Can you please give a brief explanation of the symbolic significance of the "Queen Mab" speech in Romeo and Juliet?
This is of course one of the most famous speeches in the entire play. Queen Mab is the mythological figure who brings dreams to people while they sleep. However, critics have focused on the way that her name actually has a less savoury connotation. The words "quean" and "mab" were actually used to refer to prostitutes in Elizabethan times. This speech therefore represents something of a pun as a childish myth is linked to a rather bleak vision of humanity and its darkness. This is paralleled by the way in which the description of the dreams Queen Mab brings to each person is attractive in a fairy-tale kind of way, but also becomes increasingly darker, until soldiers are said to dream of "cutting foreign throats." At the end of the speech, when Mercutio is losing control of his emotions, Queen Mab is the "hag" that initiates girls into sexual knowledge:
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.
What began as a simple child's tale of fairys has now devolved into something much more sinister and disturbing, which we could also argue represents a much more realistic vision of society. Mercutio seems to be offering an alternate view of the grand tragedy in this play, and Mercutio ends by saying that dreams "are the children of an idle brain." Mercutio's comment about dreams can be seen as giving a harsh verdict on not only Romeo's dreams of love, but the Friar's dreams of peace and the various other dreams that characters have. All, according to Mercutio, are nothing more than delusions. The Queen Mab speech can therefore be seen as offering an alternate view of the play that goes some way towards deflating the grand action and reminding us of a darker view of humanity.