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Against Agency

Attending to Shakespeare on his own terms may allow us to reclaim the erotic warmth that is latent in our human condition.

· 7 min read
Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Everett in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (photo by Michael Hoffman, 1999)
Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Everett in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Michael Hoffman, 1999)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream sees Titania, the queen of the fairies, fall in love with an ass. Of course, she isn’t really in love with Bottom, the donkey-faced buffoon. Titania is the victim of her husband’s petty jealousy. In a fit of pique, Oberon has her drugged and used horribly, purely to gratify his own sense of insulted pride. Titania dotes upon the ridiculous creature, kissing his snout, whispering sweet nothings into his prick ears, caressing the fur of his neck. Oberon watches her. He takes delight in her degradation, and he taunts her about it for his own pleasure. The queen embraces Bottom as her beloved, spooning and entwining him with arms and legs as they drift off into a lover’s sleep together.

There is even the suggestion that, under the influence of the narcotic, Titania consummates her relationship with Bottom. She imagines that the moon itself—the symbol of Diana, the virgin warrior goddess—looks at down at her and weeps in empathy at the thought of “some enforced chastity.” The drugged queen believes the virgin goddess wants her to be unchaste. Titania then has Bottom bound and gagged (“tie up my love’s tongue,” she commands) and carried into her bower. Under the influence of Oberon’s powerful hallucinogen, it seems entirely likely that Titania acts upon her impulses, giving herself to the ass, allowing herself to be taken in turn by this loathsome creature. 

It should come as no surprise that contemporary university students find Oberon’s behavior offensive, if not outright criminal. Their work of interpretation usually takes the form of identifying Oberon’s (obvious) misbehavior and correcting it, like a campus sex bureaucrat. They sometimes go so far as to rewrite the play itself. A group of my former students expressed admiration for the university’s production of the play which changed the ending of Midsummer by having Titania shun Oberon and walk off stage, her head held high. Because of his ill use of her—vicarious rape, they called it—she should rightfully leave him bereft of her companionship. Rejected and alone as the curtain falls, he has learned his lesson! 

But what have we learned? That it’s wrong to drug and sexually humiliate a woman? Surely we knew that already. That a woman should stand up for herself and dump an abusive husband? All right, but we knew this too. Did we learn that we feel morally validated to see a woman give a petty, callous man his comeuppance? Let’s give ourselves a round of applause. By reading Shakespeare through the lens of contemporary sexual hostility, we assume that Shakespeare has nothing to teach us—rather, the Bard should learn a thing or two from us. He was backward in many ways, after all, a product of his more primitive and repressive era. 

But if we permit ourselves to interrupt this catechism of the present, we may find in Shakespeare certain enlivening possibilities. I encourage my students to suspend their faith in moral progress when reading the works of the past, not for the pleasure of reaction, but in the hope that their nascent longings as erotic beings will not be stunted by precocious self-satisfaction. For that seems to be the effect when our sexual imagination is hemmed in by the politicized certainties of the present. Attending to Shakespeare on his own terms may allow us to reclaim the erotic warmth that is latent in our human condition.

Of course, Titania does not snub her husband after he mistreats her. In the play as Shakespeare has written it, she forgives him, or even perhaps more uncomfortably for us, she doesn’t find that there is anything to forgive. It is true that while Oberon feels bad for her (“Her dotage now I do begin to pity,” he says to Puck), he does not apologize for what he’s done to her. It is she who relents; she who swallows her pride and concedes to him. 

Their initial disagreement has been over a young boy, the son of one of Titania’s dearest friends who died in childbirth. Oberon demands that this boy be relinquished to him so that he may become a part of his retinue. But Titania refuses, her emotional claim to the boy stronger than the imperative to obey her husband. “The fairyland buys not the child of me,” she tells him. For his part, Oberon seems largely indifferent to winning the “little changeling boy” as an end in itself. His concern is about his relationship with Titania, not with the child who has come between them.

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It is easy, even instinctive, to see Oberon playing the part of the sadistic brute. Much harder for us is it to look with sympathy on Oberon, and to see the concerns that motivate him, however imperfectly, as a husband’s longing for concord, order, and tenderness. Oberon’s anger comes from the fact that Titania loves another, this young boy, more than she loves her own husband. His punishment may reveal how desperately he longs for her to return to him. As if to underscore the wound she is causing him, Titania herself emphasizes that she isn’t simply mad at him but has “forsworn his bed.” Oberon’s desire seems to be to have his wife back in the embrace of marital sexual intimacy. We may condemn the lengths he goes to achieve this end, but we should perhaps appreciate his motives, lest we ourselves prove to be the sort of morally occluded person we accuse Oberon of being. 

Yet does the fairy king deserve to be the target of our outraged sense of sexual propriety at all? When my students think of Titania sleeping with Bottom under the influence of Oberon’s pharmaceuticals, they reveal that their modern view of sexual behavior is more rigid and puritanical than Shakespeare’s seems to be, for the fairies inhabit a different sexual world than we do—freer, naughtier, less clotted-up with the anxieties of possession. Oberon is in the forest outside of Athens to bless the marriage of Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons and Theseus, Duke of Athens. Oberon’s interest in the marriage lies in his relationship to Hippolyta. She is his former lover. Titania chides her husband for this affair, to which he replies:

How canst thou thus for shame, Titania,
Glance at my credit with Hippolyta,
Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?

The queen, then, has had her lovers too, and the groom is one of them. Oberon winks at his wife’s love affair, and teases her about it. If this is a play that foregrounds the fantasy of misogynistic control over women’s sexuality, as my students insist, then it certainly does this in an unexpected way. 

Even Titania’s sporting with a donkey seems to trouble Titania and Oberon less than it bothers my students. Oberon is evidently uninterested in containing Titania’s sexuality. What he is far from indifferent to is her behavior in relation to him. “Why should Titania cross her Oberon?” he asks, and we should note the yearning in his question. His desire is for him to belong to her and not the other way around. How else would he countenance his wife’s congress with a hybrid beast? At issue seems to be, not exclusivity, but the withdrawal of her attentions from him.

Oberon’s taunting of his wife regarding her affection for Bottom isn’t a male fantasy of control. It is a male fantasy of love. It is fantasy that regards devotion and tenderness to be of higher value than sexual fidelity, of higher value even than self-respect. This may surprise us. But what shocks us is that this may be a female fantasy of love as much as a male one. That Titania’s return to loving concord with her husband and to the mutual delights of the marital bed comes about without her will being engaged in such a move may in fact offer her the dual pleasure of reuniting with her husband in love while at the same time maintaining her pride and dignity. It isn’t she who in the end concedes to relinquish the boy to Oberon, it is the drugs. The potion allows her to save face while still being able to return to her husband in sweet tenderness. It is the same remedy of self-forgetting—of release from one’s identity—that gave her over to the endowments of a hybrid farm animal for what was surely a memorable afternoon.  

That a woman might desire her will to be overridden, whether by the man she loves or by a love potion, is of course anathema to progressive sexual ethics, but it is the guiding spirit of much erotic delight. In Pauline Rèage’s erotic masterpiece The Story of O, O is told that “you won’t be able not to revolt. Your submission will be obtained in spite of you.” What sounds like a horror to our ears, the removal of sexual agency from a woman, is the very source of erotic energy and emotional bliss in O’s story. Through her vacated will emerges O’s boundless sense of freedom. Through her humiliation, O develops a sense of pride—not in herself, considered in isolation, but in her devotion to her lover, which is absolute.

My Own Private Chateau—Pauline Réage’s ‘Story of O’ Revisited
Our culture makes a well intentioned but dangerous error in taking every thought experiment, every utterance, every representation, every fantasy of sexual expression seriously.

Rèage’s novel in tone and subject is a dark and brooding text, while A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a light-hearted play, and very silly. But this is not to say that Shakespeare’s play ignores the darker shades of human sexuality that are at stake in our most intimate and meaningful relationships. What the play shows us, if we enter into it and permit ourselves a respite from the sexual holy war of the present, is that forgiveness is better than revenge, that generosity is better than selfishness, and that love is better than pride. Shakespeare may well have something to teach us, after all.

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