Just some random notes re: A Midsummer Night’s Dream…
The Changeling Boy
A week back, we discussed the concept of the MacGuffin , in regards to the changeling boy. But here’s a question for you: Why does Oberon want the boy so badly? Puck claims that Oberon wants the boy to be “Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild” (II.i.25), and Oberon tells Titania that he wants the boy to be his “henchman” (II.i.120).
We understand Titania’s refusal–she made a promise to one of her votaresses, one whom she saw grow pregnant and give birth to the boy. Her reason is maternal. Could it be that fairies cannot procreate, and Oberon wants the boy to be his SON? If Oberon and Titania are King and Queen, wouldn’t her boy be both theirs, as well? Is this not good enough for Oberon? Is he afraid that the boy will turn out too feminine if the boy is more Titania’s than his?
also: if Oberon wants the boy to be his son, could Puck’s misadventures then be seen as more knavish than mistaken, in a kind of passive-aggressive jealousy? it would be interesting subtext, but only that, as there is no discernable reaction by Puck to the news that Oberon now has the boy in Act Four, Scene One…
First Speeches Similes
In the opening speeches of the play, Theseus and Hippolyta compare the nights between now and their wedding night:
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires,
Like to a stepdame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man's revenue.
Four days will quickly steep themselves in night,
Four nights will quickly dream away the time,
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.
Theseus compares the waning moon to “a woman whose husband is dead and who is in the enjoyment of some title or some property that has come to her from him” (“dowager”: Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]), one who is spending the money while her heir (the “young man”) watches his inheritance (“revenue”) decline (“withering out”). Note that Theseus also calls the moon “old” while putting himself in the role of the “young man”: is this a hint for casting? Is Theseus getting a little long in the tooth? Does he wish to be “young” while knowing that he is more like the waning moon.
On the other hand, Hippolyta compares the upcoming new moon to weaponry (“a silver bow // New-bent”). Her imagery reinforces her Amazon warrior princess character, while also contrasts Theseus’ use of “old” to her “new-bent.” Is there a difference in ages?
and does this give Theseus’ line in Act Five–“what poor duty cannot do, noble respect // Takes it in might, not merit” (V.i.91-92)–a little more comic value? … after all, as an old man, he may wish to have her take into account his intention (“merit”), rather than just his upcoming (pun intended) coital performance (“might”)…
The flower that Oberon sends Puck to retrieve (for the potion) is called “love-in-idleness” (II.i.168), which is another name for the pansy. And why is this important? It comes from the French word “pensée”… which means “thought”… great use of the word since the flower’s power will be able to bend the lovers’ thoughts, no?
Making Sense of the Senses
Throughout the play, characters mistake or misuse one physical sense to another:
- Quince: “he goes to see a noise…” (III.i.86)
- Pyramus: “I see a voice… I can hear my Thisby’s face” (V.i.191-192)
- Lion/Snug (though in the Folio, this is attributed to Bottom): “see the epilogue… hear a Bergomask dance” (V.i.346-347)
But in these cases, the jumbling of senses is straightforward: either sight is mistaken for hearing or vice versa.
In Bottom’s post-revival soliloquy about his “dream,” he jumbles the senses even further:
The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was.
Like in the other cases, he confuses the usual sight/hearing senses (“The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen”), but then he goes beyond those senses. His “hand” (touch) cannot “taste” (taste); his “tongue” (taste) cannot “conceive” … and this is where the train leaves the tracks–conception isn’t a sense at all [or is it? … ooooh, foreshadowing… more to come]. And the final jumble is also completely out of the sensory realm: his “heart” (not a sense) cannot “report” (again, not a sense).
So what to make of this mess?
Well, let’s begin Bottom’s sequence again:
- eye / heard
- ear / seen
- hand / taste
- tongue / conceive
- heart / report
The first two are obvious and similar to the rest of the play’s jumbles.
But then what if he isn’t going beyond THOSE senses but rather going BEYOND ALL SENSES… His “hand” is not a reference to the sense of touch; instead, it references one of that body part’s actions: the act of writing; regardless, the “hand” cannot “taste.” Here, however, “taste” is not so much a reference to the sense of taste, but rather a link to the other next sequence’s “tongue.”
That “tongue” (like “hand” before it) references not so much the sense of taste, but rather the other action of the tongue: the act of speaking. Of course, as in the comparison before, the “tongue” cannot “conceive.” However, again, “conceive” could be seen as a link to the next sequence’s “heart.” After all, one of the definitions for “heart” is “seat of FEELING, understanding and thought,” while “conceive” has a definition “To take or admit into the mind; to become affected or possessed with. Still used with permanent states, e.g. prejudice, liking, dislike; with temporary states, as SORROW, JOY” (both OED, emphases MINE).
Another definition for the last sequence’s “heart” is “seat of life” (OED), and it, of course, cannot “report” anything. But what can be used to report? Our first non-seeing/non-hearing subject: the “hand.” The hand, of the writer, the poet, the playwright, can be used to “report” Bottom’s “dream.”
So we have hands that can write, tongues that can speak, hearts that can feel; we have speech, conception (thinking), and reporting.
What’s missing? That of which the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are all compact: Imagination. Interesting, that the one thing necessary for a (midsummer night’s?) dream, the imagination, is missing from this speech.
Or is it?
Earlier, we said that conceive has A definition of “To take or admit into the mind; to become affected or possessed with. Still used with permanent states, e.g. prejudice, liking, dislike; with temporary states, as sorrow, joy,” but, obviously, this is not the ONLY definition. There are many others, including:
- To perceive (by the senses), observe
- To take into one’s head, form an opinion, be of opinion; to fancy, imagine, think
- To formulate, express in words or other form; to couch (all OED)
Can the “tongue,” the ability to speak, also “perceive”? Or does the “tongue” now revert to its more sensory object?
Can the “tongue,” the ability to speak, also “imagine (or) think”? (eh…)
Can the “tongue,” the ability to speak, also “express in words”? Abso-freaking-lutely.
now, I’m not sure to what resolution this can come… (but thanks to reader Kevin, who helped, though his commentary, coalesce some of my thinking on the matter… not that my thoughts coalesced very much!)