by Kristen McDermott
Shakespeare dramatizes such an encounter, but with a light comedic touch. Two sets of humans encounter and are transformed by the fairies: an unevenly–matched set of two pairs of lovers, and a group of rural artisans with delusions of theatrical grandeur. Hermia and Lysander are eloping to avoid the marriage her father has arranged; Hermia’s childhood friend Helena has followed Hermia’s rejected suitor, Demetrius, whom she dotes on one–sidedly. Touched by Helena’s misery, Oberon instructs Puck to anoint Demetrius’ eyeswith an herb that will make him love the next thing he sees (presumably Helena). Madcap Puck mistakenly anoints both Lysander and Demetrius, so that they both pursue Helena, leaving Hermia alone to grieve. Much confusion ensues before the lovers are sorted into their appropriate pairs.
Meanwhile, the amateur actors, led by loudmouthed Bottom the Weaver, are rehearsing "most obscenely" in the woods. For the sheer fun of it, Puck transforms Bottom’s head into an ass’s head, and, at Oberon’s instruction, anoints Titania’s sleeping eyes with the love–herb as well. She wakes to see the ungainly Bottom and immediately draws him into her fairy bower for a night of passion.
An interesting thing happens when Bottom is introduced to Titania. She is surrounded by fairy attendants, all of whom she orders to wait on Bottom. The ones who speak to Bottom are named Pease–Blossom, Mustard–Seed, Moth, and Cobweb. Titania’s orders draw attention to the fact that these nature spirits are tiny in size:
The honey–bags steal from the humble–bees,
And for night–tapers crop their waxen thighs
And light them at the fiery glow–worm’s eyes,
To have my love to bed and to arise;
And pluck the wings from painted butterflies
To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes:
Nod to him, elves, and do him courtesies. (3.1.150–6)
Yet Bottom is held in an inescapable embrace by Titania, always presented as a full–grown woman:
Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms,
Fairies be gone, and be always away.
So doth the woodbine, the sweet honeysuckle,
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.(4.1.37–42)
Titania promises Bottom, "I will purge thy mortal grossness so/That thou shalt like an airy spirit go." The fairies of Midsummer, like the Sidhe, are therefore multiple in form — tiny and large, corporeal and incorporeal — and the vivid imagery of the scene is designed to help the audience to make the imaginative leap from the sight of a group of English boy actors to the vision of a fairy queen and her train.
Shakespeare’s audience would have heard countless tales of mortals who wandered into the midst of the fairy revels and were met with an unimaginably rich and alluring scene of tempting foods, ravishing music, and beautiful beings all seemingly delighted to see the human in their midst. They would also know that almost all such tales ended when the mortal ate or drank the delicacies offered to him or her by the fairies, or accepted the erotic gifts of a fairy man or woman.Sometimes such acts brought the fairy vision to an abrupt end; sometimes they entrapped the mortal within the fairy realm forever, or at least for a long while. Bottom experiences a version of both fates. Titania holds him for a while by gentle force — "Out of this wood do not desire to go:/Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no." — but he also wakes suddenly to find himself restored to his own place and person, although forever altered by his experience.
After all the adventures are sorted out and Bottom and his friends are given their moment in the spotlight, the fairies return to bestow a final blessing on the multiple bridal beds. This is no mere formality, although it is a generous condescension by the reunited Titania and Oberon. The Faerie King promises that their blessing will ensure that the fruits of the wedding nights will "ever more be fortunate,"
And the blots of Nature’s hand
Shall not in their issue stand;
Never mole, hare lip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despised in nativity,
Shall upon their children be.(5.2.39–44)
They have the power to confer the luck of the Shining Ones upon mortal children. It is not a gift to be given lightly. Only a sense of noblesse oblige for so wantonly meddling in human behavior — never remorse, of course; fairies have no altruism — could make the King and Queen of Faerie give so greatly of themselves.
Puck has a final promise, however. He addresses the audience directly — "give us your hands, if we be friends" — pleading for applause in the same way Peter Pan does for Tinkerbell. Puck assures the audience,
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream. . .(Epilogue 1–6)
Was it all a dream? Is a play real, or not, or does it occupy some shadowland between the two realms, the real and the fantastic?