Composer Thoughts on Mercutio’s Queen Mab Speech


What is the purpose of Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech?

In one blog post, James Cappio says, “As I hypothesize in the book, Shakespeare was drunk on language, and rarely more so than in this play. Not long after Sampson and Gregory exit, we get Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, such a celebrated Shakespearean monologue that it’s rarely asked: What is it doing there, looking as if it wandered in from A Midsummer Night’s Dream?”


And I agree. If I were the writer of the original Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare text; at some point in my round of edits I would have to cut Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech. That is, if I was editing for economy as is usually the case in contemporary musicals. I would have to ask myself the question: “Does the story change at all if I cut this section?” If the answer is no, as I feel it is in this case, then it has to be cut. Most of you will recognize that as the “kill your darlings” phase of screenplay editing.

However, I am not the original writer of R&J, the great William Shakespeare is. The audience has an expectation to hear the Queen Mab speech and many would be disappointed (i.e.: that’s when I start getting the hate emails) and upset. On top of that, our director is looking forward to the Queen Mab speech, and it is very rare that I do not bow to director wishes.

So now, knowing that we have to have Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, what purpose can it serve?

I have scored the complete Queen Mab sequence no less than 5 times. Each time in a very different style. I have also listened to many other renditions online of Mab’s text put to music. I didn’t like any of them (but kudos to the many composers who honored Shakespeare with their time and work).

If Queen Mab were a stand-alone piece to be performed in isolation at a classical concert, I would score it very chromatic with dark hints of fairies and chords known to me to sound like dark magic and light sinister frivolity. And indeed, one of my scores is exactly this.

But what’s paramount in musical theater with any piece or underscore is what comes before and what comes after. How does the piece fit into the trajectory of the forward motion of the story.

So the arrangement I have chosen was the second arrangement I had composed, way back in the first month when I began my sketches for R&J the musical. You know how on a test they say that your first instinct is usually correct? I think that might be the case here.

My arrangement for Queen Mab is not the most clever of my arrangements. I would even say that on listening to it by itself many might say, “That’s it? That’s your best?” But, I am using this un-essential text as best I can for these plot vehicles:

  1. To keep the story in the vein of a comedy in Act One.
  2. To allow Mercutio’s character to show a whimsical imagination, one that is not very balanced, and according to the actor and director interpretation, can show an effeminate side to Mercutio.
  3. The light hearted beginning provides a strong contrast to his mental breakdown and reflection after the speech. The “torch” of this breakdown is then handed to Romeo for his subsequent solo.

I will be interested to see audience reaction. And for my chromatic classical version, I’m sure many audience members would say “Ah…that’s so beautiful, such a wonderful Queen Mab interpretation.” But it’s boring. I would rather audience members say “Ah, a wonderful Romeo and Juliet musical. I was never bored.”

4 Responses to Composer Thoughts on Mercutio’s Queen Mab Speech

  1. Mike M. Marlin Jr

    I agree. There is nothing particularly meaningful about the speech.
    But, having played the role I would say:
    The dramatic intention is to provoke the revelers to crash the Capulet party.
    The Mab speech banters on to first, disorient, and then ultimately to embolden them to follow through with the charade.
    Mercutio is a catalyst whose ‘whimsy’ is sharp and manipulative. He instigates the action by commanding Romeo and Benvolio who in the beginning are like wet blankets.
    Mercutio uses language to prod and poke. His seemingly “un-balanced” nature is a tactic, a reflection or mockery of the madness of the world.
    He is not the type to run away from a fight. Thus, his untimely death.

    Directors are prone to make a clever show out of the fanciful speech.
    But Mab is a flash in the pan; the speech better to be delivered like the Modern Major General in one sustained breath between each period of the text.

    The climax of the speech gets shrugged off as from a precocious actor who breaks the character to become ‘his self’ again… as though it were a game.
    If you sense a mental breakdown of the character, perhaps it is just the pre-party elixir kicking in!

    The speech is surely a metaphor to blur dream and reality. Thus, making any venture worthy of acting upon.
    The humor, boldness, and likability of Mercutio makes the character’s death more tragic and powerful. This gives the plot fuel for an even deeper and darker madness.
    So, give it up for Queen Mab!

  2. Hi Mike,
    Thank you so much for your insights! Wonderful stuff there. I will take your words to heart.

  3. Mike M. Marlin Jr

    Interesting thing about Queen Mab is the mischief she conjures by spreading madness through our dreams!

    Midsummer psha!
    Mab is really CREEPY!

  4. Lincoln Douglas

    On the subject of a mental breakdown, I’ve always interpreted Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech to be a reflection of the character’s beliefs about love. It almost seems to me that there is a certain point in the Queen Mab speech, a word or phrase, more accurately, a trigger that causes Mercutio to have this emotional distress. I often wondered if the character has perhaps experienced a traumatic event in his past that has caused him to develop whatever anxiety or fear that comes out in this speech. When Romeo says “peace, peace, Mercutio.” I always see it as a friend comforting another friend who is experiencing a panic attack or PTSD and may not even have a full grip on reality at the time, almost as if Mercutio is reliving his trauma and Romeo has to remind him that he’s safe. I love the idea of it being played as a mental breakdown, and I can’t wait to hear how that will sound when put to music.

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