Proud Titania

April 26, 2010 at 7:38 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Analysis and Discussion, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

I love the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I love the magic, the beauty, the naughtiness of Puck, the haughtiness of Titania. There are some things that really baffle me, though.

Titania. She starts out so wonderful. She’s angry with Oberon. She has presence. She’s nobody’s fool and she’s not going to let Oberon push her around. She calls a spade a spade. She is angry with Oberon’s philandering (II.1.64-73).

When she talks about the impact of their quarreling, she speaks with such eloquence. She could have just said, “Our fighting is causing mayhem in the mortal world.” That’s how my small mind translates her beautiful words. What images!

And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
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. 

And then she continues with the beautiful, heartfelt explanation of why she cannot give the mortal boy to Oberon. Here’s my simplistic version: “I loved his mother and want to take care of him in her memory.” Here are the words Shakespeare put on Titania’s tongue:

Set your heart at rest:
The fairy land buys not the child of me.
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip’d by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following,—her womb then rich with my young squire,—
Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
To fetch me trifles, and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.

Luscious, isn’t it? The words and images are so beautiful. They speak to the character and strength of this fairy queen. I’m in awe of her!

And then it’s all downhill for Titania. It’s depressing. Oberon puts the love juice on her, she falls for the ass-headed ass, Bottom, she dotes on him. It’s embarrassing. She gives Oberon the mortal child with no fight. Then Oberon gives her the antidote to the love juice, she sees in horror that something awful happened to make her love an ass. And that’s that. The last we hear of her is this:

Come, my lord, and in our flight
Tell me how it came this night
That I sleeping here was found
With these mortals on the ground.

That’s it? No wrath from the proud Titania? What a letdown.

I understand there is some connection to how it goes between Theseus and Hippolyta. The notes in my edition point out that Theseus/Hippolyta and Oberon/Titania are parallel couples and often played on the stage by the same actors since they never appear on stage together.

I had to think this through a bit, because the connection is not obvious to me. For me, Hippolyta is almost a nonentity. She’s hardly present in the play. I only know she’s queen of the Amazons because it says so in the list of characters. I only know that Theseus captured her in war because it says so in the note… and Theseus says “I wooed thee with my sword” (I.1.16). She is a non-presence in the play.

And then I thought… maybe this is the point. This is how she parallels Titania. Hippolyta was the queen of the Amazons. She must have been a proud and powerful woman. Theseus subdued her and now he will marry her. She has nothing to say in the matter. She is tamed.

And so it goes with Titania. We just catch up with her a little earlier in the process. We see her at the height of her strength, we witness the war with Oberon, we see her downfall. She is tamed.

Both Hippolyta and Titania follow this path, but we only see it happen in the play with Titania. It is a sad turn of events for me. Of course I appreciate the comedy of Bottom in her love nest. But, she’s a drugged zombie.

I have to agree with John Fisk, screenplay writer and director of Picture This. Oberon deserved different consequences for his cavalier treatment of Titania. Watch John Fisk’s excellent video about adapting a Shakespearean play for more on his viewpoint about Oberon’s misogyny.

I will let it go at that. Titania’s character seems to have so much to offer us and then the payback is just comedy at her expense. I want more!

P.S. Oh my goodness, 2000 hits on my blog! Thanks for reading! Please keep commenting… your comments give me ideas to write about.

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  1. Tue Sorensen said,

    LOL! On reading your blog entry I can’t help recalling Puck’s words, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” No offense! 🙂 You see, the whole deal between Oberon and Titania is that they are symbols: they represent reason and emotion. Early on in that relationship (the general relationship between reason and emotion in any given person), emotion is undisciplined, uncontrolled, too ruled by passions. The process being chronicled by Shakespeare is the process of reason gradually grabbing hold of the reigns, so that we can be in control of our emotions. Theseus and Hippolyta represent the same thing, only in civil society, while Oberon and Titania are creatures of Shakespeare’s fanciful imagination about what reason and emotion would be like if they were writ large; if they represented and encompassed abstract truth and beauty – science and art, effectively! That is why Titania is so artful in her words.

    The same thing is going on in several of Shakespeare’s other plays, in different incarnations, probably most clearly in The Taming of the Shrew, where Petruchio’s reason is also quite literally taming Katherine’s undisciplined emotion – which she famously and controversially ends up thanking him for!

    Next comes the crucial rub: Is Shakespeare right? Is it really good for reason to completely dominate emotion? Many people today would say no. But most people don’t understand the true scope of Shakespeare’s reason, and the amazing potential of science that the Bard envisioned. By way of the truth of science, we are eventually going to come to know and understand ourselves completely. We will understand rationally how our emotions work, and this will quite naturally give us the ability as well as the inclination to control them. And that will be a far better thing than not controlling them. Because, once in control of our emotions, the first thing we would do would be to make ourselves and each other as happy as we could.

    The argument all rests on what human nature is like. Is human nature good, altruistic, empathic, philanthropist, charitable, and supremely social, whereas all the negative human traits we have all experienced are unnatural traumas caused by ignorance and insufficient or improper stimulation? You can bet that Shakespeare thinks so, and we had better get around to his view – the sooner we do, the sooner everything will develop in the right direction. So yeah, being in control of our emotions will be the ultimate emotional freedom, and we will have reason to thank for it. Shakespeare knows this, and presents it to us in a way that makes it attractive for us to inquire further into these questions, using whatever cultural substance (incl. science) is available to us.

    I don’t know if this convinces you, but… let me know what you think! 🙂

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      Ixnay. Nah-uh. I maybe buy the symbolism of art vs. science. Maybe, although I see T as art, but I do not see how O symbolizes science or rational thought. He’s an egotistical a-hole who wants his way, come what may. How is that rational thought/science?

      Also, I do not see T as undisciplined emotion gaining control over her emotions. She has empathy and love for the Indian child’s mother. Emotional, yes. Undisciplined? How?

      O wants the boy to serve as his henchman. How is this symbolic of rational thought/science?

      How does taming T via love juice = “the process of reason gradually grabbing hold of the reigns, so that we can be in control of our emotions”? She’s not learning through this experience. She’s simply subdued (through science! the chemistry of whatever’s in the flower juice! now I get the connection!).

      O is not a source of wisdom and rationality in my eyes. Selfishness, yes. I don’t get it. He does not personify wisdom/goodness for me.

      I’m not saying I’m not a fool! I am certainly quite foolish, so feel free to point that out any time. 🙂 And I have no understanding at all of symbolism in Shakespeare’s work, so thank you and keep posting about it…. I would like to hear more.

      I just don’t see what you’re saying here. If O is rational thought, then how is his anger at T and sophomoric love juice prank a rational thing or leading to a higher level of emotional understanding/love/peace in the world?

      The one thing I do see is that this explains why Theseus lets go of the law of Athens so easily at the end and lets Hermia marry Lysander, when it goes against Egeus’s wish. Otherwise that switcharoo makes little sense to me, so I buy that.

      Also with O, he becomes suddenly interested in blessing the newly married couples and making sure they have healthy children. This switcharoo seems odd to me, as well. Uncharacteristically altruistic. So I kinda see something happening there, too.

      But then O getting the Indian boy = all is well because the ultimate keeper of the ultimate beauty/truth is now in the hands of Mr Spock/Oberon? LOL

      Okay, I’m not saying you’re not right in some way I just don’t get, but ummm, I just don’t get it! Baffle me with more BS and see if it somehow becomes clearer.

      • Tue Sorensen said,

        This stuff is friggin’ hard to understand, so I’m not too surprised at your reaction. My ability to explain it may also leave something to be desired. But the reason Oberon is being selfish and arrogant is a way of showing how the academic disciplines of science and art are at each other’s throats about having the most right to claim primacy about the deepest questions that face humanity (the nature of truth and beauty). If you had some experience with academic mud-throwing between the various fields of study, you might see it a lot more clearly. Oberon and Titania are not pure forms of science and art (nor are they any kind of human beings; they are abstract entities), they are society’s established scholarly communities, with all that that entails of rivalry and backstabbing. Until, of course, they reconcile.

        “How does taming T via love juice = “the process of reason gradually grabbing hold of the reigns, so that we can be in control of our emotions”?”

        Well, what’s happening there is that Oberon is sending his chief scientist, Puck, out to find the material basis of love – in a way, to fetch the holy grail of science (which, even today, science has not yet identified. It is because Oberon can point to this flower that he, representing science/reason, can also identify the very essence of art/beauty). Remember, this is all symbolic of what this would mean in the real world. When Puck brings the flower back and starts putting it to use, the ensuing confusion between the lovers represent the confusion people will experience in a world where things like the precise chemistry of emotion has been discovered by science, but as yet only partially understood by people.

        To a great extent, what Shakespeare is actually writing are prophecies. He belongs to the poet/prophet school that has been known to exist since Antiquity, but whose representatives are very rare. His knowledge of human nature enables him to predict, in very broad strokes, what will happen when people start understanding human nature in more detail – because he already understands it. Mortal fools like us should not second-guess Shakespeare, because he has already seventh-guessed us. 🙂

        • orwhatyouwill said,

          Okay, I think we will have to accept that I will interpret things on a more superficial scale and you can post your philosophical/symbolic/big picture thoughts and I probably won’t understand, but it’s all fine!

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      And LOL I can’t wait to hear what you say about my cherry bomb post. 🙂

      • Tue Sorensen said,

        I will go read it now. 🙂

  2. Tue Sorensen said,

    Oh, and the Indian boy! He represents the struggle between art and science to be the ultimate keeper of the ultimate beauty/truth! Like religion, science and art also harbor ambitions to be the definitive source of truth/beauty. In the end, of course, truth *is* beauty, and beauty is extantly real (i.e. love is chemistry!), i.e. within the realm of science (Oberon). Do you follow? 😉

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