Vol. 1 No. 1 · 25 October 1979

Fairy Flight in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

William Empson

3354 words
A Midsummer Night’s Dream 
edited for the Arden Shakespeare series by Harold Brooks.
Methuen, 164 pp., £8, September 1979, 1 903436 60 5
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This​ is the new Arden edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it is splendid to have the old series still coming out. Full information, and a proper apparatus at the foot of the page: where else would you find that? It has got a bit stiff in the joints; the Introduction is so long and so full of standard doctrine that it is hard to pick out the plums; but the sobriety itself is a comfort. One major new emendation is proposed – that Theseus said: ‘Now is the mure rased between the two neighbours.’ Professor Brooks admits that this is bad, and agrees that Shakespeare may have agreed to have it changed on the prompt-book, but is certain he wrote it at first, because of the rules invented by Dover Wilson for the misinterpretation of his handwriting. Surely anyone used to correcting proofs knows that all kinds of mistakes may occur, whereas this bit of pedantry would be quite out of key for Theseus. ‘Mural down’ (Pope) goes quite far enough.

As part of a general process of soothing, he speaks warmly of the merits of Bottom, but adds that ‘he is quite unsusceptible to the romance of fairyland,’ and will soon have forgotten his meeting with Titania. What on earth can the weasel-word ‘romance’ be doing here? As a Greek of the age of myth, he simply worships the goddess. As a man who is driven by his vanity, he finds her love for him immensely gratifying, but not really surprising, so that he can keep his cool. When we see him return to his friends he has urgent news: they may collect their theatrical props and go to the palace at once, but he is bursting to tell them his dream as soon as there is time. When Oberon remarks that he and the lovers will remember the night as ‘but the fierce vexation of a dream’, he is not giving an order, and some fierce dreams do get remembered long and vividly (or at least you can remember your reconstruction of them). The real feeling of Brooks, I submit, is: Thank God we don’t have to watch a lady actually giving herself to a stinking hairy worker. ‘Even a controlled suggestion of carnal bestiality is surely impossible,’ he remarks.

These cloudy but provocative phrases conceal a struggle which had better have been brought into the open. The opponent is Jan Kott, who wrote Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1967), and the Peter Brook production (1970) which dramatised his findings. I take my stand beside the other old buffers here. Kott is ridiculously indifferent to the letter of the play and labours to befoul its spirit. And yet the Victorian attitude to it also feels oppressively false, and has a widespread influence. We need here to consider Madeline Bassett, who figures decisively in the plot of a number of stories by P.G. Wodehouse. This unfortunate girl, though rich, young, handsome and tolerably good-tempered, has a habit of saying, for example, that a dear little baby is born every time a wee fairy blows its nose. She never repeats herself but keeps steadily within this range. It excites nausea and horror in almost all the young men who have become entangled with her, and their only hope of escape without rudeness is to marry her to the sub-human Augustus Fink-Nottle. Such is the mainspring for a series of farces. However remotely, her fancies are clearly derived from Shakespeare’s Dream, and Wodehouse was a very understanding, well-read man, with a thorough grasp of this general revulsion. Such is the strength of our opponents. It is no use for the present editor to complain in a footnote that the Brook production lacked ‘charm’: a too determined pursuit of charm was what spelt doom for poor Madeline Bassett.

What a production needs to do is to make clear that Oberon and Titania are global powers, impressive when in action. There is nothing to grumble about in the tenderness of the fairy scenes towards small wild flowers and young children, but it needs balancing. Many thinkers, summarised by Cornelius Agrippa, had believed in these Spirits of Nature, neither angels nor devils, in the first part of the 16th century, but Luther and Calvin denounced the belief, and the Counter-Reformation largely agreed, so further discussion in print was prevented by censorship. But ten of the Cambridge colleges, at the time of the play, had Agrippa’s treatise in their libraries. So the dons were not hiding it from the children, and it gives you positively encouraging advice about how to raise nymphs from water-meadows. The New Astronomy was in the same position: learned books arguing in its favour could not get a licence, though a mere expression of agreement with it was not penalised. And Copernicus in his Introduction had actually claimed support from Hermes Trismegistus, who was considered the ancient source of the belief in Middle Spirits.

The fairy scenes here say a good deal about astronomy, though none of it further out than the Moon; and there are other reasons for thinking that the public had largely accepted the daily rotation of the Earth, but thought its yearly orbit to be supported by obscure arguments and probably dangerous.

If these spirits control Nature over the whole globe, they need to move about it at a tolerable speed. When the audience is first confronted by the magic wood, at the start of Act Two, a fairy tells Puck, ‘I am going everywhere, faster than the moon’s sphere,’ because she has been given the job of putting the smell into the cowslips. As they all come out at about the same time, this requires enormously rapid movement, continually changing in direction. She should be found panting against a tree-trunk, having a short rest at human size, but when in action her body must be like a bullet. It seems tiresome to have human-size spirits described as very tiny, but it is standard doctrine that they could make themselves so, and we find that they could also make themselves very heavy. It is an old textual crux that Puck speaks to Oberon of ‘our stamp’, but immediately after this warning we see him do their magic stamp, which should be echoed tersely by a deep-voiced drum under the stage. Thus we are prepared for Oberon and Titania to ‘shake the ground’ when they dance good fortune to the lovers: the drums now become a form of music, echoing each step (there is a very faint repetition of it when they are dancing off-stage in the palace bedroom). Then, immediately after shaking the ground, they go up on the crane, apparently weightless. Oberon remarks:

We the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wandering moon.

He is thus recalling what the fairy said at the start. He does not say they will do it now, only that they can do what is needed with a comfortable margin, if they are to dance again in the palace soon after midnight.

At the end, after the fifth Act, in the palace, Puck says again that fairies prefer to live permanently in the dawn: they run

From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream.

At the equator they would need to go 1000 miles an hour, nearer a quarter than a third of a mile a second, but probably they stick to the latitude of Athens, at about 800 miles an hour. Titania, for one, does not seem a very athletic type, and the idea is more plausible if they merely rise above the air resistance, afterwards remaining at rest and observing the Earth as it parades beneath. For so long as they can be bothered, the lords of Nature hold a continual durbar.

To explain this might offend the censor or part of the audience, and anyhow would hardly fit the style. But the words assume it without any room for compromise. The distance to the Moon is about 60 times the radius of the Earth, as was already known in Classical times, and the Moon goes round the Earth in about 30 days, so the speed of the middle of the Moon’s sphere, the part which carries the Moon, is about twice the speed of the equator, which revolves in a day. So the working fairy does at least half a mile a second, probably two-thirds, and the cruising royalties can in effect go as fast as her, if they need to. Puck claims to go at five miles a second, perhaps seven times what the working fairy does. This seems a working social arrangement. But if all the stars go round the Earth every day, with the Moon and planets lagging only slightly behind, the speed of the Moon’s sphere is about 60 times the speed of Oberon when he remains in the dawn, and the working fairy is going very much faster than the boast of Puck. I agree that the phrases are meant to sound rather mysterious – probably Shakespeare asked the advice of Hariot, who was certainly a friend of Marlowe – but they would not be meant to be sheer nonsense, as has for so long been assumed.

Coming now​ to the flights of Puck, I am sorry that I must just assert conclusions, but the evidence is rather lengthy. Puck really did fly – that is, get jerked aside on a rope. This was easy in the hall of a mansion, where he could be caught by three strong men behind a curtain, but it was an achievement of the Globe Theatre to make him do it in public, flying into one of the upper lords’ rooms. The trick was dangerous and impressive, and quite enough to prevent you from regarding the fairies as footling. Also it was a challenge to a third act of censorship, as would be obvious if this hush-up (unlike the other two) had not triumphed. Puck says he can go anywhere, as far as possible on the round earth, in 40 minutes. Now this is just the speed that Major Gagarin was going at, when he took the first trip in space round the world. Or rather, he took 42 or 43, but the accepted radius of the Earth then was too small by about a seventh, and this makes the answer a bit too small, but it is right if you let the astronaut get above the air – say, 30 miles high.

Hariot had arrived at this important result in 1592 or so, and was refused publication: probably it was the university dons rather than the clerical censorship who said (with some excuse) that his proof was riddled with ignorant fallacies. He was furious, and refused to print anything ever again, though warned that he was losing all his priorities. There must have been some major early incident to make him sulk like this, and his indignant supporters would need a slogan. Hariot would insist upon ‘Forty for Half-Way’ because the figure really was nearer 40 than 39 or 41, whereas to be correct one would have to say ‘79 to go all round’ – a less ringing slogan. Shakespeare, of course, would not use it in a play unless a number of people in the audience would know what it meant, but perhaps he had used it first in a satirical piece to entertain Southampton, in 1592, and merely retained it in the greatly enlarged play for the wedding in 1596. A number of people in that distinguished audience would remember what it meant, though perhaps very few in the Globe of 1600. It is to the credit of Professor Brooks, by the way, that he does not copy out the note: ‘Forty: Used frequently as an indefinite number.’ I should add that the idea of an astronaut, with only enough power to start and stop, would not trouble the mind of Hariot, or indeed of Puck. Opponents of the daily rotation always said that it would throw us off into space, as from a spinning top, and Copernicus had had no answer except that this movement was a natural one and would therefore do no harm. Hariot found the real answer: no one would be thrown off the Earth, even at the equator, unless the Earth went round 18 times faster than it does, which allows a comfortable margin. Five miles a second is the speed at which you have no weight, and if Puck had gone twice as fast he would be struggling all the time not to fly up to Heaven.

Professor Brooks quotes someone who remarked it was ‘boyish’ of Puck, before his second flight, to say:

I go, I go, look how I go!
Swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow.

It is hardly a point of character: surely, if he had said this and then merely scampered off, the Globe audience would have hooted him. This is the strongest bit of evidence that he really flew. It looks as if the second flight was added for the Globe production: partly to give more length, partly because it seemed wasteful not to use the machinery twice, and partly to give each side of the theatre a good view of the trick. Puck is offended at being told he chose the wrong man, and insists that he can clear it up at his immense speed: but it does not really need using at all, to look round the wood. The third Act is now well over six hundred lines, far longer than the others, because to excuse the flight Shakespeare added there an extra complication for the lovers, which I have to feel makes them a bore, undeservedly. Several critics have felt this, and Professor Brooks does not really refute them by showing that the boys and girls argue according to the correct rules of rhetoric. It is a comfort to observe that Puck is so unshaken by his flight as to return after only eight lines: but they are solemn lines, restoring Demetrius to his true love, from whom he switched by no fault of the fairies. The grand smash of the second flight is followed by this priestlike behaviour from Oberon.

A different type of care is taken over the first flight. In Act Two, Scene One, as the audience first sees the magic wood, Puck meets the working fairy and shows how jolly he is in rhymed couplets. Then Titania and Oberon enter from the two sides and quarrel, and Puck says nothing. Then his master calls him up to receive orders, and he behaves like the traditional Scotch head-gardener, respectful but curt, plainly an expert. Of course he talks prose. He says only, ‘I remember,’ before he says: ‘I’ll put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes.’ He must be presumed to fly off at once, and Oberon, absorbed in passion, says: ‘Having once this juice …’ It is a rather lifelike feature that he presumes Puck to have talked blank verse, as he does. Then, when Puck comes back, impossibly quickly, he says:

Oberon: Hast thou the flower there? Welcome, wanderer.

Puck: Ay, there it is.

For the last line of the scene, when Puck has learnt that the intention of the plot is to make Titania ‘full of hateful fantasies’, he is pleased, and rhymes with an approving leer as he leaves his master.

Oberon: And look thou meet me ere the first cock crow.

Puck: Fear not, my lord, your servant shall do so.

He has got back to rhyming, but he has never once used blank verse so far.

We have here a familiar type of textual problem. The first Quarto inserts the word ‘round’, thus making the lines scan:

Puck: I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.

Oberon:                     Having once this juice …

As to the choice between five and ten miles a second, I doubt whether the word ‘round’ makes much difference. The familiar dressing-gown has a girdle held up on slots, and most of the time it goes half-way round, with the ends hanging from the slots. Puck has only in mind going to a far place, not going all round. But it makes a great difference whether he is singing in opera or talking like a Scotch gardener. The second Quarto is only a pirate edition, but it is described by the Riverside, for example, as ‘a reprint of Q1, with a few added stage directions, and an occasional correction of obvious errors’. The intrusive ‘round’ seems to me an obvious error, which might well have been corrected on the text of Q1 available to the pirate. It is still excluded by the Folio, which is admitted to have had further sources of evidence. Even so, Professor Brooks might feel that Q1 is impregnable: but then, why does he not print it? It gives the remark of Puck as prose, even while adding the word which excuses printing it as verse. Both other sources also give it as prose. Granting that he was determined to print it as verse, his apparatus ought to have admitted that it always comes in prose. But he was determined to make the fairy sound ‘charming’.

As to whether it is ‘bestiality’ to love Bottom, many a young girl on the sands at Margate has said to her donkey, unblamed: ‘I kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.’ If the genital action is in view, nobody denies that the genitals of Bottom remained human. The first audience would not have admired Bottom, and nor would I, for letting the thing go so far if unwilling to respond. The sequence is sadly short. After their first contact, she leads him to her bower, and a scowling husband holds them up. They arrive, and he speaks charmingly to a few babies, but then says: ‘I have an exposition of sleep come upon me.’ He often gets words wrong, but you can never be sure, and if he means a pretence of sleep it is greeted by immediate connivance. Titania orders her fays to explode like shrapnel (‘be all ways away’) and hugs him saying: ‘how I dote on thee.’ He is still quiet and cautious, but this is the time for exploring fingers to inquire whether she is solid enough for the purpose, and also whether he is genuinely welcome. This groping process could be made obvious and entertaining, but then the lurking husband comes forward and performs an act of magic. Probably it sounded like a pistol going off, and the audience wondered whether he had killed them, but no, they are only in deep sleep. He at once speaks confidently to Puck, having got what he wanted and settled all the other troubles. Soon after he wakes his wife up, and they are ready to do their tremendous dance.

Kott says that the four lovers, or the six including Titania and Bottom, all wake up in an agony of shame, determined to forget what has happened, because they have had an orgy. It is a wild degree of misreading. No act of sex takes place on the fierce Night, and there is never anything to drink. Bottom really would have felt shame if he had heard what Titania said about him after she woke, but he has been carefully spared from it. He proposes to boast about his memory for the rest of his life. The others all wake up awed, rather exalted, wanting to explain themselves to each other, and we are soon told they had decided they had been teased by spirits. Professor Brooks says archly that of course Shakespeare would add any lie for a dramatic effect: but this only occurs to him because he does not believe in Middle Spirits at all. Among people who did, such as the lovers, it would only be a matter of checking up on the details.

The sex life of the spirits needs also to be considered, but this review is already too long. The book is an excellent one, and the points where it is too much within the tradition can be easily recognised.

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Vol. 31 No. 22 · 19 November 2009

William Empson wrote about Puck’s flight in the LRB, 25 October 1979 – the paper’s first issue.

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