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At the time Mercutio makes his famous "Queen Mab" speech in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, he and Romeo, together with a group of their friends and kinsmen, are on the way to a party given by their family's arch-enemy, Lord Capulet. Their plan is to crash the party so that Romeo may have the opportunity to see his current love, Rosaline, whom they know has been invited to the Capulet's masque that evening.

Romeo, whom his friends seem to consider generally very witty and fun, originally thought the party-crashing would be a wonderful idea, but suddenly is overcome by a sense of great foreboding; although they "mean well in going to this mask . . . 'tis no wit to go" (I, iv, 48-49). This annoys Mercutio, who does not recognize Romeo's reluctance as a genuine premonition, but feels it is simply another example of Romeo's lovesick whims. Romeo tries to explain to Mercutio that it is based upon a very disturbing dream, and Mercutio passes that off as silly, telling him that "Dreamers often lie." Here he is not saying that Romeo himself is a liar, but that people should put no faith in dreams. But Romeo is insistent; dreamers lie "in bed asleep, they do dream things true" (I, iv, 52).

This suddenly launches Mercutio into a speech that alters the entire pace of the scene. Up to now, the conversation has been typical of a group of people walking through the streets-short phrases, a generally relaxed mood. With Mercutio's words, "O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you!" he plunges into a forty-two line speech which is actually composed of only two sentences, giving him barely enough breath to pause between phrases. The gist of the speech concerns Mab, whom Celtic mythology considered to be the midwife of the fairies, and who also is held to be responsible for human beings' dreams.

The Queen Mab speech is totally fanciful, describing, as if to a child, this tiny little creature who flies through the air in a small carriage, driven by a "wagoner" who is a gnat. On the surface this seems like it should be charming, but when one boils it down, it isn't charming at all. For example, Queen Mab's "cover" of her carriage is made of grasshopper wings, which implies that someone must have pulled the grasshopper's wings off to make it. Ditto for the spider's legs which serve as the wagon's spokes,...

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...n the first act, in this last moment before Romeo and Juliet fatefully meet, is the last moment when the stone is still poised at the mountaintop. In the next scene it will be let go, and then there is nothing anyone on earth can do to stop it.

In this context, Romeo's last words in this scene are tremendously significant. His sense of dread, after Mercutio's strange behavior, has deepened rather than diminished, and for the first time he actually defines what it is he feels: he senses that the events which are about to unfold will result in his death-the ultimate dreamless sleep. He is, of course, right. The violence which Queen Mab will set in motion that night are no dreams, but real. And yet Romeo seems to realize that there is nothing to be done except face the future squarely; there is no running from it. "But he, that hath the steerage of my course, / Direct my sail!" (I, iv, 112-13). His final words, "On, lusty gentlemen!", are to Mercutio and their other friends, but they might have been addressed to himself as well. It is his passion, his impetuosity, his lust, which will spell his doom-all of it foreshadowed in Mercutio's "talk of dreams."

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