In his collection of essays, Soliloquies in England, George Santayana dedicated some pages to a piece titled “Queen Mab” presumably after the enigmatic faery who is mentioned by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.[1] The essay turns into an analysis of British literature, which I take to mean that Santayana saw some form of greater representation in Queen Mab that extended to the wider British psyche. Santayana’s claims regarding British romantic literature, if there is truth in them, add yet another level of genius to Shakespeare, who would have most likely been aware of the duplicity of romance while implementing it in his play. I want first to explain Santayana’s essay—his views regarding British literature—before revisiting the lines where Romeo and Mercutio exchange their thoughts on the meaning of dreams and Queen Mab’s role within them.

Who is Queen Mab? That is the question this essay will aim to explore.

Santayana begins his piece by connecting literature to nature. He writes that nature is “far more resourceful than logic,” which is why she has “found a way out the contradiction” that exists between “the human need for expression” and the “British distaste for personal outbursts.” If our inner and outer man oppose each other, then literature is a way to circumvent this contrast. But not all literature is equal. Santayana turns his attention to romantic fiction, which he called a “bypath of expression.” It is a form of literature that is the equivalent of a fleeting phase in our lives, when man plays at “self-revelation” despite being far from it. In Romantic literature man indulges in “day-dreams and romantic transformations” and “imaginary substitutes” for himself as a way to “nurse and develop” his opinions and preferences without stating them directly. Through this form of expression, Santayana writes, man will “dream of what Queen Mab makes other people dream.”

The sentence needs unpacking. In Santayana’s essay, Queen Mab is England’s literary imagination, but a very specific part of it: the Romantic. And this romantic part of the English literary imagination is a momentary step in our journey towards understanding our hearts. It is, in other words, incomplete. Santayana wrote that a man’s heart, his “ruling motives,” will be revealed “only in long stretches of constant endeavor and faithful habit,” which often comes towards the end of his life. But Queen Mab is still part of the human heart that managed to revolutionize people’s aesthetic sensibilities. British Romanticism elevated man’s self-image. As Santayana wrote, “that which he might have been, and was not, comforts him. Such a form of self-expression, indirect, bashful, and profoundly humorous, being play rather than art, is alone congenial to the British temperament; it is the soul of English literature.”

Art extends to politics and faith, and Santayana believed that English literature, like English politics and society, “breathes tolerance, plasticity, waywardness, infinitude; it is tender and tentative, shapeless and guileless.” We can notice a tone of criticism from Santayana towards British culture (the product), but his larger point about its Romantic literature (the process) is that searching for truth can result in the unhindered release of feelings and emotion “without reserve.” The risk of this release is allowing it to direct our imagination inwards, not outwards. Santayana writes that in Romantic literature we lose sense of the transcendent:

Here is no religious tragedy, no distilled philosophy, no overarching cosmic myth. The scale is pleasantly small and the tone familiar, though the sum of the parts may fade into the infinite. We do not find in this complicated dream any life greater than our own or less accidental. We do not need to outgrow ourselves in order to understand it; no one summons us to pause, to recant, to renounce any part of our being. On the contrary, we simply unwind our own reel; we play endlessly at living, and in this second visionary life we survive all catastrophes, and we exchange one character for another without carrying over any load of memory or habit or fate. We seem still to undergo the vicissitudes of a moral world, but without responsibility.

Santayana’s description of Romantic literature is as eloquent as it is incisive. If he is right, however, then Queen Mab is deceitful. She scatters Romantic ideas of fiction that do not offer insight into reality, only escape from it. Is this the same way that Mercutio describes the faerie queen in his soliloquy? It might help to revisit the Bard’s romantic tragedy.

Romeo and his friends are on their way to the Capulet’s banquet, when Romeo says to Mercutio that he “dream’d a dream” that night.[2] Mercutio responds in a teasing manner, saying he too had a dream: “That dreamers often lie.”[3] Mercutio senses that Romeo is acting superstitiously, fearing that his dream might signify something greater, and Mercutio tries to calm down his superstition by saying that dreamers are often liars. Romeo jests in return and switches the meaning of the word “lie” by responding “In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.”[4] Notice, however, that Mercutio is not saying that dreams are lies, rather that the person dreaming is often the liar. Romeo changes the meaning subtly, saying that they do, in fact, dream true things. Neither of these men is saying that dreams are lies, but Mercutio is implying that men don’t have the ability to interpret dreams, so they often come out as lies. Romeo seems to disregard this opinion, and is more persuaded by the mere belief that dreams are truthful.

It is upon this declaration that Mercutio gives his famous soliloquy. Worth quoting in full for its beautiful verse, but I also want to highlight some important sections:

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 spiders’ 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 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—[5]

Romeo cuts off Mercutio before he can finish his soliloquy. Mercutio’s description of Queen Mab is whimsical (just read how he describes her wagon in the first lines!) These first lines read like Mercutio is telling a story, but then, near the end of the soliloquy, his magical fairy tell becomes a warning. He starts to describe how Queen Mab, despite her fanciful attributes, can actually bring harm to people. It is important to notice that Romeo doesn’t want to hear Mercutio once his lines begin to turn admonitory. What might this signify? Romeo is willing to hear all the pretty things about the fairies’ midwife, but none of the bad.

Romeo recognizes a couple of lines after Mercutio’s speech that he fears an “untimely death,” presaged to him in his dream.[6] Still, Romeo once again dismisses this warning, saying “He, that hath the steerage of my course, / Direct my sail!”[7] Romeo is the true, Romantic protagonist of Shakespeare’s play, and he suffers a fate that is the consequence of his inability to step back from his Romantic vision of the world and heed Mercutio’s advice.

Is Romeo under Queen Mab’s spell? Is Queen Mab the reason that Romeo suffers an untimely death? Romeo, after all, never allowed Mercutio to finish his story on the dangers of Queen Mab. Santayana interpreted this tragedy as an analogy of Romanticism, where Queen Mab is the true villain. He wrote:

Queen Mab is a naughty sprite, full of idle curiosity and impartial laughter. When she flutters over the roofs of cities, she is no angel with a mission, coming to sow there some chosen passion or purpose of her own; nor does she gather from those snoring mortals any collective sentiment or aspiration, such as a classic muse might render articulate, or such as religion or war or some consecrated school of art might embody. She steals wilily like a stray moonbeam into every crack and dark old corner of the earth. Her deft touch, as she pretends, sets all men dreaming, each after his own heart; but like other magicians, she is a fraud.

Santayana concludes that Queen Mab, the British Romantic literary imagination, is a fraud who deceives her victims. She does not gather “collective sentiment or aspiration” about the human race, “such as a classic muse might render articulate.” Here, Santayana inserts what he believes is the strength and superiority of Classic goddesses, who represent Classical literature in the Greek and Roman traditions. He also mentions religion, or war, or some consecrated school of art. All of these alternatives are preferable to Romanticism because they create a unifying human sentiment, not a subjective and radically naïve one that leads people, like poor Romeo, to delusional beliefs about the reality of life.

In Romeo’s case, his delusion cost him his life and sacrificed the life of his friend, Mercutio, and the object of his love, Juliet. Perhaps this is the message that Shakespeare, too, wanted to impart. Some Shakespeare scholars argue that we read Romeo and Juliet incorrectly today, and that it was supposed to actually be humorous. I’ve never quite liked this description of the play as “humor.” Nor is it supposed to be the romantic play that makes us cry when the two star-crossed lovers profess their (admittedly) beautiful lines about love and passion. We are supposed to feel, I believe, a sense of nostalgia or bittersweet frustration from witnessing these characters portray our highest ideals about love (as Queen Mab is luring us in) and seeing Shakespeare take these characters’ idealism to its logical conclusion: Irrationality and the impossibility of being together, which takes the form of self-inflected death.

Shakespeare’s prodigious awareness of the human condition comes through in how he uses Mercutio as the reasonable figure who tries to talk some sense into Romeo, and demonstrating through Romeo the Romantic’s inability to listen to reason. The “tragedy” of the play unwraps as a consequence of this Romantic delusion—this illusion that is so intrinsic so as to be menacingly impulsive. Santayana phrased it perfectly when he wrote that “Queen Mab is the frail mothlike emanation of such a generous but disappointed mind.”

But not all is negative about Queen Mab, for she is a part of our aesthetic psyche, albeit an unrefined and passion-filled form. Santayana concluded his essay on British Romantic literature by recognizing the undeniable appeal of this genre. “Fiction and poetry, in some supposititious instance,” he closes, “report for the Englishman the bashful truth about himself and what English life thereby misses in vivacity, English literature gains in wealth, in tenderness, in a rambling veracity, and in preciousness to the people’s heart.”

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] George Santayana, Queen Mab, Soliloquies in England, 1922.

[2] Romeo and Juliet, 1.4. 53.

[3] 1.4. 56.

[4] 1.4. 57.

[5] 58-100.

[6] 1.4. 118.

[7] 1.4. 119-120.

The featured image is “Queen Mab” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email