Thursday, July 3, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Fairyland


Just before we wrap up the fairy world, I remember a student writing about “…Puck, or Robin Bottom…” which opens up a never-before explored dimension of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Could it be that Puck disguises himself as Bottom in order to have sex with Titania? Or that Bottom and Puck are the same “person,” a sort of Jekyll and Hyde, the stolidly literal and the ephemeral imaginitive? Or maybe it is a double-casting trick I hadn’t thought of (put an ass’s head on Egeus, and Puck and “Bottom” can be on stage at the same time)? I know that Hugh Richmond’s Shakespeare’s Sexual Comedy has a “Bottom as Romeo” chapter: “the treatment of sex in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an explicit confirmation of Shakespeare’s verdict on the sexual conduct of Romeo” (105). So why not Robin Bottom? I missed this on Wikipedia.

Randall has probed the shift in Oberon’s language over the course of the play, after a stiff and stately introduction (“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania” is not unlike Theseus’s introductory “Now, fair Hippolyta…four happy days bring in another moon”) to a more poetic voice, and he also glories in Titania’s eloquence. I believe the two are of a texture. The wrangle between Oberon and Titania has reversed Nature itself. Each accuses the other of a sort of infidelity in devotion to a mortal, Oberon to Hippolyta and Titania to Theseus. Titania refutes the accusation with detailed argument:

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 disturbed our sport. (II.i.81-87)

What starts as an answer to Oberon’s accusation swells to a lyrical passage, enlarging on all the variety of nature. The complaint is sufficient with “forgeries of jealousy,” yet the pentameter sings, compounds, pauses and rushes, catalogues and contrasts to the crescendo of “to dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,” and what began as an argument swells to a celebration of nature. Only at the end of the digression can we conclude that because the fairies have not danced their dance, nature is disordered.

Meanwhile Oberon is furious with his Queen over the Indian changling boy and in his anger he plots to humiliate Titania into submission. He charges Puck to fetch the love-in-idleness flower for a love potion.

Enter Puck
Oberon. Hast thou the flower there? Welcome wanderer.
Puck. Ay, there it is.
Oberon. I pray thee, give it me. (II.i.247-48)

There you go: prosaic stage business as the plot requires. But:

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 juiced of this I’ll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies. (II.i.249-258)

His instruction to Puck starts with all the businesslike authority which Randall notes, but Oberon, like Titania, gets lost or distracted and digresses into a poetic celebration of nature. Wild thyme and nodding violets? Musk roses and eglantine? This is no GPS: you will find her a couple dozen yards to the left of the old oak tree. Both digress into fairyworld. Neither is limited by time or reason. The prosody is blank verse, but the texture is not governed by logic. The two passages have a single end stop, after “eglantine,” and that is really only to take a breath. Oberon’s semi-colons flow directly into “and’s.” It is lyrical. In the fairy realm, neither Titania nor Oberon can keep up the anger as they are distracted into the music of nature. What an effort Oberon must make to reverse from “weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in” to “make her full of hateful fantasies,” and even with the shift in subject, he still carries over the alliterative music.

Between “to dance our ringlets to the whistling wind” and “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,” Athenian youth has trespassed into the wood:

Demetrius. I love thee not; therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I’ll slay; the other slayeth me.
Thou toldst me they were stol’n unto this wood;
And here am I, and wode within this wood,
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more. (II.i.188-194)

Listen to the three passages. All three are blank verse, but the fairies’ lines all flow through commas to continuities embellishing the natural pictures, while the mortal’s lines are all end-stopped increments of complaint. There is some syntactic parallel (slay/slayeth) and a little word play (wode/ wood), but though he is in the wood, he is impervious to nature. As he abuses Helena he is probably stomping on wild thyme and nodding violets. It might as well be prose. And Demetrius has only a single matter in mind—I, me, I, me, me, here I am, etc.—himself, his ego.

Randall noted that audience reacts to character more than language. I agree. Yet as these passages show, the language itself creates a realm beyond dimension of space and time, that the poor Athenians, leaders and youth alike, can only stumble in.


When I return from Ashland, I’ll report on the Dream I will see there, and even if the discussion of the play has closed, I’ll try to sneak in the comment on the effect of double-casting Hippolyta and Titania which I have hinted at. Hint about the hint: as all gather for “Pyramus and Thisby,” Hippolita makes eye contact with Bottom—and winks.

Gentles, do not reprehend,


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