By Stephanie Chidester
Toward the end of The Merry Wives of Windsor, William Shakespeare created a pretend fairy world, an entertainment devised by Mistress Page and Mistress Ford for the humiliation and reformation of Falstaff and for the fat rogue’s integration into the play’s middle-class community. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare crafted a genuine fairy kingdom, and all those who enter it emerge in some way transformed and enlightened.
Oberon, king of the fairies, directs the transformations in the play; he is the chief arbiter in his magical forest, particularly in matters of love. When he spies Helena pursuing her former suitor through the woods, he pities her and declares, “Ere he do leave this grove, / Thou shalt fly him, and he shall seek they love” (The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972], 2.l.245-46). And accordingly, when the lovers leave the forest, Demetrius’s affections are once more focused upon Helena.
However, even the king and queen of the fairies are not without love troubles; their first encounter in the play is marked with such comments as Titania’s “Why art thou here / . . . But that, forsooth, the bouncing Amazon, / Your buskined mistress and your warrior love, / To Theseus must be wedded” (2.l.68, 70-72) and Oberon’s “How canst thou thus for shame, Titania, / Glance at my credit with Hippolyta, / Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?” (2.1.74-76). In addition, Titania is withholding from Oberon a beautiful changeling boy whom he wants for his court.
Oberon deals with these troubles in much the same way as he does with the mortals’: he plans to place a love spell upon Titania; and, while she is engrossed with some monstrous lover, he will ask her for the changeling, and then “all things shall be peace” (3.2.377). The fairy king may occasionally put his own interests above those of all others, but his designs always seem to work out exactly as he intends—happily.
If Oberon is the director of the action, Puck is his chief actor, and one who doesn’t mind taking a bit of creative license. He is a spirit who, while generally obedient, thrives on mischief and delights in pranks: while assisting Oberon in his plan for Titania to “wake when some vile thing is near”(2.2.34), Puck changes Bottom’s head into that of an ass rather than finding the “cat, or bear, / Pard, or boar” (2.2.30-31) that Oberon suggests for the purpose. Also, in Act II, Puck innocently drops the love potion intended for Demetrius into Lysander’s eyes, causing the latter to reject Hermia and fall in love with Helena. When Oberon berates him for his “knaveries,” Puck explains, “Believe me, king of shadows, I mistook, . . . [But] so far am I glad it so did sort, / As this their jangling I esteem a sport" (3.2.347, 352-53).
However selfish the motives or means may be, a benevolent objective is invariably achieved. Lysander falls back in love with Hermia, and Demetrius with Helena; Titania relinquishes her changeling boy and resumes peaceful and loving relations with Oberon; and even Bottom, “the shallowest thickskin of that barren sort” (3.2.13), is enlightened by his experience with the fairy queen: he expresses his new (albeit rudimentary) level of awareness, “I have had a most rare vision. . . . 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" (4.1.207-208, 214-17). As Peter Levi explains, “The wood where Oberon is king is one where all travelers get lost, and love is a wood where all travelers get lost, though it may have a happy ending" (The Life and Times of William Shakespeare [New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988], 138).
To put the finishing touch on this happy ending, all the fairies visit Theseus’s palace and end the play with song and dance, just as Bottom and the mechanicals ended their theatrical effort with the Bergomask dance. Oberon, having resolved the present problems, now ensures a joyful future: “To the best bride-bed will we, / Which by us shall blessed be; / And the issue there create / Ever shall be fortunate. / So shall all the couples three / Ever true in loving be" (5.1.403-410).