Saturday, June 28, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Titania Speaking to Me

Wrapping up the fairy world, saving the best for last.

On Titania
: Titania is my favorite character in Midsummer Night's Dream. When we talk about those moments in Shakespeare that transport us ― whether it be Hamlet's "what a piece of work is man" or Viola's "make me a willow cabin at your gate" or Portia's "the quality of mercy is not strained" ― I think Titania's "forgeries of jealousy" and "set your heart at rest" speeches in Act 2, scene 1 are two of the more powerful and eloquent I've read in Shakespeare. Both paint vivid pictures: the first of nature in disarray, the second of almost pastoral simplicity and gentle amity. Both speeches reveal a powerful, individual, noble voice. Unlike Helena, who Gil argues enters as a stock character, Titania enters with forceful oratory and rich persona. Look at the final two lines of the second speech, where, having made her argument against yielding up the Indian boy, she closes with repetition that both brings the satisfactory sense of closure and emphasizes her defiance: "And for her sake do I rear up her boy,/ And for her sake I will not part with him" (2.1.141-142).

What really impresses me, though, is that her voice and imagery are so thoroughly feminine.

Let's start with Titania's same lines Gil used to illustrate the natural chaos created by Titania and Oberon's dispute:

"And through this distemperature we see
The seasons alter … the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazèd 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." (2.1.109-110,114-120)

While she could simply blame Oberon for the trouble, instead Titania points out that both are responsible, both "the parents" of the altered seasons, which she refers to as "progeny." So not only does she assume part of the responsibility, a slightly nurturing role, she describes the event and consequences in maternal terms. Should I be surprised that Shakespeare gets inside the head of his most powerful female character to date and finds images that reflect a maternal point of view? Perhaps not. But as I think back over the strong female characters we've covered so far ― Kate in Taming of the Shrew, Tamora in Titus Andronicus, Joan in Henry VI, and Portia in Merchant of Venice ― it seems that strong women take on the mantle of male language (see Lady "unsex me here" Macbeth, too). In her opening scene, Titania avoids this.

Her maternalism continues in a slightly different shape in the subsequent speech, where she's giving her rationale for retaining the Indian boy because of her relationship with the boy's mother:

"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,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind." (2.129-133)

I find this speech to be the most beautiful in the entire play ― its figurative imagery ("spiced Indian air," "Neptune's yellow sands," conceiving sails, the woman's "swimming gait"), its structured language ("wanton wind," the repetition at the end), and its maternalism ensconced in its allusion to pregnancy ("big-bellied") here. I'm sure a man describing the same scene would not have phrased it quite the same way. Titania also takes one of the themes we've discussed before, the use of ships and merchant-centered imagery, and puts a new spin on it. Titania begins with the same sort of merchant-class observation we've seen before: "The fairy land buys not the child of me." Then she uses the image of the "embarkèd traders" to build a parallel image describing the boy's mother. The woman not only imitates the ships, she imitates their purpose, sailing "upon the land/ To fetch [Titania] trifles and return again,/ As from a voyage, rich with merchandise" (2.1.137-139). The parallel is neatly summed up in with the word "rich" (where's a Marxist critic when you need one?), which Shakespeare uses twice in the passage, once to describe the woman's pregnant condition ("her womb then rich with my young squire") and once to describe the ships' cargo ("rich with merchandise").

This unification of maternalism and materialism brings us to an interesting place, especially since Titania is supposed to represent all that is outside of human commerce and control ― Nature, dreams, love over law. I guess the rising tide of the middle class in Elizabethan England (or … uh … Athens, Greece) raises all boats, even fairy craft.

When I go to productions of Midsummer Night's Dream, I wait for these two passages and I cringe when they are cut or edited in any way. And I wish that Titania were able to continue at this same level both in language and character, but I am sorry to say that she does not. As it does with Puck, tetrameter renders her sing-songy and flat. Then comes the enchantment.

Compare the beauty of the lines quoted above with:

Out of this wood do not desire to go:
Thou shalt remain here whether thou wilt or no.
I am a spirit of no common rate;
The summer still doth depend upon my state;
And I do love thee. (3.1.154-158)

Even in pentameter it's pretty blah. End stopped. Simply rhymed one-syllable words. Wooden. No doubt the results of the serious psychotropic drugs Oberon has infected her with. (Is "Dian's bud" Elizabethan for Rohypnol?) And I hate the way she rolls over in the revelation scene. “Methought I was enamored of an ass.” “There’s lies your love.” “Really? Oh. Ha ha. Good joke. I’m glad we’re reconciled.”

She also loses the changeling boy, and her whole beautiful argument for keeping him seems to vanish in the morning mist. I feel a little betrayed. Titania's initial entry as one of Shakespeare's most powerful and assured women is wasted as she becomes a) the butt of a mean joke perpetrated against her by fairy land's males, b) a linguistic lightweight, and c) bubbleheaded. The same character who entered the play telling, telling, Oberon what he could do with his demands leaves the play begging him to explain what has happened in her own life:

"Come, my lord, and in this flight
Tell me how it came this night
That I sleeping here was found
With these mortals on the ground." (4.1.103-106)

So, in the end, Titania, despite a little bourgeois inclination, is a personification of Nature after all, both seasonal and animal; she comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.

Why is this? How does such a strong character get wasted? (Insert your own joke here.) I think Shakespeare can't help himself when it comes to endowing characters with three-dimensionality, and he gives Titania these two beautiful speeches and such a rich persona, as he does Egeon at the beginning of Comedy of Errors, because he can. Then the plot takes over, and Titania must become part of the comic apparatus. Her power and strength of character, therefore, should be seen as a product of the problem, the dispute between Oberon and Titania, the chaos that precedes order in a comic narrative. The stronger she is the more the world is out of joint, and for it to be set right she must be brought to heel. In this Titania is like Kate and Juliet before her. Each challenges the male order early in her respective play, and each has paid in the end. Somehow, to me, it seems most poignant when it happens to Titania.

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!


Monday, June 23, 2008

Midsummer Night's Eve

Tonight is Midsummer Night's Eve, also called St. John's Eve. St. John is the patron saint of beekeepers. It's a time when the hives are full of honey. The full moon that occurs this month was called the Mead Moon, because honey was fermented to make mead. That's where the word "honeymoon" comes from.

Midsummer dew was said to have special healing powers. Women washed their faces in it to make themselves beautiful and young. They skipped naked through the dew to make themselves more fertile.

It's a time for lovers. An old Swedish proverb says, "Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking."

Midsummer Eve is also known as Herb Evening. Legend says that this is the best night for gathering magical herbs. Supposedly, a special plant flowers only on this night, and the person who picks it can understand the language of the trees. Flowers were placed under a pillow with the hope of important dreams about future lovers.

Shakespeare set his play A Midsummer Night's Dream on this night. It tells the story of two young couples who wander into a magical forest outside Athens. In the play, Shakespeare wrote, "The course of true love never did run smooth."


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Oberon Speaking to Me

More on the fairy world.

On Oberon: There are two aspects of Oberon that I find compelling – the shift in his language over the course of the play and his arrogance. Oberon's language begins very stiff and stately: "Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania"; "I do but beg a little changeling boy to be my henchman"; "Well, go thy way: thou shalt not from this grove /Till I torment thee for this injury." Look at the alliteration here – met/moonlight, but/beg/boy/be, till/torment – which makes these lines difficult to stay without precise, emphasized articulation.

But as he moves into a clearer position of power and away from his anger with Titania, the stiffness, the thees and thous, the delaying syntax, seem to drop away, revealing a more poetic voice: "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" (2.1.257-261). By Act 3, eloquence, evidenced by Shakespearean reversals and repetitions, has emerged: "Thou has mistaken quite/ And laid the love-juice on some true-love's sight:/ Of thy misprision must perforce ensue/ Some true love turn'd and a false turn'd true" (3.2.90-93). Finally, in Act 4, Oberon's speech, no less eloquent, has reached the conversational: "And now I have the boy, I will undo/ This hateful imperfection of her eyes:/ And, gentle Puck, take this transformed scalp/ From off the head of his Athenian swain" (4.1.63-66).

I am curious about this transformation, if the evolution of his language as I see it, does in fact exist. It may be that Oberon is merely angry at the beginning, and so his language reveals the stiffness of his royal curtness. But I don't think what follows, when he gains control, is all of a piece. There is, I think, something to be said here about Oberon's character communicated through language's reflection of power, that Oberon in control of Titania is also in control of his language to a greater degree. But the different modes that Oberon seems to inhabit is a bit of a mystery to me.

In general, though, I think the audience reacts to character more than language. We noted the fascinating structures and eloquences of Richard III, for example, but that didn't make him a likeable guy. In Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon’s a jerk. If he were in a stereotypical high school clique movie, he’d be the jock everyone hates, giving nerds swirlies and bad-mouthing his girlfriend as a slut when she’s out of earshot. How is enchanting your wife so that she becomes infatuated with an humanimal, humiliated in a bestial relationship not an act of abuse? The modern Titania gets a restraining order: “The fairy land buys not the child from me, / And you’ll not be a hundred feet of me.”

Speaking of the changeling, Titania's argument for keeping him under her wing is convincing while Oberon's is empty, at once a symbol of his jealousy, a petulant request, and a bribe, none of which would compel even the most misogynist court to grant him custody over Titania's impassioned rationale. So I don't like Oberon's motives throughout the play. He's a bully. He abuses his power (even though he is also capable of using it to correct the lovers' imbalance). And he is selfish and petty. Gosh, imagine what misprision would occur if we had a president like that.

Guy I'd most like to see play Oberon: Alan Rickman.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Puck Speaking to Me


When it comes to characters who speak to me, I think I prefer the faeries in Midsummer Night's Dream to the mortals, perhaps because, as Gil pointed out in his last post, the spirit world provokes "our thoughts about the relation of illusion to reality, without which the play would be not much more than a 'realistic' romantic comedy." And we've got plenty of those. So I gave some thought to the faerie folk and offer my cursory quick-jotted but not quick-witted thoughts.

On Puck: I don’t love Puck. Perhaps my impression has been infected by Mickey Rooney’s hyperactive performance in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film (with Victor Jory and Olivia de Havilland). It was a grimacing week around the Findlay home when the girls watched Midsummer (as 10-year-old Kaia prepared for her role as Puck last year) and then spent a number of dinnertimes hooting Rooney's manic Woody Woodpecker laugh. Further, Puck's impish humor – twitting lovers in the forest – seems a bit juvenile. Liking Puck is like snickering at the antics of the class clown, even as his actions irritate you. Gil neatly divides Puck into three shapes, and it is the second, the servant/slave of Oberon "who is instrumental in the romantic revolutions of both mortals and the Fairy Queen" that most appeals to me because it's in that role that he is the most fun.

I wish Puck's language were on a par with his spirit, but Shakespeare as seen fit to give him relatively unplayful language. (Why is that?) Instead he is limited to two- to four-line rejoinders, workman-like exposition or descriptive passages, and inglorious tetrameter. With the exception of his closing speeches (which I find a bit out of character), the most eloquent he gets is:

"My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For night's swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora's harbinger,
At whose approach, ghosts wand'ring here and there
Troop home to churchyards. Damned spirits all,
That in crossways and floods have burial,
Already to their wormy beds are gone.
For fear lest day should look their shames upon,
They willfully themselves exile from light
And must for aye consort with black-browed night." (3.2.399-409)

Puck's speeches rarely offer compelling insight, but here in six lines he gives a chilling vision of the agony of the damned, a vision that explores the inner lives of ghosts whose existence seems radically different from the spirits that populate the play. What is this doing here? Are Oberon and Titania limited to the same "black-browed night" as ghosts? The first line – "this must be done with haste" – suggests so, but does that imply that Oberon and Titania, like the ghosts, are damned? Hmmm. Leave it to Shakespeare to find the dark underbelly of a romantic subplot. He is the David Lynch of his time.

Shakespeare has a lot of characters running around Midsummer Night's Dream, and perhaps that is why a character as rich in potential as Puck comes off a bit slight. There are moments when I think he might have been a clown who focuses the play around him, like Feste in Twelfth Night, or a linguistic imp except he's not give to verbal flights of wit (where's your stychomithia now, Robin?).

So I like Puck, but I don't love him. If I pardon him, will he mend?

Mini-trivia note: In the Reinhardt Midsummer film I mentioned above, Mustardseed is played by Billy Barty. I grew up watching Billy Barty, one of Hollywood's famous "little people," playing Sigmund in Sid and Marty Krofft's early '70s saturday morning confection, Sigmund and the Sea-Monsters. In a remarkable moment of casting, the same year he played Mustardseed, he played a baby in Bride of Frankenstein. Barty was 11 years old.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Pwca

Time to pucker up,

John, thinking about Puck who is sent to put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes, speculates if this image is stimulated by Elizabethan commerce, that force which changes the paradigm of Shakespeare’s world, regularly bringing back wonders to the English shores. I have recently read Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes which traces the three voyages (1768-1780) of Capt. Cook, who carries with him an ornithologist and a botanist charged with just such collections. My favorite such wonder from the 17th Century is the brilliantly plumed Bird of Paradise. Exploration voyages lasted as much as a year, so transportation of specimens was difficult. In the case of birds the solution was skins. As legs were not the crucial part, they were discarded. Thus, into seventeenth-century London was introduced the most gorgeously plumed bird in the world, sans legs. An explanation was back-formed: this most magnificent of God’s creatures had no need of legs because, on birth, it took to the sky and spent its entire life flying close to heaven. Please don’t ask me for more detail, such as where the birth nest might be, etc. What I do know, is this image of a life close to heaven appears in at least three poems in the 17th Century.

What I see of Puck is three-fold: a) Robin Goodfellow whose mischief is proverbial, b) Oberon’s servant/slave Puck who is instrumental in the romantic revolutions of both mortals and the Fairy Queen, and c) one among Dream’s spirit world, provoking our thoughts about the relation of illusion to reality, without which the play would be not much more than a “realistic” romantic comedy. Finally, in epilogue or post script, Puck/ Robin first evokes the groaning spirits of the night (I can’t spell Walpurgisnacht) so Oberon and Titania can replace them with song and dance to bless the fertility of all the nuptial coupling going on, and then Puck finishes the play as a metatheatrical shadow, asking us for forgiveness and applause for our “dream.”

This is a play about fairies or, Harley Granville Barker asks “is it not all meant to appear only as the fierce vexation of a dream?” Oberon and Titania are outside the realm of Athens, outside time, outside space. They are supernatural (and their ‘unrealistic’ nature crippled productions for 250 years,’ devolving into opera, ballet, dozens of children with tiny lights, and, of course, those live rabbits). I have a map of Dream showing Athens in hard-edged neoclassic lines and the woods as leafy, gauzy indeterminacy. The dispute between Titania and Oberon over the Indian changeling boy has caused the seasons themselves to loop out of orbit:

“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.” (II.i.111-114)

The little folk—Cobweb, Peaseblossom, etc.—are part of this infinite [not finite] world. But Puck, alone in the woodland realm, brings about actions relative to the mortals (Bottom is drawn into the dream world). When the First Fairy catalogues the attributes of “the shrewd and knavish sprite/ Called Robin Goodfellow,” he really is that Warwickshire hobgoblin, the trickster responsible for domestic mishaps, you all have unearthed: the explanation for spilled milk, a fall from a three-foot stool or even responsible for good luck.

However, when the jealousy between the King and Queen of the Fairies accelerates, vengeful Oberon, patronizing yet protective, commands Puck as his servant to fetch the magic ‘love-in-idleness” flower, to which Puck responds with “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth/ In forty minutes!” (II.i.175). Thence, Puck is no longer Robin Goodfellow, the joint-stool tipper. Oberon directs him to anoint the eyes of a disdainful Athenian who has cruelly threatened an innocent maiden: “Thou shalt know the man/ By the Athenian garments he hath on” (II.i.264-65), and Puck responds “Your servant shall do so.” Puck is anxious to serve and finds a mortal youth: “Weeds of Athens he doth wear:/ This is he my master said.” He acts as Cupid, though with bad aim, and off we go in a comedy of errors more complicated than that of the Antipholi, because Lysander and, later, Demetrius, act under a magic spell and nonetheless behave like adolescent guys, mixing love, and hate, and lust, and cocksure arrogance beyond reason.

Puck earns my human sympathy when Oberon castigates him for anointing the “wrong” Athenian youth (though of course Puck has followed his King’s directions exactly) and sends Puck to dazzle and confuse the two young men, to keep them from fighting and finally to exhaust them enough to sleep so Lysander can be doused with the antidote. Puck mimics their voices in the night and fog, Goodfellow-with-a-purpose, but allows himself a cogent observation: “Lord what fools these [adolescent] mortals be!”, and offers a self-description as the perfect audience for comedy: “And those things do best please me/ That befall prepost’rously” (III.ii.120-21), things that illustrate the follies and vices of human behavior.

[Etymological aside: doesn’t ‘preposterous’—pre (before) + post (after)—translate to ‘posterior enters first’?]

Puck is an eiron. So, Puck is the most active ingredient in the fierce vexation of the dream which transforms the Athenian world. I suppose the final out of role “Puck” calls forth the gloomy spirits of the night (modern technology might dispense with his ‘it-is-night’ lines and introduce the fairies with tiny lights Ernst saw in Regent’s Park) to set the conditions for Oberon and Titania to demonstrate the restoration of harmony. They dance for purification and blessing, as a comedy must, seasons back in ‘natural’ order, the ‘tradgic’ aftermath of “Pyramus and Thisbe” resolved in laughter and forgiveness, and all is well.

Some notes:

Puck was a female part throughout the nineteenth century until at least 1924.

In a Denver Center production I saw in 1994, Philostrate and Puck were double cast, making a certain amount of sense about the roles of “masters of revels.” Peter Brook doubled them in 1970 and cast circus performer Angela Laurier, on trapezes to ‘create the atmosphere of magic.’

I often thought of Peter Pan as I worked with this, Mary Martin on a trapeze.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was often broken up: operas, The Fairy Queen (music by Henry Purcell) in 1692 and The Fairies (John Christopher Smith) in 1755; ballet (music of Mendelssohn) 1853 and beyond; parody/masques, Pyramus and Thisbe in 1716 and 1745; and Dudley Carleton refers to seeing ‘a play of Robin goode-fellow’ at court in January 1604, but we don’t know if it was extracted from MND.

Time to get the Puck outta here, and yet…won’t we get an essential spirit {c) above} in Ariel in The Tempest?