‘Angry Mab with Blisters Plague’: The Pre-Modern Science of Contagion in Romeo and Juliet

  • Mary Floyd-Wilson
Part of the Palgrave Handbooks of Literature and Science book series (PAHALISC)


Critics have often struggled with reconciling Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech with the rest of Romeo and Juliet. As Harold C. Goddard observes, ‘The famous description of her has been widely held to be . . . an outburst of poetry from the author put arbitrarily in Mercutio’s mouth.’1 E. Pearlman maintains that ‘There is no overlap between the realist, materialist Mercutio and the Mercutio who celebrates Queen Mab in elaborate, imaginative, and romantic terms.’2 But scholars interested in finding traces of the history of science in early modern literature suggest that Mercutio offers a vision that ‘anticipates the worlds which early microscopists glimpse through the lens some thirty years later.’3 As Jennifer Ailles imaginatively puts it, ‘By figuring the originator of dreams as an external creature that is small, almost at the ‘atomi[c]’ level of germs and bacteria, and which invades the larger corpus without impunity, Shakespeare provides a pseudo-medical discourse of infection that is closer to what medical scientists now know and postulate about the spread of disease.’4 Although Romeo and Juliet is one of the few plays of the period to stage, however obliquely, the actual presence of plague in the community, few early modern medical writers conceived of diseases as individual entities, much less as substances operating on the ‘atomic level’ of germs or microbes. And yet Mercutio’s story of Queen Mab does provide us with an early modern narrative of how infection spreads. In a culture that understood the plague in supernatural terms, as a punishment sent by God, many writers suggested that demonic invisible spirits were the agents of an epidemic.


Primary Seed Evil Spirit Early Modern Period Modern Reader Foreign Invader 
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© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mary Floyd-Wilson
    • 1
  1. 1.The University of North CarolinaChapel HillUSA

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