This is the second of my posts on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, part of the Shakespeare Project that I started on this blog earlier this month. Read what that’s all about here. The first of these posts on Act I of this play is here. The summary and discussion below does contain spoilers so please bear that in mind when you read this.
Act II opens in the fairy realm, where Puck or Robin Goodfellow comes upon a Fairy, one of Titania’s entourage. Puck incidentally also appears in a much later collection of stories (two, in fact) Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910) by Rudyard Kipling, where he appears to two children, Dan and Una, and tells them stories from different periods of English history, many a time, through the voices of the characters themselves who he brings into the present.
Puck (right) in Puck of Pook’s Hill–Illustration by H.R. Millar
Source: By Harold Robert Millar (1869-1940)Restoration by Adam Cuerden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Anyway, back to the actual play now–the first scene opens with a conversation between Puck and Titania’s fairy, in which we learn of Puck’s mischievous nature, which leads to some interesting consequences for our other characters, particularly the humans. Besides being a jester of sorts to Oberon, King of the Fairies, Puck is also a prankster, playing pranks like pretending to be a three legged stool, which disappears just when the ‘wisest aunt’ is about to sit on it, toppling her over, and such. We also in this conversation learn of the dispute between Oberon and Titania, over a little Indian boy, who Titania has in her care, as the boy’s mother was her friend, a ‘vo’tress’ of her order and Oberon wishes to have as his page in his entourage. The quarrel is of course not so simple either with both parties having cause to complain of infidelities by the other in the past.
Oberon and Titania from the 1935 Film
Source:By Gilbert Seldes – https://archive.org/details/moviescomefrom00seld, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47511002
Oberon and Titania themselves come onto the scene, where they quarrel once again. Oberon tries to convince Titania to give up her little page, who for him is but a ‘changeling boy‘ for which Titania has no cause to ‘cross her Oberon‘. Titania of course will not, ‘Not for thy fairy kingdom‘! and leaves. But Oberon is angry, and plots his revenge (wanting to ‘torment’ Titania). He directs Puck to fetch a certain flower, ‘before, milk white, but now purple with love’s wound‘ (a consequence of cupid’s arrow hitting it), which maidens call ‘love-in-idleness’. If the juice of this flower is squeezed into sleeping eyelids, the person will fall madly in love with the first creature he or she sees when he or she awakes. He plans to squeeze some of this into his Queen’s eyes while she is asleep so that she falls for some vile creature she lays her eyes upon–‘Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull, On meddling monkey or on busy ape‘, and since he has the antidote as well, he hopes this will lead her to hand the page over while she is under it’s influence.
Just as he is making his plans, into the woods walks Demetrius with Helena in tow. By this point, Helena has told Demetrius of Hermia’s elopement (or her plans, anyway) and Demetrius has come in pursuit of Lysander and Hermia, and doesn’t want Helena to follow but she is adamant, and will continue to follow, come what may, caring neither for her name nor that Demetrius doesn’t care for her (or as he claims that he is ‘sick when I look on thee‘), prepared even to be treated as a dog kicked by its master. (Definitely wanted to give her a good shake or a couple of hard smacks but I’ll come back to that later).
Helena follows Demetrius-Alfred Fredericks (1874)
Source: By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Anyway, Oberon has overheard this conversation and feels for the ‘sweet Athenian lady‘ ‘in love with a disdainful youth‘ and directs Puck to squeeze some of the juice in this youth’s eye’s such that the next thing he spies will be the lady. But Puck must recognise him by his Athenian garments, and has no name or other description to go by. So when he does go looking for the Athenian youth, he comes upon not Demetrius and Helena but Lysander and Hermia. The latter two have lost their way in the wood and have settled down to sleep at night, but are sleeping apart from each other at Hermia’s insistence. Puck believes this indicates that this is the couple who don’t love each other, and by a honest mistake and no trick squeezes the magic juice into Lysander’s eyes (and really, with the idea that it is Hermia that he will see when he wakes).
Titania, queen of the fairies, has gone to another part of the wood with her entourage, and after assigning her fairies various jobs, is sung to sleep by her fairies. Drawn as I am to nature descriptions, this was one of the most beautiful scenes of this instalment for me to picture:
‘I know a bank where the while thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the noddling violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with lush woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine,
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight’
Titania asleep in the Woods by Arthur Rackham (1908)
Source: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
And it is here that Oberon heads and squeezes some juice into her eyes wishing that she will wake only when some vile creature is near her.
Meanwhile Helena and Demetrius pass by the place where Lysander and Hermia are resting, Demetrius still trying to shake off Helena which he manages to do, but with the result that it is she who comes upon Lysander and ends up waking him, and becoming the object of his affections. She of course, is unaware that magic is at work here, and feels she and her plight is being made a mockery of–not wanted by the one she loves and being ridiculed by one who is pledged to another. Lysander, under the spell heads off in pursuit of Helena, leaving Hermia alone. Hermia is in despair and wishes to find Lysander or her death immediately, and so closes this Act.
As in the first instalment (though I am not starting with the first thing that popped out at me), the thing, or rather character I can’t help commenting on is Helena. For someone reading (or writing) in this century, one can’t help but wonder why this person has absolutely no self-respect of any kind. May be on the one hand, one can see her love as so deep that she cares for nothing but her beloved, one can even accept that she continues to care for him when he doesn’t for her, but when she continues to follow (‘stalk’) him when she is clearly not wanted, and consents to be treated as a reviled object just so she can be close to him, it begins to get beyond the limits of acceptable.
And here is where I also found myself contrasting her and Titania, who does love Oberon, but isn’t willing to part with the little boy for his mother’s sake, and for her sake she looks after him. And there is Helena, quite willingly betraying her friend, for the sake of one who cares nothing for her. So if she is reviled and feels herself ridiculed, one might even think she deserves it.
When I wrote on the first Act of this play, it was the negative side of love, in terms of Hermia’s break with her father, Theseus’ wooing of Hippolyta with the sword, and Helena’s betrayal that I felt stood out. But this time around, part of the same lines of events was that other emotion that is (in a way) associated with love jealousy–Oberon is seen as feeling that even by Puck besides being accused of it by Titania. And apart from that quarrel about the little boy, one can clearly see other jealousies on both sides–each accuses the other of betrayal, including with Theseus and Hippolyta. Helena too, is seething with jealously as in the previous Act, wondering what it is that Hermia has or does that she doesn’t, including the secret of her bright eyes.
Then of course is the first thing that popped out at me. The little changeling boy, who isn’t named. I had completely forgotten, though I probably shouldn’t have that he was a little Indian boy. This has in fact been the subject of at least one m.phil thesis (only the abstract is available here). But it is interesting to think of this and the references to the ‘spiced Indian air’ and the (exotic) images these would have conjured up. There are complex questions of race and of imperialism thrown up and there has been writing on that (again only a preview here but a blog here) but I am not getting into those aspects. His role isn’t all that much, though he may be the pretext for their quarrel (which I realise now goes much deeper) but he does get us thinking about the explorers back then and about the search for and finding of India, and about the many colours and wonder the idea would have created.
But all of our players are still not in the wood. The Athenians rehearsing Pyramus and Thisby are still to enter the wood, and we do know some of what lies ahead for them. But all that in the text Act, and next post!