A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, although for well over a century, until it was restored in 1840, it was only performed in part, or in various adaptations. It was most probably written shortly after Romeo and Juliet, in 1595 or 1596. Its popularity has been reflected in the proliferation of adaptations and derivatives, and in painting it inspired a sub-genre of ‘faery painting’ which flourished in the nineteenth century.
Because there are so many fine paintings, this article covers the plot and paintings up to the moment that Titania is sung to sleep by her fairies, and tomorrow’s sequel completes the remainder of the play.
Four days before Theseus, Duke of Athens, and the Amazon Queen Hippolyta are due to be married, they are visited by Egeus, his daughter Hermia, and her two suitors Demetrius and Lysander. Hermia wants to marry the latter, but her father insists that she is wed to Demetrius. Under ancient Athenian law, her father can and does want her to be put to death unless she complies with his wishes. The Duke agrees with him, offering her a third choice of taking a vow of eternal celibacy instead of marriage or death.
Lysander and Hermia decide to meet in the woods the following night, so they can elope and marry. They entrust their secret to Hermia’s close friend Helena, who decides to tell Demetrius in the hope that he will be more receptive to her affection for him.
Washington Allston’s painting of the friends Hermia and Helena shows their close friendship in a beautiful wooded landscape.
Edward Poynter’s Helena and Hermia from 1901 also depicts their friendship with a little symbolism: a ball of red thread lies partly unwound on the ground at the lower right, representing difficulties in the course of love.
A theatrical group led by Quince the carpenter meets to agree the cast for the play Pyramus and Thisbe to be performed at the Duke’s wedding. Bottom, a weaver, gains the role of Pyramus, and they agree to rehearse in the woods together.
In the same woods is Robin Goodfellow, also known as a puck, a mischievous sprite serving the fairy King Oberon.
Richard Dadd’s Puck was exhibited at the Society of British Artists in 1841, accompanied by a quotation from Act 2 Scene 1:
I do wander every where
Swifter than the moon’s sphere,
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The puck is shown sitting on a toadstool, with nude fairies dancing around it. In the four corners are figures resembling river gods. This was well received, although one influential critic warned Dadd that he had to be cautious of the boundary of the absurd.
Joseph Noel Paton’s Puck and Fairies, from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” from about 1850 presents a wonderful collection of grotesquely humorous figures sat around a large toadstool, with a paler and naked fairy in the foreground.
There the puck meets a fairy maid of the Queen Titania. The king and queen are in dispute over her refusal to part with an Indian changeling child who attends her, and when they meet they quarrel again over their relationships with Hippolyta and Theseus. This arguing has confused the seasons, but still they fail to make peace with one another. Once the queen has left, Oberon decides to rub magic herbal juice into the queen’s eyelids when she’s asleep, to make her fall in love with the next creature she meets.
Joseph Noel Paton’s The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (1849) is an elaborate fantasy work typical of faery painting. The changeling is hiding behind Titania, as she argues with the king.
Shortly afterwards, Richard Dadd, painting during his confinement in London’s Bethlem hospital for the mentally ill, made one of his few oil paintings, of Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (1854-8). This develops his early faerie paintings into a new and unique style, and was painted for the hospital’s first resident Physician-Superintendent, William Charles Hood.
There’s hardly a square millimetre of canvas into which Dadd hasn’t squeezed yet another curious detail. Like other great imaginative painters (Bosch, for instance) before, Dadd’s dense details dart about in scale: there are tiny figures next to huge leaves and butterflies, and towards the top of the tondo these distortions of scale generate an exaggerated feeling of perspective.
The contradiction of the title refers to the conflict between Oberon and Titania over the changeling child. Titania (inevitably somewhat masculine) stands just to the right of centre, the boy bearing her skirts. To the left of centre is the bearded figure of Oberon, an elfin lad holding him back by his right arm. At the right are Helena and Demetrius, their love remaining unrequited.
Beyond those central figures is an overwhelming mass of detail, miniature scenes and stories involving hundreds of extras, flowers (including the ‘Morning Glory’ convulvulus at the feet of Titania), leaves, an ornate Swallowtail butterfly, a floating jade egg, fungi, and far more. Descriptors like hallucinatory and surreal spring to mind, and have been used in accounts of this remarkable painting.
Demetrius and Helena are in the woods in search of Hermia and Lysander, without success. Oberon sees Demetrius telling Helena off, and decides to apply some of the same herbal juice to his eyelids to make him fall in love with her.
The fairies attending Titania sing her to sleep, allowing Oberon to drop the herbal juice onto her eyelids.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.