Sunday, April 20, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Helena

Patient friends,

When I argued for Hippolyta as the character who “spoke” to me, I selected Helena and Puck as my second and third choices. I’m not sure that any of us have quite addressed Ernst’s original idea of personally connecting with A Midsummer Night’s Dream characters, but I focused on Hippolyta as the most haunting, a nearly silent commentator on attitudes and action. Meanwhile, I cited Puck because I, Gilbert Powell Findlay, once won the part through open audition in competition with Richard (“Thornbirds”) Chamberlain (I didn’t mention that the director was so discouraged by this that she cancelled the production and substituted a Noel Coward play), and I cited Helena because I remember a wonderful B. Iden Payne production at Ashland in which the tall, blond Helena lisped. Well, I admit that is pretty glib.

However, I would still make cases for Helena and Puck. Writing in Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster divides characters into flat and round. Flat characters are called “humorous” in the 17th century, and Ben Jonson’s plays are categorized as Comedy of Humours. In their purest form, flat characters are constructed around a single idea or quality. Really flat character can be expressed in one sentence; they say or do their characteristic thing each time they appear. Comedy is susceptible to “flat” characters, whose characteristic illustrates some folly, foible or self-deception, easily recognized by the audience’s emotional eye. (Forster, Aspects 67-8) though Shakespeare was probably incapable of writing such a limited character. Well, Dogberry, Holofernes, Leontes or maybe Paroles. In Midsummer Night's Dream, maybe Demetrius and Bottom, despite Bottom’s bottomless dream appear, do their predictable turn, and exit unchanged, as one expects of flat characters.

Helena certainly enters as a stock character: a maiden obsessively in love with a young man who scorns her. She “dotes, devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,” the heartsick cast-off mistress of Demetrius, “this spotted and inconstant man.” There is testimony that she has more than a schoolgirl crush: “Demetrius, I’ll avouch it to his head,/ Made love to Nedar’s daughter, Helena,/ And won her soul;” (I.i,106-110), though “made love” is certainly less carnal than our current usage. Thus, she is set up to be “flat,” the fourth factor in the Hermia/ Lysander/ Demetrius triangle, a object of pity or derision. It is rather sad that Shakespeare’s culture and ours are tempted to find such a vulnerable young woman, emotionally obsessed, yet unrequited, an easy target for comic derision—there but for the grace of God…?

Her school friend, the bold and rebellious Hermia, confides in her about plans to elope with Lysander in order to escape Athens’s draconian law of death or cloistered imprisonment if she rejects her father’s demand that she marry Demetrius, and predictably, though imprudently, the emotionally addled Helena tries to sow chaos by ratting to Demetrius, so that he might know of Hermia’s “betrayal” and return to the lovelorn Helena. This doesn’t work, of course, as Demetrius pursues the lovers into the wood, followed by the now-distraught Helena, upon whom Demetrius heaps abuse: “I love thee not; therefore pursue me not…. Hence get thee gone, and follow me no more.” Helena is true to her obsession: “You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant,/ But yet you draw not iron, for my heart/ Is true as steel.” (II.i.188, 194, 195-97) But this devotion goes beyond the silly weakness of a self-pitying young woman:

“I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love
(And yet a place of high respect with me)
Than to be used as you use your dog?” (II.i.203-210)

Helena proposes, notes Hugh Richmond, an Ovidian transformation, equating a pathological state of mind with subhuman forms of existence (not unlike Bottom transformed into an ass). Helena so accepts her “flat’ characteristics, this extension is intolerable, absolutely perverse in her impulse to debase herself. Helena is beyond smitten; she proposes sadomasochism. Demetrius answers in kind (or “unkind”)”:

“For I am sick when I do look on you…
You do impeach your modesty too much,
To leave the city and commit yourself
Into the hands of one that loves you not;
To trust the opportunity of night,
And the ill counsel of a desert place
With the rich worth of your virginity….
If you follow me, do not believe
But I shall do thee mischief in the wood.”
(II.i.212; 214-219;236-237)

Shakespeare again extends comedy to an edge fraught with danger. The potential “reward” for Helena’s emotional folly is rape. What fools these mortals be, indeed. And that seems farther than a comic flat character can be allowed to go.

But all four lovers have penetrated into the green wood, into Nature, into the fairy world, and all are soon caught up in Oberon and Puck’s love-in-idleness magic potion as they sleep [a little voice in me wants to offer an aside that this is less magic and more adolescent shallowness of affection, but I’ll get on with what I’m doing, for now.] On waking, first Lysander, then Demetrius finds his passion turned toward Helena, and they make extravagant love to her: “O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!/ To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?” [oh, for a rhyme!] or “Helena…whom I do love, and will do till my death.”

But here is the moment I find Helena transcends “flat” comic business. Despite suddenly having the two most eligible bachelors in hot pursuit, her common sense tells her that this can’t be sincere, and thus it must be a conspiracy to mock her own vulnerability to love [do you remember a despicable Neil La Bute film, In the Company of Men, in which two businessmen, in misogynistic vengeance, decide to seduce and destroy a lonely deaf secretary?]. Reasonably, she blames Hermia for conspiring in this plot, and she makes a touching appeal in the name of friendship and even female solidarity—“sisters’ vows.” This confrontation devolves into a delicious cat fight—“though she be but little, she is fierce,” yet Helena is much more rational, more deeply feeling, than one might expect of an unrequited lovesick maiden. Thus, after undergoing this painful recognition of herself disconnected from the “passions” expressed by the interchangeable Athenian young men, she achieves self-awareness at last.

At the “nuptial hour,” she is rewarded with Demetrius after all (though I believe she deserves better), and it is interesting that Demetrius is the only Athenian who is left “juiced” by Puck’s potion (I am indebted to my ex-student Karley Stoltz for this verb). My take on that is Demetrius is too self-centered to know his own heart, and so nature conspires to let him do the right thing. Thus, Helena grows, asserts, and acquiesces to assure a harmonious world. Helena, in growing from love-sick folly, through reasoned clear-sightedness, has transcended her definition of love itself:

“Love can transpose to form and dignity,
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind,
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste." (I.i.233-236)

And so, soon, to Puck.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

RE3: Midsummer Night's Dream - A Puck By Any Other Name

Wow, Wikipedia!

So, because my dad was here for the last week, I was all, like, check out how smart I am with my question about Puck, and my digital version of Johnson's dictionary, and my online facsimilies of Shakespeare's Quartos and Folios, and my ancient Shakespeare Classics edition of Sources and Analogues of 'Midsummer Night's Dream' edited by Frank Sidgwick, and my cross-checking and attempted dating. Normally, I would have started with Wikipedia; oh, what a tangled web we compose, when we practice to bulldoze … others with our intelligence.

My students are nervous about using the online encyclopedia. So many teachers tell them that it is fallible and untrustworthy (like Encyclopedia Britannica didn't have errors?) and that they can't cite it in their papers so it's better not to use it. I take the opposite tack; it's a reasonable starting point from which one can go on to look at primary sources and corroborate Wikipedia information.

One of the questions I ask them is: how many of you use Wikipedia more than once a week? About 75% of the hands tend to go up. That's a lot of encyclopedia usage. I wonder if as many hands would have risen if a teacher asked the same question 25 years ago, about bound encyclopedias? Occasional errors in Wikipedia aside, I think we are raising a very informed generation. I'll try to get with the program.

Oh, and I love the word "wanderwort," John. Wikipedia has an entry on that, too.


Monday, April 7, 2008

RE2: Midsummer Night's Dream - A Puck By Any Other Name

OK, if we're being lazy, I'm going to comment on a part of the Wikipassage just based on my ambient knowledge of linguistic history. The line I am going to critique follows:

"A logical inference would surmise that the Proto-Indo-European origin for both is earlier than the linguistic split."

A couple problems with this: Both branches, Germanic and Celtic, went through significant linguistic changes developing from Proto-Indo-European. A *p- in that distant reconstructed language would have developed into an f- in Germanice (think of "father" versus words like "paternal"), and PIE *p disappeared altogether from insular Celtic(the Irish word for father is "aithir").

So "puck" looks like a "wanderwort," a word that has made its way into a number of languages in NW Europe, but probably later than say 500 BC, when many of these changes were taking place. Or, as the article cryptically suggests, the word was closely associated with place names, which tend not to change in the same way as other items of vocabulary.

Perhaps the word itself is puck-like, leading us down forest paths only to disappear without trace, leaving us bewitched and bewildered?


RE: Midsummer Night's Dream - A Puck By Any Other Name

Well, being lazy, I start off with Wikipedia.

Puck (Mythology)
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Puck is often thought of as a mischievous nature spirit. However Puck is also a generalised personification of land spirits. Whilst being an aspect of Robin Goodfellow, he is also 'hob' and Will-o-the-Wisp. Puck is known in some lands and regions by other names and titles such as the Irish animal spirit. As such, he often takes the form of a black dog, known as the 'Pooka', in French 'Pouque', or in Welsh, 'Pwca' or 'Bwca'. This family of words is arguably the root of the term 'Pixies' (in Cornwall, 'Piskies').[1] There are other theories for the origin of theword 'Puck' (See below).

Puck is in some traditions, a land fairy.

The pagan trickster was reimagined in Old English puca (Christianized as "devil") as a kind of half-tamed woodland sprite, leading folk astray with echoes and lights in nighttime woodlands (like the German and Dutch "Weisse Frauen" and "Witte Wieven" and the French Dames Blanches - all "White Ladie"), or coming into the farmstead and souring milk in the churn.

Significantly for such a place-spirit or genius, the Old English word occurs mainly in place names. Some believe this to suggests that the Puca was older in the landscape of Britain than the language itself.According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the name Puck is "unsettled", and it is not even clear whether its origin is Germanic (cf. Old Norse puki, Old Swedish puke, Icelandic puki, Frisian Puk) or Celtic (Welsh pwca[2] and Irish púca). A logical inference wouldsurmise that the Proto-Indo-European origin for both is earlier than thelinguistic split.[3]

In Ireland, "puck" is said to be sometimes used for "goat." Other similar names:

> In Friesland, there is a “Puk
> In old German, the “putz” or “butz” is a being not unlike the original English Puck.
> The “Puk” (or the Draug) in Norwegian is a water sprite, a supernatural being of evil power.
> In Icelandic a “Púki” is a little devil. “Púkinn” with the definite article suffix "-inn," "The Puck," means the Devil.

The folklore of Puck was magisterially assembled by William Bell, in two volumes that appeared in 1852[4] that have been called a "monument to nineteenth-century antiquarianism gone rampant."[5]

Since, if you "speak of the Devil" he will appear, Puck's euphemistic "disguised" name is "Robin Goodfellow" or "Hobgoblin,"[6] in which "Hob" may substitute for "Rob" or may simply refer to the "goblin of the hearth" or hob. The name Robin is Middle English in origin, deriving from Old French Robin, the pet form for the name Robert. The earliest reference to "Robin Goodfellow" cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1531. After Meyerbeer's successful opera Robert le Diable (1831), neo-medievalists and occultists began to apply the name Robin Goodfellow to the Devil, with appropriately extravagant imagery.

If you had the knack, Puck might do minor housework for you, quick fine needlework or butter-churning, which could be undone in a moment by his knavish tricks if you fell out of favor with him. "Those that Hob-goblin call you, and sweet Puck, / You do their work, and they shall have good luck" said one of William Shakespeare's fairies. Shakespeare's characterization of "shrewd and knavish" Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream may have revived flagging interest in Puck.[7]

According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898): [Robin Goodfellow is a] "drudging fiend", and merry domestic fairy, famous for mischievous pranks and practical jokes. At night-time he will sometimes do little services for the family over which he presides. The Scots call this domestic spirit a brownie; the Germans, kobold or Knecht Ruprecht. Scandinavians called it Nissë God-dreng. Puck, the jester of Fairy-court, is the same.

[End Wikipedia entry.]

1. I know something about draugs. They were troll-like creatures who sometimes were known to disguise themselves as stones, which, if you happened to take one out in your boat, would grow heavier and larger and eventually sink you. I have a picture of one someplace. But that's a bit of a way from our Puck.

2. There are other less reliable rumors, one of which refers to "pucks"as being like banshees who would attack Canadians screaming "Ha-keee!"But I've never see a "Ha-keee" puck myself. There is another rumor that an early puck founded a medieval university and named it after himself, and that, further, teams playing for that university were kept out of intercollegiate sports because of the obscenity of some of their fight songs and cheers. But that's another business.


Sunday, April 6, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - A Puck By Any Other Name

John says he's been thinking about Puck recently. I have a few questions about Puck that I've always found curious. Some years ago, I found a small volume in Black Oak Books in Berkeley, California called Robin Goodfellow: His Merry Pranks and Mad Jests (but I can't position the text in relation to Midsummer Night's Dream; the published Robin Goodfellow dates to 1628, but one note I found suggests the story may date back before 1600). It made me curious about why Puck has more than one name: Puck, Robin Goodfellow. In the First Folio edition, he's listed as "Robin Goodfellow" when he enters in Act 2, scene 1, and "Robin" as he speaks. A "puck," my Folger Shakespeare edition tells me, is a sort of hobgoblin. Johnson defines "puck" in his dictionary as "some sprite among the fairies, common in romances."

So what is Puck's history? Is "Puck" a proper name or just a descriptive term ("I am an honest Pucke," "Else the Pucke a lyar call" [First Folio 162]), synonymous with "hobgoblin"? John, does "puck" have an etymology? Ernst or Gil, do you have any contemporary knowledge of the character? Cindy, do your students raise the issue of Robin Goodfellow vs Puck? How do you chart the tricky, and time-consuming, waters of arcane or antiquated background information? Mike, just what is "puck" in Spanish?

And how did we, as a Shakespeare reading community, come to call the character Puck and not Robin?