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KRONOS Vol VI, No. 1
"THE SEASONS ALTER": CATASTROPHISM IN A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
Copyright (c) 1975, 1980 by Irving Wolfe
Comic drama is to be found throughout Western culture. We seem to be continuously compelled to produce it, as if there existed a comic urge throughout our civilisation, a need to express experience as comedy. This essential need must therefore be significant. Elsewhere, I have advanced the theory that enduring narrative art conveys in code, at a subtextual level, a racial knowledge which is important but troublesome, and that we create art with such knowledge as its skeleton because it is a way in which our racial past can talk to our temporal selves. In this paper, I shall analyse William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to demonstrate that it is an example of narrative art whose bedrock is racial.
On the surface, the play appears to be a typical public comedy of its time, light, fanciful and gay, intended mainly to amuse. A significant portion of recent criticism has treated it in just this manner. Yet, other critics have argued that it is highly serious beneath the surface, like all enduring comic drama. Certainly, this play has a power that persists, that has evoked a response well beyond its own period and culture. I suggest that one reason why such a simple and indeed silly tale of confused young lovers and a magic forest should exercise such attraction lies in the action as racial code, that the way in which we respond to this code is subconscious, and that the full nature of our subconscious response can only be appreciated in terms of the ideas of Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky.
It is therefore necessary to emphasise the primitive and ritualistic dimensions of the play. If we look at man's art globally, as Jung looked at man's dreams, we discover certain archetypes of action and situation produced virtually everywhere in human history.(l) We may conclude, as Jung did with dreams, that man as a species shows a tendency to produce such narrative archetypes.
One of these archetypal patterns is the fertility play, a genre whose roots go very far back into our past and which is accessible to any understanding from the most aboriginal to the most sophisticated because it embodies certain action sequences and characterial relationships which are universally understood and responded to. In the typical fertility play, we are presented with an opening situation which appears to be stable, but contains within itself the seeds of dangerous disruption. There is usually a conflict which has reached an impasse and threatens to cause upheaval.
Then, typically in Shakespeare's fertility plays, a certain person who functions as a catalyst is dropped into the impasse, and his or her acts set a sort of chemical reaction in motion. The oppositions crystallise and the play is propelled into its second phase, a period of turbulence and confusion, of rapidly changing alignments, of a search for suitable bonding, of imminent if comic danger. Things appear to grow insoluble, indeed almost disastrous, when a new factor is introduced which permits all to be sorted out in the third phase. Here, everything that had to happen to achieve a happy ending does, and everything that had to be prevented for the same reason is.
I would therefore suggest that Shakespeare's fertility comedies may be seen as dividing organically into three parts, or, as George Rylands calls them, movements, one ensuing from the other in a rather Hegelian sequence sensed to be natural and inevitable. The pattern is basically potential disorder to much, much to almost total, and then all is sorted out.
In Shakespeare's comedy, the center of values is always and principally society. Everything occurs for the welfare of the tribe, the group. In primitive terms, the life of the tribe is threatened at the beginning by dangers within it. The tribe, to guarantee its continued fertility, must maintain a harmony with the divine and the natural, which are the major factors affecting physical existence. This means that every member must play his role in support of such harmony. Of particular importance is mating and reproduction, especially among those at the top, which must occur between those clearly deserving to be marriage partners, and under the most auspicious circumstances.
All of this, which means the very life and future of the tribe, is threatened by the original situation, where power is in the hands of those no longer able to rule, and the wrong pairs are urged to mate at the wrong time, under the wrong circumstances. Of course, things must be altered before any irreparable damage has been caused to the future of the tribe.
In the second part of a romantic Shakespearian comedy, therefore, the confusions and turbulence take the form of dangers of identity, dangers of insufficient self-knowledge, dangers of irresponsible sex, and, comically, the danger of death. That is to say, all of the things which must be avoided for the welfare of the tribe threaten to happen, and none of the things which must be achieved the purgation of youthful excess, of immaturity, of uncontrolled sexual response, of a facile tendency to bravado and recklessness and violence appear likely. There is always a guiding force, however, which steers things in the right direction, and, at the end, when all has worked out well, the period of turbulence is seen as a time of ordeal, of testing and of purgation, by which those who survive doff their childishness and undergo a process of change, of maturation, of individuation, if one may borrow the term, whereby they have been made ready to become responsible adult members of their tribe. One might say that, for the young lovers of a Shakespearian comedy, the action of the play is a sort of ritual initiation into adulthood, set in a context of affirmation of tribal harmony with the forces which control and thus guarantee life and fertility. It is not an individual who triumphs; rather, it is tribal death which has been avoided, and tribal life which has been assured.
Such a statement, however, is incomplete, for it is generally agreed that the fertility play does not deal strictly with man and society, but rather with man's society in relation to nature and the supernatural.(2) Now, if one accepts the theory of catastrophes, a true picture of nature must include both its order and disorders. Equally, nature must be shown to be controlled by the planets, which constitute the true supernatural. This paper will argue that dramatic comedy of the fertility type is a vehicle of meaning developed unconsciously by Western man to acknowledge indirectly these cosmic truths we cannot directly face. The action of a fertility play is therefore not "mythical" in the sense of false, but mythical as a contrived representation of natural phenomena.
Concerning A Midsummer Night's Dream specifically, it will be argued that the passage from decline to rebirth, from confusion to order, the turbulent ordeal and joy of survival, are symbolic of the events described in Worlds in Collision . They will be shown to be particularly symbolic of the most recent set of catastrophes, ca. -747 to -687, when an interaction between Mars, Venus, Earth and Moon produced a period of terrifying blazing darkness punctuated by frenzied movements, ugly noise and rapid changes in electromagnetic attraction. The historical result, after the heavens settled down, was an altered topography complemented by a new political and intellectual order throughout the world, with the establishment of Rome, the Greek city states, Israel of the later Prophets, late Mayan and Brahmanic cultures and the ascendance of rationalism in Western thought, codified in Aristotle. It is this passage from natural chaos to order and ideological chaos to rationalism, of which we all possess an innate racial knowledge, which is echoed in the play.
To apply this directly to A Midsummer Night's Dream , we must look first at the plot. It is a structure of four levels, from a group of yokels at the bottom to the world of fairy spirits at the top. It is set in ancient Athens, and the pivotal event about which the action occurs is the forthcoming marriage of its leader, Duke Theseus, to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, with whom he had previously been at war. In fertility terms, Theseus' union with Hippolyta will bring political peace through reconciliation with a former enemy, and thus ensure the continuation of his dynasty. It is thus critically important for the future life of Athens that the marriage of its young leader occurs under the most auspicious circumstances.
The play opens four days before the nuptials. Theseus is impatient to enjoy his bride, but he must wait for the new moon, the right time for new beginnings and fertility, before he can ease his sexual frustration.(3)
Hippolyta politely but firmly tells him he must wait.
Her reply is full of unconscious sexual ironies having to do with frustration, with nightly dreams, with Theseus, frustrated, like a bow which is bent and ready to shoot, but not released.
We shortly meet two sets of young lovers, whose combined story occupies most of the action of the play. There are two young men, Lysander and Demetrius, and two young women, Hermia and Helena, in a situation of love thwarted by obstacles. With regard to the first pair, Lysander and Hermia, he loves her and she loves him, but her father Egeus will not approve of the marriage, wishing his daughter to marry Demetrius instead. As for the second pair, Demetrius and Helena, she loves him but he does not love her, preferring Hermia instead. Thus,there is an obstacle in the case of each pair. This is presented in the following diagram as
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Egeus, angry at having his authority challenged, hales his daughter Hermia and her lover Lysander before Duke Theseus and demands justice. The Duke tells her she must obey her father and marry Demetrius, or become a celibate priestess, or be executed. When they are left alone, the two lovers decide to flee to some nearby woods and make their way thenceforth to Sparta, where they will be free to marry. They reveal their secret to Helena, thinking her an ally, but she, in an attempt to gain favour, tells it to Demetrius, whereupon he vows to pursue the lovers into the forest to thwart their plan.
We thus have four young people fleeing Athens for the forest - Lysander and Hermia wishing to elope, Demetrius the rival wanting to stop them, and Helena wanting to be near Demetrius. At the same time, a group of comic yokels, preparing a rather inept play in honour of Theseus' forthcoming wedding, also decide to go to the woods, where they may rehearse secretly and so avoid the throngs of admirers whom, they are certain, would otherwise dog their heels.
So ends the first act. By this point, we have met all the different levels of mankind in the play, from the yokels at the bottom, to the four noble young lovers, to Theseus and Hippolyta. We then move to the woods to meet the highest level of creation, the world of the fairies ruled by Oberon and his queen Titania; and Oberon's attendant spirit, the mischievous bubbling Puck, fills in the rest of the picture.
As he explains it, an argument has developed between Oberon and Titania concerning one of Titania's attendants, whom Oberon wants as part of his train. As a result there is discord in the fairy sphere.
This description is replete with romantic and fertility symbols the sacred grove, the magic green, clear water as the source of life, starlight as the natural environment of true love but these areas, which should be blessed by a united fairy world so they can transmit their life-enhancing virtues to Athens, are now the setting for wrangling and arguments. As
a result, the fairy world, with which Athens should be in harmony, cannot perform its fertility function because Oberon and Titania are not united. When they meet, he greets her rudely, and she replies
We can thus see that the crisis of the male being separated from the female he wants applies throughout the whole world of Athens, human and spiritual. Theseus wanting Hippolyta and being told he must wait, Lysander wanting Hermia and being told by her father that he cannot marry her, Helena wanting Demetrius who rejects her, and now Oberon and Titania not mating as they should the reiteration at all levels becomes a metaphor which delineates a situation of total infertility which has seized Athens' world the moment before its leader is to wed. All the males are like bows tightly drawn, but with nowhere to shoot. In fertility terms, if Theseus is to marry under such circumstances, both leader and tribe will be cursed. There is a danger of the annihilation of the tribe.
As a result, the country is under a pall. Its communal life appears desolate, for Theseus is forced to command his master of the revels
In a country like Elizabethan England, which was given to dazzling and elaborate pageantry on state occasions, Shakespeare writes a play in which, four days before a royal marriage, the monarch must plead for youth to be merry, mirth to be awakened, and melancholy to be thrown out as more suitable to funerals. Things are not well in Athens.
There is special significance, however, to the malaise of the city. It is not simply social, nor political; it is cosmic. It infects every level and dimension of Athens' existence, both terrestrial and celestial, physical and metaphysical. Titania sets forth the extent of that predicament in a long speech to Oberon, in which she explicitly blames him and herself. We shall look at that speech and then compare it to a summary of Velikovsky's ideas taken from the journal Pensée. What we shall find is that they are astonishingly similar, almost as if Shakespeare had had a copy of Worlds in Collision at his elbow when he composed the play or at least Pensée' s summary of it. What will be argued is that, if the predicament Titania describes is consistent with the cosmology of Worlds in Collision , the fairy world and the earthlings it affects are symbols for the planets and our globe.
Here is Titania's speech.
That is to say, since the time when the crops begin to grow and thus need sunshine and water, the meetings of Titania and Oberon in appropriate places of fertility such as water fountains, mountain brooks, and the strip of beach which is neither land nor water, where they must dance in magic circles to the music of the peaceful wind to assure good growing weather, have been disturbed. The result is chaos.
The winds can bring life, or destruction. Here, where the natural order of which Oberon and Titania are a crucial part has been broken by their clash, the result is destructive. The winds have caused great rain clouds to form, which have rained so heavily that there has been wide-spread flooding. It must be pointed out that, in Shakespeare, one of the most horrendous images he can think of to portray chaos is that of water swelling arrogantly beyond its appointed limits and usurping the domain of the land.
As a result, all cultivation the main basis of primitive life in addition to hunting has become impossible.
Planting has been made futile, the young grain needed to sustain life has decomposed before reaching full ripeness, which is another major Shakespearian image of waste, and no cattle are able to be raised, so that scavenger birds instead of men eat the carcasses of the dead feed animals. The basis of settled agrarian civilisation has been demolished.
With this gone, all signs of human order disappear.
The vestiges of human civilisation, as in a long-forgotten archaeological site, are almost obliterated, because people have no time or inclination to sport. Neither are they inclined to worship, with further worse results.
The consequences continue to grow, in a proper Renaissance progression from the particular to the general, until the last image, which is one of universal chaos.
Here we have reached cosmic chaos. Winter follows spring, summer follows winter, and no man knows season or time; and the blame for all this is to be laid squarely at the feet of Titania and Oberon.
Discord in the heavens has caused universal disorder on Earth.(4)
This is very similar to the events Velikovsky describes in Worlds in Collision , when the disorder of the heavens caused first by Comet Venus and later by a disturbed Mars seriously disrupted the natural order on Earth. Here are a few extracts from Pensee's summary of the Velikovskian events, for comparison with Titania's speech.
It is easy to see that these events are almost identical to the natural disorders enumerated by Titania. It need only be added that such disorders have been traditionally perceived as having a planetary cause.
For example, Plutarch describes deranged seasons accompanied by gloom and disordered stars, wind and fire in the sky and a wandering Sun, and attributes this to the unruly Typhon, whom Velikovsky identifies as the tail of the comet Venus,(7) while the Chinese complain that
"The breath of heaven is out of harmony.... The four seasons do not observe their proper times."(8)
The Oraibi Indians of Arizona and the Incas also remember a period of darkness during which alterations in the courses of the stars and planets disrupted the seasons and time,(9) while a passage from an ancient Taoist manuscript virtually echoes the words of Titania.
We cannot avoid the conclusion that the natural condition of Athens at the beginning of Shakespeare's play is at the very least an unconscious echo of similar natural conditions described in ancient writings from every quarter of the globe, and associated in each case with planetary disorder. The surface tone may be comic, but the political and especially natural contexts are potentially quite serious.
Much else leads one to conclude that A Midsummer Night's Dream is a weather-dominated play. The entire action is controlled by the conditions of the elements, with everyone responsive to it. Indeed, the weather may be described as a giant force which lies immediately behind the play's local events. Most of the action takes place outdoors, under moonlight and then a heavily overcast sky. What is done is colored by a waning moon, a symbol of decrepitude. There are references to starlight and darkness and dewdrops and tempests. This makes the story elemental in the basic sense of that word, a tale about man in relation to the elements. But the weather has a larger significance it functions as a symbol of the connection between man and the cosmos. This play is a cosmological fable which establishes a perspective between Earth and Heaven, society and nature, time and eternity, in which man and nature are presented as innately connected, as in fact one under divine control.
Support for the idea that the play is centred about man in relation to the elements is to be found in an article which contains a very thorough analysis of the weather in England before and during Shakespeare's lifetime.* In "Nor Heaven Nor Earth Have Been at Peace: The Contemporary Foundations of Shakespeare's Cataclysmic Imagery," Richard Jaarsma and Edward Odenwald conclude that the half-century from 1550 to 1600 was one of violent, extreme and unpredictable aberrations in the weather.
Among the huge number of disturbances, they cite meteors, rain and flooding, rivers changing their courses, herds of oxen drowned, hail, cold and snow, terrifying lightning, enormous devastation of grain fields, extended frosts in 1572, from November to the following March without interruption drought and famine, comets and eclipses, blazing stars, earthquakes, flaming skies, storms, flood tides and planetary conjunctions. They link this to sun-spot activity, arguing that an increase in the second half of the sixteenth century caused frightening and destructive movements of the Earth.
Worlds in Collision , of course, is replete with such evidence from every corner of the Earth as a product of the near approaches of the blazing comet Venus and the fiery flashing planet Mars. We are told, furthermore, that the rising incidence of violent natural disorder peaked during Shakespeare's lifetime, for
The tables which Jaarsma and Odenwald provide go even further. In their listing of unusual natural disturbances in England from 1515 to 1624, it can be seen that the period from 1590 to 1600 exhibits a dramatic rise in the frequency of these disturbances, containing no less than 40% of the number for the whole century. So varied were these disturbances, furthermore, that the authors were forced to design no less than 24 different symbols to represent them, ranging from C = extreme cold to Wh = whirlwind. Despite their prevalence and magnitude, however, they have not been accorded the importance they deserve.
The effect upon the people of Shakespeare's time was profound. At first, attempts were made to find logical physical and metaphysical causes for these disturbances, but soon the Elizabethans could no longer fit them into a rational explanation of the universe.
The result, quite naturally, was a vast sense of fear experienced by a nation enduring the baseless wrath of the skies, suffering
Even greater sources of fear were the unusually frequent planetary conjunctions, often associated with comets, abnormally bright stars, earthquakes and storms. They were seen as precursors not only of drought, dearth, pestilence, hail and floods, but also of war and changes in political power. Jaarsma and Odenwald point out that between 1577 and 1604 were seen eight comets, a new star in Cassiopeia, another blazing star, Kepler's supernova and eighteen eclipses. The heavens seemed alive with malevolent and disorderly entities. People thought the end of the world was near, signalled by the Biblical omens which would precede the Apocalypse. Many literally awaited the final destruction of the Earth and the Day of Judgement.
The conclusion which Jaarsma and Odenwald reach is that a drastic reassessment of the origin and meaning of cataclysmic images in Shakespeare is needed. The Elizabethan sensibility, they argue, its consciousness, was profoundly affected by these environmental changes, which were seen as portentous cataclysms, and this must be taken into account in any criticism of Shakespeare's plays.
The modern geological viewpoint is uniformitarian, which means it sees the history of the Earth as one of placid and slow change. This makes us dismiss the cataclysmic imagery in Shakespeare
On the other hand, Jaarsma and Odenwald warn us that Shakespeare's cataclysmic images may indeed appear to be myth, but that
The significance of these findings for the theory of cultural amnesia is unavoidable. As Jaarsma and Odenwald tell us, the
Imagine, then, the magnitude and durability of the effect of the Velikovskian cataclysms on the consciousness of those who survived them. They would have been burned into the collective memory, becoming a permanent part of human consciousness or unconsciousness, to be more correct across all subsequent generations. It is to be expected, therefore, that certain kinds of fear-inducing experience, such as severe local natural disorder, might awaken unconscious racial memories in man of earlier catastrophic natural disorder . It is a condition to which racially-traumatised man ought logically to be subject, if Velikovsky is correct.
We may venture to express it as an inherent biological possibility asymptotic meteorological events of a fearful nature produce an unrest effect which may induce, as Jaarsma and Odenwald put it, terror concerning the stability of the natural order. This terror, if sufficiently stimulating, may bring repressed ancestral memories of Velikovskian catastrophism close to the threshold of consciousness, where they are available to certain types of persons such as the transcendent artist. It is, in computer terms, a process of data retrieval which we may designate catastrophic recall, or C-recall.
Now, if the meteorological disturbances of Shakespeare's day were violent and shocking enough to sensitise him to the alarming unpredictability and destructiveness of nature, if, in other words, he had received a large dose of unrest effect, he was therefore ripe as a transcendent artist to recall unconsciously the worldwide catastrophes of earlier times. The extremes of British weather of Shakespeare's day, therefore, may have served as a memorial fear-inducer, helping to explain the presence of pronounced Velikovskian overtones in this play.
There were also other factors in Shakespeare's day which may have contributed to the unrest effect, and thus to C-recall, for his age was subject to several kinds of vast threat able to stimulate the memory of a creative artist. Indeed, we may say that England during all of Shakespeare's lifetime up to the writing of A Midsummer Night's Dream and well beyond it, too was marked by unceasing unrest. For instance, great political instability was threatened by the factions which developed for and against Elizabeth I as her reign drew to a close, which corresponds with a period of intense artistic productivity for Shakespeare and includes A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is likely that Shakespeare had knowledge of at least some of the intense political plotting.(20) This situation arose because the matter of royal succession was wholly undecided for most of the period 1590-1603, after it was generally felt the Queen had passed beyond her years of competence. As the monarch declined in age and ability without having married and produced children, or even named an heir, there was little prospect of a peaceful succession of power. Instead, there was much fear of civil war, of rivalry and hatred and Englishmen killing Englishmen, a fear which increased as the last decade of the sixteenth century drew to a close. The crown hung like a ripe plum for whichever rough hand could seize it, and England felt threatened by political chaos, social upheaval, a letting loose of internecine evil, a loss of order in life as the fearful consequence of the Queen's seemingly imminent demise.
The religious problems of Shakespeare's time and earlier were another area of communal life sufficiently disturbed to contribute to Shakespeare's C-recall. England experienced almost unrelenting religious strife of a violent and implacable nature from Henry VIII's Reformation to well beyond the death of Shakespeare in 1616. The Catholic-Protestant animosity involved every citizen both ideologically and sometimes physically.
Before Elizabeth I came to the throne, her half-brother Edward VI and her half-sister Mary I, Protestant and Catholic respectively, had persecuted, tortured and burned many of the opposite faith during their short reigns, following in the footsteps of their illustrious father. Elizabeth was excommunicated by the Catholic church not long after her accession and proclaimed anathema to Catholics everywhere. As a result, there were continuous religious plots during Elizabeth's reign, many against the life of the Queen herself, and underground activity maintained the religious unrest at an active level. It need hardly be pointed out that almost every life value of significance to Shakespeare's time was at stake in this conflict.
Outside England, the Spanish Armada assembled by the King of Spain had been an enormous threat, in this case both political and religious. It had loomed like a ponderous tidal wave waiting to crash onto England's shores, or a great approaching comet, flashing and swollen and charged with malevolent fury. Had it conquered, the consequence would not simply have been a political defeat, but a total alteration of values and accepted knowledge, such as an ancient Chinese record laments.
Shakespeare displays an inherent hatred of monsters in comedy or tragedy, men who are misshapen and grown beyond social bounds, who threaten the established order systems and who are all demolished.(22) The Armada, representing the political hostility of Spain and France, and the religious hostility of the Pope and Catholic Europe, not to mention the tangible threat of mutilation, slaughter, upheaval and destruction, constituted a most menacing swollen looming external monster.
Jaarsma and Odenwald comment that the meteorological unrest preceding and during Shakespeare's lifetime created in England
When we add the unrelenting concurrent unrest in politics, religion and foreign affairs just described, not to mention the wild economic fluctuations of the time, all coexistent, each one intensifying the other in creating terror concerning the stability of . . . order, it is small wonder that catastrophic memories should underlie the work of so universal an artist as William Shakespeare.
The dissension between Oberon and Titania, therefore, represents an interaction of planets which threatens the social and physical life of Athens, symbolic here of human civilisation, and is the cause of the natural and political disorders and symbolic infertility which afflict the city. It is a cosmic menace which must be remedied. If accord will not be achieved in the supernatural world, if harmony will not be established between the planets above, Athens is doomed. Something must happen to make certain that a happy ending is achieved.
That something will be the intervention of Oberon, but, before we trace its effects, it is necessary to set forth in summary the sorts of events which are or are not desirable if all is to turn out well. At the human level, if the tribe is to continue to function healthily, not only must its leader marry auspiciously, but its best young noble blood must be well-mated too, for these people must be available to aid the ruler in governing the tribe. Hermia must end up marrying Lysander, while Demetrius must be brought to accept marriage with Helena, and both of these marriages must occur within and with the full approval of the society of Athens, if Athens is to reap the maximum benefit which such noble marriages can contribute to its future.
Conversely, among the things which must not happen are sexual relations before marriage, either between the young lovers or between Theseus and Hippolyta. In mythological terms, they must be preserved in ritual cleanliness and purity, to be able to share in the rites of social ordination at the end of the play. To Shakespeare, the institution of marriage is always sacred, as compared with promiscuous sex, because it represents the subjugation of sensual individuality to the interests of the group, or maturity triumphing over youthful selfishness.
Equally, no violence must occur between Lysander and Demetrius, rival lovers, or they may be killed, wasted without having ripened to play their part in the continuation of the life of the tribe. The yokels too must be preserved to serve the state. Even the successful elopement to Sparta of Lysander and Hermia, without violence, would be a severe loss to Athens, and so this too must not happen. The lovers must be made free to marry each other in Athens.
The forest is the testing ground where all of these possibilities, whether for the life of Athens or against it, lie waiting. The second, third and fourth acts, all set in the forest, are thus a set of ordeals through which the lovers must pass. The sequence begins with a period of growing turbulence, where all the impulses generated in Athens are set one against another. Confusion mounts upon confusion, hatred and disorder are unleashed, but, at the end, after all the tumult and passion, events are sorted out, order is restored, and all ends well. Let us now look more closely at this sequence, which constitutes the middle section of the play.
When appreciated in performance, the action in the forest seems totally confusing. Things happen with bewildering rapidity, with great humour and imagination, until everything is sorted out, we know not how. However, when we look at the action in tranquillity, a certain pattern emerges. As described by Enid Welsford, it is the pattern of dance.(24) Because it is a sequence of changing partnerships, like a minuet or square dance, it can be efficiently set out as a series of diagrams.
In the opening situation, as the reader will recall, Lysander loves Hermia, who loves him, while Helena loves Demetrius, who loves Hermia. This was represented as
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That is to say, both young men love Hermia, and neither loves Helena. Then, as we remember, Lysander and Hermia run off to the forest, and Demetrius and Helena follow. When Demetrius and Helena reach the forest, he looking for the fleeing pair, she pursuing him heartbrokenly despite his repeated insults, threats, and rejections, Oberon observes them invisibly and, offended by Demetrius' treatment of the girl, vows
He then orders Puck to sprinkle a magic juice on Demetrius' eyes, so that he will fall in love with the next woman he sees, presumably Helena. Puck, not realising there are two Athenians in the forest, comes upon the sleeping figures of Lysander and Hermia, and sprinkles the juice on Lysander's eyes instead of on Demetrius'. No sooner is this done but Demetrius and Helena come into the clearing and, after some abusive language, Demetrius abandons Helena. She stumbles over the sleeping Lysander, who, awakening with the juice on his eyes, sees her and naturally falls in love with her and pursues her offstage, abandoning Hermia, who awakes and finds herself the one who is now alone. The second pattern, therefore, is
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Each of the boys now loves the girl who does not love him.
The next exchange occurs when Oberon realises Puck's mistake, as Demetrius pleads his love to the bewildered Hermia, who cannot understand why her beloved Lysander has left her, and fears Demetrius has killed him. Oberon charms Demetrius asleep and puts the juice on his eyes, ordering Puck to bring Helena where Demetrius can awaken and fall in love with her. In a moment, Puck has brought Helena back, with Lysander protesting his love for her, and Demetrius is duly awakened by their arguing, whereupon he sees Helena and bursts out in rhapsodic love poetry for her. Thus the situation now is
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At the beginning, both young men had been in love with Hermia, and no one had loved Helena, where now both are in love with Helena, and neither with Hermia. The play seems to be weighing all the different possible combinations that can be created between the lovers. The two men, quite naturally, strut like rams at mating time, hurling threats at each other concerning the possession of the ewe Helena, and the situation is further aggravated by the arrival of Hermia. Helena, with the two men at her feet, cannot believe what has happened, and accuses the others of being in a conspiracy to mock her. Soon the two girls are tearing at each other's hair and the men run off to fight in another part of the woods. Puck is enormously amused by it all, but Oberon is concerned to set it all right. He orders Puck to keep the men apart by magic and tire them out until they fall asleep. He then gives Puck another magic juice, an antidote to remove the first from Lysander's eyes, so he will love Hermia once more.
Puck accomplishes his task swiftly and efficiently. One by one, staggering with exhaustion, each of the four young lovers is led by the disguised Puck back to the clearing, where each simply collapses and goes to sleep on the ground, unaware of the presence of the others. When they are all safely deposited asleep in the same clearing, Puck amends his first error by applying the antidote to Lysander's eyes, and the night of confusion comes to an end.
Shakespeare gives Puck generic and somewhat mocking terminology here to make us recognise that what has just occurred is not a private event pertaining only to these four individual humans, but a universal sequence - Jack shall have Jill relevant to all of mankind. And so the final pattern in the square-dance sequence, after all the confusing dos-a-dos and bow-to-your-partner's, is
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The confusion is over, and in the morning the lovers
Things have come at last to the desired relationship. When the lovers awake, all will indeed be well. Every Jack has his Jill.
In spatial terms, there has been a movement from a quadrangle to variations on a triangle, and then back to a quadrangle again. Figure 4, the quadrangle, existed before the play began, and will presumably exist after the play ends, but figures 1, 2, and 3 are triangles, with the fourth element separated in each case. They represent the main action in the forest, but then, after Oberon's changes have been effected, there is a return to squareness.
The change from groupings of three to a grouping of four is particularly satisfying because it includes the missing element in an integrated relationship. In Jungian terms, it is an archetypal move to fullness or completion, a reconciliation and in this case a restoration of a beneficent previous order which is good for all the parts of the whole.
The broken mandala has been restored to wholeness.
The remaining obstacle to Athens' happiness is, of course, the discord in the heavens. To summarise this plot level very briefly, Oberon had put the same magic juice on Titania's eyelids while she slept, and Puck, by magic, had given one of the yokels an ass' head and then led him to awaken Titania, so that she fell in love with an ass, a human ass. She proceeded to decorate him with garlands and have her fairies sing to him and have him led to her bower. Oberon, pitying her after she had agreed to his demand, released her from the spell by applying the antidote to her eyes as she slept, as Puck had done to Lysander. Now she awakes, and greets Oberon with joy, and the fairy world is reunited as Oberon proclaims
We can now see more generally what has happened in the forest. As the diagrams illustrate, it has been a series of changing relationships, as if different combinations were tested and rejected, until the correct relationship was at last achieved, whereupon the changes were ended and the final relationship fixed. All of the dangerous possibilities outlined above were avoided, and all of the desired events have occurred.
Shakespeare had sent into the forest a group of bumbling yokels, plus four angry, upset, even desperate young lovers, as well as a quarrelling King and Queen of the Fairies. It was a potentially dangerous mixture, for the individuals themselves but more particularly for the future welfare of Athens, and Shakespeare had stirred his ingredients vigorously, but nothing undesirable had happened no uncontrolled sex, no physical violence, no permanent rifts between lovers, no misalliances. The Voyage Perilous through the Forest of Passion has terminated triumphantly. All have passed the test, and are ready for ordination.
Very few critics have appreciated the latent, subtly-suggested dangers lurking behind the comic resolution in the play. To most, the play is gossamer; to some, it can hardly bear the defilement of close analysis; to only a few is it sober.
Equally, few have appreciated the vastness of the context implied by the surface action of the play.
Another critic unwittingly uses catastrophic language to defend the poetic richness of the panoramic descriptions, saying they are
Some critics have interpreted nature as being presented in one of two ways in the play, either as a force of metamorphosis or change, or as an inscrutable, uncontrollable power. One scholar observes that in A Midsummer Night's Dream
To some, the impression created by such changing is that nature is unfathomable.
with the result that the action
Yet, although one dimension of the play does seem to imply that man can neither understand nor affect the sometimes destructive forces of nature which dominate his social existence, another dimension implies that these forces are ultimately benevolent. For the moment, that can be a sufficient summary of the play's cosmological world view. Human society, indeed natural existence itself, have been severely threatened, but have persevered. All physical dangers have been overcome, all necessary social bondings and alignments have occurred, and a symbolic night of peril and confusion has given way to a symbolic dawning of order and fertility.
In the cosmic terms suggested by Young, the action has been a plunge to the edge of chaos, but no further. We have seen the brink of catastrophe, but have been brought safely back. As a preliminary statement about the cosmological meaning and function of the play, we may say at this point that its action can be interpreted as an aesthetic symbolisation of the Earth enduring global disorder, with the damage underplayed in favour of survival.
. . . to be continued.
REFERENCES AND NOTES1. Indeed, many structuralist critics have attempted to reduce all narrative situations and plots down to a small number of prototypes.
2. See for instance, Francis Fergusson, The Idea of a Theatre (Paperback edn., N. Y.,1949), pp. 25-29.
3. All quotations and line numbers from A Midsummer Night's Dream refer to the Signet Classic Shakespeare edition, ed. Wolfgang Clemen (New American Library, N. Y., 1963).
4. It has been noted that Titania's description bears many similarities to the natural havoc caused in Sicily by Ceres when she became angry with that country for not objecting to Pluto's abduction of her daughter, Proserpine, as described in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book V, 450-490. A look at the Ovidian text, however, shows that, while certain similarities do indeed exist, Shakespeare's picture goes well beyond Ovid in the scope of the natural destruction and disorder it portrays. Ceres brings barrenness to Sicily through excessive storms, but nowhere do we find the wholesale eradication of civilisation and confusion of seasons mentioned in Shakespeare. Thus, although the influence of Ovid is indisputable in the play, as has been widely noticed, the presence of catastrophic overtones in Titania's speech may not simply be a case of literary borrowing; it may be racial inspiration. When Shakespeare came to describe the natural upheavals brought upon the world of Athens by the dissension between Oberon and Titania, he must certainly have remembered the Ovidian passage, but the result suggests that the details of Ceres' wrath - itself doubtless a product of racial memory - may have served not simply as a model, but also to trigger racial memories in Shakespeare's mind of the actual geophysical havoc and disarranged seasons which underlie the passage.
5. "Collisions and Upheavals," Pensee IVR I (May 1972), pp. 8-10.
6. Worlds in Collision, p. 133. 7. Ibid. 8. Ibid. 9. Ibid. 10. Ibid.
11. Richard J. Jaarsma and Edward L. Odenwald, "Nor Heaven Nor Earth Have Been at Peace: The Contemporary Foundations of Shakespeare's Cataclysmic Imagery," KRONOS V:4 (Summer-1980), p. 6.
12. Jaarsma and Odenwald, "Nor Heaven Nor Earth. . .," KRONOS VI: I (Fall-1980), p. 15. 13. Ibid., p. 18.
14. Jaarsma and Odenwald, KRONOS V:4, p. 14.
15. Ibid., p. 13.
16. Jaarsma and Odenwald, KRONOS VI:1, p. 17.
17. Ibid., p. 22.
18. Ibid., p. 23.
19. Jaarsma and Odenwald, KRONOS V:4, p. 13.
20. See, for instance, J. B. Black, The Reign of Elizabeth 1558-1603 (Rev. edn., Oxford, 1959).
21. Worlds in Collision, p. 261.
22. Just as monsters are hated in fairy tales, another area of catastrophic narrative.
23. Jaarsma and Odenwald, KRONOS VI: I, p. 17.
24. Enid Welsford, The Court Masque (Cambridge, 1927).
25. David P. Young, Something of Great Constancy: The Art of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (New Haven, 1966), p. 95.
27. Ibid., p. 29.
28. Ibid., pp. 76-81.
29. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1959), p. 148.
30. Elizabeth Sewell, The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History (New Haven, 1960), pp. 139-140.
31. Young, op. cit., p. 153.
32. Ibid., p. 91.