“I’ll put a girdle round about the earth/In forty minutes.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Act Two, Part One

By Dennis Abrams

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Act Two:  In the woods, Oberon and Titania bicker over a boy in Titania’s service, whom Oberon wants as an attendant.  When Titania refuses, Oberon plots revenge, sending Puck to find a magic flower, the juice of which (when dropped in the eyelids of a sleeping person) makes them fall in love with whatever (or whoever) they see first.  Oberon applies it to Titania’s eyes.  By this time, Demetrius and Helena have entered the forest hot on Hermia and Lysander’s trail, and Oberon orders Puck to bewitch Demetrius too.  But Puck gets the wrong Athenian, applying the juice of the flower to Lysander’s eyes by mistake.  When he is woken by Helena, Lysander immediately falls in love with her and abandons Hermia.

I so love this play.  So many amazingly beautiful passages.  One of my favorites:

Oberon:

My gentle Puck, come hither.  Thou rememb’rest

Since once I sat upon a promontory.

And heard a mermaid, on a dolphin’s back,

Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath

That the rude sea grew civil at her song.

And certain stars shot madly from their spheres

To hear the sea-maid’s music?

[Act Two, scene 1, 148-54]

I could go on quoting most of Act Two, but I’d like to start with Frank Kermode, picking up where we left off in my last post, with a brief discussion of “doting.”

“Doting produces disasters, like those of Adonis, Romeo, and Pyramus, whose story is to be enacted by the ‘mechanicals.’  Bottom and his friends appear in the second scene [of act one] to give, in the best Shakespearian manner, a farcical but complicating treatment to this already established theme.  Bacon, in his essay ‘Of Love,’ says it is unreasonable that a man, ‘made for the contemplation of heaven and all noble objects, should do nothing but kneel before a little idol, and make himself subject, though not of the mouth (as beasts are) yet of the eye, which was given him for higher purposes.’  The moral is simple:  ‘Nuptial love maketh mankind; friendly love perfecteth it; but wanton love corrupteth and embaseth it.’  But Shakespeare is not simple.  His title alludes to the license of St. John’s Eve, the right to make love in the woods, out of the control of the city, in the realm of nature and not of civil order.  Puck is a natural force, and takes no account of civility and rational choice.  He is a blinding Cupid, and the connection between them is made in a famous speech of Oberon’s “I saw…Flying between the cold moon and the earth,/Cupid all arm’d.’  His shaft, aimed at the virgin Queen Elizabeth, strikes a pansy, here called ‘love-in-idleness’ (‘idleness’ carries the sense of wantonness or craziness.)  When the juice of this flower is applied to lover’s eyes, they will dote on whatever they see next.  In instructing Puck to obtain the flower, Oberon’s object is to punish Titania ‘And make her full of hateful fantasies.’

Puck wants to end what to him is the intolerable situation of a man and a girl lying apart in ‘humane modesty,’ as Hermia puts it, and he assumes that Hermia must have been churlishly rejected by Lysander:  ‘Pretty soul, she durst not lie/Near this lack-love, this kill-courtesy’  When Lysander awakes, he sees Helena first and dotes on her, ascribing his change of love object to an increased maturity:  ‘Reason becomes the marshal to my will,/And leads me to your eyes…’  In the next scene Bottom knows better:  ‘reason and love keep little company together now-a-days.’”

Once again…love and the eyes, not reason.

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From Mark Van Doren:

“’A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ shines like ‘Romeo and Juliet” in darkness, but shines merrily.  Lysander, one of the two non-entities who are its heroes, complains at the beginning about the brevity of love’s course, and sums up his complaint with a line that would not be out of place in ‘Romeo and Juliet’:

So quick bright things come to confusion.

This, however, is at the beginning.  Bright things will come to clarity in a playful, sparkling night while fountains gush and spangled starlight betrays the presence in a wood near Athens of magic persons who can girdle the earth in forty minutes and bring any cure for human woe.  Nor will the woe to be cured have any power to elicit our anxiety.  The four lovers whose situation resembles so closely the situation created in ‘The Two Gentleman of Verona’ will come nowhere near the seriousness of that predicament; they will remain to the end four automatic creatures whose artificial and pretty fate is to fall in and out of love like dolls, and like dolls they will go to sleep as soon as they are laid down.  There will be no pretense that reason and love keep company, or that because they do not death lurks at the horizon.  There is no death in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ and the smiling horizon is immeasurably remote.

Robin Goodfellow ends the extravaganza with an apology to the audience for the ‘weak and idle theme’ with which it has been entertained.  And Theseus, in honor of whose marriage with Hippolyta the entire action is occurring, dismisses most of it as a fairy toy, or such an airy nothing as some poet might give a local  habitation and a name.  But Robin is wrong about the theme, and Theseus does not describe the kind of poet Shakespeare is.  For the world of this play is both veritable and large.  It is not the tiny toy-shop that most such spectacles present, with quaint little people scampering on dry little errands, and with small music squeaking somewhere a childish accompaniment.  There is room here for mortals no less than for fairies; both classes are at home, both groups move freely in a wide world where indeed they seem sometimes to have exchanged functions with one another.  For these fairies do not sleep on flowers.  Only Hermia can remember lying upon faint primrose-beds (1,i, 215), and only Bottom in the action as we have it ever dozes on pressed posies.  The fairies themselves – Puck, Titania, Oberon – are too hard-minded.  The vocabulary of Puck is the most vernacular in the play; he talks of beans and crabs, dew-laps and ale, three-foot stools and sneezes.  And with the king and queen of fairy-land he has immense spaces to travel.  The three of them are citizens of all the universe there is, and as we listen to them the farthest portions of this universe stretch out, distant and glittering, like facets on a gem of infinite size.  There is a specific geography, and the heavens are cold and high.

Oberon:

Thou rememb’rest

Since once I sat upon a promontory

And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back

Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath

That the rude sea grew civil at her song,

And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,

To hear the sea-maid’s music?

Robin:

I remember

Oberon:

That very time I saw, but thou couldst not,

Flying between the cold moon and the earth,

Cupid all arm’d.  A certain aim he took

At a fair vestal throned by the west.

And loos’d his love-shaft smartly from his bow,

As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts;

But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft

Quench’d in the chaste beams of the watery moon,

And the imperial votaress passed on,

In maiden meditation, fancy-free.

Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell.

It fell upon a little western flower…

Fetch me that flower, the herb I shew’d thee once…

Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again

Ere the leviathan can swim a league.

Robin:

I’ll put a girdle round about the earth

In forty minutes.

The business may be trivial, but the world is as big and as real as any world we know.  The promontory long ago; the rude sea that grew – not smooth, not gentle, not anything pretty or poetical, but (the prosaic word is one of Shakespeare’s best) civil; the mermaid that is also a sea-maid; the direction west; and the cold watery moon that rides so high above the earth – these are the signs of its bigness, and they are so clear that we shall respect the prowess implied in Robin’s speed, nor shall we fail to be impressed by the news that Oberon has just arrived from the farthest steep of India.

Dr. Johnson and Hazlitt copied Addison in saying that if there could be persons like these they would act like this.  Their tribute was to the naturalness of Shakespeare’s super-nature.  Dryden’s tribute to its charm:

But Shakespeare’s magic could not be copied be;

Within that circle none durst walk but he

has an identical source:  wonder that such things can be at all, and be so genuine.  The explanation is the size and the concreteness of Shakespeare’s setting.  And the key to the structure of that setting is the watery moon to which Oberon so casually referred.

The poetry of the play is dominated by the words moon and water.  Theseus and Hippolyta carve the moon in our memory with the strong, fresh strokes of their opening dialogue:

Theseus:

Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour

Draws on apace.  Four happy days bring in

Another moon; but, O, methinks, how slow

This old moon wanes!  He lingers my desires,

Like to a step-dame or a dowager

Long withering out a young man’s revenue.

Hippolyta:

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;

Four nights will quickly dream away the time;

And then the moon, like to a silver bow

New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night

Of our solemnities.

This is not the sensuous, softer orb of ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ nor is it the sweet sleeping friend of Lorenzo and Jessica.  It is brilliant and brisk, silver-distant, and an occasion for comedy in Theseus’ worldly thought.  Later on in the same scene he will call it cold and fruitless, and Lysander will look forward to

Tomorrow night, when Phoebe doth behold

Her silver visage in the watery glass,

Decking with liquid pearl the bladed grass.

Lysander has connected the image of the moon with the image of cool water on which it shines, and hereafter they will be inseparable.  “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is drenched with dew when it is not saturated with rain.  A film of water spreads over it, enhances and enlarges it miraculously.  The fairy whom Robin hails as the second act opens wanders swifter than the moon’s sphere through fire and flood.  The moon, says Titania, is governor of floods, and in anger at Oberon’s brawls  has sucked up from the sea contagious fogs, made every river overflow, drowned the fields and rotted the green corn:

The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,

And the quaint mazes in the wanton green

For lack of tread are undistinguishable

Here in the west there has been a deluge, and every object still drips moisture.  But even in the east there are waves and seas.  The little changeling boy whom Titania will not surrender to Oberon is the son of a votaress on the other side of the earth:

And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,

Full often hath she gossip’d by my side,

And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,

Marking the embarked traders on the flood.

The jewels she promises Bottom will be fetched ‘from the deep.’  And Oberon is addicted to treading seaside groves

Even till the eastern gate, all fiery-red,

Opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams,

Turns into yellow gold his salt green streams.

(III, ii, 391-3)

So by a kind of logic the mortals of the play continue to be washed with copious weeping. The roses in Hermia’s cheeks fade fast ‘for want of rain’ (1,i, 130), but rain will come.  Demetrius ‘hails’ and ‘showers’ oaths on Helena (I, i, 245), whose eyes are bathed with salt tears (II, ii, 92-3); and Hermia takes comfort in the tempest of her eyes (I,I,245).

When the moon weeps, says Titania to Bottom, ‘weeps every little flower’ (III, I, 204).  The flowers of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ are not the warm, sweet, dry ones of Perdita’s garden, or even the daytime ones with which Fidele’s brothers will strew her forest grave.  They are the damp flowers that hide among ferns and drip with dew.  A pearl is hung in every cowslip’s ear (II, I, 15); the little western flower which Puck is sent to fetch is rich with juice; and luscious woodbine canopies the bank of wild thyme where Titania sleeps – not on but ‘in’ musk-roses and eglantine.  Moon, water, and wet flowers conspire to extend the world of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ until it is as large as all imaginable life.  That is why the play is both so natural and so mysterious.”

And to finish, this from Garber:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play about a war between the sexes as figured in the dissension between Oberon and Titania (or, indeed, between Theseus and Hippolyta – the parts are often doubled in modern productions.)  The question is which is to be master, the Fairy King or the Fairy Queen; the Duke of Athens or his bride, the conquered Queen of the Amazons.  To set the play into historical perspectives it is useful to recall that a Virgin Queen sat on the throne of England, and that Queen Elizabeth, a powerful female ruler who called herself a ‘prince’ in formal proclamations, was celebrated by Edmund Spenser in his epic poem The Fairie Queene, the first three books of which had been published in 1590, a few  years before Shakespeare’s play was written.  As a woman on the throne, Elizabeth was an anomaly in a world in which most power inhered in men – fathers, husbands, dukes, kings, judges, teachers.  By religious precept and by legal mandate women took second place in the social and political hierarchy and in the family.  Elizabeth chose never to marry, although her numerous courtships, with suitors both English and foreign, continued well beyond her childbearing years and were a powerful mode of political negotiation.  The elusive prize was to become King of England.  The prospect of marriage for Elizabeth and the succession crisis that grew more acute as it became evident that she would not marry underlie and underscore many of the anxieties and fantasies in Shakespeare’s play.  The Duke marries an Amazon whom he woos with his sword; the Fairy Queen is in love with a braying ass; the Fairy King and Fairy Queen quarrel over the possession of a male protégé, the ‘changeling boy,’ who may be either a love object or an heir.

Elizabeth was frequently compared to an Amazon, and indeed the intermittent threat of a world of Amazons, a topsy-turvy world in which women ruled over men, was a nightmare that haunted much writing in the period.  Elizabeth may very well have been in the audience at the play’s first performance, on the occasion of a noble wedding.  Clearly a compliment to her is intended in the description by Oberon of Cupid’s arrow, aimed at ‘a fair vestal, throned by the west.’  The virgin escaped Cupid’s love dart and sailed on, fancy-free, toward her serener destiny.  Furthermore, Queen Elizabeth is dramatically present in this play in both partners to the intended nuptials – not only Hippolyta, the Amazon queen, but also Theseus, the powerful ruling Duke of Athens.  Theseus, like the historical Elizabeth I, is a benevolent monarch who goes on progresses among his people, generously responding to their sometimes amateur theatrical performances.  In other words, in looking at Dream we might bear in mind that it represents a way of coming to terms – aesthetic and dramatic as well as political and social terms – with the tremendous cultural enigma posed by the female ruler:  the pressure placed upon the society and the culture by the very fact of Elizabeth’s rule.  In this context Shakespeare’s play might be said to dramatize the tension between the part of Elizabeth that was like Theseus and the part of Elizabeth that was like Hippolyta.

A reader interested in history might wonder how this description of the cloistered life of a virgin (‘To live a barren sister all your life,/Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon’) would accord with the public image of Queen Elizabeth.  But where virginity or maidenhood disenpowers Hermia, remanding her to her father’s care or to the care of the Church, virginity empowered Elizabeth who was, through her unmarried state, able to combine the strengths of the regnant Queen with those of the (hypothetically) marriageable woman.  Elizabeth encouraged her ladies-in-waiting to marry, but she early asserted, holding up the coronation ring on her finger, that she herself was England’s bride.  As she wrote to Parliament in 1563, ‘though I can think [marriage] best for a private woman, yet do I strive myself to think it is not meet for a Prince” – that is, for herself.  The battle of the sexes, as a modern cliché would name it, engaged as combatants everyone but the queen.  Thus, in this play Theseus can boast of his military conquest of the Amazon Hippolyta and yet tell Hermia, ‘To you your father should be as a god,’ which can be perceived as two types of disempowerment of women, in marriage and in singlehood.”

I’m not sure if I entirely buy Garber’s argument, but it is, I think, an interesting one.

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My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning

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3 Responses to “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth/In forty minutes.”

  1. Mahood says:

    According to the BBC website, Shakespeare’s birthday is traditionally celebrated on April 23rd (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/shakespeare/) … though Wikipedia mark it as follows: “William Shakespeare (baptised 26 April 1564; died 23 April 1616)” …?

    Either way there seems to be a lot of commemorative celebrations (T.V. documentaries/theatre productions etc.) surrounding the man at the moment. He would have been, I think…448 years old this year??

  2. GGG says:

    Love the “supernatural” aspect of being born and dying on the same day. Very theatrical!

    A book I recently got from the library about Elizabeth says: “Elizabeth loved presiding at jousts, coyly allowing champions to wear her token, and appearing in the guise of the Queen of Faerie.” This bit jumped out at me because of MSND. She must have enjoyed the play, otherwise Shakespeare would have been in hot water, up to his Bottom. (sorry…)

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