Male Magic: A Midsummer Night's Dream
See also A Midsummer Night's Dream Criticism (Volume 29), and Volumes 45, 58, 82.
Irene Dash, Hunter College of the City University of New York
And with the juice of this I'll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.
Whether in the fantasy world of the forest or the equally fantastic world of Athens on a midsummer night, this play reveals how power, particularly political power, impinges on and shapes women's lives. Ranging from queens—Hippolyta, a character taken from mythology, and Titania, belonging to the fairy world—to youthful Athenian maidens in love, to a parodic heroine in an entertainment for the Duke's guests, these characters illustrate women's varied reactions to the imposition of power. One seems to adjust; one discovers new facts about herself; one serves as a lens for looking at the larger world; and one significantly reveals the tragic dimensions of the loss of power. Least mortal and yet seeming in her speeches and attitudes to mimic the mortal world, the fairy queen illustrates most clearly the loss of self—the abdication of autonomy—that may follow a woman's being victimized, even by fairy power.
In developing the early emotional relationship between her and Oberon, the fairy king, Shakespeare seems to have drawn on the world around him for models. Thus when Titania refuses to comply to Oberon's demands, he vows in pique and jealousy to "streak her eyes" with magic juice "and make her full of hateful fantasies" (II.i.257-58). Moreover, moments before he carries out his threat, he becomes more explicit:
Be it ounce, or cat, or bear,
Pard, or boar with bristled hair,
In the eye that shall appear
When thou wak'st, it is thy dear:
Wake when some vile thing is near.
In fact, she does wake and call some "vile thing" her "dear." How then do we interpret this? Is it the act of magic that forces her to "fall in love" with an ass, or at least with a character who has been temporarily transformed into an ass? Or are we to accept much of the criticism that suggests her erotic desire for the ass reflects her true nature—the nature of woman? Does Titania at this moment "awaken from her dream," look at the monster, and desire him, as Jan Kott (228) suggests? Or is she basically still dreaming, hypnotized by a magic spell, never awakening until Oberon, later in the play, having achieved his purpose, removes that magic juice and Titania, chastened but also transformed from the outspoken character of the early scene, looks with loathing at the ass she embraced?
Although her disagreement with Oberon lies at the heart of the play, Titania does not enter until the beginning of the second act. Instead, Shakespeare first introduces other women more clearly caught in situations of political or social subordination than the fairy queen: specifically Hippolyta, the captive Amazonian queen; Hermia, the rebellious Athenian daughter; and Helena who, in her complete self-denigration, illustrates more indirectly the impact of patriarchal power on women. Interweaving a third plot strand culminating in the performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe," the comedy also provides a dual vision of women in patriarchy near the play's close. Parodying the tragic results of arbitrary parental power, this play-within-a-play in its metadramatic dimension offers insights into the mainly silent women, now married, in the audience.
Artistically, the dramatist weaves a complex multifaceted plot that exposes the political and domestic challenges confronting women while creating situations that throw us into the world of comedy. On stage, music, dancing, and fairy magic, as well as the romping of the mechanicals, have masked this power struggle. In criticism, the lure of the poetry, the concept of "topsy turvy," the illusion of dreams, and theories of mythology have often tended to blur any interest in the domination of women. Some critics have even proposed that the play was written specifically for a wedding although none has yet...
(The entire section is 16,600 words.)