So, Will Shakespeare went to Ireland, jumped the bonfire at Midsummer, and was subsequently transfixed by a glorious vision of a woman’s dazzling derriere – all as he sought guidance about his career path. The guidance he received knocked him on his bottom, as he indicated, but we see over four centuries later that it worked out well for him.
What about his Dark Lady, his Love? I theorized earlier that both of them may have been “touched by the fey.” Might there be evidence in either or both of these closely aligned plays, “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” to indicate whether she had a vision, and if so, its nature? I believe there is.
Juliet’s Nurse offers an essential clue when she mentions the feast of Lammas three times in the course of the scene wherein we meet Juliet (I.iii.16, 19, 23). Lammas is the Christian name for a harvest festival known to Irish and Scots as Lughnasadh, traditionally held on 1 August. It is said the festival originated in an area of County Meath in Ireland when the ancient Sun God Lugh held funeral rites, with games and feasting, for his mother, the goddess Taultiu. In addition to the feasting and celebrating, Lughnasadh was a time to forge and seal contracts, do business, and enter into marriage.
Will Shakespeare alludes to the usual Lughnasadh marriage ceremony in his depiction of Ovid’s story of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” At Lughnasadh, however, the man and woman did more than speak to one another through a hole in the wall. They clasped hands and agreed to a trial marriage of one year. At the end of the year, had the marriage not suited them, perhaps for reasons of fertility, they met at the wall, turned their backs to it and walked away.
There are two points which support an argument associating the Dark Lady’s vision with Lughnasadh. First, Lugh is a Sun God. This corresponds to the characterization of Juliet as “the sun.” Secondly, Lugh is depicted at times as a cobbler. This corresponds to the Dark Lady’s association with the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, or shoemakers. It is reasonable, I think, that a woman with Celtic ancestry, Celtic blood, would be inclined to observe ancient Celtic festivals. Given the inclusion of contract negotiations in the mix, it makes sense that a “mover and shaker” would attend such an event.
We now have geographic and seasonal points of reference for the Dark Lady’s vision: Ireland at Lughnasadh for business and personal reasons. We find a stunning clue to the nature of her vision as it relates to her personal life in “Midsummer.” Recall from my immediately preceding post that she had agreed to align herself with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It seems that, over time, she began to fall in love with a certain Warwickshire playwright.
How was she to deal with these feelings? They were both married and of different social standing. Too, he was very self-disciplined.
Try the ancient rituals.
“And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes,” Oberon says (II.i.265), “And make her full of hateful fantasies.” (II.i.266). No glorious ‘beefcake’ vision for her, just ‘hateful fantasies.’ These two lines are crucial because they echo Juliet’s description of her Romeo as her “only love sprung from my only hate.” ‘Hate,’ recall, was the pronunciation of the ‘Hath’ of ‘Hathaway.’ The otherworldly guidance she received about this Shakespeare fellow’s marriage held fantastic visions of hatefulness.
It is tantalizing yet understandable that Will Shakespeare leaves us with just these glimpses into the Dark Lady’s private thoughts. He had to protect her, after all. In the next act he does offer up another intriguing nugget of otherworldly revelation, this time regarding her public life. Now, I must say that although I have read and seen this play many times, this bit escaped my notice until this latest reading.
Robin/Puck has witnessed Queen Titania’s enamored embrace of Bottom the Weaver. He described his mischief to Oberon – he took Pyramus at a disadvantage and “An ass’s noll I fixed on his head.” (III.ii.17) As the event unfolded Bottom’s companions, “When they him spy/As wild geese that the creeping fowler eye … So at his sight away his fellows fly.” (III.ii.19-20, 24)
Wild geese? The wild geese spoken of in Act II of “Romeo and Juliet”? (II.iv.73-76) I take this to be affirmation that Shakespeare did indeed intend to refer to Irish soldiers, mercenaries. I consider this now, however, in the light of my theory that after a sojourn in Ireland Will Shakespeare and some of the company deliberately chose to join the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and seek this feminine mover and shaker’s support, placing themselves close to the Queen.
I recall, too, my conjecture that there may have been a “Roe” who’d coveted the Dark Lady against her wishes. That conjecture gains weight, I feel, when I consider the reported activities of Hugh Roe O’Donnell, and the timing of those activities. He and the O’Neill (Earl of Tyrone) were on the cusp of open rebellion at about the time Will Shakespeare saw “strange and admirable” things that visionary Midsummer. Discontent would have been simmering for a time; the rebellion would not have burst out suddenly in full force. The O’Neill controlled land in northern Ireland – Tyrone and Londonderry. This area butted up to and included some of Donegal in the west, land Hugh Roe O’Donnell’s people called home. O’Donnell was active as far as Munster on the southern coast. Between the two of them they would seem to have tried to influence a significant area of the island.
It is understandable, then, that the O’Donnell would have thought that the pence and presence of a pedigreed, beautiful, wise and popular woman with an ancient Irish lineage would be an immeasurable asset to the cause.
However, he, like the county Paris, was rejected.
Yes, it would have been disappointing to have her reject their cause, but why does Shakespeare characterize it as taking flight? Sure, geese fly, but I think it was more than that. Robin/Puck described it thusly: ”Their sense thus weak, lost with their fears thus strong … I led them on in this distracted fear.” (III.ii.27-28, 33)
Their reaction to the alliance between the Dark Lady and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men surpassed simple disappointment and strengthened their fears. To understand this we must step back and contemplate the basic action and setting of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – vision and Ireland, otherworldly influence on sight in Ireland.
It is a fair bet that any student of Celtic culture will, at some point, encounter tales of people possessing “the sight.” In fact, some of the rituals connected with the various festivals throughout the year were meant to aid the achievement of these visions. These visions were given serious credit, however puzzling they may have seemed at first. (Witness Will Shakespeare’s vision!)
We can see that the Dark Lady sought a vision, guidance. We also can surmise that the O’Donnell sought her alliance. Shakespeare’s emphasis on sight suggests that she had a reputation for, shall we say, seeing clearly. I would characterize it that the Dark Lady possessed considerable powers of unerring discernment. Her choices, her alliances were strong indicators of the paths to come.
We do not know why the O’Donnell’s “suit” was rejected. There were likely a myriad of reasons to justify that decision. We can imagine, easily, how devastating it would be to have given your heart and soul to a cause, seek that support, and meet rejection.
No wonder they were characterized as “lost with their fears thus strong.”
Barbara Butler McCoy, c. 2014
[[Bibliography: Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009; Shakespeare, William. “Romeo and Juliet.” New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.]]
[[Photos: All, Barbara Butler McCoy, c. 2014. Top: Holes in the Wall, Seen through a Gate; Middle: Blue Bottle; Bottom: Trio of Crochet Celtic Triangles, INSTRUCTIONS HERE]]