by Kristen McDermott
A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells the story of two kingdoms and two monarchs: Theseus of ancient Athens and Oberon of Faerie. They rule cheek–by–jowl, one in the city and one in the forest wilderness, connected not only geographically, but by their love for Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, a race of female warriors. As the play begins, Theseus is about to wed Hippolyta, having defeated her in battle, and Oberon is in the midst of a serious rift with his wife, Titania, the Queen of Faerie.So the human couple, who began in strife, has moved into amity, and the Faerie couple, having begun in love, has moved into deadly hate.
The bone of contention between Oberon and Titania is "a little changeling boy." Fairy changelings were particularly beautiful human children stolen by fairies, who then left a fairy infant in their place. The substituted child, often a defective specimen to begin with and unused to human food and nurture, would slowly sicken and die. This belief may well have served to explain the tragic real–life cases of children who failed to thrive, providing some measure of comfort to grieving parents.
Titania’s changeling boy, however, was not stolen but was willed to the Faerie Queen by a beloved human:
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 . . .
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 (2.1).
Oberon has asked Titania to give him the boy for his own entourage, either because he has no son of his own, or perhaps purely out of vanity. Titania denies him, but we are not sure why; perhaps she truly loves the boy, or perhaps she is tired of Oberon’s high–handed ways, or perhaps she is repaying Oberon for some infidelity. There is no source for this section of the play (and Shakespeare rarely created his tales from whole cloth), so we can presume Shakespeare had some particular point to make here about the relationshipsbetween the human and unseen worlds by complicating the relationship between Titania and Oberon.