From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In English folklore, Queen Mab is a fairy. She is memorably described in a famous comedic speech by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, in which she is a miniature creature who drives her chariot across the faces of sleeping people and compels them to dream dreams of wish-fulfillment.
Mab's origins are uncertain. Shakespeare may have borrowed her name from a Celtic goddess, the Irish Medb or her Welsh counterpart Mabb. It is also possible to draw comparisons between her and Mara from Scandinavian folklore, since both Mara and Queen Mab are said to influence dreams. In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio gives a lengthy description of her:
"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;
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;
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 ‘ 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 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,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plaits 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—"
— Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Act I, scene iv
After her literary debut in Romeo and Juliet, she appears in works of seventeenth-century poetry, notably Ben Jonson's "The Entertainment at Althorp" and Michael Drayton's "Nymphidia". In Poole's work Parnassus, Mab is described as the Queen of the Fairies and consort to Oberon, Emperor of the Fairies.
Queen Mab is also the subtitle given to the 31st chapter of Herman Melville's novel "Moby Dick", first published in 1851. In this chapter, Stubb, the second mate of the Pequod, describes to Flask, the third mate, the details of a dream in which Stubb is confronted by a merman who tells him that the kick Stubb received from Captain Ahab's whalebone leg the previous day should be considered an honor, as a great English lord would consider it an honor to be slapped by a queen mab.