When you take the Balcony Scene out of the running, it’s difficult to think of a moment in Romeo and Juliet with lines more iconic than Act 1 Scene 4. Here, Romeo is unwillingly dragged to the Capulet ball by his cohorts, who seek to get him to stop pining for Roseline. Along the way, Mercutio begins his iconic rhapsodizing on Queen Mab and her mischief involving love and dreams:
“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 fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep…” (1.4.57-62).
While this is Queen Mab’s first explicit appearance in any written work, a strong candidate for a literary source exists in the Irish folk-figure Queen Medb. Medb exists in Irish literature as a warrior-queen who survives several different husbands, and is most well-known as a primary character in the Ulster-cycle epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge. As someone who enjoys literature from this era, I highly recommend giving it a read.
Wherever Queen Medb or Mab began, Shakespeare’s work is certainly not where she ends. Further writings on her span the works of Ben Jonson, Michael Drayton, J.M. Barrie, and a chapter title in Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick, to name a few. In more contemporary works, some visual artists have used depictions of Queen Mab to explore female sexuality and power. This is quite source-appropriate; central to Medb’s character in Irish texts is the power she asserts in the face of patriarchy, as well as her unrestricted sexuality. Working with this textual root of Medb’s character and the ways that Shakespeare’s depiction lends itself to our message, the imagery of Queen Mab is central to our production’s exploration of the limits of a gender binary in relation to creativity, authority, and power—onstage and off.