Jun 29, 2023, 05:57AM

Glamour of a Midsummer’s Day

The occult subversion of Shakespeare’s magical pen. 

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On Midsummer’s Day I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare for the first time in many years. When I say I “read” the play, I mean I got a free copy via Project Gutenberg and read it in conjunction with a BBC radio production. The advantage of this is that you don’t get too snarled up with the early modern language that Shakespeare uses and you can keep a track on the action. The disadvantage is that the radio version is edited, which can be disorientating.

Midsummer’s Day is on June 24th. Also known as the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist or the Nativity of John the Baptist, it’s an important day in the traditional Western calendar, and, as Midsummer, is still celebrated with much enthusiasm in Scandinavian countries. (It’s the day on which the 2019 folk-horror movie, Midsommer is set.) Just as Christmas takes place a few days after the Winter solstice, so St John’s Day takes place a few days after the Summer solstice. It’s largely forgotten now in most non-Scandinavian countries, but it was once the third most important festival in the Christian calendar, after Christmas and Easter.

The bulk of the action in A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place in a wood just outside Athens on Midsummer’s Eve, the night of June 23-24. Despite the fact that it is set in Athens, it’s one of Shakespeare’s most English of plays. It’s a study of English folk beliefs, based on folklore themes which were still common in Shakespeare's day.

There are three sets of characters that inhabit the text: the lovers, the players and the fairies. The lovers all have Greek names, such as Theseus and Hippolyta; the players all have comic names, such as Bottom and Quince; while the fairies’ names are derived from English folklore or are made up by the playwright.

The comic characters are based upon Shakespeare’s fellow actors. He’s enjoying a joke at his associates’ expense. You can imagine the relish with which the actors would’ve played their parts, portraying a comic version of themselves. He was an actor himself, and probably took up the role of Quince, the playwright. The fairy Puck refers to them as “rude mechanicals” and “hempen homespuns,” and this was the background of many actors in Shakespeare's time. James Burbage, for example, began life as a joiner, built the theatre in which he worked, and later ran it as the manager. His son Richard became Shakespeare’s leading actor. The character of Bottom is particularly well-drawn as the boastful leading player who wants to act in every role. He can play a tyrant or a lover, can roar like a lion to frighten the ladies, and even touts himself for the part of Thisne, the leading lady in the play-within-a-play they’re rehearsing.

The set-up for the play is personified in the characters of Theseus and Hippolyta. Hippolyta is the Queen of the Amazons who’s taken by force of arms. This is a graphic illustration of the subjugation of women. There’s a little bit of typically Shakespearean double-entendre as Theseus describes the situation:

I woo’d thee with my sword,

And won thy love doing thee injuries;

But I will wed thee in another key,

With pomp, with triumph and with revelling.

Swords often double for the male member in Shakespearean imagery, which makes this piece of text particularly complex and strange. At this point Egeus enters, with his daughter Hermia and her suitors, Lysander and Demetrius. He’s petitioning Theseus with a complaint about his daughter. He has given permission for Demetrius to marry her, but she prefers Lysander, who he accuses of bewitching with love tokens and songs sung at midnight. He demands that, as his property, his daughter should do as he commands.

As she is mine I may dispose of her;

Which shall either be to this gentleman

Or to her death, according to our law…

Theseus advises her that she should obey her father, or she will be executed or condemned to a life of celibacy as a nun.

As always Shakespeare is cleverly subversive in his script. The subjugation of Hippolyta to Theseus and the rule of Egeus over his daughter is mocked throughout the exchanges, while in the fairy kingdom, in the wild woods, outside the patriarchal laws of Athens and humanity, Titania, as the Queen of the fairies, openly defies her King. She’s seen as Oberon’s equal in all ways and is only brought to his will by means of trickery.

The characters of the fairies are most interesting. They’re probably based upon traditional English fairy-lore. We’re given insights into the beliefs of the English peasantry in this period, but there’s also a literary element. Oberon, the King of the fairies, has a long history in medieval literature and romance, going back to 13th-century German and French texts, while he also appears in contemporary English scripts by the likes of Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton.

Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, is an even more intriguing figure. He’s described as a hobgoblin. He’s inclined to mischief and wilful trickery. As one of the fairies says:

Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call’d Robin Goodfellow. Are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery,
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern,
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn,
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm,
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck.
Are not you he?

Puck answers, describing his traits: 

Thou speak’st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon, and make him smile,
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal;
And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And, when she drinks, against her lips I bob,
And on her withered dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and loffe

And waxen in their mirth, and neeze, and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there.

The plot revolves around the use of a magic potion that, when applied to the eyes, makes the person fall in love with the first person they see. So Titania falls in love with Bottom, despite the fact that his head had been turned into that of an Ass, while Lysander falls out of love with Hermia, and into love with their friend Helena, who loves Demetrius, who doesn’t love her. Confusion reigns, but eventually everything is set aright. The right potion is applied to the right eyes and everyone is back in love with the right partner. Demetrius loves Helena, Lysander loves Hermia, Theseus loves Hippolyta, and they all go off to marry on Midsummer’s Day, accompanied by the invisible fairies that surround them, after which the players perform their play, which is a parody of all that happened on the night before.

The idea of a magic power that can mislead the victim into seeing something other than what is really there is known as “glamour.” The word isn’t used in Shakespeare’s play, but it’s suggested. It was a common concept in fairy-lore. It’s where our modern use of the word comes from. A glamour’s a spell that alters how we see the world. In the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we can interpret one of the spells as that of patriarchy. Theseus is given the gift of insight. He breaks the oppressive spell that condemns Hermia to a life of celibacy or marriage to a wrong partner, and allows the lovers to be paired with who they will. This shows Shakespeare’s subversive intent hidden behind the comedy.

One of the best lines is given to Theseus:

As imagination bodies forth 
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing 
A local habitation and a name. 

This is Shakespeare describing his own glamour, his ability to create forms that come alive in the imagination.

The word originated in Scotland, where it was used to describe an act of magic. It’s a derivation of the word “grammar,” as is the occult “grimoire,” meaning a spell book used by magicians. All three words describe the act of writing, as does the word “spell.” To make a spell, you spell it out. The word “enchantment” refers to the chanting of a spell as it’s read out loud. The association of books of grammar with magic probably refers to the suspicion that non-literate people felt towards those who could read and write. The word “wizard” refers to a wise or learned person; his grimoire, to the book of notes that he kept about his person.

Writing is a magical act. There’s good magic and bad magic. The poet can conjure shapes in the imagination by use of his pen, while the scientist can work out the laws of motion. Newton was a scientist and a magician at the same time. Meanwhile the priest can create gods that don’t exist, the lawyer can create laws that dispossess people of their land, the propagandist can create enemies where there aren’t any, the advertiser can sell us things we don’t really want, the banker can create debts out of thin air. All of these are acts of the imagination using the written word. They are glamours cast over the mind’s eye, making us see things that are not really there. Time to break the spell.


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