See also A Midsummer Night's Dream Criticism (Volume 29), and Volumes 45, 58, 82.
Irene Dash, Hunter College of the City University of New York
And with the juice of this I'll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.
Whether in the fantasy world of the forest or the equally fantastic world of Athens on a midsummer night, this play reveals how power, particularly political power, impinges on and shapes women's lives. Ranging from queens—Hippolyta, a character taken from mythology, and Titania, belonging to the fairy world—to youthful Athenian maidens in love, to a parodic heroine in an entertainment for the Duke's guests, these characters illustrate women's varied reactions to the imposition of power. One seems to adjust; one discovers new facts about herself; one serves as a lens for looking at the larger world; and one significantly reveals the tragic dimensions of the loss of power. Least mortal and yet seeming in her speeches and attitudes to mimic the mortal world, the fairy queen illustrates most clearly the loss of self—the abdication of autonomy—that may follow a woman's being victimized, even by fairy power.
In developing the early emotional relationship between her and Oberon, the fairy king, Shakespeare seems to have drawn on the world around him for models. Thus when Titania refuses to comply to Oberon's demands, he vows in pique and jealousy to "streak her eyes" with magic juice "and make her full of hateful fantasies" (II.i.257-58). Moreover, moments before he carries out his threat, he becomes more explicit:
Be it ounce, or cat, or bear,
Pard, or boar with bristled hair,
In the eye that shall appear
When thou wak'st, it is thy dear:
Wake when some vile thing is near.
In fact, she does wake and call some "vile thing" her "dear." How then do we interpret this? Is it the act of magic that forces her to "fall in love" with an ass, or at least with a character who has been temporarily transformed into an ass? Or are we to accept much of the criticism that suggests her erotic desire for the ass reflects her true nature—the nature of woman? Does Titania at this moment "awaken from her dream," look at the monster, and desire him, as Jan Kott (228) suggests? Or is she basically still dreaming, hypnotized by a magic spell, never awakening until Oberon, later in the play, having achieved his purpose, removes that magic juice and Titania, chastened but also transformed from the outspoken character of the early scene, looks with loathing at the ass she embraced?
Although her disagreement with Oberon lies at the heart of the play, Titania does not enter until the beginning of the second act. Instead, Shakespeare first introduces other women more clearly caught in situations of political or social subordination than the fairy queen: specifically Hippolyta, the captive Amazonian queen; Hermia, the rebellious Athenian daughter; and Helena who, in her complete self-denigration, illustrates more indirectly the impact of patriarchal power on women. Interweaving a third plot strand culminating in the performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe," the comedy also provides a dual vision of women in patriarchy near the play's close. Parodying the tragic results of arbitrary parental power, this play-within-a-play in its metadramatic dimension offers insights into the mainly silent women, now married, in the audience.
Artistically, the dramatist weaves a complex multifaceted plot that exposes the political and domestic challenges confronting women while creating situations that throw us into the world of comedy. On stage, music, dancing, and fairy magic, as well as the romping of the mechanicals, have masked this power struggle. In criticism, the lure of the poetry, the concept of "topsy turvy," the illusion of dreams, and theories of mythology have often tended to blur any interest in the domination of women. Some critics have even proposed that the play was written specifically for a wedding although none has yet been found.
In fact, A Midsummer Night's Dream opens with anticipation of a wedding although it hardly reveals clearcut delight by both participants, Hippolyta and Theseus, the Duke of Athens, her captor but also her bridegroom:
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in
Another moon; but 0, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame, or a dowager,
Long withering out a young man's revenue.
His reference to "happy days" and the final fulfilling of his desire meets a noncommittal response from the bride. Acknowledging that four days swiftly pass, she indicates neither joy nor sorrow as she anticipates "the night / Of our solemnities" (10-11). Her ambiguous answer leads Theseus to search further. Still the host, if also the victor, he sends his master of the revels on an errand to:
Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments,
Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth.
He would have his bride be merry. Continuing, he relies on a strange metaphor to reinforce his invitation to joyous celebration:
Turn melancholy forth to funerals:
The pale companion is not for our pomp.
Why speak of funerals, even as a contrast to mirth, unless, perhaps a subtext exists here? Although "pale companion" defines the personified "melancholy," contextually the words seem linked to Hippolyta, addressed in the very next word:
Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key.
Is he apologizing for his earlier role? She fails to reply. His speeches suggest a shift in perception of woman from enemy to lover to wife, with the implication of woman's submission to man. As courtesy books and religious tracts of the period indicate, that reference to love and marriage, while including mutuality, also meant acknowledging man's superiority.1
This first scene, particularly the opening entrance and the elliptical conversation between Theseus and his bride, have allowed for a range of interpretations on stage because of Hippolyta's silence. Directors and actor-managers have long manipulated both the action and audience attitude toward a character or a situation during such silences. Writing of this phenomenon recently, particularly as it affects productions, one critic observed:
Hippolyta's silence is open not because Shakespeare
lacked the skill to give her words but because he
did not exercise that skill, did not employ the power
of his "poet's pen" to give her silence precisely
fixed meanings and effects. (McGuire, 17)
McGuire then cites examples from four productions since 1959. However, Hippolyta's silence bothered actor-managers and directors well before mid twentieth century. Because her role is so brief (she does not appear again until act 4) some, like David Garrick in The Fairies (1755), have cut her lines although she is physically present and combined Theseus's two speeches into a single long address.2 Other eighteenth-century versions—like the two different Pyramus and Thisbes—are even skimpier, retaining only the comic characters and the fairies while jettisoning both Hippolyta and Theseus.3 Earlier, during the Restoration, comic interludes, separated from the larger overall scheme, and abbreviated versions held the stage, culminating in the opera The Fairy Queen (1692), from which Hippolyta disappeared.4
But even when a fuller text appeared, as it did in Frederick Reynolds's 1816 production (MND Prompt, 18), often called an "opera," alterations were made that softened the opening. Some occurred in the text itself, as, for example, when Reynolds not only retained the conversation between the victor and his bride, but elaborated on it. In this version, Theseus's fourth act directive to a forester to provide "the music" of the "hounds," as entertainment for Hippolyta (IV.i.110), is attached to that opening promise to wed her in "another key" (I.i.18), an attempt to strengthen the attractiveness of the bridegroom.5
A far more recent example of Hippolyta's silence disappearing after Theseus's lines "I woo'd thee with my sword, /.. . But I will wed thee in another key" occurs in the 1935 Max Reinhardt film where he transposes the sequence of speeches. In the film, Theseus's lines precede, rather than follow, Hippolyta's single speech and therefore evoke her immediate and soothing comment "Four days will quickly steep themselves in night; / Four nights will quickly dream away the time" (7-8). Nor can Reinhardt's film be looked upon as a single aberration. Rather, the German director provides an important link between stage and screen, having produced the play eleven times (beginning in 1905) prior to making the film in 1934.
Free of the confining limits of the stage, he could, as film director, waft his viewers from one location to another, jumping from a distant scene to a close-up of a particular character. In a section of the film script later discarded, Reinhardt not only appears to have been testing the breadth of this comparatively new medium but also offers insights into the finished film. The script also reflects the director's penchant for interpretation. In quick succession, it carries us aboard Theseus's ship, drops us in the land of the Amazons, and involves us in the battle between Theseus and Hippolyta through visuals that act as prologue to the text. Broad shots of the sea and the distant castle of the Amazons are interwoven with close-ups of the two major figures. We read of Theseus standing on the prow of the ship, "a glamorous figure in shining armor, against the dark background of the sail" and of Hippolyta standing with a large wild dog at her side as she "sternly watch[es] the approaching ship" (MND Warners, 1934).6 Stern Hippolyta is contrasted with glamourous Theseus. Finally, when he appears on land followed by his staff, she takes up armor and weapons and shoots at him. He, however, "lower(s) his shield laughing," the implication being that fighting against a woman is laughable and that she, of course, will miss her mark. Eventually, they end up in hand to hand battle, "shield against shield," his shield flat upon hers, pressing it backward. The sequence continues:
- H[ippolyta].'s knee bending, interlocking with Theseus' leg
- Th[eseus].'s shoulder pressing H[ippolyta].'s shoulder downward. . . .
- H[ippolyta].'s head and shoulders going backward.
- Th[eseus].'s arm across H[ippolyta].'s shoulder, knocks the helmet from her head. H[ippolyta].'s long hair falls about her shoulders.
- H[ippolyta].'s head bends backward. Th[eseus].'s head comes into picture triumphantly.7
There we have the classic picture of the implied rape-seduction scene although as the opening of A Midsummer Night 's Dream clearly indicates, Theseus waits to wed Hippolyta.8 What remains of this sequence is a clue to a point of view and to the play's early moments.
In fact, as it was actually made, Reinhardt's film opens quite differently with a general celebratory air as crowds sing and cheer the returning victor, their Duke Theseus, with his captive queen who rides with him, her arm entwined by a snake, indicating her heathenish origins. . . . Later that snake will merely be a pattern on a "civilized" dress she wears. The strange look on her face during that opening entrance as well as her action in a subsequent scene probably owe their origins to this discarded "script." In the later scene, dressed like a lady, Hippolyta sits alone in a large open colosseumlike semicircular area surrounded by large columns (a Hollywood approximation of Athens) and looks wistfully across the water. Is she recollecting her former glory and envisioning again the burning towers she left behind? Moments later, Theseus enters and kisses her hand. . . . Her reaction seems to suggest that she feels a thrill at his kiss. The rape-seduction undercurrent first suggested by their hand-to-hand battle when her helmet fell off is sustained here.
In contrast, Liviu Ciulei's stage production, fifty years later, dramatically emphasized Hippolyta's role as a captive in that opening scene. Brought on stage where everyone is wearing white, Hippolyta enters in dark army garb. Moments later, screened from audience view by her captors, she is basically stripped, her clothes thrown into the fire—all except her boots, which she confines to wear—perhaps symbolically suggesting that some remnant of her former self remains—a remnant that allows her to express her hostility, by stamping her heels as an accompaniment to her sardonic laughter. Otherwise, she is redressed in a white gown. Someone holds a mirror to her. She turns away. When Theseus enters, there is laughter at his lines, as he says, "But I will wed thee in another key." She simply turns around, and sits, her physical stance exuding hostility.
Many versions simply eliminated this character, thus excising the frame and problems of interpretation, but also insights into how one queen eventually handles the humiliation of defeat. In her next appearance she has adopted an attitude of congeniality, quipping with Theseus about his knowledge of hounds. Moreover, in her final scene she takes on an even more complicated role as the only speaking woman in a world of men.
Out of the theater, the Hippolyta and Theseus relationship evoked still another reaction. Margaret Fuller, the midnineteenth-century American feminist essayist, in her outspoken work Woman in the Nineteenth Century, wrote: "Only a Theseus could conquer before he wed the Amazonian queen." Fuller compared Theseus to Hercules, who "wished rather to rest with Dejanira, and received the poisoned robe as a fit guerdon."9 Whether or not Fuller had the historical story in mind, or Shakespeare's play, she nevertheless does offer an alternative perspective on the play's first nineteen lines.
Hippolyta then fades into the background as another woman enters who must wrestle with her fate. Hermia is dragged in by her angry father, Egeus, who would have the laws of Athens enforced against her because she wishes to marry Lysander, the man of her choice, rather than Demetrius, her father's choice, although, as most critics agree, little difference exists between the suitors. As Muriel Bradbrook has observed, Shakespeare contributed to the development of comedy by breathing life into his characters through language. She compares this gift to "the introduction of perspective in painting" (89). Accepting her analysis, we realize that the similarity between the young men is intentional and meant to highlight Egeus's unreasonableness. "I am ... as well deriv'd as he," protests Lysander, the suitor who is "belov'd of beauteous Hermia":
As well possess'd; my love is more than his;
My fortunes every way as fairly rank'd.
But the father refuses to listen, insisting that he "may dispose of his daughter as he wishes, "either to this gentleman [Demetrius] / Or to her death" (42-44). Nor does Theseus, who only moments earlier had pledged to wed Hippolyta "in another key" from that of conqueror, offer much hope to the young woman. Supporting her father, the ruler warns of the price of disobedience: "Either to die the death, or to abjure / For ever the society of men" (65-66).
Life in a nunnery, a retreat for Isabella in Measure for Measure, has little appeal for Hermia. It denies her normal sexuality. Moreover, she is a young woman in love. However, Theseus, the voice of political power, continues, unconcerned about her reactions. Spelling out the meaning of the law, he details the young woman's choices:
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires,
Know of your youth, examine well your blood,
Whether (if you yield not to your father's choice)
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be in shady cloister mew'd,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chaunting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.
"Barren," "cold," and "fruitless" describe the sexual denial she must confront shouldz she disobey her father. Theseus presents a frightening alternative for her. Taking the father from Roman comedy, Shakespeare creates a comic scene with undercurrents of possibly tragic dimension.
But sections of this speech as well as of Egeus's complaints against Lysander disappeared from the stage. Gone are such accusations against Lysander as "thou has given her rhymes, / And interchanged love tokens"; sung at her window "verses of feigning love"; seduced her "With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gauds, conceits"; and, finally, "Turned her obedience, which is due to me, / To stubborn harshness."10 Only Egeus's demand for the privilege of the father remained—the right to "dispose of her" as he saw fit or to call for the death penalty. Although retaining this harsh sentence, those who excised lines had effectively diminished the speech's intensity through abbreviation.
Gone too from the stage are the closing lines of Theseus's admonition to Hermia defining the obligations of a daughter:
To you your father should be as a god
One that composed your beauties; yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.
The image here, specifically the threat to "disfigure," disturbed critics and editors as early as the eighteenth century. William Warburton, for example, sought to change the last line, finding Theseus's statement inappropriate for comedy. In contrast, Samuel Johnson, always one to favor the text over any change of language, defended the word although still bothered by the meaning:
I know not why so harsh a word should be admitted with so little need, a word that, spoken, could not be understood, and of which no example can be shown. The sense is plain, "you owe to your father a being which he may at pleasure continue or destroy." (Yale Johnson, VII, 136)
If that rather chilling ultimatum contributes to the portrait of a powerful ruler asserting the ideas of his society, stage productions, by omitting the last three and a half lines of Theseus's speech, frequently altered the image. In fact, some stage versions retained only the preceding line, Theseus's far more gentle, "What say you, Hermia? Be advis'd, fair maid" (46).11 Because the interaction of characters helps define them, a weakened portrait of Hermia results from the combination of excisions in Theseus's and Egeus's speeches. Facing less opposition, she need be less defiant. Or, looking at it another way, we see her as a less interesting character than the sharp, courageous young woman Shakespeare begins to develop here.
Illustrating just how complex this text is and how it may be read and reread for the stage, some twentieth-century directors have translated the relationship between the two women at this moment on the stage as one of bonding: Hermia, who faces an anguished choice, and Hippolyta, who stands on the sidelines, listening. And here too promptbooks offer evidence. Beerbohm Tree's, for example, indicates the Amazonian queen's sympathy for the younger woman by directing: "Hyp[polyta] leads Herm[ia] to seat" (MND 7, interleaf facing p. 4). In Liviu Ciulei's production, the bonding takes another form. Since Hippolyta's strong personality had been developed at the play's opening, here she sneeringly laughs at Theseus's ultimatum, a clear comment on his actions and on the irony of his earlier words to her, "But I will wed thee in another key" (I.i.18). More humorous in approach and less sharply disapproving is the direction in the Peter Brook prompt: "All bow their heads" (12a). Brook dramatizes the rift between Theseus and Hippolyta by having them exit to opposite sides of the stage, "pausing at doors to look at each other." These twentieth-century directors found their cues in the text and responded, not with excision but with a new awareness of the play's subtlety and of the possibilities that staging might permit.
If Hermia's tragic fate is briefly understood by Hippolyta, the play quickly moves back to the world of comedy as the two lovers left alone on stage not only bemoan their fate but also engage in a conversation in which neither is hearing what the other says. Comforting his love, Lysander cites historical parallels of similarly fated lovers; Hermia, not listening, overflows with anger and frustration:
Lys The course of true love never did run smooth;
But either it was different in blood—
He begins, but she interrupts:Her O cross! Too high to be enthralled to low!
Alternating lines, they continue:
Lys Or else misgraffed in respect of years—
Her O spite! Too old to be engaged to young!
Lys Or else it stood upon the choice of friends—
Her O hell! To choose love by another's eyes!
The stichomythic pattern of the duet captures the intensity of the lovers' feelings, but also the humor of their reactions as each finds solace from a different verbal outpouring.
Nevertheless, the exchange disappeared from acting texts for over a hundred years.12 Although the excision at first seems inexplicable, George Bernard Shaw's comments on an Augustin Daly production offer a partial answer. Unaware of how much Daly's version owed to his predecessors, and indignant over his mauling of the text, Shaw attributes the excision to Daly's uncomfortableness with Hermia's "Oh hell," then notes the impact of the cuts. Humorously he writes:
Mr. Daly, shocked, as an American and an Irishman, at a young lady using such an expression as "Oh hell!" cuts out the whole antiphony, and leaves Lysander to deliver a long lecture without interruption from the lady. (Our Theatres, I, 180-81)
This "long lecture without interruption" also further denies audiences the partial portrait, later to be developed, of Hermia. Unsurprisingly, the lines disappeared from the Garrick-Colman and Reynolds operatic versions since these works concentrated on songs loosely connected with one another by speeches, rather than on short exchanges. But the absence of Hermia's frustrated expression from the later stage versions is surprising.13
Was her "Oh hell" too forthright for the sensibilities of all those audiences, as Shaw implied in blaming Daly? A glance at the Variorum, strong in nineteenth-century criticism, suggests other, literary reasons, as well. Coleridge, for example writes:
There is no authority for any alteration,—but I never can help feeling how great an improvement it would be, if the two former of Hermia's exclamations were omitted—the third and only appropriate one would then become a beauty, and most natural. (Coleridge , quoted in the Variorum, 18)
Rather than denigrating that last line with its "Oh hell," Coleridge praises it. Obviously, Hermia's annoyed exclamations bothered him more than the simple comment on the unfairness of choosing love "by another's eyes." Less generously, Halliwell, another critic of the time, believed Lysander's speech "would be improved by the omission of all of Hermia's interpolations" (18). Moreover, to support his opinion, he cited the editions of Dodd and Planché which actually deleted Hermia's lines.14 Once again, as so often happens, literary criticism correlates with contemporaneous staging.
Why did her short speeches offend so? Was Lysander's single uninterrupted speech more appropriate? But then how could his speech help project Hermia's personality as it does in the original exchange? Stylistically, those clipped single lines suggest the exasperation and intensity of the young woman we are to meet later on in the forest. Moreover, the patter, or duet, of these two lovers complements the long heavy speeches of Egeus and Theseus, taking us back into the comic, romantic world of the play.
As critics have often noted, conflict between father and daughter arises here as it does in so many other of Shakespeare's plays, and here too the strength of the daughter is created by showing her resistence to her father's pressure; her lines in this duet are important. Shaw's review of Daly's production suggests a further effect of the "alternating lines" spoken by the "two star-crossed lovers"; he believes the alternating pattern sets "the whole scene throbbing with their absorption in one another" (133). It also explodes with their differing responses to the same situation.
Although a strong, self-confident, if frustrated, young woman emerges through the language here, not all of her lines reinforce this portrait. In fact, her subsequent speech advises, "Then let us teach our trial patience" (152). Between her two speeches, she has listened to Lysander's litany of lovers who, throughout history, have faced problems. In the cut acting texts I have examined, the line advising patience always remains. What a different Hermia we experience. The language has been modulated, the humor of the exchange lost, and the outspoken young woman tempered.
Artistically, too, a change occurs. No verbal echoes will sound for the audience when, a few lines later, Hermia and her best friend, Helena, indulge in a similar pattern of alternating lines. Nor will the audience hear how their conversation mimics and yet differs from that of the lovers. The repetition of the pattern, comic in its shift of topic, also defines and contrasts the young women. Helena pines for Demetrius. Hermia would most willingly relinquish him. Unlike the earlier duet, this one concentrates on each young woman's attitude towards Demetrius. Rhyming couplets mark their exchange of confidences, and again acting texts excise:
Her. I frown upon him; yet he loves me still.
Hel. O that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill!
Her. I give him curses; yet he gives me love.
Hel. O that my prayers could such affection move!
Her. The more I hate, the more he follows me.
Hel. The more I love, the more he hateth me.
Differing in their appeal to Demetrius, the women differ in their sense of self, Hermia confident with two adoring males, Helena disconsolate that the youth she loves has eyes only for her friend. Physically they differ too: Hermia being small and dark, at one point called "puppet" (III.ii.286), "dwarfish" (295), and an "Ethiop" (257); Helena being tall and lanky—"a painted may-pole" (296). She is also probably fair.
Throughout this scene, Hermia exhibits a sardonic sense of humor, not only in her exclamations after her father leaves with Theseus, but even in her exchanges with her less confident friend. And once again, some texts delete Hermia's attempt to console her friend:
Before the time I did Lysander see,
Seem'd Athens as a Paradise to me;
O then, what graces in my love do dwell,
That he hath turn'd a heaven unto a hell!
Although meant to emphasize the problems Hermia faces, the lines referring to "Lysander's graces" making Athens a hell also have a built-in irony. Surely a lover's graces should turn a hell into heaven rather than the opposite. Although differing from Theseus's comment to Hippolyta on altering their relationship from excombatants to lovers, Hermia's words here suggest a similarly thin and tenuous line between heaven and hell, springing from love.
Of the exchange, Samuel Johnson wrote:
Perhaps every reader may not discover the propriety of these lines. Hermia is willing to comfort Helena, and to avoid all appearance of triumph over her. She therefore bids her not to consider the power of pleasing, as an advantage to be much envied or much desired, since Hermia, whom she considers as possessing it in the supreme degree, has found no other effect of it than the loss of happiness.
(Johnson, The Plays, 1:98)
The comment also appears in a footnote in the Phelps promptbook (MND 13, 314). Since this was an 1805 printed text used for an 1861 production, it suggests that the lines were not only challenging in the eighteenth century but continued to be relevant in the nineteenth. When they disappear, as often occurs, they erase a problem for interpreters, but also an insight into Hermia's capacity for humor and sympathy.
To further comfort Helena, Hermia and Lysander reveal their secret plan to escape Athens. In soliloquy at the scene's close, Helena confesses her response. She will divulge the news of their flight to Demetrius, hoping to win his favor. Bemoaning her fate in rhymed couplets, she begins:
How happy some o'er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she,
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so;
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind.
But Helena does not think herself as fair as Hermia. Thus this reference to Cupid suggests a rather confused young woman. Continuing for twenty-six lines, the soliloquy ranges from analyses of love to a discussion of Hermia's strengths to a lament for the speaker's own plight:
For ere Demetrius look'd on Hermia's eyne,
He hail'd down oaths that he was only mine;
She therefore resolves, "I will go tell him of fair Hermia's flight" (246), expecting a kind response. Here too excisions mar the portrait. Sometimes the lines are absent from printed acting versions; sometimes sections are crossed out or blocked for cutting.16 As a result only the bare plot outline of this section remains, subtleties in characterization being lost.
Later, in the forest, the dramatist further develops the young women's personalities. There the popular Hermia, speaking with confidence, gently reprimands her lover, while the rejected Helena subjects herself to further humiliation, frustratingly following the man she loves. Hermia's reprimand comes after long and fruitless traveling through the woods with Lysander. Escaping Theseus's ultimatum, they seek refuge with the young man's aunt, beyond the range of Athens' law. Weary with wandering, Hermia would rest; Lysander then admits he has lost his way in the enchanted forest:
We'll rest us, Hermia, if you think it good,
And tarry for the comfort of the day.
Appreciating the idea, she then counters:
Be't so, Lysander. Find you out a bed;
For I upon this bank will rest my head.
But he would have it otherwise. In fact, the lines indicate the action that has just occurred on stage as she chooses her sleeping site. A minidebate then ensues:
Lys. One turf shall serve as pillow for us both,
One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth.
Her. Nay, good Lysander; for my sake, my dear,
Lie further off yet; do not lie so near.
The adapters once again cut. Garrick's abbreviated musical version provides a record of the cuts in this speech, and, to some extent, sets the pattern for what subsequently occurred. The first eight lines of the exchange between the couple are retained (lines 35-42), followed by a duet (25). Then come lines not Shakespeare's, but believed to be composed by Garrick, which appear in a handwritten insert (MND 6).17 In that version Hermia exhibits proper womanly fear:
Now my Lysander, on that bank repose,
That if perchance my woman's fears shou'd seek
Protection in thy love and brav'ry,
I may not call on love and thee in vain.
(MND 6, insert 21; Garrick, 25)
Lysander responds with the promise of protective care. The Garrick lines also appear in the Reynolds printed text (MND 8, 18). Later the pattern of excision continues although without the new, added material. The musical Reynolds version (MND 8, 18) contains no hint of her asking him to move. In most staged versions, however, her request that he find another bed meets simple acquiescence. Usually gone are his lines "One turf shall serve as pillow for us both / One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth" (41-42) along with his attempt to convince her of the reasonableness of his proposal. Gone too is Hermia's perceptive "Lysander riddles very prettily. . . . / But, gentle friend, for love and courtesy, / Lie further off, in humane modesty" (53, 56-57).18 Amusing, her response in Shakespeare's play highlights her realistic awareness of the physical attraction between lovers. Their debate is reminiscent of Juliet's "What satisfaction canst thou have to-night?" (Romeo and Juliet, II.ii.126) when Romeo protests, "O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied" (125). In both cases, the dramatist suggests that confidence in the loyalty of her lover does not blur each young woman's recognition of the reality of the sexual drive.
Unlike Hermia, her friend Helena nurtures no such fear. Groveling for some affection, she trails Demetrius. "I love thee not; therefore pursue me not" (188), he dictates. But Helena, like Emilia in Othello so many plays later, has divulged the secret of Hermia and Lysander's flight in order to win a boon:
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel; spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
Nor do Demetrius's threats to her virginity (217-19) bother her. Rather they allow her to assert her confidence in his character. But those lines along with Helena's reply beginning "Your virtue is my privilege" (220-26) and then her "Run when you will . . ." (230-34) disappear from the stage in many promptbooks.19
By cutting Helena's lines here and elsewhere, those versions tended to obscure the perceptiveness of Shakespeare's sketch of a young woman who is filled with self-doubt and self-hatred.20 In fact, Shakespeare's insight here, although theatrically developed and placed in a comedic setting, has a contemporary counterpart in Kate Millett's more serious analysis of the lack of self-love that flourishes in women and minorities. She describes this as
group self-hatred and self-rejection, a contempt both for herself and for her fellows—the result of that continual, however subtle, reiteration of her inferiority which she eventually accepts as a fact. (56)
Helena appears to have internalized this attitude. In an excellent essay on the play, David Marshall asks a relevant question concerning Helena. "Are we to be pleased by the success of Helena's subjection of herself?" (548), he wonders, challenging the idea that this is "one of Shakespeare's happiest comedies."21 Actually, by the time we reach this section of the play we become aware of the various ways in which the women have been dominated by men—bridegroom, father, ruler, and rejecting suitor.
However, we have not yet met the strongest and seemingly freest woman character in A Midsummer Night's Dream: Titania, the fairy queen, who so delights us at her first entrance and later raises questions about women's roles. Is she the victim of male power, male irrationality, trickery, or jealousy? Is she merely a fairy? Or does she illuminate the feelings and attitudes of women reacting to dominating male behavior?
At its opening, act 2 stresses the conflict between her and Oberon, the fairy king. Quickly we learn the source of their dissension: control over an "Indian boy" at the time in her possession but desperately desired by Oberon. Representatives of king and queen, Puck and a fairy quickly sketch in the conflict, each hoping the other party will relinquish the field. "But room, fairy! here comes Oberon" (II.i.58), announces Puck. "And here my mistress. Would that he were gone!" (59) retorts the fairy. And then, king and queen enter. Do they make a grand entry from either side of the stage, magically from the air, with a train of followers, or simply alone?
The scene has allowed for a tremendous range of interpretations, some concentrating on the two principals, some surrounding them with troops of followers, many including the Indian Prince. Nonexistent in the play and seeming to symbolize Oberon's drive for dominance over Titania—or perhaps his jealousy of her—the prince materializes into an actual character. Not listed in the dramatis personae, he takes on a life of his own in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century productions, including the Reinhardt film. Although mystery surrounds him in the text—we don't know his age, his size, or his exact identity, except as he is described variously by Puck, Titania, and Oberon—he acquires theatrical substance on stage, frequently wearing a turban or carried in on a golden cushion.22
Suggesting the importance of this character to the relationship between the fairy king and queen are the stage directions written in pencil on the interleave to Kean's prompt:
Fairies enter dancing round Titania. 2 Bodies of Oberon's Train,—enter separately, . . . then 2 parties of Titania 's—chorus first, who make an avenue of boughs, then a second troop of smaller fairies trip down through them,—on tiptoes—and run back thro avenue,—down L[eft] then round avenue and follow Titania with Indian Boy tripping down through avenue,—Oberon entering same time down slote, R[ight] (MND 9, interleaf facing p. 21).
In another production, a dance of twelve fairies precedes Titania's entry "in a car drawn by swans" and accompanied by the Indian Prince. Paralleling their entry, Oberon descends to meet them (MND 20, verso of interleaf facing p. 12). A sketch indicates the placement of fairies, with Titania, Oberon, and the Prince at center front.
The presence of an actual prince also allows the director editorial commentary as he emphasizes the different functions of men and women, father and mother. Thus Titania is usually portrayed in a maternal relationship with that young child whereas Oberon is presented as giving the youth space and training for manhood. Consider, for example, the Reinhardt film where the young prince is practically smothered by attention from Titania's fairies and elves whereas later he is free to accompany Oberon. Even in criticism, this reference to the prince colors the perspective. C.L. Barber, for example, writing of Titania's later development, considers her giving up of the child as a maturing process. But one may question whether or not it is the child, as an actual person, or the symbolic importance of the debate between Titania and Oberon and its later outcome that is really at issue in the play especially since the prince's exclusion from the text helps stress the equality between king and queen.
Before turning to their actual verbal sparring, I want to cite other theatrical factors that further vitiated the strength of the debate, attracting eyes to the stage and ears to the music rather than attention to the words. I refer to the persistence of lavish musical accompaniments to productions. In fact, whether it was coincidence or not, the mid-nineteenth-century productions—beginning with that of Elizabeth Vestris and Charles Mathews in 1840, which included Mendelssohn's music—were highly successful and included more of the text than had previously appeared on stage. Discussing that production, one commentator suggested, "It would be an unpardonable mistake to any future performances .. . to omit . . . Mendelssohn's music" (MND. *NCP 18—, p. 6).23 In Reinhardt's film, fairies, accompanied by the orchestral sounds of Mendelssohn's music, dance in on a cloud that spirals around a tree. Later productions, like that of the famous Old Vic Company in 1954 that featured Robert Helpmann and Moira Shearer, both professional dancers, as Oberon and Titania, also testify to the pervasiveness of a musical tradition and the emphasis on dance for the two principal fairies. . . .
Finally, along with the music and the young prince, one stage property worked its magic on the audience: the mushroom from which Puck eventually emerged. The young Ellen Terry as Puck, for example, lay hidden in such a mushroom in Kean's production, springing into view as the mushroom rose. Following Kean's lead, Daly's Puck, hidden by a mushroom, was discovered when a fairy's wand brushed a plant (1888, MND 5, p. 32). Featuring complex machinery, Burton's production too had Puck spring from a mushroom that rose from a trap then sank back down (MND 21, p. 15 and facing interleaf).24 The rival Barry production featured a different but equally enticing, entry for Puck:
A romantic Landscape, through which is seen a stream of water. (By moonlight.) A bush in the c[enter]. MUSIC—A troop of Fairies are discoveredgrouped. A Fairy touches the bush with her wand, it opens and Puck comes out; the bush disappears through the stage.
(MND 20, Act 2, p. 11)
Supplementing this text, the directions on the interleaf specifically place Puck inside the flower piece which then changes to a peacock. Accompanied by music, "the first fairy trips on from [the side entrance] . . . round the flower" waving the wand. "The flower opens and discovers Puck in a Peacock Car (with wand)." More music sounds as Puck descends from the car. Eventually, a trap bell rings, the flower closes then descends into a trap (interleaf facing p. 11).
I cite these extensive productions because they characterize what occurred on stage once the fuller text was presented. Whether this was because of the accompaniment of Mendelssohn's music or because the combination of the text with that music appealed so strongly to Victorians we do not know. Clearly, however, language and the verbal conflicts between men and women characters, whether fairy or not, were overshadowed by productions. Nor do the many references to a full text, as in the case of Phelps's production, which boasted of having omitted only three hundred lines, alter the general impression of the acted play. If these varied staged versions seemed to promise new perspectives, they failed to deliver; they still concentrated on the magic and wistfulness of the dream. Moreover, extant promptbooks testify to a disproportionate number of excisions of lines that blur Shakespeare's portrayal of the inequities that women faced whether in the real or unreal fairy world.
For it is in the unreal world of the fairies that the dramatist most clearly questions the patriarchal structure. Despite the extravagance of their entrances in different productions, Oberon's and Titania's opening lines sound more like those of humans than of fairies or otherworldly beings: "Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania" (60), asserts proud Oberon. We then encounter the queen of the fairies whom Shakespeare has endowed with dramatic and evocative poetry. Unlike the other women thus far presented, Titania has a sure sense of self-worth and an independence of spirit. Hippolyta was presented as defeated but enigmatic, Hermia as a challenge to the rules of her society, and Helena as a self-doubting person, questioning her own worth. But in Titania Shakespeare offers a portrait of a queen, someone reliant on no one but herself for her power. Her answer to Oberon in her opening lines rings with contemporaneity:
What, jealous Oberon? Fairies, skip hence—
I have forsworn his bed and company.
Why need a fairy assert she has "forsworn" another fairy's bed? Since when do fairies discuss such mundane matters? Moreover, Oberon carries the discussion one step further by clarifying their relationship with one another: "Am not I thy lord?" (63) he asks. "Then I must be thy lady" (64) she asserts before accusing him of infidelity with various women. In his recent book Road to Divorce: England 1530-1987, Lawrence Stone notes that until recently—but particularly in the early period covered by this book—"all women of childbearing age" were in a state of "constant anxiety about their bodies. They worried about whether they were pregnant" (8) and about such things as the possibility of dying in childbirth, of coming to term, and of having a well child. Titania, being a fairy, has no such worry although her conflict with Oberon has to do with the child of a mortal who died in childbirth. "His mother was a vot'ress of my order" (123), explains Titania. "For her sake do I rear up the boy; / And for her sake I will not part with him" (136-37). Moreover, in recent studies of women's writings of the period, we become aware not only of women's quest for divorce and of the problems they faced in confronting their husbands but also of the real fears attending childbirth (Otten).
Titania's opening lines to Oberon may well have had specific resonances for Shakespeare's audience. The phrase "separation from bed and board" was applied at the time to a legitimate form of divorce, whether "as'de facto' grants of permission to remarry" or merely following church ordinance that allowed a form of divorce but forbade remarriages (Stone, L., 304). Although Titania, of course, had no particular plans to "remarry," her language mimics that of the time, with, however, a twist—an assertion of her rights vis-à-vis an adulterous husband. Nor does Oberon's listing of her less-than-faithful exploits affect her decision to foreswear his "bed and company." According to Stone, the pattern changed in the 1640s and 50s, which may explain an altered reaction to this section of text. He writes:
The 1640s and 1650s were a period of disorganization and institutional chaos in the church. The ecclesiastical courts ceased to function in the early 1640s and in 1646 church control over marriage was abolished, authority being shifted in theory to secular authorities. But the bulk of the population seems either to have found ways to be married clandestinely by the old rituals of the Church of England, or were married by non-conformist clergy of their own religious persuasion, or reverted to marriages by verbal contract. As a result of this confusion, when the ecclesiastical courts were restored in 1660 they found themselves faced with an unprecedented torrent of petitions for separation which had been pent up for over a decade. (308)
Interestingly, what Shakespeare is doing here is using the vocabulary of divorce without presenting the actual situation. Moreover, unlike the usual separation between husband and wife of the time, this separation is instituted by the wife. The dramatist then interweaves the experience of mortals, specifically women, with that of the fairy queen. During the nineteenth century, the line referring to "bed and company" was often deleted. It disappeared from the Charles Kean printed text (MND 9) and was crossed through in the Beerbohm Tree prompt (MND 7). On the other hand, Garrick and Colman retained this line (MND 19) although slashing so much material on either side to make room for musical airs that the line's implications probably had little effect on the audience. In that text, the accusations by fairy king and queen refer merely to their specific favorites within the context of this play—Titania's preference for Theseus and Oberon's for the "bouncing Amazon" (70).
However, Titania's full speeches, although couched in "fairy terms," offer insights into the imperfect relationship between men and women. Describing the conflict between her and Oberon, she begins by mentioning jealousy:
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 disturb'd our sport.
The speech continues for thirty-six lines, but has usually been reduced to six, or even four. The remnant simply accuses Oberon of disturbing the gatherings of the fairies with his "brawls" whenever the two have met (87). As critics have frequently noted, the speech gives us a sense of Titania's breadth and sensitivity, connecting her with an Eden or a classical world of the gods, or even with nature deities of rustic sixteenth-century England. She refers to the effect of the dissension between her and Oberon on the elements, "The ox hath . . . stretched his yoke in vain, / The plowman lost his sweat . . . / The fold stands empty in the drowned field / And crows are fatted with the murrion flock" (93-97). Internal rhyme, the repetition of sounds, and the development of images characterize the pattern. Her concern for the maintenance of the rhythms in the animal world extends to the human world as well. She decries the effect of their arguments on the normal flow of the seasons and on human life.
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest.
... . 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.
Images of nature's gifts and blights vie with one another, investing her speech with cosmic concerns beyond merely trading accusations with Oberon. When, later, she explains why she will not relinquish the child, she describes his mother, with whom she laughed and "gossip'd."25 Titania's lines—"we have laugh'd to see the sails conceive / And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind" (128-29)—suggestively describe the pregnant woman herself. They too disappear, the verbal inferences coming too close to nature, pregnancy, and women's physical appearance.26 Whittling down the lines narrows this portrait of Titania; she then more closely parallels Oberon who in this section has only brief comments.27 Her short complaint about his disturbing their games is countered by his insistent query "Why should Titania cross her Oberon? / I do but beg a little changeling boy, / To be my henchman" (119-21). Reinhardt's film cuts even further. None of Titania's lines remain except her response to Oberon's request for the changeling boy: "Set your heart at rest; / The fairy land buys not the child of me" (121-22). The scene's focus changes to the Indian boy.
Even when they retain practically all of the text, however, productions may alter the power of Titania's lines by stage directions, as did Peter Brook's in the wonderfully unisex-looking work. The performance had an exuberance and originality that captivated audiences. It also captured some of the attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s, as a glance at the "Authorized Acting Edition" testifies, raising questions about the Oberon-Titania relationship that one might even have missed in watching the play. Here, for example, is a detailed description of what went on during this scene of their first meeting which begins with Titania's crossing down stage center and kneeling (23a) before Oberon when she refers to their brawls. Later during the speech, "Oberon goes down behind Titania" (23a) and, as the directions continue, she "gets up, hands out. Oberon puts hands around her waist with wand" (24a). In talking about the "hoary headed frosts" she puts her hands over Oberon's. And at the lines "and the mazed world / by their increase now know not which is which" (24b) the stage direction reads, "Oberon's hands on Titania's breasts, with wand. Titania's arms out" (24a). As the scene continues, one sees more of physical sexual interaction between them until finally at her decision not to give him the boy, she pushes Oberon away. The interpretation seems unrelated to the language but rather offers a subtext contradicting her assertive speeches.
The comments accompanying the promptbook offer a partial explanation of this treatment of Titania. Brook had chosen to double the roles of Titania/Hippolyta and Oberon/Theseus. Alan Howard, who played Oberon/Theseus, discusses the point of view towards the relationship between his roles and the joint Titania/Hippolyta role:
At the beginning of the play, Theseus/Oberon is worried about the moon being gone and that his desires are, in consequence, bottled up. And Hippolyta/Titania says: "Don't worry. Another moon will come in. Wait, and it will all be fine again." Her kind of intensity is toward her knowledge of herself as a woman . . . in terms of whatever it is that women do that men don't. Theseus/Oberon has somehow got to explain his case. (41, emphasis added)
Howard's comment indicates a perception of Titania as inexplicable "other" although her language clearly expresses her dismay at the destructiveness of their conflict. Oberon simply isn't listening. What is exciting about the play, however, is the way Shakespeare seems to be applying what he has been hearing, or observing, in the real world to this fantasy couple, embedding a contemporaneity within an otherworldly framework.28
After her departure, Oberon vows, "Thou shalt not from this grove / Till I torment thee for this injury" (146-47), indicating a vindictiveness as well as a desire to exert power over her. And here, perhaps because of the implication of equality suggested first by the conversation between the fairy and Puck and later by the confrontation between Oberon and Titania, we are unprepared for the trick he plays on her. Shakespeare's audience, however, may well have expected it, since Titania was behaving like the rebellious, dominant, independent wife who, according to Stone, might be breaking the code of the social group "concerning sexual or power relations within the family" (3). "Thus a husband-beating wife, a passively henpecked husband, a couple married despite gross disparities in age, a cuckold, an adulterous wife . . . were all liable to be treated to . . . humiliating demonstrations of public disapproval" (3). Titania suffers just such a "humiliating demonstration" later on when she falls in love with the first thing that she sees upon awakening, a mortal with an ass's head—the "translated" Bottom.
By endowing the situation with such human qualities and giving Titania wonderful lines, however, the dramatist may also be questioning the justice of Oberon's action especially where he seems to be motivated by revenge. When he directs Puck to fetch the magic herb called "love-in-idleness" (II.i.168), the fairy king explains:
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
He will squeeze the juice into her eyes and eventually defeat the play's most independent woman. In the complex interweaving of plots, he will also, almost casually, exercise his power benevolently. Although some critics have perceived Oberon as an even-handed ruler who insists on establishing a certain kind of obedience to his rule, his actions here seem arbitrary and tinged with jealousy. When later on he acts more generously towards Helena, attempting to change her fate from that of cast-off woman to desired one, Oberon's actions seem to come almost as an afterthought to his more driven desire for revenge on Titania.
Having sent Puck on his way, Oberon, alone in the forest, sees Demetrius and Helena approaching. "1 am invisible," he announces to his audience, as Hamlet's and Banquo's ghosts do not; rather on-stage characters provide the clues to the emptiness of the space even while the invisible character appears on stage. Alan Dessen discusses the implications of this "not seeing" or blindness of characters on stage as often metaphoric for the blindness or inability of the characters on stage to see and understand (130-55). Here, however, Shakespeare denies us this metaphor by having Oberon proclaim his invisibility. The dramatist, skilled in embedding stage directions in his text, chooses, instead, to characterize Oberon through this more direct statement, possibly with the aim of literalizing him, just as the mechanicals, later on, so carefully literalize their actions.
Observing Helena trailing Demetrius, the fairy king reacts with sympathy to her plight; he would have Demetrius sue for her love. The magic herb holds the key. What are we to make of Oberon's reaction here? If Titania is aggressive in rejecting him, Helena is aggressive in pursuing Demetrius. Ironically, Oberon, who would have the fairy queen exhibit the kind of self-abasement practiced by Helena, expresses great sympathy for the mortal woman and later sends Puck to find the Athenians while the fairy king himself will anoint Titania's eyes. In one of the four calls for music in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play usually drenched in music on stage, she has just been lulled to sleep by her fairy troop. "Come, now a roundel and a fairy song. . . . sing me now asleep" (II.ii.1,7), Titania directs, becoming vulnerable to Oberon's scheme. Meanwhile, Puck, having sought Athenians in the forest and found only the sleeping Hermia and Lysander, squeezes the magic juice into the eyes of the wrong man.
Now Helena, the rejected Helena, is forced to face a new role—that of the chosen one, the pursued one, when Lysander, upon being awakened, expresses his undying love for her. This is difficult for a woman whose self-image has already been shaped. Speaking in soliloquy moments before his sudden and inexplicable pursuit, she weighs her virtues and strengths and finds them nonexistent. She compares herself first with Hermia then indulges in close self-analysis:
How came her eyes so bright? Not with salt tears;
If so, my eyes are oft'ner wash'd than hers.
No, no; I am as ugly as a bear;
> For beasts that meet me run away for fear.
Therefore no marvel though Demetrius
Do, as a monster, fly my presence thus.
Helena doesn't like what she sees. Although the speech continues developing her profile, it too, like so many earlier speeches by the women, frequently loses its subtlety and color through excision.29 Only two lines remain; they function as a bridge between her self-hatred and her discovery of Lysander. The full speech, however, explains her astonishment at his actions, and her inability to find any excuse for them. Lacking any sense of self-worth, she is bewildered. The play, however, provides a rationale. According to Lysander, one needs maturity to appreciate Helena's worth. "Reason" must be the guide:
The will of man is by his reason sway'd;
And reason says you are the worthier maid.
He then expands on this, explaining, "Things growing are not ripe until their season, / so I, being young, till now ripe not to reason" (117-18). The scene also permits the dramatist to differentiate further between the two young women because even in these mere sketches, he assigns specific qualities to each. But once again major chunks of text are cut for the stage, eliminating all but the most obvious differences—the women's varying appeals to men.30
Illustrating the effectiveness of the magic juice, the brief scene between Helena and Lysander in its complete form anticipates the sharp reaction Titania will experience. Because so much criticism has interpreted the fairy queen's later actions when under the juice's spell as truly representative of her underlying feelings, one could test the validity of such a theory by applying it to Lysander, the first to be transformed. Does he really mean it when, responding to Helena's reminder of his love for Hermia, he refers to his former love scornfully as "the surfeit of the sweetest things" (137) and undesirable? Since he later returns to her, one must believe that this is merely his manner of coping, under the spell's influence.
Although some critics consider Oberon's potion a symbol of love, as it applies to Titania it appears to be more a symbol of power, or at least of revenge for her failure to release the child. In direct response to her unwillingness to acquiesce to his demand, Oberon induces the spell:
The next thing then she waking looks upon
(Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape),
She shall pursue it with the soul of love.
No handsome youth or prince charming but rather a list of animals is intended as her fate. In fact some promptbooks—for the 1856 [MND 9] and Tree 1900 [MND 7] productions—excise these references to animals. In Garrick's production, she is never seen "enamor'd of an ass" (IV.i.77). Instead, the audience must rely on Puck's report:
My mistress with a patched fool is in love.
Near to her close and consecrated bower
This clown with others had rehearsed a play
Intended for great Theseus' nuptial day.
When, starting from her bank of mossy down,
Titania waked, and straightway loved the clown.
(III.i.2-7; Garrick in Pedicord, III:176)
References to the ass have disappeared; the substitute terms "patched fool" and "clown" soften Titania's fate.
Summary: Act II, scene i
In the forest, two fairies, one a servant of Titania, the other a servant of Oberon, meet by chance in a glade. Oberon’s servant tells Titania’s to be sure to keep Titania out of Oberon’s sight, for the two are very angry with each other. Titania, he says, has taken a little Indian prince as her attendant, and the boy is so beautiful that Oberon wishes to make him his knight. Titania, however, refuses to give the boy up.
Titania’s servant is delighted to recognize Oberon’s servant as Robin Goodfellow, better known as Puck, a mischievous sprite notorious for his pranks and jests. Puck admits his identity and describes some of the tricks he plays on mortals.
The two are interrupted when Oberon enters from one side of the glade, followed by a train of attendants. At the same moment, Titania enters from the other side of the glade, followed by her own train. The two fairy royals confront one another, each questioning the other’s motive for coming so near to Athens just before the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Titania accuses Oberon of loving Hippolyta and of thus wishing to bless the marriage; Oberon accuses Titania of loving Theseus. The conversation turns to the little Indian boy, whom Oberon asks Titania to give him. But Titania responds that the boy’s mother was a devotee of hers before she died; in honor of his mother’s memory, Titania will hold the boy near to her. She invites Oberon to go with her to dance in a fairy round and see her nightly revels, but Oberon declines, saying that they will be at odds until she gives him the boy.
Titania storms away, and Oberon vows to take revenge on her before the night is out. He sends Puck to seek a white-and-purple flower called love-in-idleness, which was once hit with one of Cupid’s arrows. He says that the flower’s juice, if rubbed on a sleeper’s eyelids, will cause the sleeper to fall in love with the first living thing he or she sees upon waking. Oberon announces that he will use this juice on Titania, hoping that she will fall in love with some ridiculous creature; he will then refuse to lift the juice’s effect until she yields the Indian prince to him.Read a translation of Act II, scene i →
Act II serves two main functions: it introduces the fairies and their realm, and it initiates the romantic confusion that will eventually help restore the balance of love. The fairies, whom Shakespeare bases heavily on characters familiar from English folklore, are among the most memorable and delightful characters in the play. They speak in lilting rhymes infused with gorgeous poetic imagery. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play dominated by the presence of doubles, and the fairies are designed to contrast heavily with the young lovers and the craftsmen. Whereas the lovers are earnest and serious, Puck and the other pixies are merry and full of laughter; whereas the craftsmen are bumbling, earthy, and engage in methodical labor, the fairies are delicate, airy, and indulge in effortless magic and enchantment.
The conflict between Oberon and Titania imports into the fairy realm the motif of love being out of balance. As with the Athenian lovers, the eventual resolution of the tension between the two occurs only by means of magic. Though the craftsmen do not experience romantic confusion about one another, Bottom becomes involved in an accidental romance with Titania in Act III, and in Act V two craftsmen portray the lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, who commit suicide after misinterpreting events.