Shakespeare’s Fairies as Dreams

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare - 1781

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare - 1781

We see them only at the edge of sight, in dreams, so it’s no wonder that we are often confused by them. But the Bard did a turn with dreams of various sorts, and in his sight was keener than most others. See how he did his research:

Henry Fuseli - Fairy Mab - c1815-20

Henry Fuseli - Fairy Mab - c1815-20

“O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;”
— William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s Speech

But Mab, she seems to have been plucked out of that nowhere we visit each night (which is her realm). But it was good enough for at least one other poet with a gothic tale.

Turner - Queen Mab's Cave

J. M. W. Turner, Queen Mab's Cave, 1846

Behold the chariot of the Fairy Queen!
Celestial coursers paw the unyielding air;
Their filmy pennons at her word they furl
And stop obedient to the reins of light;
These the Queen of Spells drew in;
She spread a charm around the spot,
And, leaning graceful from the ethereal car,
Long did she gaze, and silently,
Upon the slumbering maid.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem; With Notes

Arthur Rackham, A Fairy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1906

Perhaps even the Bard was confused for there is another with that title named Titania. Or perhaps Faerie is broad enough for multiple monarchs. At any rate, more celebrated than Mab, and older than any modern literature, is Oberon’s consort, whose dreams are made from fairies’ lullabies:

Henry Fuseli - Titania Awakening - 1785-90

Henry Fuseli - Titania Awakening - 1785-90

Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg’d spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.
— William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

But it’s well she were asleep, for in other forms that goddess is also the huntress we dare not bother as she bathes:

Hendrick van Balen -- Diana and Actaeon

Hendrick van Balen -- Diana and Actaeon

While Titania is bathing there, in her accustomed place, Cadmus’s grandson, free of his share of the labour, strays with aimless steps through the strange wood, and enters the sacred grove. So the fates would have it. As soon as he reaches the cave mouth dampened by the fountain, the naked nymphs, seeing a man’s face, beat at their breasts and filling the whole wood with their sudden outcry, crowd round Diana to hide her with their bodies. But the goddess stood head and shoulders above all the others. Diana’s face, seen there, while she herself was naked, was the colour of clouds stained by the opposing shafts of sun, or Aurora’s brightness.
— Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 3

The Meeting of Oberon and Titania, by Arthur Rackham (1905)

Since Theseus is also referenced later in tale, it seems Ovid and Shakespeare had the same dream (or perhaps Shakespeare read rather widely, but that’s between us). At any rate, sweet dreams.

Image Links: Arthur Rackham at ArtsyCraftsy, Henry Fuselli at Art History Archive, Hendrick van Balen at Hellenica

1 Comment

Filed under arthur rackham, fairies, fairy tales, Illustrations, myth, mythology

One response to “Shakespeare’s Fairies as Dreams

  1. Ms.

    THIS IS SUCH A BEAUTIFUL SITE! I’m certainly saying anything you don’t already know. I also just discovered the Artsy Craftsy page and email postcard give away. How very generous of you. I posted a link to you on my own modest blog, and will put it up in the next few days. Thank you for the inspiration.
    Ms.

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