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.


No comments: