Shakespeare on

Midsummer’s Music and Magic

“We danced all night to a soul fairy band.”

—Bruce Springsteen, “Spirit in the Night”

When Shakespeare wrote about fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he didn’t just imagine a lone sprite wreaking havoc, or a handful of meddlesome goblins. He created a whole fae society, with a king and queen, politics, and an ongoing disagreement between the rulers. Their interaction with humanity was a combination of enchantments, mistakes, and frantic attempts to put things right.

He also indirectly gave them music.

I say indirectly, since there are no actual fairy tunes included in the play. None of the instrumental music used in Shakespeare’s original productions has survived, either, so we really have no idea what tunes his fairies might have danced to. But the importance of music to them is right there in the text.

In Act II, Scene 1, the fairy queen Titania scolds Oberon, her king and husband, about one of his past sexual misadventures, saying:

“…I know
When thou hast stolen away from fairy land,
In the shape of Corin sat all day,
Playing on pipes of corn and versing love
To amorous Phillida.”

Clearly Oberon knew one of the great immutable cosmic truths about both human beings and fairies: then as now, chicks dig musicians. In fact, given his status as an immortal, perhaps he’s the reason for that. And apparently it’s also always been true that you can’t trust a married musician on the road.

It’s not mentioned, but there’s some textual basis for the idea that Oberon caught Titania’s eye the same way he did Phillida’s. In Act III, Scene 1, when Bottom the weaver has been transformed by Puck into a human being with the head of a donkey (or, in the play’s wink-wink-nudge-nudge play-on-words term, “an ass”), he wanders through the woods singing. Titania, enchanted to fall in love with the first living creature she sees, says in a famous quote:

“I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again:
Mine ear is much enamour’d of thy note.”

Even though she’s under a spell, it seems reasonable to assume that Titania has a predilection for a man with a tune.

And Oberon is no dilettante; his love for music is genuine. Later in Act II, Scene 1, he describes being enraptured by a mermaid’s song:

“Once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music.”

(There’s no evidence that he followed this with, “Hey, baby, you know we were mermaid for each other.” But it wouldn’t surprise me.)

Titania, as well as being a fan, also understands the importance and power of music. When describing the discord wrought in nature by the way her feud with Oberon has interrupted the fairies’ regular dancing, she says:

“The winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs.”

So the fairies’ dance, like the mermaid’s song, has a purpose: to create and maintain harmony in nature. And when that dancing is disrupted, nature, in essence, strikes back. This discord extends to humanity as well, because at the same time, “No night is now with hymn or carol blest.” So to paraphrase an old Southern saying about Mama, when the fairies ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

After the transforming spell has been removed and Bottom is back to normal, he’s convinced that his whole experience has been, as in the title, a dream. Like all of us, he struggles to retain this “dream” once he’s awake, and plans to turn it into a song.

“I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of
this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream,
because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the
latter end of a play, before the duke.”

Of course, this doesn’t happen. The dream fades, as they all do, and takes its music with it. But that doesn’t mean there was no magic in it, and that the next song won’t be just as magical.

I’ve seen many performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; I’ll watch it anytime, in just about any form. I’ve heard all sorts of music used for it, from attempts at period, through Mendelssohn’s classic pieces, up to pop music from various eras. And you know what? At some level, they all work. Because that’s the thing about fairies: their magic is subtle. What affects one person deeply may not even register on another. But if you believe, like J.M. Barrie taught us, you may find that they reach you through the least likely means.

And you may find yourself singing and dancing along.

Image: Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake

Alex Bledsoe is author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny, Wake of the Bloody Angel, and He Drank, and Saw the Spider), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the Tufa novels (The Hum and the Shiver and Wisp of a Thing).


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