Don’t Underestimate Midsummer Madness

Edwin Landseer, "Midsummer Night's Dream"

Today is the summer solstice (one of only two times this decade when it falls on June 20), giving me an excuse to write about Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ve been thinking a lot about the play recently as I’m putting together a British fantasy literature course for the fall.

Midsummer night’s eve, seen by the pagans as a time when the world was particularly susceptible to supernatural visitations, still captured the imagination centuries after Christianity was established. Governed by the natural calendar, it spoke to beliefs and needs that Christianity failed to. One sees a clash between the two cultures in a number of medieval works.

For instance, in Sir Gawan and the Green Knight, a natural green man is pitted against Christian Camelot. In the Wife of Bath’s tale, meanwhile, Alison slams begging friars or “limitours” (one of whom, the lecherous Huberd, having just insulted her) for banishing fairies, elves, and incubi from the world:

NOW IN THE OLDEN days of King Arthur,
Of whom the Britons speak with great honour,
All this wide land was land of faery.
The elf-queen, with her jolly company,
Danced oftentimes on many a green mead;
This was the old opinion, as I read.
But now no man can see the elves, you know.
For now the so-great charity and prayers
Of limitours and other holy friars
That do infest each land and every stream
As thick as motes are in a bright sunbeam,
Blessing halls, chambers, kitchens, ladies’ bowers,
Cities and towns and castles and high towers,
Villages, barns, cowsheds and dairies—
This causes it that there are now no fairies.
For where was wont to walk full many an elf,
Right there walks now the limitour himself
In both the later and early mornings,
Saying his matins and such holy things,
As he goes round his district in his gown.
Women may now go safely up and down,
In every copse or under every tree;
There is no other incubus than he,
And would do them naught but dishonour.

Shakespeare tapped into the rich tradition in Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595), and his play itself was wildly popular in Victorian and Edwardian times. In Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), for instance, Puck is all that is left of  “the people of the hills,” but he is called forth by children reciting passages from the play in a fairy circle and introduces them to figures from pre-Christian England. In her recent novel The Children’s Book, A. S. Byatt shows members of the Bohemian set celebrating the summer solstice with an annual reenactment of the play.

Byatt’s characters are drawn to the pagan rituals and the play because of their dissatisfaction with dull bourgeois pragmatism, sterile science, and the nature-destroying aspects of industrialization. But although the the Victorians were in love with supernatural beings, their fairies, unlike Shakespeare’s were cute and fairly harmless. Children, seen as a emissaries of Wordsworth’s innocent nature, often played the attendant fairies in theatrical versions of Midsummer Night’s Dream and still do today. Perhaps when we think of the play, Mendelssohn’s music plays in the background.

Elizabethan England would have seen fairies as darker forces. After all, being less technologically advanced, the Elizabethans couldn’t be as enthusiastic as Byron and other Romantics were about untamed nature. Floods like those caused by Titania’s and Oberon’s domestic quarrel would have been no laughing matter:

But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: 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:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

Nor it it only non-human nature that is out of control in the play. Human nature also has descended into midsummer madness. For instance, we watch as natural desire

–propels Helena to abase herself before Demetrius: “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”;

–causes Lysander to make moves on Hermia and then to abandon her in the woods: “What, should I hurt her, strike her, kill her dead? Although I hate her, I’ll not harm her so”;

–pits Lysander and Demetrius in a deadly battle against each other for the affections of Helena;

–pushes Titania (as Shakespeare scholar Jan Kott has pointed out) towards bestiality;

–results in babies deformed by moles, harelips, scars, and other “prodigious” marks.

Fortunately, this being a comedy, nature prove benign in the end. Oberon reconciles the lovers, sorts things out with his wife, and promises good births.

But reading the play today or thinking about pagan solstice rituals, we may overlook their power. When one seems to be in control of nature and regards fairies as nothing but quaint superstition, one can afford to be sentimental.

This entry was posted in Byatt (A.S.), Chaucer (Geoffrey), Kipling (Rudyard), Shakespeare (William), Sir Gawain Poet and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


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