The title of this play sets its tone. "Midsummer" refers to the summer solstice, when the noonday sun reaches the most elevated point in the heavens. By our present calendar, this is June 21. (To be sure this is only the beginning of summer by modern convention and by temperature considerations.)
The actual calendar day of the solstice has varied at different times because calendars themselves have. The Midsummer Day in English tradition is June 24, which is celebrated as the birthday of John the Baptist and which therefore has a Christian distinction as well as an earlier pagan one. The preceding night would be "Midsummer Night."
There is a folk belief that extreme heat is a cause of madness (hence the phrase "midsummer madness") and this is not entirely a fable. The higher the sun and the longer it beats down, the more likely one is to get sunstroke, and mild attacks of sunstroke could be conducive to all sorts of hallucinatory experiences. Midsummer, then, is the time when people are most apt to imagine fantastic experiences.
In calling the play A Midsummer Night's Dream, then, Shakespeare is deliberately describing it as a piece of utter fantasy. It does not imply, however, that the play actually takes place on Midsummer Night. Only one reference in the play seems to set a time and that makes it seem considerably earlier; see page I-45.
… fair Hippolyta. ..
The play opens in a spirit of high festivity. A marriage is about to take place. The scene is set in the palace of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and it is he who speaks:
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace.
Four happy days bring in Another moon;
– Act I, scene i, lines 1-3
Theseus was the great hero of Athens, who (according to Greek legend) was the first to unify the peninsula of Attica under the rule of the city of Athens. He was supposed to have lived in the generation before the Trojan War and we may therefore put the time of the play as about 1230 b.c. (which makes this play the earliest from the standpoint of background chronology, so that I place it immediately after Venus and Adonis.)
As the centuries wore on, the imaginative Athenians invented more and more hero tales with which to adorn the life of their founder until, finally, he was second only to Hercules in the number of adventures he was given.
One tale involving Theseus concerns his expedition to a land of warrior women. The women, the legend tells us, cauterized the left breast in infancy so that it never developed and left that side free for the maneuvering of a shield. They were called "Amazons," from a Greek word meaning "breastless."
Theseus defeated the Amazons and captured their queen, Antiope, keeping her as his love. He married her and by her had a son, Hippoly-tus. The name of Hippolytus was famous in Greek legend because he was the center of a very famous tale involving the hopeless love for him of his stepmother, Phaedra.
A feminine version of Hippolytus' name, Hippolyta, worked its way backward therefore and was given to his mother in place of the older name, Antiope. This was all the easier to do because in the tale of another expedition against the Amazons, that of Hercules, Hippolyta was indeed given as the name of their queen. Shakespeare makes use of Hippolyta as the name of Theseus' Amazon queen, not only here, but also in The Two Noble Kinsmen (see page I-56).
Theseus is listed in the cast of characters as "Duke of Athens." This is an anachronism, for Athens was not a duchy or anything analogous to it in Theseus' time. It was what we would today call a kingdom and Theseus was its king.
The title "Duke of Athens" did not, however, come out of nowhere. In 1204 a party of Crusaders from the West (overthrew the Byzantine Empire, which then ruled Greece, took and sacked its capital, Constantinople, and divided up what they could of the Empire among themselves, fashioning new states, Western style. One of these fragments was the "Duchy of Athens," which included the regions about Athens and Thebes.
The Duchy of Athens continued in existence for • two and a half centuries. Finally, in 1456, it was absorbed into the empires of the Ottoman Turks. Shakespeare's play, probably written about 1595, was only a century and a half removed from this Duchy of Athens, and the title of "Duke" would seem a natural one to the Elizabethan audience.
Since A Midsummer Night's Dream centers about a wedding, since it is gay and frothy and all about love and lovers, it seems natural to suppose that it was written for, and originally produced as, part of the entertainmerit at a wedding feast. Scholars have tried to guess which wedding it might have been and six different ones have been suggested, but none is very likely. The marriages of the two men most likely to have the use of Shakespeare's services in this way, the Earl of Southampton (see page I-3) and the Earl of Essex (Elizabeth's favorite and a great friend of Southampton), both took place in 1598, which is too late for the play.
… Cupid's strongest bow
The marriage festivities of Theseus and Hippolyta serve as the background plot, or the "frame," of the play. In the foreground are three other sets of events, Involving totally disparate groups of characters whom Shakespeare cleverly weaves together.
The first of these subplots is introduced at once, as a set of well-born Athenians break in upon Theseus. At their head is Egeus, who is vexed and annoyed because his daughter, Hermia, will not agree to marry a young man named Demetrius. Hermia insists stubbornly that she is in love with Lysander, of whom her father does not approve.
Lysander himself points out that Demetrius had previously been in love with Helena, a friend of Hermia's, and that Helena still returned that love.
All will not do. Despite Hermia's emotion and Lysander's reason, Egeus insists on having his way, as is his legal right. Theseus decides that by his own wedding day Hermia must have agreed to obey her father. The alternatives are death or lifelong celibacy. All then leave the stage, but Lysander and Hermia.
No recourse but flight seems left them. Lysander suggests that Hermia meet him in the wood outside Athens and that they flee to a rich aunt of his who lives outside Athenian territory. There they can marry.
Hermia agrees to meet him that very night, swearing to do so in a lyrical outburst of romantic vows:
/ swear to thee, by Cupid's strongest bow,
By his best arrow with the golden head,
By the simplicity of Venus' doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
And by that fire which burned the Carthage queen,
When the false Troyan under sail was seen,
– Act I, scene i, lines 169-74
Cupid is the Latin version of the Greek Eros, both of whom were personifications of sexual passion. Cupid (Eros) is earliest mentioned in the works of the Greek poet Hesiod, who wrote in the eighth century b.c. There he represented the impersonal force of attraction that created all things. In later centuries Cupid was personified as a young man, then as a boy, and finally as an infant rather like the cherubs in our own art.
In the Greek myths he was given various sets of parents; Venus and Mars (see page I-11) in the best-known version. He was considered to be mischievous, of course, as anyone could see who witnesses the ridiculous events brought about by love. He was sometimes depicted as blind, since love seemed to afflict the most mismatched couples (mismatched by all standards except those clearly visible to the lovers themselves).
He was supposed to possess a bow and arrows, for the onset of love (which is sometimes sudden, or seems sudden in later reminiscence) resembles a quick arrow in the heart. In later tales, Cupid was given two types of arrows, one with a golden tip to produce love, and another with a leaden tip to produce hate. Sometimes the hate arrows were made the property of a companion deity, Anteros ("opposed to Eros").
Doves were birds sacred to Venus (see page 1-15) and they too served as appropriate vehicles for lovers' oaths.
The "Carthage queen" is a reference to one of Shakespeare's favorite personages in classical legend and one to which he often refers. She is Dido, who in 814 b.c. (according to legend), founded the North African city of Carthage, which in later centuries dominated the western Mediterranean and rivaled Rome itself.
The best-known story in connection with Dido involves the Trojan hero Aeneas. Aeneas is one of the fighters on the Trojan side who survived the destruction of Troy. Indeed, at one point in the Iliad, Aeneas is on the point of being destroyed by the invincible Achilles, and is saved by the intervention of the gods. The excuse is that Jupiter (Zeus) "intends that Aeneas shall rule the surviving Trojan stock, and his children's children after him."
Naturally, numerous tales were later invented that gave Aeneas adventures after the fall of Troy. Of these, the one that is best known today was not told by a Greek at all but by a Roman poet, Publius Vergilius Maro (best known among English-speaking people as Vergil). In the reign of Augustus, first of the Roman emperors, in the last decades of the first century b.c., Vergil wrote a tale, in imitation of Homer, regarding the escape of Aeneas from burning Troy and his wanderings over the Mediterranean Sea. The epic poem he wrote was named Aeneid for its hero.
Eventually, Aeneas lands in Carthage and meets Queen Dido. (To be sure, the Trojan War was in 1200 b.c. and Queen Dido lived in 800 b.c., making four centuries between them, but Vergil didn't care about that and neither-if the truth be known-do we, in reading the Aeneid.)
Dido falls desperately in love with the handsome Trojan stranger; their love is consummated and for a moment it seems that all will be happy. But Aeneas is a "false Troyan" who betrays the Queen. The gods warn him that his divinely appointed task is to go to Italy, there to found a line which was eventually to give rise to Rome. Quietly, he sneaks away.
Dido, in despair, builds a funeral pyre on the shore, sets it on fire, and throws herself on the flames, dying with her eyes fixed on the disappearing ship. Few readers can feel any sympathy for Vergil's rather pallid hero. Despite Vergil's own attempt to make it all seem very pious of Aeneas to follow the divine dictates, our hearts are all with the injured Carthaginian and not with the scuttling Trojan. Dido has remained ever since an epitome of the betrayed woman.
Of course, it is anachronistic of Hermia to speak of Dido and Aeneas, since that took place after the Trojan War and Theseus lived before-but, again, that is a matter of little moment.
… when Phoebe doth behold
Helena now enters. She is a bosom friend of Hermia's and the friendship has remained unbroken, apparently, even though Demetrius, whom Helena desperately loves, is as desperately wooing Hermia.
The two lovers softheartedly decide to tell Helena of their own plan of flight, in order to reassure her that the obstacle to her love of Demetrius will be removed. Lysander says their flight will take place:
Tomorrow night, when Phoebe doth behold
Her silver visage in the wat'ry glass
– Act I, scene i, lines 209-10
Phoebe is a way of referring to the moon, making use of the oldest moon goddess in classical myth and harking back to the Titaness (see page I-12).
It is odd, though, that Lysander should refer to the moon as lighting up the night, for at the very beginning of the play, Theseus has specifically stated that it is only four nights to the next new moon. This means that the old moon is now a crescent which appears only in the hours immediately preceding the dawn.
Yet it is to be understood that the entire magic night that is soon to follow is moonlit. In a way, it is essential. The soft moonlight will be just enough to make things seem not quite what they are. Who would argue with it? Let there be a full moon throughout the night even if astronomy says it is impossible.
Of course, the kindly motive that led Hermia and Lysander to tell Helena their plans makes trouble at once. Helena, virtually mad with love, promptly tells Demetrius of the plan, hoping thereby to gam his gratitude (and failing).
… all our company…
The second scene of the play introduces a third strand of plot, one that does not involve aristocrats, but laboring men. Indeed, the second scene is laid in the house of one of them, a carpenter.
These laborers have none of the aura of Athenian aristocrat about them; indeed, they are in every respect, even down to their names, comic Englishmen. This sort of thing is true in all of Shakespeare's plays. Of whatever nationality and historical period the main characters are represented as being, the lower classes are always portrayed as Englishmen of Shakespeare's own time.
The leader of the group, the one in whose house they are meeting, looks about and asks, portentously,
Is all our company here?
– Act I, scene ii, line 1
[In numbering the lines for reference there would be no problem if nothing but verse were involved, as in Venus and Adonis and in the first scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Then the identity and numbering of the lines are fixed. Where we encounter prose, as we do now for the first time, the lines depend on the design of type and the width of the columns. The numbering then varies from edition to edition and can alter the number in passages of verse too, if they follow passages of prose in the same scene. In this book, I am using the numbering system given in "The Signet Classic Shakespeare." If the reader is referring to some other edition, he will often have to look a little to either side of the line number, so to speak, but he will not be far off and his search will not be difficult.]
This leader is Peter Quince, the carpenter, and it is possible in his case and in all the others to see a connection between the name and the occupation. According to a footnote in the Signet Classic Shakespeare edition, "quines" are blocks of wood used for building and therefore characteristic of carpenters.
The other men of the company are:
Nick Bottom the weaver; one of the numerous meanings of "bottom" is a "skein of thread."
Francis Flute, the bellows-mender, which is apt since the sides of a bellows are fluted.
Tom Snout, the tinker, who deals largely with the repair of kettles, which are characterized by a snout (or spout).
Snug the joiner, an occupation which joins pieces of wood, it is to be hoped snugly.
Finally, there is Starveling the tailor, a name which is evidence that there has long been a tradition that tailors are weak, cowardly, effeminate creatures, perhaps because they work so much on women's clothes and because it is so easy to assume that a manly man would not be interested in such an occupation.
"… Pyramus and Thisby"
The six laborers have met in order to arrange the production of a play intended to celebrate the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Quince announces the name of the play:
… our play is, "The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby."
– Act I, scene ii, lines ll-i;
The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is found in Ovid's Metamorphose: (see page I-8) and has no known source beyond that.
Pyramus and Thisbe were a youth and maiden of Babylon who lived in adjoining houses and who loved each other but were kept separate by the enmity of their parents. They talked through a chink in the wall that separated the estates and arranged to meet outside the city one night.
Thisbe got there first, but was frightened by a lion and fled, leaving he: veil behind. The lion, who had just killed an ox, snapped at the veil, leaving it bloody. Pyramus arrived, found the lion's footprints and the blood; veil. Coming to a natural conclusion, he killed himself. When Thisbe re turned, she found Pyramus' dead body and killed herself as well.
There is a strange similarity between this tale and that of Romeo and Juliet, a play that was written at just about the time A Midsummer Night's Dream was being written. Did Shakespeare's satirical treatment of the Pyramus-Thisbe story get him interested in doing a serious treatment of it Was the serious treatment already written and was he now poking a little good-natured fun at it? We can never tell.
… play Ercles rarely …
The workmen are among Shakespeare's most delightful creations: nai'v and yet well-meaning. And of them all, the most naive and the best meaning is Bottom. Bottom no sooner hears the name of the play but he says, pompously:
A very good piece of work,
I assure you, and a merry.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 14-15
Since the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe was well known to any Elizabethan with the slightest education, and known to be an utterly tragic one DBF signed for reducing softhearted maidens to floods of tears, Bottom's own characterization of it reveals him at once. He is illuminated as the cock sure know-it-all who knows nothing; the fool who thinks himself CIS, and yet who, through the very enormity of his folly, makes himself lovable. The workmen are each assigned a role in the play and Bottom is given the part of Pyramus the hero. Despite Bottom's pretense of knowledge concerning the play, it promptly turns out that he doesn't know what kind of part Pyramus is. He is told that Pyramus is a lover and he is wistful over the possibility of other roles, saying:
… my chief humor is for a tyrant.
I could play Ercles rarely, or a part
to tear a cat in, to make all split.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 29-31
"Ercles" is Bottom's mispronunciation of Hercules (and much of the humor in Shakespeare's plays rests with the mangling of the English language by the uneducated-something sure to raise patronizing chuckles from the better classes in the audience).
Hercules (Heracles) was the greatest of the legendary heroes of the Greeks. He was a child of Jupiter (Zeus) by an illicit amour with a mortal woman. He thus incurred the vengeful enmity of Juno (Hera). As a result of a crime committed during one of his periodic fits of madness, he was condemned to perform twelve labors for an unworthy relative, Eurystheus, King of Argos.
The tale of his labors (which may originally have been inspired by the progress of the sun through the twelve constellations of the zodiac) were elaborated and interlarded before, between, and afterward by so many additions illustrative of his superhuman strength that Hercules became the most storied individual in Greek legend. He remained popular through all succeeding ages.
Since Hercules' forte was sheer brute strength, mingled with madness, he had to be played broadly with a rolling, bass voice, with rage and threats and much flexing of muscles.
The poorer plays of Elizabethan times were notorious for overacting, something beloved of the lower classes. Certainly Hercules could scarcely be portrayed satisfactorily without overacting, and it was just the sort of role a lovable dimwit like Bottom would yearn for and want to portray.
The "part to tear a cat in, to make all split" is probably a reference to Samson, the Israelite analogue of Hercules. At one time, the young Samson encountered a lion. "And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand" (Judges 14:6). Samson would clearly have suited Bottom every bit as much as Hercules would have.
The remaining parts are then given out, with the proceedings interrupted at every point by Bottom's yearnings to play each part as it is described, offering to do it in any way that might be desired. It is only when he is told how unimaginably handsome Pyramus is that Bottom recognizes that only he can play the young man and reconciles himself to the task.
They then all agree to rehearse the play secretly in the wood outside Athens so that no outsiders learn their plans and steal their thunder (the same wood ha which Lysander and Hermia have been scheming to meet).
… the moon's sphere
The second act opens in this very wood, but with neither the well-born lovers nor the low-born actors in view. The wood is already occupied and we are now introduced to still another strand of plot, one that involves sheer fantasy, for it concerns fairies (drawn from Celtic legend rather than Greek mythology, but that doesn't bother anybody).
Two spirits meet to open the act. The more grotesque spirit asks the more graceful one (named simply "Fairy") where it is going. The answer is, in part:
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
– Act II, scene i, lines 6-7
Here we have a little Greek astronomy. The Greeks believed that the sun, the moon, and the various planets were each set in a transparent sphere. The various spheres were nested one beyond the other, all centered on the earth, which was the very core and midpoint of the universe.
The spheres moved in various complicated fashions and the end result was to cause the heavenly object attached to it to move against the back-ground of the stars in the fashion observed by human astronomers. The smaller, inner spheres turned more rapidly than the larger, outer ones. The moon was attached to the innermost, smallest sphere and therefore, since that sphere turned most rapidly, it moved against the stars most rapidly. -The Fairy boasts it can move even swifter than the swiftest heavenly body, the moon and its sphere.
The notion that all the spheres turned about the earth as a center was seriously challenged by the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus in 1543. The issue was strongly disputed and was not finally settled in favor of Copernicus till after Shakespeare's death. Indeed, Copernicus' theory was not inconsistent with spheres (centered about the sun, rather than the earth) and it was not till Kepler showed that the planets moved in elliptical orbits (in 1609) that the notion of the celestial spheres began to die.
Shakespeare does not, be it noted, take the advanced position of agreeing with Copernicus. In science he is a thoroughgoing conservative who clings tightly to Greek teachings, and the notion of the spheres is a favorite of his. He refers to them in a number of places.
… the Fairy Queen The Fairy continues to describe her duties:
And I serve the Fairy Queen To dew her orbs upon the green.
-Act II, scene i, lines 8-9
Nowadays we think of fairies (when we think of them at all) as tiny little creatures with butterfly wings, suitable characters for children's tales. Tinkerbell, the fairy in Peter Pan, is a prize example.
This is strictly a modern, watered-down version, however; a notion to which, actually, the fairies of this very play, A Midsummer Night's Dream have greatly contributed.
In earlier centuries fairies were taken much more seriously, and well they might be, for they originated in part out of a dim memory of the pagan sprites of the woodlands: the fauns, satyrs, and nymphs of the Greco-Roman mythology, together with the gnomes, elves, and kobolds of the Teutonic imaginings and the sorcerers and "little folk" of Celtic tales. They were the mysterious forces of nature, usually capricious, often malevolent.
The vague old beliefs clung among the country folk and became old wives' tales, while the Church, recognizing their pagan origins, strove against them.
Naturally the fairies would have a king and queen, though their names and powers vary from region to region. (For a mythology to become standard, a sophisticated literature is required, and this could scarcely be found in the case of a set of beliefs driven by the Church into refuge among the rude and unlettered.)
To us, the most familiar name of the Fairy Queen is "Titania," which is the name Shakespeare uses. But it is familiar to us only because Shakespeare uses it in this play. As far as we know, he was the first ever to use that name for the Fairy Queen.
We can only speculate what inspired Shakespeare to use it. The most likely guess points to Ovid's Metamorphoses, which Shakespeare used so often. At one point Ovid uses the name "Titania" for the moon, referring to Phoebe (see page I-12) by the same line of reasoning that causes one to use "Titan" to refer to the sun (see page I-11).
This, after all, is a moon-drenched play, a tale of fantastic doings in the dim-lit night. It may have pleased Shakespeare to have the Fairy Queen a version of the moon goddess.
The "orbs upon the green" are circles of darker grass that can be found here and there on lawns. These are the result of a mushroom's activities: a mushroom which sends out threads in all directions and fruits now and then in gradually wider circles, or parts of circles. Those with sufficient imagination see in these circles the existence of tiny ballrooms for fairies (here viewed as miniature creatures). They are called "fairy rings."
… Oberon is passing fell…
The grotesque spirit, on hearing that the other is part of the train of the Fairy Queen, says:
The King doth keep his revels here tonight.
Take heed the Queen come not within his sight,
For Oberon is passing fell and wrath,
– Act II, scene i, lines 18-20
The name "Oberon" is not a creation of Shakespeare's. Indeed, it dates back to ancient Teutonic times. The old Germanic legends told of a variety of earth spirits. The dwarfs (undersized, deformed creatures, usually malevolent) had, as their chief occupation, mining. (This is still so, even in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.) We can only wonder whether the legend arose in part out of the first sight by Germanic hunters of miners, caked with soil-with most of them children or undersized adults, since a small body was at a premium for writhing through the underground passages.
In any case, the king of the dwarfs in the Teutonic tales was Alberich, who is best known to us today for the part he plays in the Nibelung tale as told in Richard Wagner's four operas that begin with the Rhinemaidens and end with the Twilight of the Gods. Alberich is the fiendish dwarf who steals the gold from the Rhinemaidens. When the gold is taken from him in turn, he lays a curse upon all future holders of the gold and it is the working out of this curse that finally ends the universe.
"Alberich" is softened into "Oberon" in the French. As king of the fairies, rather than of the dwarfs, he plays a part in a popular medieval romance called Huon of Bordeaux. Huon kills the son of Charlemagne in this tale and is sent off on a dangerous quest in punishment. He meets Oberon, who is described as the son of a most curious pair of parents: Julius Caesar of Roman history and Morgan le Fay of Celtic legend. (Yet is that so curious? Medieval French culture represented a mingling of the Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul with the Roman conquerors-together with the later Germanic conquerors, represented by Charlemagne. Huon and Oberon may represent the meeting of Frank with Gallo-Roman.-But never mind, it's Shakespeare I'm talking about in this book.)
Huon of Bordeaux was translated into English about 1540 by an English statesman and author, John Boucheir, 2d Baron Berners. Shakespeare must surely have been aware of it, and he borrowed "Oberon" from it.
Oberon and Titania are both in the heavens now. The German-English astronomer William Herschel, who had discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, detected its two outermost satellites (it has five altogether, as far as we know today) in 1787. Departing from the then universal habit of naming bodies of the solar system after Greco-Roman gods and goddesses, he resorted to Shakespeare and named them Titania and Oberon. Oberon is the outermost.
… so sweet a changeling
The reason for the quarrel between Titania and Oberon is explained to the audience at once, for the ungainly spirit says that Oberon is angry with Titania:
Because that she as her attendant hath
A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king;
She never had so sweet a changeling.
And jealous Oberon would have the child
– Act II, scene i, lines 21-24
It was one of the more fear-provoking legends concerning fairies that it was their habit to steal healthy infants from their cradles, substituting sickly or deformed ones. The substituted infants found by the mothers were "changelings." The true horror of this legend lay not so much in the needless fear it provoked among parents but in the fact that when a deformed, retarded, or sickly child was indeed born, that poor infant was sometimes mistreated in order that the fairies might be induced to take it away again.
In this case, Shakespeare mistakenly refers to the stolen normal child as the changeling.
This speech, by the way, contains one of the numerous indications in the play that the fairies are very small in size, for the spirit says that whenever Oberon and Titania meet, they quarrel vehemently so that:
– all their elves for fear
Creep into acorn cups and hide them there.
– Act II, scene i, lines 30-31
The best that can be done on the stage, of course, is to have the fairies played by children, and that is really quite small enough, for in The Merry Wives of Windsor children pretend to be fairies (see page I-446) and succeed in fooling one of the characters, who is not portrayed as wondering that fairies are so large. Shakespeare may deliberately have reduced the fairies in this play to minuscule size to add to the fantasy.
Oberon and Titania, at least, give the appearance of being full-sized humans, if we consider what Shakespeare says of them.
… Robin Goodfellow
By this time the Fairy has recognized the spirit to whom it has been speaking. It says:
Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Called Robin Goodfellow.
– Act II, scene i, lines 32-34
The Fairy recites the mischievous deeds of Robin Goodfellow, but adds:
Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck.
– Act II, scene i, lines 40-41
Puck, a king of the elves in Scottish mythology, was pictured as an evil demon, to begin with. His role diminished with time to that of a mere mischief-maker and it is this role Shakespeare gives him.
To avert the mischief, it was necessary to flatter him, to call him "sweet Puck" or use the euphemism "Goodfellow," with the friendly given name of "Robin" (of which "Hob" is the diminutive).
The Germans had a kind of earthy, mischievous creature in their legends, who behaved much like Shakespeare's Puck, and who were called "kobolds." "Goblin" may be a form of that word, so that "hobgoblin" means "Robin the Kobold." (People were sufficiently fearful of Puck's knavishness to make "hobgoblin" become synonymous with a besetting fear.)
Puck proudly admits his identity and describes himself as Oberon's jester, making the rather dour Fairy King laugh at the practical jokes the tricksy sprite plays on people.
… the shape of Corin …
Puck is scarcely finished when Oberon enters from one side and Titania from the other, each with their attendant elves. Both are angry at once and in no time at all are shrewishly raking up past infidelities. Titania says:
… I know
When thou hast stolen away from fairy land
And in the shape of Corin sat all day,
Playing on pipes of corn, and versing love
To amorous Phyllida.
– Act II, scene i, lines 64-68
It is not moderns only who long for a simpler past and who imagine a world of country joy and pastoral pleasures. The city folk of Shakespeare's time, and for that matter, those of ancient times, likewise turned away from what they conceived to be the corrupting influence of city life and longed for a magical land of shepherds and milkmaids ("Arcadia") that never really existed.
Pastoral plays and poetry were a fad in Shakespeare's time and one conventional name for the shepherd-hero was Corin. Indeed, Shakespeare makes use of that name for a shepherd in his own pastoral play As You Like It (see page I-568). As for Phyllida, that is a version of "Phyllis," a traditional name for a pastoral heroine, and a good one too, since it means "leafy" in Greek.
Titania accuses Oberon, further, of having arrived in Athens from India only to be at Theseus' wedding because he himself has been a past lover of Hippolyta.
Accusations like these make us think of Oberon and Titania as full-sized. To be sure, they can take any shape they wish (Oberon made love to Phyllida "in the shape of Corin") but it is difficult to think of them being lovingly interested in coarse humans if they themselves are dainty enough to fit in an acorn cup.
… Ariadne and Antiopa
Oberon, furious at Titania's scandalous allegations, accuses her in turn of being in love with Theseus and having caused him to betray earlier loves of whom she had been jealous. Oberon says:
Didst not thou lead him through the glimmering night
From Perigenia, whom he ravished?
And make him with fair
Aegles break his faith,
With Ariadne and Antiopa?
-Act II, scene i, lines 77-80
These were women whom Theseus met in the course of his adventures. Thus, Perigenia was the daughter of Sinis, a wicked bandit who lived at the Corinthian Isthmus. Sinis would bend the tops of pine trees to the ground and tie some luckless traveler's right foot to one pine tree, and left-foot to the other. He would then release the trees, which would spring upright, tearing the traveler in two.
Theseus wrestled with him and killed him, then discovered the bandit's daughter hiding in terror. She fell in love with him at once. Theseus had a child by her, but then gave her to one of his companions.
Aegles and Antiopa are two other loves of Theseus. In fact, Antiopa (Antiope) is the name of the Amazonian Queen, for which Shakespeare substituted the name "Hippolyta."
By all odds, the most famous of the forsaken maidens is Ariadne. She was the daughter of King Minos of Crete, who, when Theseus was a youth, held Athens under tribute, demanding seven youths and seven maidens each year. These were sacrificed to the Minotaur, a bull-headed monster. (This is a legendary memory of the time, prior to 1400 b.c., when Crete was the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean, and when bull worship was an important factor in its religion.)
Theseus had himself selected as one of the seven youths and sailed to Crete to place an end to the tribute once and for all.
The Minotaur was hidden in the center of a labyrinth so intricate that no one entering could expect to find his way out even if he were so fortunate as to kill the monster. (This may well have been a Grecian memory of the great palace at Knossos, the Cretan capital, which had so many rooms that the unsophisticated Greeks of the day must have wondered how anyone could find his way around within it.)
Minos' daughter, Ariadne, having fallen in love with Theseus, gave him a magic ball of twine which would unwind before him, leading him to the Minotaur, and which he could then trace back for the return. Theseus followed the twine, killed the Minotaur, and returned.
The Athenian had promised to make Ariadne his wife in return and when he left Crete, he took her with him. They landed on the Aegean island of Naxos and while she slept, Theseus and his party stole away and made for Athens without her. Why he deserted her the myths don't say, though Mary Renault has a fascinating conjecture concerning it in her novel The King Must Die.
… angry winter…
Titania, womanlike, dismisses the charges scornfully as fantasies born of jealousy. She speaks bitterly of their quarreling as having caused the very seasons to have grown confused (a dear reflection of the role of the fairies as nature spirits):
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.
– Act II, scene i, lines 111-14
The interest here lies in that some critics see this to be a contemporary reference. The years 1594-96 were horrible, from the standpoint of weather, in England, and if the play had been written in 1595, Shakespeare might have been referring to the weather at this time.
Oberon points out that to end the quarreling, all that need be done is for Titania to give up the Indian changeling, but this Titania flatly refuses to do, and they part.
… certain stars shot madly …
The chafed Oberon decides to teach Titania a lesson. He calls Puck to him and reminds him of a time they listened to a mermaid (see page 1-12) sing. Oberon says:
… the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea maid's music.
– Act II, scene i, lines 152-54
This represents the romantic belief that even inanimate nature responds to beautiful music. This is most commonly aired in connection with Orpheus, the musician of Greek legend, and a beautiful song on that subject is to be found in Henry VIII.
The Greeks supposed that the stars possessed a sphere of their own. The stars do not move relative to each other (they are "fixed stars" as opposed to the planets) and all were affixed to a single sphere, therefore. Shakespeare, however, mistakenly supposes each star to have its individual sphere and therefore says the stars shot madly from their "spheres."
The thought that a star could leave its sphere arises from the sight of "shooting stars," which are not stars at all, of course, but fragments of matter, often no larger than a pinhead, which in their travels about the sun collide with the earth and are heated to white brilliance by friction with the air.
… a fair vestal…
Oberon goes on:
That very time I saw, but thou couldst not,
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all armed. A certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west,
– Act II, scene i, lines 155-58
But Cupid's arrow, for a wonder, missed:
And the imperial vot'ress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
– Act II, scene i, lines 163-64
Vesta was the Roman goddess of the hearth; that is, of the household fire. The six priestesses in her service had, as their chief duty, the guarding of a sacred flame which must never be allowed to go out. This is perhaps a memory of a time when the art of lighting a fire at will was new and difficult, and when the loss of a household fire meant an uncomfortable period of cold and uncooked food. (It would be something like a breakdown in electric service these days.)
The priestesses were required to be virgins and to maintain an absolute chastity on pain of torture and death, and it is recorded that in eleven hundred years only twenty cases of violation of that rule were recorded.
The Vestal Virgins were venerated and had many privileges, taking precedence even over the Emperor on certain ceremonial occasions. The term "vestal" has come to be synonymous with "virgin" in the English language because of them.
Shakespeare's reference to the "fair vestal throned by the west" can be to none other than to Elizabeth I who, at the time the play was written had been reigning thirty-seven years, was sixty-two years old, and had never married. Non-marriage need not necessarily be equated with virginity, of course, and Elizabeth had had several favorites (including the Earl of Essex at the time the play was written) but her subjects accepted her virginity as fact.
In the early years of her reign, her failure to marry was of great concern to her advisers, for children were required if the succession was to be made sure. As the years passed and she grew too old to have children anyway, the best had to be made of it, and Elizabeth's reputed virginity became a source of pride. She became known as the "Virgin Queen," and when in the 1580s the first English settlers attempted to found colonies on what is now the east-central shore of the United States, they named the region "Virginia" in her honor.
Shakespeare's delicate picture of Elizabeth as a "fair vestal" whom not even "Cupid all armed" could defeat and who remained "in maiden meditation, fancy-free" must surely have pleased the aged Queen, who had always been terribly vain of her good looks, and who insisted on being treated as a beauty even after she had long ceased to be one. The terrible anachronism of placing her in the reign of Theseus would bother no one.
… a girdle round about the earth
Cupid's arrow, which misses the fair vestal, hits a flower which Oberon describes as:
Before milk-white, now purple with love's wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
– Act II, scene i, lines 167-68
The flower referred to is more commonly spoken of nowadays as the pansy. Oberon orders Puck to:
Fetch me this herb, and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.
– Act II, scene i, lines 173-74
It is foolish, of course, to try to attach literal meaning to what is obviously poetic hyperbole, but-just for fun-"leviathan" is the whale, which can swim as speedily as twenty miles an hour. To swim a league (three miles) would require nine minutes.
/'// put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.
– Act II, scene i, lines 175-76
It is interesting to note that Puck outdoes even the modern astronaut, who requires ninety minutes to go around the earth. To circumnavigate the planet in forty minutes means moving at the rate of 37,500 miles an hour or a little over 10 miles a second. Puck would be hard put to manage to stay close to the earth's surface at this speed, for he would well exceed the escape velocity.
However, Shakespeare was writing a century before Newton had worked out the law of gravity, and, in any case, we can assume that such mundane universal laws of the universe would not apply to Puck.
In the nine minutes allowed him by Oberon, by the way, Puck could, at this speed, flash to a point twenty-seven hundred miles away and back again. In short, he could fly from Athens to England and back with several minutes to spare, and it must have been in England that Oberon saw Cupid aiming at the fair vestal. -So through all the fantasy, Shakespeare manages (without meaning it, I'm sure) to allow Puck enough time.
Oberon plans to use the juice of the plant he has sent Puck for as a love philter. It will serve to make Titania fall in love with something abhorrent, and thus Oberon will have his revenge.
… you hardhearted adamant
At this point, Demetrius (warned by Helena of the lovers' flight) comes upon the scene in search of Lysander and Hermia, intent on killing the former and dragging the latter back to Athens. Helena tags after him, although Demetrius, utterly ungrateful for her help, does his best to drive her away. But poor Helena cries out:
You draw me, you hardhearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel.
– Act II , scene i, lines 195-97
The word "adamant" is from a Greek expression meaning "not tamed." It was applied to a mythical substance that was so hard it could not be cut or broken and in that sense could not be tamed. The word has been applied to the hardest naturally occurring substance; that is, to diamond, and, as a matter of fact, "diamond" is a corruption of "adamant."
In the Middle Ages "adamant" was falsely related to the Lathi expression "adamare," meaning "to attract," so that it came to be applied to the magnet. Helena cleverly uses the word in both senses at once, for Deme-trius attracts her as though he were a magnet and his cruel heart is diamond-hard.
Apollo flies …
Demetrius desperately tries to escape her importunities, and Helena, still pursuing him, says sadly:
Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase;
– Act II, scene i, line 231
Daphne was a nymph, daughter of the Peneus River (which cuts across Thessaly in northern Greece). Apollo fell in love with her and when she refused him, he tried to rape her. She fled and Apollo ran after. Even as his hands were clutching at her shoulder, she prayed to the earth goddess, who changed her into a laurel tree.
To Helena, it seems that the old myth reverses itself in her case. Oberon, overhearing, pities her. He decides to use the love juice for Demetrius as well as for Titania. In this way do the fairy plot and the lovers plot intertwine.
Oberon does not count, however, on a second pair of Athenians creeping through the fairy-haunted wood. Lysander and Hermia, coming on stage, are overcome by weariness and lie down to sleep. Puck, returning with the love juice, is told by Oberon to anoint the eyes of an Athenian youth in the woods. Puck finds Lysander and Hermia sleeping, assumes Lysander is the youth meant by Oberon, and places the juice on his eyes.
Next comes Demetrius running through, outdistancing the panting Helena. Helena, who can run no more, finds Hermia and Lysander sleeping, wonders if they are dead, and wakes Lysander. He sees Helena through his juice-moistened eyes and falls madly in love with her immediately.
Helena assumes she is being mocked and runs away. Lysander pursues her and Hermia wakes to find herself alone.
… a bush of thorns. ..
Meanwhile, in that spot of the woods where Titania lies sleeping (hav-ng earlier been lulled to sleep by a fairy-sung lullaby), the Athenian laborers come blundering in to work out the production problems of Pyramus and Thisbe.
Those problems are many and difficult to their unsophisticated minds. Bottom points out, for instance, that when Pyramus draws a sword to kill himself, he will frighten the ladies in the audience. What's more, introduc-ing a lion will frighten them even more. It will be necessary, Bottom ex-plains, to have a prologue written that will explain that no harm is intended, hat the lion is not a real one, and so on.
There is next the question of moonlight. Will there be a moon that night? Quince checks the almanac and says:
Yes, it doth shine that night.
– Act III, scene i, line 55
This is odd, since the play is to be given at Theseus' wedding and Theseus himself has said it will take place on the night of the new moon, which means there will be no moon in the sky.
But it really doesn't matter. Even if there is no moon to shine naturally upon the stage, Quince has an alternative.
… one must come in with a bush of thorns and a lantern,
and say he comes to disfigure,
or to present, the person of Moonshine.
– Act III, scene i, lines 59-61
A man holding a lantern on high is an obvious representation of the moon. But why a bush of thorns?
The vague shadows on the moon's face, visible to the naked eye, are the marks of the "seas," relatively flat circular areas surrounded by the lighter cratered and mountainous areas. In the days before telescopes, the nature of the markings could not be known and an imaginative peasantry concerted the shadows into figures; most commonly the figure of a man. This was the "man in the moon."
Somehow the feeling arose that the man in the moon had been hurled there as a punishment and the particular crime was thought to have been described in the Bible. The crime took place when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. "And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron" (Numbers 15:32-33).
It is clearly stated that this sabbath breaker was stoned to death. Nevertheless, an alternate non-biblical version of his punishment arose and grew popular. This was that for breaking the sabbath he was exiled to the moon with the sticks he had gathered. The sticks gradually elaborated into a thornbush and a dog was often added too (either as a merciful gesture of company for the man or as an unmerciful representation of the devil, who forever torments him). When in the final act of A Midsummer Night's Dream the little play is actually put on at Theseus' wedding, the dog appears with Starveling the Tailor, who plays Moonshine.
… at Ninny's tomb
Puck enters, having taken care (as he supposes) of Demetrius, and now all ready to place the love juice on Titania's eyes. He finds, to his amazement, the rehearsal in progress. Bottom (as Pyramus) delivers his lines and exits, while Flute (as Thisbe) calls after him:
I'll meet thee, Pyramus, at Ninny's tomb.
– Act III, scene i, line 98
"Ninny's tomb" is Flute's mangling of "Ninus' tomb." Ninus, according to Greek legend, was the founder of the Assyrian Empire and the builder of Nineveh, its capital, which, as was thought, was named after him. Since the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe takes place in Babylon, which was an important part of the Assyrian Empire, a mention of Ninus' tomb is useful local color.
The Greek versions of Assyrian history are, of course, completely distorted. There was no historical character such as Ninus. There was, however, an early Assyrian conqueror, Tukulti-Ninurta I, who reigned about the time of the Trojan War. His fame may have dimly reached across Asia Minor, and his long name could have been shortened to the first half of the second part, with a final s (which ended almost all Greek names) added.
… make an ass of me …
The mischievous Puck sees his chance to improve on the instructions given him by Oberon. He follows Pyramus offstage and works a charm that places an ass's head on his shoulders. When Bottom returns, unaware of the change, he finds that his frightened companions take one look at him and flee. Their cries to the effect that he is monstrously changed leave him puzzled. Finally, he says:
/ see their knavery.
This is to make an ass of me; to fright me, if they could.
– Act III, scene i, lines 121-22
Bottom, who, figuratively speaking, has proved himself all through the play to have an ass's head, now owns one literally; and he is as unaware of his literal ass's head now as he had been of his figurative one earlier.
But he remains lovable in his folly even now. Titania, who has had the juice placed on her eyes, wakes at this moment and at once falls in love with Bottom in his grotesque disguise. She places her retinue of tiny fairies at his disposal, and Bottom, taking it all as his due, allows himself, most complacently, to be worshiped and adored.
… the gun's report Delighted, Puck races to report the event to Oberon. He describes the scene when Bottom returns with his ass's head and the other workmen scatter and fly:
As wild geese that the creeping fowler eye,
Or russet-pated choughs, many in sort,
Rising and cawing at the gun's report,
– Act III, scene ii, lines 20-22
Either Puck can foresee the future with remarkable clarity or this is a particularly amusing anachronism-guns in the time of Theseus.
Oberon is pleased, but asks about the Athenian lovers, and Puck says he has taken care of that too.
But in comes Demetrius. He has found Hermia, who is berating him bitterly for having killed Lysander. Only Lysander's death could explain his having left her while asleep. She would not for one moment accept the possibility that he had crept away from her willingly:
/'// believe as soon
This whole earth may be bored, and that the moon
May through the center creep, and so displease
Her brother's noontide with th'Antipodes.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 52-55
The ancient Greeks were the first to realize that the earth was spherical in shape. (To be sure, they were not the Greeks of Theseus' time. The first who thought so lived seven and a half centuries after Theseus.) They realized that people who lived on the other side of the globe from themselves would have their feet pointing upward, so to speak, in the direction opposite from that in which their" own feet pointed.
The people on the other side of the globe would therefore be "antipodes" ("opposite-feet"). The name was applied to the other side of the globe itself as a result.
… the Tartar's bow
Demetrius desperately denies having killed Lysander, but Hermia scolds him fiercely and leaves. Demetrius, wearied, lies down to sleep. Oberon, seeing Puck's mistake, sends him angrily after Helena so that the mistake can be corrected. Puck, eager to calm his angry king, says:
/ go, I go; look how 1 go,
Swifter than arrow from the Tartar's bow.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 100-1
Europe, through its ancient and medieval history, has been periodically plagued by nomadic horsemen thundering west from the steppes of central Asia. The Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Avars, and Magyars each in turn terrorized European territories. The nomads won their victories through superior mobility; through the dash of their swift and hardy horses, from whose backs the riders shot arrows that galled their slower-moving European adversaries.
The last and most terrible of the nomadic invaders were the Tatars or Mongols, who in the first half of the thirteenth century conquered both China and Russia. In 1240 the speeding Mongol horsemen darted into central Europe, smashing every clumsy army of armored knights that was raised to stop them, and spreading ruin and desolation almost to the Adriatic.
Far back in central Asia their ruler died and all the Mongol armies (undefeated) swept back to take part in the decision as to the succession. In 1241, therefore, the Mongols left and, as it happened, never returned.
The Europeans, however, were long to remember the dreadful period of 1240-41. They called the horsemen Tartars, rather than Tatars, thinking of them not as men but as demons from Tartarus (see page 1-13). The Tartars' arrows remained in mind and Shakespeare could use them as a metaphor for speed (even though they had entered European consciousness twenty-five centuries after the time of Theseus).
… high Taurus' snow
Oberon places the juice on Demetrius' eyes and Puck brings back Helena as ordered. With Helena, however, is Lysander, still under the influence of the juice and still pleading love. Helena persists in thinking Lysander is making cruel fun of her. The noise they make wakes Demetrius, who is now also in love with Helena.
Demetrius addresses her in the most elaborate lover's fashion, saying:
That pure congealed white, high Taurus' snow,
Fanned with the eastern wind, turns to a crow
When thou hold'st up thy hand:
O, let me kiss This princess of pure white…
– Act III, scene ii, lines 141-44
Helena is obviously a fair-skinned blonde, which in medieval times rep resented an ideal of beauty. Her skin is whiter than the snows of the Taurus Mountains, a range in southeastern Asia Minor.
When the German tribes tore the western provinces of the Roman Empire apart, they established themselves as an aristocracy over a Celto-Roman peasantry. The Germans were taller than the Celto-Romans on the average, and faker. Over the centuries, therefore, fair skin, blond hah-, blue eyes, and tall stature came to be associated with aristocracy and beauty; the reverse with peasanthood and ugliness.
Helena, completely confused, decides that both men have combined for some insane reason to make fun of her. Then, when Hermia enters and acts astonished, Helena maintains that her old girlfriend has also joined in the joke.
… you Ethiope
Poor Hermia can make nothing of what is going on. All she knows is that she has found Lysander again, but that Lysander is acting most peculiarly. She approaches Lysander timidly to find out what it is all about, but the erstwhile tender lover turns on the poor girl savagely and says:
Away, you Ethiope!
– Act III, scene ii, line 257
The expression "Ethiopian" is from Greek words meaning "burnt faces"-faces that have been darkened by exposure to the sun. It was applied to the races living south of Egypt and was eventually used for African blacks generally.
Here, then, the same principle that brings about praise for Helena's fair beauty brings contempt for poor Hermia's darker complexion.
Hermia has trouble understanding this, but when she does she leaps at once to the conclusion that Helena has stolen her love. She cries out furiously about Helena:
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures; she hath urged her height,
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevailed with hint.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 290-93
She advances upon Helena, nails unsheathed, and Helena fearfully shrinks away as both men vie in protecting her.
The exasperated Hermia accepts every remark as a reference to her plebeian shortness and Lysander, sensing her sensitivity, throws the fact of it in her face, saying:
Get you gone, you dwarf;
You minimus, of hind'ring knotgrass made;
You bead, you acorn!
– Act III, scene ii, lines 328-30
Knotgrass, a common weed, was supposed to stunt growth if eaten.
Lysander and Demetrius, angered with each other over their common love for Helena, as earlier they had been over their common love for Hermia, stride offstage to fight. At this, Helena, left alone with Hermia, flees, and Hermia follows.
… as black as Acheron
Oberon is terribly irritated and virtually accuses Puck of having done all this deliberately. Puck denies having done it on purpose, though he admits the results have turned out fun.
Oberon orders him to begin mending matters:
… Robin, overcast the night.
The starry welkin cover thou anon
With drooping fog, as black as Acheron;
And lead these testy rivals so astray,
As one comes not within another's way.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 355-59
Acheron is the name of one of the five rivers which the classical writers described as encircling the underworld. For some reason, the name of this particular river came to be applied to the underworld generally, so that "Acheron" came to be a synonym for "Hades."
Once the night is made dark, Puck is to mislead Lysander and Demetrius, weary them to sleep once more, rearrange their affections, entice them into considering it all a dream, and send all four safely back to Athens.
… Aurora's harbinger
Puck agrees, but urges haste:
For night's swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora's harbinger;
– Act HI, scene ii, lines 379-80
Aurora (known to the Greeks as Eos) is the goddess of the dawn. She is the third child of the Titan Hyperion (see page I-ll), a sister of Helios, god of the sun, and Selene, goddess of the moon.
Her harbinger is the planet Venus, shining as the morning star and rising only an hour or two before the sun and therefore not long before the dawn.
Oberon agrees and Puck accomplishes the task, sending all four Athenians into a scrambling confusion that wearies them to sleep once more. He then anoints Lysander's eyes in such a way that when all four awake, all shall be straightened out. Or, as Puck says:
Jack shall have Jill;
Nought shall go ill;
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 461-63
"Jack and Jill" is a stock phrase for a man and his sweetheart or wife. Jack is clearly a generic name for a man generally, since it is so common (a diminutive of Jacob, which in one form or another-James in England, Hamish in Scotland, Jacques in France, lago or Diego in Spam and Portugal, and Giacopo in Italy-was an extremely popular name all over western Europe).
Jill is far less common and is usually considered a short version of Juliana. It was used, probably, because a one-syllabled girl's name starting with the J sound was needed, though it seems to me that Joan would have been more fitting. In any case, we ourselves know Jack and Jill primarily from the nursery rhyme that sends them to the top of a hill to fetch a pail of water.
Nor is this the only complication unraveled. Oberon meets Titania, who, in her entranced adoration of the ass-headed Bottom, freely gives up her Indian boy. She then has Bottom sleep with his long-eared head in her lap, and Oberon finally takes pity on her. He releases her from her spell and orders Puck to remove the ass's head from Bottom and send him back to Athens too.
And so at last are Oberon and Titania reconciled.
… with Hercules and Cadmus…
Now that the complications of the subplots are solved, Theseus and Hippolyta come on the scene again. They are following the hunt and Hippolyta says, in reminiscence:
/ was with Hercules and Cadmus once,
When in a wood of Crete they bayed the bear
With hounds of Sparta.
– Act IV, scene i, lines 115-17
The world of orthodox Greek myth comes swimming back. Hercules was indeed a contemporary of Theseus and the two are made companions in several myths.
Cadmus, in the legends, was a Phoenician prince. He had come to Greece in search of Europa, his sister. She had been kidnapped by Zeus in the shape of a bull and brought to Crete, where Minos was to reign and the Minotaur was to be found. As a matter of fact, Minos was the son of Europa.
Cadmus never found Europa (so that it isn't quite right to place him in Crete). Wandering in Greece itself, he founded the city of Thebes. The Greek legend has it that it was Cadmus who taught the letters of the alphabet to the Greeks. This is interesting since the alphabet did, in actual fact, originate with the Phoenicians and it is entirely appropriate that the Greeks be taught it by Cadmus, a Phoenician prince.
Sparta is mentioned in this passage too. In Theseus' time it was a city in southern Greece that was not particularly remarkable, though it was soon to become the home of Helen, whose beauty sparked the Trojan War. In later centuries Sparta was to become the most militarized and, for a time, the most militarily successful of the Greek cities.
… Thessalian bulls
Theseus says that his own hounds are of the same breed as the "hounds of Sparta" Hippolyta has mentioned:
… their heads are hung
With ears that sweep away the morning dew;
Crook-kneed, and dew-lapped like Thessalian bulls;
– Act IV, scene i, lines 123-25
Thessaly is a fertile plain region in northeastern Greece, much different from the rocky, mountainous area to the south where Greece's most famous cities, including Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth, were located. It would be naturally a place where horses would be useful and where cattle would be profitably bred. A Thessalian bull would be larger and better than a bull bred elsewhere in Greece.
The rite of May
In the wood, the hunting party, which includes Egeus, the father of Hermia, comes upon the four young people, still sleeping where Puck had left them.
Egeus frowns and begins to ponder on the meaning, but Theseus, depicted throughout the play as courtly and kind, quickly places a harmless interpretation on the matter. He says:
No doubt they rose up early to observe
The rite of May;
– Act IV, scene i, lines 135-36
May Day, the first of May, was a day of nature celebration in ancient times. Spring was definitely established by then; the greenery was growing; it was warm enough to spend the evening outdoors. It was a time for revelry and youth, and no doubt a time when the fertility of nature might best be imitated by the celebrants.
The Maypole about which the young people danced may well be what was left of a phallic symbol. Indeed, earlier in the play, Hermia had made use of just such an implication, perhaps. When she was terribly irritated at being scorned for her shortness, she turned on Helena and said,
How low am I, thou painted maypole? Speak!
– Act III, scene ii, line 296
Not only does Hermia in this way refer disparagingly to Helena as tall and skinny (and perhaps with as little figure as a maypole), but she also implies that the men, Lysander and Demetrius, are dancing about her with immoral intent.
Theseus' reference places the play well before Midsummer Day, by the way.
… Saint Valentine …
Perhaps Theseus is not unaware of the coarser ways of celebrating May Day, for as the hunting horns sound and the Athenian lovers rouse themselves, Theseus says, with light mockery:
Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past:
Begin these wood birds but to couple now?
– Act IV, scene i, lines 142-43
St. Valentine's Day is certainly past, for, as we all know, it falls on February 14. Valentine's Day commemorates the martyred death of St. Valentine on February 14, 270 (which makes it a terribly anachronistic comment in the mouth of Theseus)., The romantic symbolism of the day antedated the good saint. There is a folk belief that the birds began to mate on this day (which is what Theseus is referring to) and this may have initiated fertility rites in pagan days. The Church would attempt to transfer the rites to a Christian commemoration and soften them too, and the story arose that St. Valentine made anonymous gifts of money to help poor girls to a dowry that would find them husbands. Thus, he became the patron saint of romantic love.
The ferocious Egeus, hearing Lysander confess he had intended to elope with Hermia, calls for his death and the marriage of Hermia to Demetrius. Demetrius, however, confesses that he now loves Helena. Theseus, listening politely, decides that each loving pair is now to be married, Lysander to Hermia, and Demetrius to Helena.
Meanwhile Bottom also rouses himself, finds his natural head restored, dismisses his vague memories as a dream, and returns to Athens and to his mourning comrades. They are delighted to meet him and continue to prepare their play.
"The battle with the Centaurs…"
The time of the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta is now at hand. Theseus has heard of the events of the magic night in the woods and dismisses them as fantasy. He turns to the list of entertainments proposed for the wedding feast and reads off the first item:
"The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung
By an Athenian eunuch to the harp."
We'll none of that. That have I told my love,
In glory of my kinsman Hercules.
– Act V, scene i, lines 44-47
Centaurs were common monsters of Greek myths, composite creatures with the head and torso of men affixed to the body of a horse. They were supposed to have been natives of Thessaly. Perhaps the notion originated with the first sight of men riding horses. The southern Greeks, in their narrow valleys, having been unused to horses for generations, would find men on horseback in the plains of Thessaly when they marched northward in battle and tales of centaurs would drift back to stay-at-homes.
The centaurs were considered to be barbaric creatures of the senses, given to gross eating, to drunkenness and lechery. The chief tale in which centaurs are prominent involves the marriage of Pirithous, a friend of Theseus (he does not appear in this play but he has a minor role in The Two Noble Kinsmen, see page I-56).
Pirithous, who was of the Thessalian tribe of the Lapiths, invited his kinsmen and friends to the wedding, Theseus among them. He also invited a party of centaurs. The centaurs, however, drank too much and, in a drunken fury, created a disturbance and tried to carry off the bride. At once a fight broke out and the Lapiths, with Theseus' stanch help, drove off the centaurs, killing many.
It could not be this tale that was to be sung by the eunuch, for Hercules is not involved and Theseus refers to a battle with centaurs that redounded to Hercules' honor. But then, Hercules had several encounters with centaurs and won every battle.
Theseus here and in The Two Noble Kinsmen (see page I-58) refers to "my kinsman Hercules." They were both great-grandchildren, through their mothers, of Tantalus (see page I-13).
… the tipsy Bacchanals
A second item on the list is:
"The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals,
Tearing the Thracian singer in their rage."
– Act V, scene i, lines 48-49
The Thracian singer was Orpheus, who played the lyre and sang so beautifully that wild beasts were calmed and the very trees and rocks left their place to follow him. He married Eurydice, whom he deeply loved, and when she was bitten by a snake and died, he descended into the underworld to reclaim her. So beautiful was his music that he even touched the cold heart of Hades, who agreed to let him take Eurydice back, provided he didn't turn to look at her till he was out of the underworld.
They were almost out, the light of day was ahead, when Orpheus, suddenly fearful that he was being tricked by a counterfeit, turned to look and Eurydice slipped forever away from him.
He emerged to wander about inconsolably. He met a group of bacchanals, women engaged in the wild and drunken rites that celebrated Bacchus, god of the vine. When Orpheus seemed oblivious to them, they interpreted his sad silence as scorn. They tore him apart and threw his head into the river. It floated down to the sea, still singing as it went.
… / from Thebes.. .
Theseus gives his opinion of the Orpheus item curtly:
That is an old device; and it was played
When 1 from Thebes came last a conqueror.
– Act V, scene i, lines 50-51
The myths do contain accounts of a victorious war fought against Thebes by Theseus. As a matter of fact, that war plays an important part in The Two Noble Kinsmen (see page I-59) where it is fought immediately before the wedding.
"The thrice three Muses …"
A third item is:
"The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
Of Learning, late deceased in beggary."
– Act V, scene i, lines 52-53
Theseus dismisses that as a satire too sharp to fit a wedding ceremony.
The nine Muses ("thrice three") were daughters of Jupiter (Zeus) who were the goddesses of the various branches of learning.
Some critics have tried to pick out some particular person meant by "Learning" in this passage. It is suggested, for instance, that the reference is to the death of the Italian poet Torquato Tasso, who died in 1595.
However, it seems most likely that Shakespeare is merely poking fun at the chronic complaints in his time (and in ours, for that matter) that everything is going to the devil, that the great feats of the past will never be equaled, and that the public taste is degenerating. To show that this was felt even in Theseus' time would be amusing.
But then Theseus' eye catches the notice of the play about Pyramus and Thisbe, and though the master of the revels snobbishly dismisses it as the pathetic attempt of ignorant workers and Hippolyta expresses her nervousness over their possible failure, Theseus nobly indicates he will hear it and that nothing can be a failure if it is presented with honest good will and out of a sense of duty.
… like Limander …
Now Bottom and company present their play, which, in the actual practice, turns out to be lamer and more ridiculous than even the rehearsals had prepared us for. They mangle classical references, as when Bottom (Pyramus) says:
And, like Limander, am I trusty still.
– Act V, scene i, line 197
Flute (Thisbe) replies to this:
And I like Helen, till the Fates me kill.
– Act V, scene i, line 198
There is no "Limander" anywhere in the corpus of Greek legends. If Flute really means "Helen," that must be the famous Helen of Troy, that paragon of beauty who was the cause of the Trojan War (see page I-76). In that case, Limander must mean Alexander, which is one of the alternate names for Paris, who eloped with her.
On the other hand, it is more likely that by Limander, Bottom meant Leander, the well-known hero of the romantic tale of a lover who nightly swam the Hellespont to be with his love and who, one stormy night, drowned in the attempt. In that case the girl would be Hero, not Helen.
… Shafalus to Procrus.. .
Bottom (Pyramus) also protests:
Not Shafalus to Procrus was so true,
– Act V, scene i, line 199
This is a mangling of Cephalus and Procris, a rather affecting myth about a loving husband and wife. Cephalus, an ardent hunter, had a spear that never missed. He went out hunting early every morning and finally Procris decided to follow him to see if he might not be meeting another woman. Cephalus, heated with hunting, rested and called on the breeze to cool him. Procris, imagining he was calling a woman, sprang from her hiding place and Cephalus, in reflex action, threw his never-missing spear and killed her.
O Sisters Three
The Play of Pyramus and Thisbe ends with a pair of the most terrific death scenes ever seen as first Pyramus and then Thisbe commit elaborate suicide. Thisbe cries out in her turn:
O Sisters Three,
Come, come to me,
With hands as pale as milk;
Lay them in gore,
Since you have shore
With shears his thread of silk.
– Act V, scene i, lines 338-43
The "Sisters Three" are the Fates, who govern all events and whose edicts neither gods nor men can defy. There are three of them by the natural division of time into past, present, and future.
Clotho represents the past and she spins the thread of life, causing life to originate and an individual to be born. Lachesis guides the thread, representing the present and its events. Dreadful Atropos is the future, for she carries the shears with which she snips the thread and brings death.
The three Fates play a much more serious part in Macbeth (see page I-160).
… the triple Hecate's team
The play within a play ends with a dance and with its audience amused and ready for bed.
Nothing remains but the final bit of entertainment, supplied by the fairy band. Puck comes on the stage alone to say that with the coming of night once more the fairies are back:
… we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate's team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic.
– Act V, scene i, lines 385-89
Hecate was supposed to be one of the Titanesses in Greek mythology, but in the struggle that resulted in their supplanting by Jupiter (Zeus) and the other later gods, Hecate sided with Jupiter and remained in power. She was probably another personification of the moon.
There were three common goddesses of the moon in the later myths: Phoebe, Diana (Artemis), and Hecate. All three might be combined as the "triple Hecate" and Hecate was therefore frequently portrayed with three faces and six arms.
Later mythologists also tried to rationalize the difference in names by saying that Phoebe was the moon goddess in the heavens, Diana on earth, and Hecate in the underworld.
This connection with the underworld tended to debase her and make her a goddess of enchantments and magic spells, so that the fairies in following "triple Hecate's team" were following not only the pale team of horses that guided the moon's chariot (hence were active at night rather than by day) but also shared her power of enchantment and magic.
Her enchantments and magic made her sink further in Christian times until Hecate finally became a kind of queen of witches, and she appears in this guise in Macbeth (see page II-185).
Now in come Oberon and Titania with the rest of their fairies. They make their concluding pretty speeches, placing a good luck charm on all the couples being married in the play (and perhaps on the couple being married in the audience, if A Midsummer Night's Dream was performed to celebrate a marriage). Puck then delivers the epilogue and the play is over.
Nothing in the play indicates a tragic end to the love tale of Theseus and Hippolyta, and though it seems a shame to mention it after such a happy time, I will.
The Amazons, offended at Theseus' kidnapping of their queen, mounted an attack against him. They were defeated, but Hippolyta, fighting Amazonlike at the side of her husband, and against her own subjects of the past, was killed.