A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II
“You see, Wendy, when the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.” […]
“And so,” he went on good-naturedly, “there ought to be one fairy for every boy and girl.”
“Ought to be? Isn’t there?”
“No. You see children know such a lot now, they soon don’t believe in fairies, and every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”1
Discussing Act I, I alluded to the fact that my suspension of disbelief was more taxed by Helena‘s actions than by the whole idea of a fairy realm – how strange is that?
Come to think of it, Peter Pan has a point here – children DO ‘know such a lot now’. In fact, I could easily get sidetracked here, into discussing whether there is such a thing as ‘childhood’ anymore. Neil Postman 2 suggests that technology has eroded it, and I wonder if the rich imaginative life that children enjoyed when they read rather than gawped at screens – the one I had, back in the 70s – is still possible.
Today’s ‘knowing’ children are missing out. Act II is full of beautifully lyrical descriptions of the land and lives of the Fairies, which make their glamour wholly understandable:
OBERON: 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 (II.ii.249-254) 3
The act is full of lists and extended descriptions, which slow the pace and linger over detail. Fairyland, as captured by Shakespeare, is the kind of place you might dare a fairy ring for, where the unwary might become entranced and entrapped, never to return home.
But these are ‘spirits of another sort‘. ‘No fairy takes‘ here …
Yet it isn’t completely idyllic, of course. Oberon and Titania lead separate lives, each with their own Elizabethan-style court. Fortunately, unlike the houses of Capulet and Montague, the dislike doesn’t extend to their servants. Our fairy royalty spend the idle days in dalliances with humans – as immortals always do. This prompts only a frisson of jealousy between the pair, though, as if they accept that there will be mistresses and casual lovers along the way, their bond being of a different nature. The game is long, when you’re immortal. What does cause a problem is a child, as perhaps the love of a child can come between husband and wife.
We don’t exactly have to choose Team Oberon or Team Titania, because Shakespeare seldom directs our thinking in that way. That said, our initial sympathies might rest with the Queen. Where Oberon says:
Why should Titania cross her Oberon?
I do but beg a little changeling boy (II.i.119-120)
he seems to be echoing the presumption of female obedience that we saw in Act I. Combining ‘but’ and ‘little’ suggest that his request is a trifle. In which case, the natural question to ask is why he has allowed it to come between them. Titania seems empathic and loyal to her ‘votaress’:
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him. (II.i.135-137)
Harold F Brooks makes an interesting point in examining Titania’s assertion of the consequences of this squabble on the mortal world:
It is natural, and probably right, to see topicality in Titania’s great speech on the foul weather and dislocation of the seasons. Memorably foul weather was experienced in 1594 from March onward, continuing, except (according to Stowe) for a remission in August, to the end of the year, and followed by bad, wet summers in 1595 and 1596 3
I love this kind of detail, and I think Shakespeare’s original audience would have appreciated it, too. Although they may have met this contextual nod with a grim smile rather than a laugh …
Whilst Oberon seems not to care about the humans and their wet socks, we see a more noble side of his nature towards the end of the act. Even as he plots mischief against his wife, he’s not immune to sympathy for poor Helena. He gives Puck a second order:
seek through this grove:
A sweet Athenian lady is in love
With a disdainful youth: anoint his eyes;
But do it when the next thing he espies
May be the lady (II.i.259-263)
Puck feels like Ariel‘s first cousin.
Look at the joy in mischief of:
‘I boarded the king’s ship; now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement: sometime I’ld divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join. Jove’s lightnings, the precursors
O’ the dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary
And sight-outrunning were not; the fire and cracks
Of sulphurous roaring the most mighty Neptune
Seem to besiege and make his bold waves tremble,
Yea, his dread trident shake.’ (THE TEMPEST: Act I, sc ii) 4
and compare it to:
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal;
And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob,
And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and loffe
And waxen in their mirth, and neeze, and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there. (II.i.45-57)
Like the mechanicals, there is something … if not honest, then perhaps harmless, about him. As Brooks comments in my Arden’s introduction:
the worst that can be said of him is that he is proud of his reputation as a parlous goblin, ‘feared in field and town’, and laughs at the harm of the night-wanderers he misleads. No harm we hear of him doing seems to be permanent. […] It is not in harm that (like a sadist) he takes pleasure, but in the triumphs of his genius for mischief, and the absurd figure cut by his victims.
And this description too, is interchangeable between the characters.
Puck admirably fulfils his other name, Robin GOODfellow.
Given his confusion at the end of the Act, that’s handy for our mortal lovers …
1 – JM Barrie, Peter Pan (1906), accessed at http://www.gutenberg.org
2 – Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, (Vintage: London, 1994)
3 – William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Arden Second Edition), ed. Harold F. Brooks, (Methuen Drama; London, 2007)