Fairy Folklore and Mythology in "A Midsummer’s Night Dream"
|Oberlin Opera Theater's "A Midsummer Night's Dream". 2007|
This magical influence is referenced before one even reads the play; Midsummer’s Eve is a celebration of pagan origins intended to coincide with the summer solstice. In Gaelic folklore, the hours between dusk and dawn are said to be closer to the underworld and a special time when fairy activity is at its peak. This time was also said to be a period for witches to harvest magical plants (Illes 212); correspondingly, it is during this time that Oberon asks Puck to fetch him that love-bewitching flower that turns the play into a love comedy. Oberon and Titania are the king and queen of fairy land who are introduced as having a personal dispute with each other; both entities are depicted as each keeping a multitude of servants: “Enter Oberon […] with his train, and Titania […] with hers” (Shakespeare 406). They seem to mimic and contrast the uncaring Athenian aristocratic society; falling under the category of trooping fairies, these entities can be “subdivided into the Heroic Fairies [who] are the aristocracy of fairyland. They have as a rule a king and queen, and they pass their time in the manner of the medieval nobility” (Biggs 270).
The characters of Oberon and Titania are rooted in deep mythological origins. Oberon sees its origins during the 5th- 8th century as a translation for Alberich, a sorcerer in Merovingian mythology; however, he can also be referred as Freyr or Ing, the fairy king god of Norse and Germanic mythology, a figure far older than Alberich (Swarthmore college). Titania, on the other hand, is associated with the goddess Diana, as Thomas R. Frosch writes:
Titania is a name Ovid uses for Diana. Another of Diana’s names appears in the lovers’ plan to escape into the forest “when Phoebe doth behold / Her silver visage in the wat’ry glass”. The moon goddess Diana, in addition to being a virgin goddess of the forest, was also a goddess of childbirth, and she was originally one of the great Near Eastern mother goddesses. (Frosch 489)
Going beyond the role of royalty, Oberon and Titania are also portrayed as semi-primordial beings, as demonstrated on act 2 scene 1 where their discord causes imbalances in nature, causing the wind to rise, the river to overflow, and the harvest to rot (407). Additionally, Titania mentions an Indian women who was “a vot’ress of [her] order”, alluding that she and Oberon are capable of human devotion, placing them beyond the role of simply fairies to that of gods and goddesses (407).
|Bacchus by Caravaggio 1595|
Pyramus and Thisbe, in the 1567 Golding translation of Ovid that Shakespeare used, live in “the East”: “So faire a man in all the East was none alive as he, / Nor nere a woman maide nor wife in beautie like to hir”. Their story is embedded in the story of Bacchus and is told by three sisters who would not countenance “The Orgies of this newfound God” and even denied his divinity. Ovid calls Bacchus “puer aeternus”, or as Rolfe Humphries translates, “A boy forever.” Golding also tells us that “all the East” obeys him “as far as Ganges goes,” and he calls him Niseus, the one from Nysa in India, where the god spent his infancy; Humphries calls him “The Indian”. Here is another meaning of the Indian boy of Shakespeare’s play. Bacchus is, in Golding’s rendering, “Twice borne, the sole and only childe that of two mothers came”; after his original mother, Semele, was destroyed by the glory of Zeus, the fetus was sewed into Zeus’s thigh, and after his birth he was cared for by Semele’s sister and the nymphs of Nysa. In having two mothers, Bacchus is like the Indian boy, who has both birth mother and Titania. (Frosch 506).
|Robin Goodfeelow (Puck). 1639|