Queen Mab is a figure originally borrowed from folklore but most well known for her appearance in Act One, Scene Four of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In this scene, Romeo and his friends Benvolio and Mercutio have snuck into a masquerade ball held by the Capulet family—a fact that has Romeo very nervous, since he belongs to the rival family, the Montagues. When he voices his misgivings to Mercutio, citing a dream he had the night before as the source of his discontent, Mercutio retorts, “O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.” Noting Romeo’s confusion, Mercutio launches into one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches. He tells a story about the fairies’ midwife, who grants dreams to unsuspecting sleepers. Riding in a chariot made out of the empty shell of a hazelnut and the legs and wings of insects, galloping over the noses of sleepers, Queen Mab brings them dreams about what they wish for. Under her influence, maidens dream of romance, lawyers dream of money, and soldiers dream of war. After Shakespeare, many artists would adopt the idea of Queen Mab as a vehicle of wish-fulfillment. Melville was one of them.
The title of Chapter 31 of Moby-Dick, “Queen Mab,” is a rather obvious allusion to the mythical fairy. In this chapter, Stubb is telling Flask about a rather vivid dream he had the night before about Captain Ahab. In the dream, he was kicked by Captain Ahab. Offended, he went to kick back, but his own leg fell off mid-kick. Eventually, with the help of a friendly humpbacked merman, Stubb concludes that he shouldn’t be offended by Ahab’s kick but rather feel honored by it, as if he were slapped by a queen. This is where the dream ends and Stubb wakes. Since Queen Mab herself does not make an appearance in the chapter, it is all the more interesting to contemplate what Melville meant by placing the name of this granter of subconscious desires as the title of the chapter wherein Stubb recounts his dream. Since this chapter follows one in which Stubb was scolded by Ahab, perhaps he wished to defy the ships “pecking order” by kicking back. Perhaps he sought approval of some sort from his captain; hence his conclusion at the end of the dream to respect the man’s authority. What does Stubb want? The conspicuous placing of the name of Queen Mab at the head of this chapter wherein he reports a dream does not answer but rather dramatically poses the question.