The Fairy Queen

Theatre goers today flock to productions of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play of high and low society, magic, and love.  But in the seventeenth century, the play was in eclipse, driven off the stage by changing tastes, civil war, and closed theatres.  When elements of the play were performed, they often appropriated the low humor of the mechanicals and little else.  When Thomas Betterton and Henry Purcell created their spectacular operatic entertainment entitled The Fairy Queen, they chose to use parts of Shakespeare’s play as a framework for song and extravagant stage effects.  The only two licensed acting companies in London had recently merged, making it possible to take advantage of every imaginable trick available.  

The hilarious opening number, the Drunken Poet, owes little to Shakespeare, save the pesky teasing of the fairies, who in Shakespeare’s play pranks as instructed by Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies.  Instead it draws its inspiration from the lively tradition of satire in the age of the Restoration, which often featured attacks by one poet on a comrade for bad taste, bad verse and general misbehavior.  Act 2 features a version of the fairies attending to their queen, Titania, singing, encouraging witty exchanges, and then lulling her to sleep, a scene drawn from Dream.  Act 3 presents an allusion to the mismatched lovers in Dream: Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena, as the soprano sings of the torments of love.

But the effect of the Fairy Queen was less literary then spectacular, as the stage direction following the lover’s lament indicates: “While the symphony is being played the two swans come closer, swimming through the arches, and approach the bank.  They are about to come alongside when they turn toward the fairies and dance with them.  At this moment the bridge vanishes and the arched bushes stand upright.  Four wild men enter and frighten the fairies away. They, too, execute a dance before running off.”  Some fun!

The courtship song of Mopsa and Coridan is standard comedy, presenting yokels making love.  Here it is likely that the British penchant for cross-dressing would add some silliness.  Of course, in many of Shakespeare’s comedies, rustics behave comically, but in Dream, the most important instance is the courtship by Titania of Bottom the Weaver while the latter has had his head transformed into that of an ass.  Inspired by the example of Mopsa and Coridon, Queen Titania and Bottom as ass retire to a lovers’ nest off stage.

With stage directions calling for fountains of water to cascade about, over and through the greenery and statuary, the music celebrates the birthday of King Oberon.  Crucially, the birthday is actually that of King William, who with his wife Mary, were also celebrating their wedding anniversary.  So Purcell and Betterton did what all good musicians and poets do: they compliment the royals fulsomely.  The Sun appears and is praised for managing the seasons so well; once again, the music and stagecraft focus on King William, who, like his famous French counterpart (Louis XIV) was understood to be a version of the all-powerful sun.  Act V is a prolonged marriage song, or epithalamion, in honor of William and Mary.  When Chinese women appear on stage, it may be a way of alluding to Queen Mary’s extensive collection of Chinese porcelain.  Of course, the final act of Shakespeare’s Dream also contains and celebrates marriages, so the two, opera and play, unite in theme at their conclusions.

Professor John C. Ward

March 28, 2014