables in the night-time, carrying in their hands tapers of wax, which they dropped on the horses’ manes, thereby plaiting them in inextricable knots” ... (Douce).

94. And bakes ... hairs, and causes the hair of those who are uncleanly in person to become caked in elf knots; the reference is said to be to a horrid disease called plica polonica, in which the hair became injected with blood, an infliction superstitiously attributed to the malice of wicked elves. See next note, and cp. King Lear, ii. 3. 10, “my face I’ll grime with filth; Blanket my loins; and elf my hair in knots.” For baked = caked, clotted, cp. Hamlet ii. 2. 481, “horridly trick'd With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, Baked and impasted with the parching streets.” Queen Mab’s hatred of sluttishness is again referred to in Merry Wives of Windsor 5. 50, “Elves, list your names; silence, you airy boys. Cricket, to Windsor chimneys shalt thou leap: Where fires thou find’st unraked and hearths unswept, There pinch the maids as blue as bilberry: Our radiant queen hates sluts and sluttery”; a passage which Jonson has imitated in his Satyr, 34—7, where, speaking of “Mab, the mistress Fairy,” he says, “She that pinches country wenches, If they rub not clean their benches, And with sharper nails remembers When they rake not up their embers.”

95. Which once ... bodes, the disentangling of which forebodes, etc. The nominative to bodes is the adjectival clause Which untangled; so the noun clause in Hamlet iii. 1. 182, “Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus From fashion of himself,” i.e. the beating of his brains puts; Antony and Cleopatra i. 2. 115, “our ills told us Is as our earing,” i.e. the telling of our ills is, etc. Why the disentanglement should have this effect is not clear, unless it is that it would further provoke the malice of Mab at seeing her work undone. On this subject of “elf-locks” and the “entangling”cor the “untangling” there has in recent years been much controversy. Daniel, in the revised edition of our play, published by the New Shakspere Society, prefers “entangled,” believing the entanglement, not the disentanglement, to be inauspicious. W. G. Black, in Notes and Queries, 5th Series, xi. 22, quotes a passage from Sir T. Overburie's Vision, 1616, which perhaps bears out Daniel’s contention; and W. G. Stone, in the same journal, xi. 205, quotes from Turner’s Remarkable Providence, 1697, a further passage in support of the same view. “ ‘Pride of Hair was punished,’ saith Dr. Bolton, ‘at first with an ugly Intanglement, sometime in the form of a great Snake, sometime of many little ones, full of Nastiness, Vermin, and noisome Smell; and that which is most to be admired, and never Age saw before, pricked with a Needle, they yielded bloody drops. This first began in Poland, afterwards entered into Germany; and all that then cut off his horrible snaky Hair, either lost their Eyes, or the Humour falling down upon other Parts tortured them extremely ’...” Brinsley Nicholson remarks that “while a felting or inextricable interlacing of the hair — a result of neglect and want of cleanliness — was doubtless known in England (a state called by Dr. Copland ‘false plica’), there is not, so far as I am aware, any recorded instance of the occurrence of the true plica polonica in England so early as Shakespeare’s time.” J. W. Legg says that if there is an allusion here to the plica polonica, “it is absolutely necessary to accept the early reading ‘untangled.’ If we accept ‘entangled’ as the reading, then we must reject any allusion under the name of ‘elf-locks’ to the plica: for the entanglement of the plica boded no misfortune; it was a piece of great good fortune, which lasted for ever if the hair did not become untangled.”

101. Thou talk’st of nothing, your talk is all nonsense.

104. fantasy, fancy; of which it is the older form.

105. of substance, as regards substance; in the matter of substance.

106. wooes, with the hope of softening it.

107, Even now ... And, at one moment ... and at the next.

109. dew-dropping south, so Cymbeline iv. 2. 34—9, “the spongy south”; and of the south wind, As You Like It iii. 5. 50, “Like foggy south puffing with wind and rain.”