A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Act Two, Part Three
By Dennis Abrams
From Harold Bloom:
“Doubtless Shakespeare remembered that in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene Oberon was the benevolent father of Gloriana, who in the allegory of Spenser’s great epic represented Queen Elizabeth herself. [MY NOTE: Why didn’t Garber remember this herself?] Scholars believe it likely that Elizabeth was present at the initial performance of the Dream, where necessarily she would have been the Guest of Honor at the wedding. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, like Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Tempest, and Henry VIII, abounds in pageantry. This aspect of the Dream is wonderfully analyzed in C.L. Barber’s Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy, and has little to do with my prime emphasis on the Shakespearean invention of character and personality. As an aristocratic entertainment, the Dream bestows relatively little of its energies upon making Theseus and Hippolyta, Oberon and Titania, and the four young lovers lost in the woods into idiosyncratic and distinct personages. Bottom and the uncanny Puck are protagonists, and are portrayed in detail. Everyone else – even the other colorful Mechanicals – are subdued to the emblematic quality that pageantry tends to require. Still, Shakespeare seems to have look beyond the play’s initial occasion to its other function as a work for the public stage, and there are small, sometimes very subtle touches of characterization that transcend the function of an aristocratic epithalamium. Hermia has considerably more personality than Helena, while Lysander and Demetrius are interchangeable, a Shakespearean irony that suggests the arbitrariness of young love, from the perspective of everyone except the lover. [MY NOTE: EXACTLY!] But then all love is ironical in the Dream: Hippolyta, though apparently resigned, is a captive bride, a partly tamed Amazon, while Oberon and Titania are so accustomed to mutual sexual betrayal that their actual rift has nothing to do with passion but concerns the protocol of just who has charge of a changeling human child, a little boy currently under Titania’s care. Though the greatness of the Dream begins and ends in bottom, who makes his first appearance in the play’s second scene, and in Puck, who begins Act II, we are not transported by the sublime language unique in this drama until Oberon and Titania first confront each other.
Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.
What, jealous Oberon? Fairies, skip hence; I have forsworn his bed and company.
Tarry, rash wanton; am not I thy lord?
Then I must be thy lady; but I know
When thou hast stol’n away from fairy land,
And in the shape of Corin, sat all day
Playing on pipes of corn, and versing love
To amorous Phillida. Why art thou here,
Come from the farthest step of India,
But that, forsooth, the bouncing Amazon,
Your buskin’d mistress and your warrior love,
To Theseus must be wedded, and you come
To give their be joy and prosperity?
How canst thou thus, for shame, Titania,
Glance at my credit with Hippolyta,
Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?
Didst not thou lead him through the glimmering night
From Perigouna, whom he ravished;
And make him with fair Aegles break his faith,
With Ariadne and Antiopa?
In Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, read by Shakespeare in Sir Thomas North’s version, Theseus is credited with many ‘ravishments,’ cheerfully itemized here by Oberon, who assigns Titania the role of bawd, guiding the Athenian hero to his conquests, herself doubtless included. Though Titania will retort that ‘These are the forgeries of jealousy,’ they are just as persuasive as her visions of Oberon ‘versing love/To amorous Phillida,’ and enjoying ‘the bouncing Amazon,’ Hippolyta. The Theseus of the Dream appears to have retired from his womanizings into rational respectability, with its attendant moral obtuseness. Hippolyta, though championed as a victim by feminist critics, shows little aversion to being wooed by the sword and seems content to dwindle into Athenian domesticity after her exploits with Oberon, though she retains a vision of her own, as will be seen. What Titania magnificently goes on to tell us is that discord between herself and Oberon is a disaster for both the natural and the human realm:
These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain, or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs, which, falling in the land,
Hath every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore strech’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is filled up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter cheer.
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And through this distemperature we see
The seasons alter; hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An ordorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mock’ry, set. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world
By their increase now knows not which is which;
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension.
We are their parents and original.
No previous poetry by Shakespeare achieved this extraordinary quality; he finds here one of his many authentic voices, the paean of natural lament. Power in the Dream is magical rather than political, Theseus is ignorant when he assigns power to the paternal, or to masculine sexuality. Our contemporary heirs of the materialist metaphysics of Iago, Thersites, and Edmund see Oberon as only another assertion of masculine authority, but they need to ponder Titania’s lamentation. Oberon is superior to trickery, since he controls Puck, and he will win Titania back to what he considers his kind of amity. But is that a reassertion of male dominance, or of something much subtler? The issue between the fairy queen and king is a custody dispute: ‘I do but beg a little changeling boy/To be my henchman’ – that is, Oberon’s page of honor in his court. Rather than the unbounded prurience that many critics insist upon, I see nothing but an innocent assertion of sovereignty in Oberon’s whim, or in Titania’s poignant and beautiful refusal to yield up the child:
Set your heart at rest:
The fairyland buys not the child of me.
His mother was a vot’ress of my order,
And in the spiced Indian air by night
Full often hath she gossiped by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking th’embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind,
Which she with pretty and with swimming gait
Following, her womb then rich with my young squire,
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles, and return again
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy;
And for her sake I will not part with him.
Ruth Nevo accurately observes that Titania has so assimilated her votaries to herself that the changeling child has become her own, in a relationship that firmly excludes Oberon. To make the boy his henchman would be an assertion of adoption, like Prospero’s initial stance toward Caliban, and Oberon will utilize Puck to achieve this object. But why should Oberon, who is not jealous of Theseus, and is willing to be cuckolded by Titania’s enchantment, feel so fiercely in regard to the changeling’s custody? Shakespeare will not tell us, and so we must interpret this ellipsis for ourselves.
One clear implication is that Oberon and Titania have no male child of their own, Oberon being immortal need not worry about an heir, but evidently he has paternal aspirations that his henchman Puck cannot satisfy. It may also be relevant that the changeling boy’s father was an Indian king, and that tradition traces Oberon’s royal lineage to an Indian emperor. What matters most appears to be Titania’s refusal to allow Oberon any share in her adoption of the child. Perhaps David Wiles is correct in arguing that Oberon desires to parallel the pattern of Elizabethan aristocratic marriages, where the procreation of a male heir was the highest object, though Elizabeth herself as Virgin Queen undoes the tradition, and Elizabeth is the ultimate patroness of the Dream.
I think the quarrel between Titania and Oberon is subtler, and turns on the question of the links between mortals and immortals in the play. Thesesus’s and Hippolyta’s amours with the fairies are safely in the past, and Oberon and Titania, however estranged from each other, have arrived in the wood near Athens to bless the wedding of their former lovers. Bottom, one of the least likely of mortals, will sojourn briefly among the fairies, but his metamorphosis, when it comes, is merely outward. The Indian child is a true changeling; he will live out his life among the immortals. That is anything but irrelevant to Oberon: hew and his subjects have their mysteries, jealously guarded from mortals. To exclude Oberon from the child’s company is therefore not just a challenge to male authority; it is a wrong done to Oberon, and one that he must reverse and subsume in the name of the legitimacy in leadership that he shares with Titania. As Oberon says, it is an ‘injury.’
To torment Titania away from her resolution, Oberon invokes what becomes the most beautiful of Shakespeare’s visions in the play:
Since once I sat upon a promontory
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?
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.
I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.
Having once this juice,
I’ll watch Titania when she is asleep,
And drop the liquor of it in her eyes
The next thing then she waking looks upon
(Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape)
She shall pursue it with the soul of love.
And ere I take this charm from off her sight
(As I can take it with another herb)
I’ll make her render up her page to me.
The flower love-in-idleness is the pansy, the ‘fair vestal, throned by the west’ is Queen Elizabeth I, and one function of this fairy vision is to constitute Shakespeare’s largest and most direct tribute to his monarch during her lifetime. She passes on, and remains fancy-free; the arrow of Cupid, unable to wound the Virgin Queen, instead converts the pansy into a universal love charm. It is as though Elizabeth’s choice of chastity opens up a cosmos of erotic possibilities for others, but at the high cost of accident and arbitrariness replacing her reasoned choice. Love at first sight, exalted in Romeo and Juliet, is pictured here as calamity. The ironic possibilities of the love elixir are first intimated when, in one of the play’s most exquisite passages, Oberon plots the ensnarement of Titania:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in;
And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.
The contrast between those first six lines and the four the come after grants us an aesthetic frisson, the transition is from Keats and Tennyson to Browning and the early T.S. Eliot, as Oberon modulates from sensuous naturalism to grotesque gusto. Shakespeare thus prepares the way for the play’s great turning point in Act III, Scene I, where Puck transforms Bottom, and Titania wakens with the great outcry, ‘What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?’ The angel is the imperturbable Bottom, who is sublimely undismayed that his amiable countenance has metamorphosed into an ass head.
Question for the group: I’ve been quoting from a lot of critics – which ones are you responding to, which ones are you not – and why?
Our next reading: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act Three
My next post: I’m out of town on business, so my next post, Sunday evening, will be a compilation of some cool stuff I’ve been saving in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday this past week. I’ll post on Act Three on Tuesday evening.
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.