The MacGuffin

According to the Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0), a MacGuffin (as supposedly appropriated by Alfred Hitchcock) is “In a film or work of fiction: a particular event, object, factor, etc., which assumes great significance to the characters and acts as the impetus for the sequence of events depicted, although often proving tangential to the plot as it develops.”

So how does this pertain to A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

What is the central action of the play?  The mistaken loves of the lovers (including Titania) in the forest.  What causes it?  The pansy potion.  How was it used?  On Lysander and then Demetrius, but only after it was initially used on Titania.  Why was it used on the queen of the fairies?  As punishment.  For?  Het taking of the Indian changeling boy.

The changeling is the MacGuffin.

Let’s focus, for today, on Oberon’s speech, watching the sleeping Titania:

Welcome, good Robin.  Seest thou this sweet sight?
Her dotage now I do begin to pity:
For, meeting her of late behind the wood,
Seeking sweet favors from this hateful fool,
I did upbraid her and fall out with her;
For she his hairy temples then had rounded
With a coronet of fresh and fragrant flowers;
And that same dew, which sometime on the buds
Was wont to swell like round and orient pearls,
Stood now within the pretty flowerets' eyes
Like tears that did their own disgrace bewail.
When I had at my pleasure taunted her
And she in mild terms begged my patience,
I then did ask of her her changeling child;
Which straight she gave me, and her fairy sent
To bear him to my bower in fairy land.
And now I have the boy, I will undo
This hateful imperfection of her eyes:
And, gentle Puck, take this transformed scalp
From off the head of this Athenian swain;
That, he awaking when the other do,
May all to Athens back again repair
And think no more of this night's accidents
But as the fierce vexation of a dream.
But first I will release the fairy queen.

— IV.i.45-69

Oberon (having been onstage all the while, observing) has witnessed her “dotage” on the transformed Bottom. As I’ve already discussed earlier this month, that Titania’s speech to Bottom to open this scene is probably the most pure vision of love in the entire play.  For a moment, just an instant, it seems that Oberon may share that opinion, as he asks the newly arriving Puck if his attendant has seen “this sweet sight,” the adjective being the key word here.

Only “now” does Oberon “begin to pity” the dotage that he himself placed on her by means of the pansy potion.  And why does he pity (and here I’d use the secondary meaning, available in Shakespeare’s day, of “To be moved to pity; to be sorry, grieve” [OED])?  Because he “did upbraid and f(e)ll out with her.”  And why did he have a falling out?

here’s where it gets interesting…

Because (“for”) she had made a garland (“coronet”) of flowers and placed it on Bottom’s transformed head.  Is this treatment one that had been once only Oberon’s?  Is his grief more jealousy than pity?

and is the jealousy only that of a lover?  or is it something else?  in Shakespeare’s day, the term “coronet” also referred to “A small or inferior crown; spec. a crown denoting a dignity inferior to that of the sovereign, worn by the nobility, and varying in form according to rank” (OED).  could it be that his jealousy is at having been replaced as “king” to Titania’s queen?

Regardless of the root of his pity, it’s the blossoming of the emotion that is key: on the flowers’ buds, dewdrops (like the ones the Fairy collects for Titania in Act Two, Scene One?), stand on the flowers, “swell(ing) like round and orient pearls.”  His imagery conjures a number of allusions:

  • swell like round — calls to mind Titania’s description of her changeling boy’s pregnant mother’s “imitat(ion)” of her ship’s sails which “gr(e)w big-bellied” (II.i.132 and 129)
  • orient pearl — the OED discusses a contemporary meaning of “a pearl from the Indian seas, as distinguished from those of less beauty found in European mussels; hence, a brilliant or precious pearl.” [Indian!] And this, in turn, recalls Titania’s description of the changeling boy’s mother’s “womb then rich with (her) young squire” (II.i.131)

While the dewdrops recall the Indian boy, Oberon sees them as “tears that did their own disgrace bewail.”  I’d argue that, here, it is Oberon bewailing his own disgrace.

On the word “bewail,” we get our first period.  All that came before this (and after the question to Puck if he had seen this “sweet scene”) has been a single sentence.  It stops the speech cold in its tracks.  In the next sentence, he makes clear his disgrace: he took “pleasure” in “taunt(ing)” her, while “she in mild terms begged (his) patience”; he asked for the boy, which “straight” she gave him.  Oberon got what he wanted, but only because she didn’t care anymore — Titania did it all for love, love for Bottom.  Now that he has the boy, he will “undo // This hateful imperfection of her eyes.”  In Shakespeare’s day, “hateful” had two meanings, the second of which, most would point to as the thrust of Oberon’s statement: “odious, obnoxious, repulsive” (OED); but I’ll argue that it’s the meaning we think of today that’s at the root of Oberon’s meaning: “Full of hate, cherishing hatred, malignant” (OED).  Oberon’s “disgrace (that he) bewail(s)” is a realization of his own malignancy, one shown to him by Titania’s love for Bottom and her easy release of changeling boy, the MacGuffin.

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