"In earlier centuries fairies were taken much more seriously, and well they might be.... They were mysterious forces of nature, usually capricious, often malevolent" (Asimov 26). We meet the mischievous fairy Puck, a king of the elves in Scottish mythology (Asimov 29), and hear of the minor pranks he plays on humans, such as pulling out a stool when someone goes to sit down (II.i.52f). Robin Goodfellow, another name of his, is mentioned in Anthony Munday's comedy Two Italian Gentlemen, printed in 1584 -- and Munday was in Oxford's service then (Clark 624).
Oberon, the king of the fairies, enters fighting with his queen Titania due to jealousies over their respective devotions to Hippolyta and Theseus (II.i.70ff), but also and primarily over a "changeling" boy (II.i.23f). Productions often will have the Theseus and Hippolyta actors doubling with these parts (Garber 215). The argument here includes reference to Theseus' checkered past with the ladies: Ariadne et al. (II.i.77-80). "The playwright could easily have omitted this reference to Theseus' infidelities, which seem so out of character" (Garber 229). The elder Ogburns explain the argument as a representation of the 1583 reconciliation discussion Oxford had with Elizabeth "after bitter words and speeches," "reminding her of her own misdeeds" and thinking of Theseus as Leicester (Ogburn and Ogburn 587).
"At one point Ovid uses the name 'Titania' for the moon, referring to Phoebe.... This, after all, is a moon-drenched play, a tale of fantastic doings in the dim-lit night. It may have pleased Shakespeare to have the Fairy Queen a version of the moon goddess" (Asimov 26-27). The mutual jealousies of Titania and Oberon apparently tend to create havoc in the natural world (II.i.88ff), and weather in England was a misery around the years 1594-1596 (Asimov 32).
And this same progeny of evils comesThe changeling boy is "the object of desire. He represents, in effect, the powerful irrationality of desire itself" (Garber 220). (Maybe not so abstract, say Prince Tudor proponents.) The fairies' argument is at an impasse, and Titania will not relinquish the child. She departs.
From our debate, from our dissention;
We are the parents and original.
Oberon informs Puck that he once heard singing "a mermaid on the back of a dolphin" (II.i.150). In 1575, part of Leicester's entertainment at Kenilworth for Queen Elizabeth was "Arion" singing on the back of a mechanical dolphin (Farina 56). Oberon has Puck fetch a magic potion that will fire up Titania's passion for whatever creature she sees upon first waking:
That very time I saw (but thou couldst not),
The passage is the most direct homage to Queen Elizabeth in the canon (Asimov 33). [And note the reference to "leviathan" also (II.i.174), which connects Polonius with Lord Burghley in Hamlet.] "Love-in-idleness" is identified in glosses as the pansy, whose name comes from the French "pensée" -- thought/to think on (hence, forget-me-not), but also thought expressed in literary form.
She passes on, and remains fancy-free; the arrow of Cupid, unable to wound the Virgin Queen, instead converts the pansy into a universal love charm. It is as though Elizabeth's choice of chastity opens up a cosmos of erotic possibilities for others, but at the high cost of accident and arbitrariness replacing her reasoned choice. Love at first sight, exalted in Romeo and Juliet, is pictured here as calamity. (Bloom 159)In any case, Oberon's plan is to slip Titania a mickey: the juice of the flower placed on a sleeper's eyes will make the victim fall in love with whatever it first sees when woken -- even a lion or a bear or an ape. "But why should Oberon, who is not jealous of Theseus, and is willing to be cuckolded by Titania's enchantment, feel so fiercely in regard to the changeling's custody? Shakespeare will not tell us" (Bloom 157). The changeling is called Titania's "page" at one point (II.i.185).
The fairies are invisible to Demetrius and to Helena who pursues him. He is looking for Hermia: "Thou toldst me they were stol'n unto this wood; / And here am I, and wode within this wood" (II.i.191-192). So Demetrius puns on the issue of madness; "the move is not merely a physical one from the court to the country, it is also a move of the mind, pointed by a pun" (Wells 65; cf. Garber 217). Helena insists, "I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius, / The more you beat me, I will fawn on you. / Use me but as your spaniel; spurn me, strike me..." (II.i.203-205). Not the healthiest of relationships! Helena laments her female state:
We cannot fight for love, as men may do.Oberon witnesses this pathetic situation and plans to reverse it with the potion so that Demetrius will pursue Helena instead. Puck returns with the potion and is instructed to dose the Athenian youth. Oberon will dose Titania.
We should be woo'd, and were not made to woo.
I'll follow thee and make a heaven of hell,
To die upon the hand I love so well.
The name Oberon comes a French softening of the Teutonic "Alberich" in Huon of Bordeaux, translated into English in 1540. He is said to have been born to Julius Caesar and Morgan le Fay! (Asimov 27-28). Instead of the "Auberon" form, Shakespeare uses a combination of "O" and "Beron" (= Berown, the self-portrait in Love's Labor's Lost?). In the late 1700s, Oberon and Titania were appointed as the names of Uranus' two outermost satellites (Asimov 28).
Titania and her entourage engage in important ritualistic fairy work.
The play contains three references to musk-roses, including one here
(II.ii.3; cf. II.i.252, IV.i.3), and no other play mentions them even
once. "In 1582, Hakluyt gave the date of the introduction of the musk-rose
into England as being then quite recent. Lord Burghley, with his marvellous
gardens, would have been among the first to own specimens of the fragrant
new flower, and there Lord Oxford would have seen it" (Clark 625; cf.
Ogburn and Ogburn 594).
The fairies sing Titania to sleep. Oberon enters and sprinkles her eyelids with the pansy juice.
Hermia and Lysander approach and are ready to sleep also, if Hermia can convince Lysander to "Lie further off" (II.ii.44, 57). Puck comes upon them and thinks Lysander, "this lack-love, this kill-courtesy" (II.ii.77), is the Athenian youth Oberon meant. He doses him.
Helena continues her pursuit of Demetrius and also comes across the sleeping couple. So the first thing Lysander sees on waking is Helena, and now he pursues her, much to her confusion. What about Hermia? "Content with Hermia? No; I do repent / The tedious minutes I with her have spent" (II.ii.111-112). Helena even thinks that this is some kind of "mockery" of her (II.ii.123), and she runs off. Lysander views the sleeping Hermia:
For as a surfeit of the sweetest thingsHe runs off in pursuit of Helena. Hermia wakes up from a bad dream that intrigues psychoanalytic critics, calling for Lysander's help "To pluck this crawling serpent from my breast" (II.ii.146); "Methought a serpent eat my heart away, / And you sate smiling at his cruel prey" (II.ii.148-149). But no one is around.
The deepest loathing to the stomach brings,
Or as the heresies that men do leave
Are hated most of those they did deceive,
So thou, my surfeit and my heresy,
Of all be hated, but the most of me!