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In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the love juice is a liquid so potent that no being can resist its effects, not even the fairies, who wield a considerable amount of power over nature. This love juice can be seen as a device that Shakespeare uses as a way of representing the vagaries of romantic love, as it allows Shakespeare to freely manipulate the love interests of his characters to showcase how absurd love can be. This effect is achieved through the pairing of unlikely couples in the play, such as the pairing of Lysander with Helena, but these pairings pale in comparison to the jarring pairing of Titania and Bottom.
One of the techniques utilized by Shakespeare to present the coupling of these two characters as an oddity is through the usage of dramatic and situational irony. Even at the very beginning of the scene, the irony is painfully obvious to the audience because Titania’s description of Bottom as an ‘angel’ cannot possibly be further away from the truth. This is exceptionally effective given that it takes place immediately after the Mechanicals proclaim the transformed Bottom to be a monstrous creature, as the antithesis emphasizes how deluded Titania’s state of mind is. Bottom, unaware of the fairy queen’s presence, sings on, and the reference to the cuckoo bird in his song can be seen as a foreshadowing of the cuckoldry that is about to unfold. This is situationally ironic because Bottom is blissfully unaware of the fact that he himself will take part in this cuckoldry (Oberon is cuckolded by Titania). It is also worth noting that although this would have generated a considerable amount of laughter from an Elizabethan audience, the foreshadowing would have probably escaped unnoticed by a modern audience due to the reduced usage of the word in recent times. A modern audience would more likely react to Bottom’s singing instead, especially if the director chooses to have the actor sing his lines horrendously. This decision would certainly highlight the irony of Titania’s request for Bottom to ‘sing again’. Besides that, the director can choose to have the actress playing Titania to gently stroke Bottom’s donkey ears as she says the line ‘So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape’ to demonstrate how ironic it is that the fairy queen admires the very features that frightened the Mechanicals out of their wits. Titania’s hyperbolic speech ends with her declaration of her love for Bottom, which might either cause the audience to cringe out of discomfort, or to laugh heartily at the absurdity of it all. Either way, it forces the audience to acknowledge the fact that Titania and Bottom are awfully mismatched as a couple.
Immediately after Titania’s speech, Bottom acts as a mouthpiece for insight by commenting that ‘reason and love keep little company together nowadays’. This epiphany is ironic, because Bottom has always been the silliest of all characters, yet in this scene he is the most logical. When the audience juxtaposes Bottom’s sensible views against that of Lysander’s irrational belief that ‘reason’ made him switch lovers, it actually slants Bottom in a positive light. Hence, it can be said that Bottom’s role has been promoted to the voice of reason in the eyes of the audience, whereas Titania’s role has been reduced to that of a pathetic lover. For example, Titania’s claim that the moon is ‘lamenting some enforced chastity’ implies that she is grateful to be romantically involved with Bottom, and pities the other beings in the world who are not lucky enough to consummate their love or who are in romantic relationships against their will. This is ironic because Titania would not have willfully entered into a romantic affair with Bottom had she not been under the influence of the love juice. In fact, when she returns to her normal state of mind, she is astonished by Bottom’s grossness, which reveals to the audience that the real Titania would most definitely have been against the relationship. The difference between what she is saying and the truth of the matter drives home the point that the duo are terribly unsuited for each other, so much so that the union would never have happened under normal circumstances.
Besides the usage of irony, Shakespeare also utilises the gap between their social statuses to make the pairing seem absolutely bizarre. This is first signaled to the audience through Titania’s usage of verse and Bottom’s usage of prose, as the audience is more likely to associate characters who speak in verse with the upper class, and characters who speak in prose with the common folk. Although the difference is evident enough between the two when Titania speaks in blank verse, Shakespeare decides to take it one step further by making Titania speak in rhyming couplets while she persuades Bottom to stay in the woods with her, which enhances the discrepancy between her and Bottom. If the audience has not by now figured out that they are from utterly distinct social classes, all doubt is cleared when Titania herself explicitly speaks of this disparity. In the scene, she admits that she is a ‘spirit of no common rate’, therefore as an effort to elevate Bottom up to her level, she will then ‘purge (his) mortal grossness so’. The antithesis employed by Titania shows that she is entirely aware of their dissimilarity in terms of social stature, yet she is still extremely keen on going forward with their relationship. Naturally, since Titania is so powerful an individual, it is Titania’s wishes who will be fulfilled at the end of the scene. Her power is implied through the line ‘I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee’, and the director can choose to amplify the implication through the casting of adult men as the four fairies (which Adrian Noble chose to do in his 1994 production). It can be argued that this is more effective than the conventional casting of children as fairies in conveying the extent of Titania’s influence, as a leader of adults is easily considered more formidable than a leader of children. Moreover, the notable difference in tone is also successful in communicating the imbalance of power between Titania and Bottom. Titania has a tendency of using imperatives (‘Nod to him’) whereas Bottom does not, which is in contrast with Theseus and Hippolyta’s relationship, for Theseus is the one who frequently uses imperatives. The portrayal of Titania as the dominant party in her romantic relationship might feel empowering for the female members of the audience, whereas the male members of the audience might feel intimidated. This reversal in the typical power dynamics of a couple (in Elizabethan times) serves to advance Shakespeare’s point that the pairing of Titania and Bottom is awfully unnatural.
Perhaps the most glaring difference between Titania and Bottom is not that the both of them are from different social classes, but that they come from different realms. This can be made immediately apparent to the audience through the physicality of the actors. For example, to bring out the fairies’ ethereal quality, Granville-Barker (who staged the play in 1914) had the fairies covered in gold paint and in places actual gold leaf. Therefore, when the aesthetically-pleasing Titania is contrasted with the ass-headed Bottom, the audience cannot help but feel that they are incompatible with each other. Conversely, some productions may choose to focus on the language to remind the audience that they are in the fairies’ realm. This is achieved through the abundance of natural imagery found in Titania’s speech and the names of her fairies. The diction used by Titania in her speech (‘apricocks’ ‘dewberries’ ‘green figs’) reflects the natural environment that she is in, and the constant references to fruits could be Shakespeare’s way of insinuating sexual desire and fertility. In fact, figs are sometimes associated with Priapus, a satyr from Greek mythology who symbolized sexual desire. Furthermore, Titania’s line ‘To have my love to bed, and to arise;’ could contain a sexual innuendo. It is also worth noting that Bottom’s ass-head could be an allusion to Lucius from Apuleius’ Golden Ass, who was punished for his foolish curiosity and sexual indulgence by being transformed into an ass. These suggestions regarding the lovers’ carnal desires encourages the audience to contemplate the possibility of Titania and Bottom having sexual relations, and the connotation of bestiality would most likely disgust the audience, especially those from the Victorian era.
On the other hand, the names of the fairies are relatively free of sexual connotations. Instead, they provide an opportunity for Bottom to tell satirical jokes as he relates their names to the mortal world. For instance, he teases Cobweb by saying that he will use him to bandage his wounds, which is a joke that would have been perfectly understood by the Elizabethan audience as cobwebs were used to stop bleeding back then. However, a modern audience might not understand the reference, and would probably be more appreciative of the following joke where Bottom claims that Mustardseed’s kindred ‘hath made (his) eyes water ere now’. This joke would have made the audience raucous with laughter, for it sounds like Bottom is crying over the loss of Mustardseed’s family members, but it could also mean that the strength of the mustard is so great that it made his eyes water. Hence, it can be said that Bottom’s snide comments actually provide a plane of reality for the audience members, while constantly reminding them of how ridiculous the entire situation is.
Overall, all the ironies lead to an underlying and overarching sense of cognitive dissonance that convinces the audience of the illogicality of the coupling. Titania and Bottom clearly serve as foils towards each other, and the contrast between their statuses and realms makes the situation seem even more otherworldly and strange, which helps to enforce that sense of ridiculousness so prevalent throughout the scene. In conclusion, Shakespeare has skillfully conveyed his point about the absurdity of love through the unlikely pairing of Bottom and Titania.
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