" "As You Like It, " "Divine Comedy, "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "Romeo and Juliet", Baron Hunsdon, Fitzgerald, House of Ormonde, Ireland, Lord Admiral's Men, Lord Chamberlain, Lord Strange's Company, mistletoe, Philip Henslowe, Rose Theatre, Shakespeare, solstice, Viscount Montague, Will Shakespeare
Sun stands still and the length of days alters.
People once paused to contemplate, some to celebrate, the workings of the heavens. They held fire festivals to celebrate these celestial events. Midsummer was no exception. As a rule, the small, tight communities eager for the release, the catharsis, of such festivals are the exception now. We do have, however, Will Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” one of western drama’s most enduring and uplifting plays, to remind us of enchantment.
I always laugh – a 16th century cat fight! An ass the consort of the fairy queen! Earnest and bumbling hempen homespuns! As a story teller I am always intrigued by several elements of the play.
Bottom’s soliloquy when he woke from his enchantment is one of my favorite moments in literature: “I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was – and methought I had – but man is a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was!”
He was so affected that he ‘translated,’ expressed in different words, a verse from St. Paul’s I Corinthians (2:9): “But it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath repaired for them that love him.” What was this enrapturing dream? Did Shakespeare indeed go about to expound it? Are there clues in his work? Equally important, how does the dream connect to the play-within-a-play alluding to “Romeo and Juliet”? This inner production may be there to elicit laughter, but I believe it also informs us of a deeply important subtext.
The first clue is given in the title – Midsummer. By the 16th century fire festivals at Midsummer, to insure fertile crops, had been established traditions for centuries in various parts of Europe, Britain, Scotland, and Ireland. People gathered mistletoe and herbs. They enjoyed music, dancing, games, and story telling.
Men lit bonfires at evening. [Fire does have an effect on the nutrient level of soil in a burn area and the smoke drifting over the crops may have a repellant effect on insects.] One telling and curious custom of these fire festivals, likely a variant of the fertility aspect, was the jumping of the fire. Once the bonfire had burned down a bit, men stripped to the waist and jumped over it, back and forth, three times each way. Women did so as well, when the fire had burned even lower. This was believed to prompt visions of one’s future spouse.
As I consider the play, I feel that the characters of Titania and Oberon, fairy royalty, are another clue. They seem to point to Ireland as the locale for Will’s vision. Fairy lore was a given to most Irish. It offered an explanation for the unseen forces at work in the world. I subscribe to the theory that in the late 1580s Will Shakespeare joined the company of actors commissioned by the Queen herself and known as the Queen’s Men. [The first verifiable address we have for the playwright in London is in Bishopsgate, the same area of one of the two places the Queen’s Men were sanctioned to perform.] The Queen’s Men are known to have travelled to Dublin so it seems a reasonable guess that Will Shakespeare could have been in Dublin, or its environs, with the troupe at a solstice time.
It seems reasonable, as well, that a healthy man of about 25, in the midst of pursuing his dream and out with the guys, participated in the festivities. Perhaps a few drams of mistletoe juice in a strange brew, in the service of his art, expanded his sight.
[Translated … ]
What, pray tell, did he ‘see’? Well, to speak plainly, Bottom’s dream can be described as the vision of an ass.
I have noted that a subtle shift of perception can radically alter an understanding of Shakespeare’s words, and we need to do that now. He had a vision of a ‘bottom,’ an ‘ass,’ that simply translated him. That he paraphrased a Pauline verse in an attempt to describe this vision suggests another clue. It points to a theological definition of the verb ‘translate’: “To convey to heaven without death.”
Upon further contemplation I propose that this vision was of a woman dressed in what he considered male clothing. Given that acting companies were all male, by law, even when the plays included female characters; given the number of feminine characters he created who masqueraded as males; given the sonnets written to a ‘boy,’ I think this is a sound proposal. I think, also, that he alluded to this vision in “Romeo and Juliet” when he wrote (I.i.176-7):”Alas that love, whose view is muffled still,/Should without eyes see pathways to his will.” (Italics mine.)
Let’s not forget the tradition that jumping the bonfire gives visions of one’s future spouse. We know he already had a wife and three children, but there he was, in a wood, at what would turn out to be roughly the middle of his life, looking for a way to make this ‘nonsense’ dreaming life work. I think he had hoped for a vision to guide him along the pathways of his will as the vision of Beatrice guided Dante.
Most likely Shakespeare recognized that, even as the vision was past the wit of man to explain, St. Paul hit the mark with I Cor. 2:10: “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.” The Spirit, that unseen force, searched his heart and presented celestial guidance in the form of a vision of a shapely feminine derriere. As Bottom said, it was past the wit of this man to explain how, exactly, this would help his career.
[ Past the wit of man … ]
For guidance we turn now to “Romeo and Juliet.” The first encounter between Shakespeare and his ‘Dark Lady’ had the characteristics of courtly love. I now think there is an additional nuance. I have the sense that at some point after that Midsummer vision Will was enlisted as liaison for members of the company as they sought to court the support of this wealthy woman with ties to the worshipful companies of cordwainers and vintners. I think the Nurse’s mention of an earthquake (I.iii.25) may be an allusion to the ‘Dark Lady’s’ status as a mover and shaker.
The play’s prologue refers to ‘two households’ of comparable dignity possessing ancient grudges breaking yet again into mutiny. I propose that one explanation for the ‘two households’ would be two play houses. By the late 1580s, early 1590s, the Queen’s Men were in serious decline and their numbers were often augmented by Lord Strange’s company and the Admiral’s Men. Shakespeare thus had close contact with the people and practices of those companies. His employ of the word ‘mutiny’ indicates that he and others of his fellow players were proposing to jump ship.
I have come to think that the ‘Dark Lady’ herself was unhappy with the state of affairs at the Rose Theatre. I get an image of a woman recoiling from a bad smell when ‘Juliet’ says, “That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet.” Further, I wonder if she alluded to possible effects upon Will’s professional reputation when she then said, “So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, Retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title.”
[ What’s in a name? … ]
That is one of the notable themes of “Romeo and Juliet,” the question of “What’s in a name?”
It is interesting to note that Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre, was reputedly associated with the bailiff of Viscount Montague. In fact, Henslowe married said bailiff’s widow. The Admiral’s Men called Henslowe’s Rose Theatre home for a number of years beginning in the late 1580s, and Lord Strange’s Men were associated with them between 1590-1594. Between February and June 1592 the companies were there at the Rose and had acted, among other works, Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy. Shakespeare alluded, I think, to these rival companies in “Midsummer” when he described the lovers’ visions as ‘strange and admirable’ – remove that ‘b’ and that ‘e’ and you have ‘admiral.’
In 1594 a number of players, including Shakespeare himself, joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. They were finished with Henslowe and the Rose.
Surmising those things we now ask Juliet’s question of the Dark Lady herself. What’s in her name? Given that I have theorized that the Dark Lady had familial ties to the House of Ormonde, I say now that her support would have provided much security for these players. The House of Ormonde had familial ties to the Queen herself; Anne Boleyn’s grandmother was one Margaret Butler. Further, the Lord Chamberlain himself, Henry Carey, first Baron Hunsdon, was the Queen’s cousin – the son of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary. Some scholars suggest he was Elizabeth’s half-brother. Whether cousin or half-brother, the Lord Chamberlain was the senior official of the Royal Household.
Association with these two people likely afforded an intimate view of court life. A person may have been able to get closer to the Queen, but not much.
Privately, I wonder if Will’s move to the Lord Chamerlain’s Men was also meant to signal that he stood loyal to the Queen and to the Butlers. The Lord High Admiral (Admiral’s Men), Charles Howard, was related to the Dukes of Norfolk, one of whom had been executed for plotting to marry Mary Queen of Scots and seat her on England’s throne. I note as well that the Lord Admiral’s daughter Frances’ first husband was Henry FitzGerald, a family long engaged with the Butlers in a power struggle in Ireland.
Howard was also distantly related to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, a man born to privilege who ended up banished from court. Oxford’s daughter nearly married another FitzGerald, Gerald FitzGerald. These things make me wonder what Will and his associates saw or heard to prompt them to mutiny.
As Will contemplated telling his and the Dark Lady’s story, I can easily imagine him cocking an eyebrow when he learned of Henslowe’s association with a Montague and again when the Lord Admiral’s daughter married a FitzGerald … “ancient blood breaks to new mutiny.”
[ What’s love got to do with it? …]
So. He was a man, closing in on 30, following his dream. He had some notable professional successes to his credit (those Henry VI plays), and he was, it seems, something of a ‘looker.’ He was, however, in a tight spot. He and his associates needed some solid, well-placed support, preferably the kind with deep pockets. The guys thought they had just the person. They learned she would be attending an ‘old accustomed feast’ and she had indicated she would “look to like if looking liking move.” (“Romeo and Juliet,” I.iv.103) They thought Will was just the guy to talk to her, pitch the idea of supporting them.
Well, thank heaven for chivalry because it gave him something to rescue him when he met her and his heart dropped to his toes – the woman of his Midsummer vision, or as much like her as a woman could get!
The vision became “No more yielding but a dream” (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” V.i.445) – no longer a product only of his dreaming. He wasn’t out of the woods just yet, but he’d found his ‘Beatrice.’ He’d stepped fully onto his path. “Love is my mover, source of all I say.” (Inferno, Canto II.71) I believe Will Shakespeare thought that line fit his experience of his Juliet though Dante had written it centuries earlier.
Too, Dante could have been foretelling the marriage of Will Shakespeare and this Dark Lady when he wrote, “The time, however, was the hour of dawn. The sun was mounting and those springtime stars that rose along with it when Holy Love first moved to being all these lovely things.” (Inferno, Canto I.37-40)
[Let us teach our trial patience … ]
Suddenly, “a spleen unfolds both heaven and earth/And, ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”/The jaws of darkness do devour it up./So quick bright things come to confusion.” (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” I.i.148-151) Confusion? Darkness? Where might we find a clue to the nature of this discord? For myself, I believe the nature of the quarrel is discussed in a later play, “As You Like It,” (II.vii.76-80) in a heated exchange between Jaques and Duke Señor.
Jaques asks, “What woman in the city do I name/When that I say the city-woman bears/The cost of princes on unworthy shoulders?/Who can come in and say I mean her,/When such a one as she such is her neighbor?” Keeping in mind that Juliet/the Dark Lady had ties to two worshipful companies, the cordwainers and the vintners, it is useful also to know that historically the guilds furnished various groups of players with costumes and props for their productions. [See “British Drama,” Allardyce Nicoll.] It appears that the marriage of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with the Dark Lady’s support may have deepened a conflict between play houses. After all, how can hempen homespun compete with princely raiment?
Surrounded by all this rivalry, some of it quite long-standing, Will Shakespeare cannot have done but note that Dante had lived surrounded by rival groups, among them the Montagues and Capulets: “Come! See the Montagues and Capulets, Monaldi, Filippeschi, reckless men, some plunged in misery and some in fear.” (Purgatorio, Canto VI.106-108)
In his notes concerning these verses Robin Kirkpatrick (translator) wrote (p. 545): “The four families were all involved in the rivalry between the Guelf and the Gibellines in thirteenth century Italy. The Montecchi (translated as ‘Montagues’) were Ghibellines from Verona, while the Cappelletti (‘Capulets’) were Guelfs from Cremona.”
Still, however, Love remained Will’s argument, as it had for Dante. Love, the source of Spiritual guidance. Will’s love, a woman he credited as Wisdom, urged, “Then let us teach our trial patience/Because it is a customary cross.”
Barbara Butler McCoy, c. 2014
[[To read posts about Shakespeare’s ‘argument’, click here; about Shakespeare’s ‘courting’ of the Dark Lady, click here; about the Dark Lady’s ‘wealth,’ click here; about the Dark Lady’s pedigree, click here; about the Dark Lady as Shakespeare’s ‘Wisdom,’ click here]]
[Bibliography: Alighieri, Dante. “Divine Comedy.” New York: Penguin Books, 2013; Nicoll, Allardyce. “British Drama.” London: George G. Harrap & co., Ltd, 1962; Shakespeare, William. “As You Like It.” New York: Washington Square Press, 1997; Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” New York: Washington Square Press, 1993; Shakespeare, William. “Romeo and Juliet.” New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.]
[Photos: Top and Center, Barbara Butler McCoy, 2014, from a wall hanging; Bottom, Barbara Butler McCoy, 2012, Dawn.]