Thursday, November 5, 2009

Mercury and the Fairies' Midwife


I thought I should devote one whole post to Mercutio and his Queen Mab speech. Many people, including me, have seen Mercutio as the most interesting character in the play--although on this latest reading, I'm actually liking Juliet a lot more than I used to. I never thought I'd say that, because I'm not the Juliet type--even as a teenager I was more Cleopatra-ish than Juliety. But she's a lot more brazen than I remembered, and I like that in a fictional girl.

We'll get to her next time.

So, Mercutio. Certainly he speaks for love's cynics--all those hardened, embittered ironists who see love poetry as a language game without any purchase on the real world. He's also the "force" that keeps the play anchored in comedy. He's swift-witted, a man of quips and puns rather than swords and daggers, a masqued man who admits that he talks of nothing "but dreams, which are the children of an idle brain,/begot of nothing but vain fantasy." He's a master of the double-entendre, reminding Romeo that all this poetic yearning is really just about getting laid.

Why aren't there more people like that in real life? Genuine wit seems to be a dying art. There are thousands of people who think they're witty, who mistake lazy cynicism for flashy brilliance...but I've met few people in my life who have that quicksilver blend of insight, humor, and love of the language. I certainly don't count myself as one of them by any means. I am, however, an ideal audience for wit. I get the jokes, I see through the cynicism to the disappointed idealism, and I'm genuinely grateful to be in the presence of rhetorical genius. I am ready to be enchanted and inspired.

An exceptional wit can raise the tone of the conversation while simultaneously bringing things down to earth with a resounding thud. In scene 4, Romeo complains that he can't dance at the masque because his passion (for Rosaline) is weighing him down; his "soul of lead" won't let his feet--or his spirits--leave the earth. Mercutio advises him to "borrow Cupid's wings,/And soar with them above a common bound." I can't soar, Romeo complains, because I'm sinking under the weight of all this unrequited love. Romeo's a total whiner here, and it's easy to see why Mercutio, a fun-loving party animal, gets annoyed with him. I remember from my own youth that there's nothing worse than a friend who insists on ruining your wild night out by complaining about his or her tragic love life. Mercutio takes none of it seriously:

If love be rough with you, be rough with love.
Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.

"Prick" had the same connotation then that it does now, but it was more often used in verbal form. It also had its more mundane sense of pricking one's finger on a needle, or a thorn. Chaucer used it comically in the double sense of a knight "pricking" his way across the countryside--using his spurs to make his horse run, and using his own "prick" on the ladies en passant. Mercutio's advice here is to take the woman to bed, and thereby win a victory over erotic abstraction.

Mercutio--linked to the god Mercury, the bringer of dreams--is one of those guys you run across in youth who's kind of an alien. Fanciful, maybe arty, sexually ambiguous (and/or ambivalent), sometimes wise, sometimes imprudent--mercurial in temperament. In the real world he'd live in Manhattan or London, a refugee from some provincial backwater that didn't understand his sense of humor or his sartorial preferences. He's probably got piercings, tattoos, a freaky haircut. "A visor for a visor," he says, as he puts on his mask. A mask over a mask. He's not concerned with authenticity, because he's all about re-invention, imagination, possibility. If he had "an element," as my Wiccan girlfriend insists we all do, it would be air.

In real life as in literature, guys like this have a tough time. Maybe that's why they're keeping their witticisms to themselves these days.

I've always thought Mercutio had a little bit of Will in him--more than any of the other characters, he's in love with words, entranced by their ability to create new heavens and new earths. Fiction, like Mercutio's Queen Mab, can grant you your heart's desire--but only fleetingly. It's as real, and as ephemeral, as a dream.

When Romeo confesses that he had a dream the previous night, Mercutio says that he also had one. They exchange some banter about dreamers who "often lie"--as in tell lies, and lie in bed--which prompts Mercutio to tell his friends about Queen Mab:

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
Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep.

I like "atomi" better than "dust mites." Ever since my allergist showed me what's making me sneeze, I imagine tiny little monsters crawling up my nose while I sleep. I think I'll imagine Queen Mab and her atomi instead.

Mercutio then describes her tiny coach, made of a hazelnut and spiderwebs--it's a lovely description, which, like the whole passage, reminds one of A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Her wagon spokes made of long spinners' legs
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the moonshine's wat'ry beams;
Her collars, or the smallest spider web;
Her whip, of cricket's bone, the lash of film;
Her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat
Not half so big as a round little worm
Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid.
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o' mind the fairies' coachmakers.

Although he'll later claim his evocative description is only "vain fantasy," "as thin of substance as the air," there's a powerful idealism here that gives the lie to his cynical take on humanity in general, and lovers in particular. Poetic imagination has the alchemical power to transform nature into something wholly other, to take a hazelnut shell, a spiderweb and a gnat and make them wondrous. Children can do this--my son still has that ability to look at something really mundane and see it "supernaturally"--but we adults rarely can. That's why we need stories, poems, and plays.

I would argue that visual media actually take this power away from us, by doing all the imaginative work and forcing someone else's pictures into our heads. But I'm sure I could get some argument on that...

Mab and her little mites incite dreaming, but it's not all good:


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 curtsies straight;
O'er ladies' lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.
Sometime she gallops o'er a lawyer's lip,
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, ambuscados, 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.

Lovers dream of love, courtiers of more elegant sycophancy, lawyers of ambulance-chasing (or the Renaissance equivalent), ladies of kisses, parsons of getting ahead in the Church, and soldiers of killing, drinking, and marching. With the exception of the lovers' dreams, these are all selfish, somewhat amoral dreams. Even the ladies' kisses are "plagued" by Mab's resentment. There's a hint of excess here, of wanting more than one's due--and once again, what starts with love ends with death.

These airy fantasies are borne by the wind of inspiration (in its etymological sense of being "breathed upon" by the divine), but they can be dangerous, too. At the end of the speech, Mercutio gets carried away and has to be reined in:

...This is that very Mab
That plaits the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elf-locks 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--

At this point Romeo breaks in:

Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talkst of nothing.

He was, in fact, talking of "nothing." Words are airy no-things. But the word "nothing" has another history as well--in medieval and early modern English, it could denote female genitalia. Because, you know, relative to men there's "nothing" there. In Old English the word was "nat-what," which is similar. It means both "I know not what" and "nothing." I like the first meaning--I kind of picture a big warrior type in sixth-century armor looking at a woman and thinking "I know not what this is, it looks like nothing, but I want it anyway."

Anyway, when Mercutio talks about Mab sending girls erotic fantasies, he's invoking all these senses of nothing. At the end of the speech, the "nothing" of sexual fantasy becomes something--a pregnancy. Interesting, huh?

The larger point of the Queen Mab speech is that dreams, even dreams of love, can take a darker turn. That's certainly how Romeo takes it. Before he goes in to the ball, he stops and shares a moment of trepidation and foreboding:

...my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels, and expire the term
Of a despised life, closed in my breast,
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.

Not a very good attitude for a first date. And as always in Will's world, prescient. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First the loving, then the dying.

Next: Juliet gives torches a lesson in wattage. Or is it lumenage? Whatever. It's dark, and she's really pretty.

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