Today, if you search around on the Internet, you may encounter the idea that Titania and Mab are opposing queens, representing Summer and Winter Courts or "Seelie and Unseelie" Courts. I've even found the claim that this is drawn from ancient legend - but is that true? There is also a common idea that Mab as queen of fairies is somehow older than Titania. In 1993, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica claimed that Mab's "place as queen of the fairies in English folklore was eventually taken over by Titania." The entry is misleading, as we will see that both Mab and Titania are Shakespeare's creations. If you go back to the source, Mab may not be a queen at all. It was in literature after Shakespeare that Mab usurped the place of the more regal and powerful Titania as Oberon's wife.
Around Shakespeare’s time - just before, and just after - fairy queen characters showed up under varied names: Gloriana, Chloris, Aureola, Caelia. Proserpina, or Persephone, was sometimes the leading lady. In grimoires, there were Micol and Sybillia. There was also the old medieval tradition of a queen of witches or fairies, who led her followers in a midnight revel traveling across the world. This figure might be known as Herodias, Diana, or a thousand variations.
However, perhaps most often, fairy queens were nameless figures. William Shakespeare changed that.
A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet were both likely composed sometime in the mid-1590s. Which came first? That's up for debate. But it seems generally agreed that they were written within a few years of each other.
A Midsummer Night's Dream featured Oberon and Titania as godlike figures. Although their subjects were miniscule beings who tended flowers and could hide inside acorn cups, the rulers commanded the weather and hailed from far-flung realms like India. "Proud Titania" has human worshippers, and with her husband she holds sway over the four seasons. Her romances with humans imply that she is of roughly human scale.
The name "Titania" or "Titanis" appeared in Ovid's Metamorphoses as an epithet for several goddesses who were descendants of Titans. One "Titania" is Circe, a sorceress who transforms men into beasts. Another is Diana, who is called Titania while bathing in a woodland pond within a sacred grove. When a man sees her naked, she transforms him into a stag to be torn apart by his own hunting hounds. Both of these scenes are echoed in Shakespeare's character Bottom, whose head is switched for a donkey's, and with whom a magically roofied Titania falls in love.
Diana was a Roman goddess, equivalent to the Greek Artemis - goddess of the moon, the hunt, wild animals, and unwed girls. The wilderness and the night are both fitting associations for a fairy queen. However, it also brings to mind the medieval Diana as leader of a nighttime witches' revel. James VI's Daemonologie (1597) said that "Diana and her wandering court . . . amongst us is called Fairy . . . or our good neighbours."
Diana has ties to Hecate, and Hecate to Persephone. So Titania is a super-combo of classical and medieval references – Artemis, Circe, Hecate, Persephone. Goddesses of night, nature, the underworld, witchcraft, and transformation.
Titania is not the only reference here to Ovid; the play also features the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Honestly, the play is set in the time of Greek myth and features the hero Theseus.
Romeo and Juliet featured a very different fairy queen. She does not appear onstage, but is described in jest. "Queen Mab" is "the fairies' midwife." She is also the "hag" who presses people as they sleep - making her a nightmare or succubus. Hag was a common name for this type of spirit.
Mab is a being on bug scale, who as a midwife brings forth not children, but dreams, sex dreams and nightmares. She does ride at night, like some older fairy queens, but her passage is through people's minds, "through lovers' brains." She is so tiny that her ride is not a rampage through forests and air, but over people’s lips or fingers. Her physical actions consist of tickling noses, tangling hair in knots, and delivering blisters or cold sores.
There have been numerous suggestions for Mab's etymology.
Mab is Welsh for "child," tying to her small size.
Mab comes from Medb or Maeve, an imposing warrior queen of Irish mythology. This is perhaps the most commonly cited explanation: Goddess-queen Medb evolved into Fairy Queen Mab.
Mab is connected to the medieval French "Domina Abundia" or "Dame Habonde." Her name means "Lady Abundance." According to William of Auvergne (d. 1249), Domina Abundia and her attendants were believed to enter houses at night and bless anyone who left out food for them - a lot like the Diana/Herodias figure. The M would have been added in the same way you get Ned from Edward, etc., or perhaps from "Dame Abonde" running together into one word.
Wirt Sikes wrote in 1880 that the queen of the Welsh ellyllon (tiny elves) was none other than Mab, and thus Shakespeare must have gotten Mab from "his Welsh informant."
Mab is short for "Amabilis," or lovable.
There is another option. Before Romeo and Juliet, there was a play titled The Historie of Jacob and Esau. This play, performed in 1558 and published in 1568, featured a midwife named Deborra, who is called a witch, a "heg" (hag), "Tib" (a typical name for lower-class English woman, used to mean girl, sweetheart, or prostitute), and finally Mab - "thou mother Mab... olde rotten witche."
Queen Mab is a hag and a midwife . . . just like Deborra. She is not a teeny-tiny Medb or Dame Abonde, but she is a teeny-tiny Deborra.
In fact, is Queen Mab a queen? Or is she a quean - a word for either a woman or a prostitute? This fits with the sexual innuendo throughout the passage. It also makes more sense than a member of royalty working at such a job as midwifery. Other than her title, she is not queenly in the slightest. She's identified as "the fairies' midwife," not "the fairies' queen." We do not see her in any kind of leadership role, as we do Titania. Jennifer Ailes even suggests that Mab is never directly identified as a fairy or a [royal] queen. She is just the fairies' midwife - and there is a large body of tales with titles like "The Fairy's Midwife," where fairies do not go to one of their own for help with childbirth, but to a human. Clearly Mab is not human, but just because she is the fairies' midwife does not mean she is a fairy herself.
In addition, "Mab" was a word for a slattern or dirty, unkempt woman, dating to the 1550s. Ailes suggests that "Mother Mab" was a traditional name for a witch, explaining why it was used for Deborra. Or maybe Mab was simply a nickname for a dirty, slovenly woman. So then, Queen Mab's name might be simply "Mistress Slattern" or "Mrs. Lazybones."
This “mab” could be derived from Mabel – much as the girls’ name Tib (possibly short for Isabel) gained similar connotations. In Elizabethan times, "Tom and Tib" were common names used to mean boy and girl, much like Jack and Jill. Tib became a generic word for girl, sweetheart or prostitute. Tib is another name used for Deborra. Incidentally, around the 1630s, a fairy named Tib shows up independently in the Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, and in the poem Nymphidia. Both Tibs are close to the leadership ranks – at least, Robin Goodfellow’s Tib is one of the chief female fairies, and Nymphidia’s Tib is one of the fairy queen’s maids of honor. Also, both Tibs are part of a team of fairies with rhythmic, monosyllabic names – “Sib and Tib, and Licke and Lull” in the first, and “Fib and Tib, and Pink and Pin, Tick and Quick,” etc., etc. in the second. So, two things: first, this was the fashion for fairy names at the time. Second, it was quite common for a generic human name to be applied to an otherworldly being. Another example is Thomas, seen as Tom Thumb, Tam Lin, Tom Tit Tot, and Thomas the Feary.
Shakespeare was the apparent tipping point in a huge fad of tiny fairies. Previously, fairies had been either human-scale or the size of children - the old Oberon, of Huon fame, was three feet tall. But now everyone was jumping on the bandwagon with flowery poetry about fairies who, unlike their folkloric ancestors, were practically jokes. They were far too small to be effectual at anything. They skipped about and hid inside flowers. Oberon remained as the fairy king. However, the goddess-like Titania did not accompany him. Instead, as Thomas Keightley said, Mab was such a hit that she "completely dethroned Titania." The wee lady called "Queen" who rode in a hazelnut-shell chariot was the only fitting empress for this generation of fairy.
The first known sign of this was in Ben Jonson's Entertainment at Althorp, presented to Queen Anne in 1603. In this performance, Queen Mab and her attendants welcome the queen. She is described as a prankster, like Shakespeare's Mab - she "rob[s] the dairy" and partakes in typical fairy mischief, but she also has regal associations. She is undeniably queen and ruler of the fairies. She pays homage to Anne as previous fairy queens did to her predecessor, Elizabeth. In a similar masque years before, fairy queen "Aureola" gave Elizabeth a flowery garland; in this one, stage directions call for Mab to give Anne a "jewel." In literature, Elizabeth was obeyed by and represented by fairy queens. Now it was Anne's turn.
Mab was not yet paired with Oberon, but that was soon to come - in "Nymphidia," a mock-epic poem by Michael Drayton, published in 1627. Here again we have Oberon and Puck running around with lots of furor over romance... but Oberon's queen is Mab. Many of the fairies in this play have cutesy monosyllabic names (like Tib); this may be why Drayton leaned towards Mab. Her name fit his style. Drayton also mentioned Mab in his work "The Muses Elyzium." Despite the comedy of their tiny size, there is still a touch of fear to the fairies, with reminders that Mab is really a succubus.
Robert Herrick followed suit in the 1620s and 1630s with many fairy poems. Oberon and Mab feature together in "The beggar to Mab, the Fairy Queen," and in the rather disturbing "Oberon's Palace." As in Nymphidia, there is an eerie sense with these fairies, whose palaces are crafted from the body parts of humans, animals and insects.
In following years, Mab continued to be a hit, appearing as Oberon's consort in:
Newcastle and Randolph give the longest descriptions of Mab and Oberon; the others are just brief mentions, with no explanations necessary, for Mab was familiar enough to their audiences as the Fairy Queen. As time went on, Mab continued to be instantly recognizable. She was mentioned in Peter Pan, for instance. Such is Mab's ubiquity that she could be the ancient, evil queen of the Old Magic in the 1998 TV miniseries Merlin, while also the benevolent monarch of the pixies in the 1999 film FairyTale: A True Story.
On that note, back to Titania. After her adventure in A Midsummer Night's Dream, her history was much less busy than Mab's. She didn't capture the popular mind the way Mab did. There were a few exceptions. She was the fairy queen in Dekker's work "The Whore of Babylon" in 1607, and in The Changeling, a 1622 play by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. She also appeared in the heavily Shakespeare-based masque "The Fairy Favour" by Thomas Hull (1766).
Like Mab, Titania apparently made it into at least some oral folklore. In Thomas Pennant’s 1772 book Tour in Scotland, and voyage to the Hebrides, Titania is identified not only as queen of fairies and wife of Oberon, but as the “ben-shi,” literally “fairy woman,” who gave the MacLeod clan a blessed Fairy Flag.
She made a comeback as centuries passed, not really becoming popular until around the Victorian era, when she began regaining her status as Oberon's consort in literature and other media. She appeared in Christoph Martin Wieland’s 1780 poem Oberon, based on both the Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Huon narrative. This influential poem was adapted several times, including into an opera. She was also in the comic opera A Princess of Kensington (1903).
This was also the era when Titania and Mab both began showing up in the same stories. There was some waffling over whether the two were interchangeable.
"We have noticed the general name given to the queen of the fairies, that of Titania; we must not forget that she was sometimes called Mab," according to Henry Christmas, writing in 1841. John Ogilvie's Imperial Dictionary (1859) concludes that Oberon's "wife's name was Titania or Mab." An article in the 1910 Fortnightly Review questioned if Titania and Mab were the same being or not, but seemed to tend towards "yes."
In 1847, in The People's Journal, W. Cooke Stafford suggested that Mab was queen of "dark spirits" of the night, and Titania rules the "superior intelligences" (?) who do not fear sunlight. This is the closest I've seen so far to Mab and Titania being queens of dark and light or whatever.
According to The Century Dictionary in 1895, "Titania, the fairy queen, is not the same person" as Mab. Even more audacious, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) listed Mab as “the faries’ [sic] midwife. Sometimes incorrectly called queen of the fairies."
On to Titania and Mab appearing in the same works:
The Sloane Manuscript 1727 (a 17th-century manuscript in the British Museum) includes a treatise on magic. Katharine Briggs quoted it describing the "treasures of the earth" as "florella, Mical, Tytan, Mabb lady to the queene." The queen whom "Mabb" serves may be Mical or Micol, who is called "regina pigmeorum" in the same book. Tytan and Mabb recall Titania and Mab. In particular, Titan, Titem and other variations were often invoked in grimoires.
In Thomas Hood's 1827 poem "The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies," both Mab and Titania make an appearance, and in 1876, both appeared in in the story "Titania's Farewell" in The Case of Mr Lucraft and Other Tales. In these tales, Mab is a queen, but apparently subordinate to Titania, who is the real queen bee. (Their positions are flipped in the 1913 play "A Good Little Devil" by Rosemond Gerard and Maurice Rostand, later turned into a film starring Mary Pickford.)
Titania and Mab were at odds for perhaps the first time in Camilla Crosland's 1866 children's book The Island of the Rainbow. Here Queen Titania is the wise and gracious queen of the fairies, while "Quean Mab" is a "little spiteful mischievous old Fairy - who, by the bye, must herself have put it into the heads of mortals that she was a Queen." Mab is actually on trial when she appears in the book. Of course by this point in time, being written for children, any good fairies must distance themselves from traditional fairy activities of spoiling milk or making mischief. Still, it seems a little ironic when Mab is the one accused of these crimes, while Puck is a humble servant to the morally upright Titania.
So what about Titania and Mab as leaders of opposing forces?
I think the idea has its basis in a new movement towards classifying all these folktales. Researchers in the 19th and 20th centuries - like William Butler Yeats, Wirt Sikes, and Katharine Mary Briggs - became concerned with categorizing fairies. This moved into fiction, as authors began breaking up fairies into categories. Good and evil. Light and dark. Seelie and unseelie (drawing on a Scottish fairy term meaning essentially "blessed people"). Or summer and winter.
As for Titania and Mab being the leaders: I tried to track this idea through published books. Here is what I have found:
The idea of opposing fairy courts known as Summer and Winter or Seelie and Unseelie has also become very prevalent in recent literature. I can think of multiple YA novel examples from the past 20 years.
Another common idea is that Mab was the first fairy queen, and that Titania is her successor. This has appeared in extra-canonical materials for the 90's TV show Gargoyles, as well as the novels God Save the Queen by Mike Carey (2009) and The Treachery of Beautiful Things by Ruth Long (2013).
To sum up: Titania and Mab as counterparts or enemies is a new idea. Both were created by Shakespeare around the same time, but served very different roles. They weren't even opposing roles - just unique. Titania, inspired by classical Greek goddesses, was a queenly nature deity. Mab, based on stereotypical English midwives and the idea of the nightmare demon, was a microscopic hag who delivered dreams instead of babies.
However, unlike Titania Mab entered popular culture from the beginning. She tied in better with fashions of the time. She even usurped Titania's place as Oberon's bride; he was the archetypal fairy king even before Shakespeare, and Mab became the archetypal fairy queen. I wonder if even royal themes at the time at something to do with it - Mab's name is the same number of syllables as Queen Anne, and one of Mab's most important early appearances was in a play for Anne. Meanwhile, Titania made a comeback around the time of Queen Victoria.
Today, the idea of the two Shakespearean fairy queens as rivals has been popularized by authors like Jim Butcher. Titania, who appears in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and who proclaims "The summer still doth tend upon my state" is the clear front-runner for summer (even though she really oversees all seasons). For a counterpart, why not Mab, who is equally Shakespearean and has associations with nightmares and mischief?
Do you know of other sources where Titania and Mab are either the same person, or diametrically opposed? Leave a comment!
Text copyright © Writing in Margins, All Rights Reserved
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.