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!


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