Πέμπτη, 26 Ιουλίου 2012

Fairy Folklore and Mythology in "A Midsummer’s Night Dream"

Fairy Folklore and Mythology in "A Midsummer’s Night Dream"

Oberlin Opera Theater's  "A Midsummer Night's Dream".  2007
Thought to be written in 1594 or 1595, “A midsummer’s Night Dream” is one of the most well-known plays of the literary world, perhaps due to celebrated fame of its author – William Shakespeare. Born in the mid 16th century, today Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest writer of the English language, with a repertoire of poems and plays that has achieved worldly prestige and has made him a literary figure.  “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” tells the story of Lysander and Hermia’s unpermitted love, along with Demetrius’ struggle to woo her despite him being the subject of Helena’s amorous obsession (Wells and Taylor XV, 401); however, the plot’s entertainment is attributed to a different set of juxtaposing characters that intervene in the affairs of these young lovers – the fairies. Drawn from European legend and folklore, Shakespeare took inspiration from a variety of fairy lore and mythology that makes itself present throughout the play.
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
Titania was very close to this Indian woman, as she narrates to Oberon how “in the Indian spice air by night/ full often hath she gossiped by [her] side/ and sat with her on Neptune’s yellow sand/ […][and how] her womb then rich with [a] young squire would […] sail upon land./[…] But she, being mortal, of that boy died/ and for her sake does [she] rear up her boy” (Shakespeare 407).  This Indian boy is the reason why Titania and Oberon are in a dispute, for “she never had so sweet a changeling, “causing jealously in fairy king (406). Occurring in almost every folklore in the world, a changeling is a term describing a human (usually a child) stolen away by the fairies, as well as the creature left instead of the human; in some cases, the child left could either be a sick fairy baby, or a piece of wood enchanted to look like a child (Illes 445). Furthermore, just as Oberon and Titania seem to have been inspired by ancient mythological figures, the Indian changeling boy is also thought to be of a similar origin; Thomas R. Frosch writes about the boy’s similarities to Bacchus – The Roman God of wine, celebrations, and ecstasy:
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
Finally, perhaps the figure most depicted as a traditional fairy, is the character of Puck; it is him who, at Oberon’s orders, plays out the role of cupid (The roman god of Love) by enchanting the young lovers and Titania with the droplets of a magical flower. We are introduced to Puck in the beginning of Act 2 scene1 as Robin, short for robin goodfellow, a mischievous sprite who “frights the maidens of the villag’ry” (406). The term robin goodfellow is recorded as early as 1531; however, etymologically, the name Puck derives from Puca, an old English term for a woodland sprit with many variant names throughout Europe. The Puca is a respected and feared fairy; in fact, Pouk was a medieval term for the Devil, and “Pouk's Pinfold” was synonymous for hell, putting in perspective the kind of presence the Puca imposed (Wright). This association with the Devil makes one believe that the Puca, and thus Puck as well, is rooted in the pagan figure of the horned god, an archetype covering deities such as Satan, Bacchus (Dionysus), Pan, Hermes, and Freyr. This idea is also supported by the fact that outside of Shakespearean work, robin good fellow was sometimes depicted as a “hairy goat-man, horned and hoofed, […] and son of Oberon [also known as Freyr- the horned Fairy King]” (Illes 579).

Modern Puck
Shakespeare’s Puck, just like the folkloric Puca, is also a shapeshifter: “Sometime a horse [he]'ll be, sometime a hound, a hog, a headless bear, [or] as fire” (411). Coincidentally enough, very much like what Puck turns the character of Bottom into, The Irish Phouka was sometimes depicted as a terrifying creature with the head of an ass (Wright,); Puck alludes to this, saying that sometimes he is a “bean-fed horse beguile”(406). His transformation into “Fire […] sometimes mislead[ing] night wanderers, laughing at their harm,” refers to the fairy’s depiction as a will’o wisp figure, leading travelers to disorientation or even death (411). In some storytelling circles, this folkloric figure was also depicted a house fairy, such as the Pwwka from Wales (Reynolds 25). This domesticity is reflected in the fact that Puck “skims[s] milk, and sometimes labours in the quern [grain-gridding stone],”and lastly when he sweeps the floor after the wedding (406). The figure of robin goodfellow  and Puck seem to be the result of the folkloristic morphology of the Puca fairy and its variants, combining the archetypes of a wild solitary being, a domestic figure, and trooping fairies belonging to the high courts of fairy aristocracy, yet still holding on to dark trickster attributes.
In analyzing the fairies of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, we are able to dig up the inspiration that Shakespeare used. This inspiration was directly taken from the fairy folklore of Europe, made with characters rooted in deep mythological archetypes. From Oberon’s origin as Fairy king, and Titania’s assimilation with Diana, to the Indian boy and Puck as derivations from previous deities, it is remarkable to see how literary elements can survive the test of time.