October 9, 2015

Midsummer Fairies

        We’re going to a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this evening, and since it is a fantasy story, I thought today I’d look at what kind of fantasy it presents.  It isn’t serious speculative fiction - there isn’t really much speculation at all, other than “What would be the silliest way to get a bunch of people to get mixed up for maximum situational comedy?”  Scholars think that Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the few (if not only) plays for which Shakespeare made up the plot himself instead of borrowing someone else’s story.  But he obviously didn’t spend a lot of time on in-depth consistent world creation!
        The first question is what kind of creatures his fairies are.  They’re described as climbing into acorn cups and being wrapped in the shed skin of a snake, yet obviously they appear on stage the size of normal humans.  Moreover, even if you had a special effects budget to film the play and make the fairies small, the fairies would have to be full human size in order to keep a human changeling in their train, have affairs with
humans, and cuddle amorously with Nick Bottom, all of which they’re described as doing.  So there’s a contradiction there.  The other contradiction comes in their powers.  Puck is his usual puckish self, doing small mischiefs such as curdling milk and teasing horses.  He also has the power to transform himself into other shapes, including a crab-apple and a stool, and he has the power to transform Bottom’s head into an ass’s, and to travel at superhuman speed like the Flash.  Not bad, but for the most part petty little powers.  Titania and Oberon, on the other hand, have the power, by their quarreling, to disrupt the entire climate and cause natural disasters as if they were gods rather than mere sprites.  These contradictions can be somewhat explained if we imagine that the fairy realm is divided into different grades of spirits: the king and queen (and perhaps other noble or high fairies) who are human-sized and extremely powerful, and the lesser fairies, including Peaseblossom, Moth, Cobweb, and Mustardseed, who are tiny and have lesser magic.  Puck is, perhaps, a middling sort.
        None of the fairies, however, has the power to make the mortals fall in love.  For that they need to borrow another sort of magic.  Oberon explains that a flower has become magical by being hit by Cupid’s dart - thus raising the question of how Cupid fits into this universe.  Presumably we have the traditional Greek gods with all their traditional attributes, in addition to the fairies with their assorted supernatural abilities.  A mermaid is mentioned, too, so we know there are potentially other magical beings in this universe, as well.
        The fantastical elements in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are not just stage-dressing.  The whole plot of the play is made possible by the magic of the flower playing havoc with who loves whom, and the magic of Puck, who runs around making sure everything happens at the right time and place, and having a little too much fun with magical mischief along the way.  So this certainly is a fantasy and not just a human plot in fairy’s clothing.  Still, it isn’t a particularly good fantasy, is it?  For all the magical trappings, it doesn’t really invite you to imagine anything beyond the everyday world, and it’s always the simple, all-too-human tradesmen who steal the show.  But then, perhaps that is a true speculative fiction theme after all: how ordinary people can encounter the unknown, incomprehensible Other, and the different ways they can respond.  In any case, I’m really looking forward to the production tonight.  After all, it’s all in good fun, from the lovers’ overblown arguments to the “Mystery Science Theater 3000”-style play-within-a-play.  What can we do but smile and agree with Puck, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

[Pictures: Titania and Bottom, illustration by Paul Konewka, 1868 (Image from Book Graphics);
Costume design for Moth from Augustin Daly’s 1888 production (Image from the Folger Shakespeare Library);
Costume design for Oberon (But he looks like a Bishop Fish, doesn’t he?) from George Devine’s 1954 production (Image from Claremont University);
Puck, woodcut from 1825 edition by W. Harvey (Image from the British Library);
Puck meets a fairy, illustration by W. Heath Robinson from 1914 edition by Constable & Co;
Fairies at the feast, illustration by W. Heath Robinson from 1914 edition by Constable & Co (Images from The Pictorial Arts).]

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