Fairy Magic and the Female Imagination: Mary Lamb's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

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During the period between 1806 and 1809, Mary and Charles Lamb coauthored children's literature for William Godwin's Juvenile Library. Tales from Shakespear, designed for the use of Young Persons was issued in two volumes and "embellished with Copper Plates" in January of 1807. In second and third editions, Godwin affixes a publisher's note. The tales are not precisely for "the amusement of mere children, but for "young ladies advancing to the state of womanhood."(1) As Mary had explained in the 1807 Preface, "For young ladies too, it has been the intention chiefly to write," since boys "frequently have the best scenes of Shakespeare by heart, before their sisters are permitted to look into this manly book."(2) "Chiefly" written for the benefit of young women, Mary's retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream (Mary writes the comedies and romances, Charles the tragedies), offers insight into the relationship between the imagination and the developing female intellect. Her tale of midsummer magic comes at a time when many early nineteenth-century educators, influenced by emerging tenets of English Romanticism, saw "the imagination as a vitally constructive part of human nature."(3) For Romantic writers, as I will show, the ephemeral but opulent world of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a vital allegory for the creative energy of the young poetic mind, so that the play's fairies represent, or rather personify, the native faculty of imagination. Mary's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" reminds her audience that Shakespeare's plays are, among other virtues, "enrichers of the fancy" (xiv). However, her tale, when read against the conventional nineteenth-century reading of the play, betrays an anxiety about the role of fancy in young women's educational development.

Romantic writers frequently interpreted A Midsummer Night's Dream as a referential touchstone of poetic invention. The play was an important example of artistic ingenuity, and, as Jonathan Bate notes, eighteenth-century critics often cited Theseus's "shaping fantasies" speech as a "proof text" of the creative mind.(4) By comparison, we will see that Mary's tale opens up the question of whether the imaginative realm is indeed a suitable place for young women to dwell. In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the role of the imagination comes into sharper focus when compared to interpretations of the play by Mary's brother Charles and his poet-friend, Thomas Hood. In both versions, the imagination figures forth as the primary focus, and both writers find in Shakespeare's fairy landscape an allegory of the creative process. "The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies," the title poem of Hood's 1827 book of poetry, is dedicated to Charles Lamb, for he possesses an "intense yet critical relish for the works of our great Dramatist, and for that favourite play in particular which has furnished the subject of my verses."(5) For Hood, the fairies who haunt the pages of A Midsummer Night's Dream stand for "those pretty children of our childhood." The dedication explains that,

they belong, as the mites upon the plumb, to the bloom of fancy, a thing generally too frail and beautiful to withstand the rude handling of time: but the Poet has made this most perishable part of the mind's creation equal to the most enduring. (110)

The fairies nurture invention, the "bloom of fancy," which is first nursed in infancy, but subject to neglect in maturity.

Hence, "The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies" begins with a narrator who, retreating "To some unwasted regions" of his mind (2.15), receives visions of queen Titania in fairyland: "she was gracious to my childish years, And made me free of her enchanted round" (6.50-51). The reverie is cut short when the narrator witnesses a conflict between the woodland fairies and the figure of Time who calls for their destruction. Titania apostrophizes their plight:

   Frail feeble sprites!--the children of a dream!
   Leased on the sufferance of fickle men,
   Like motes dependent on the sunny beam,
   Living but in the sun's indulgent ken,
   And when that light withdraws, withdrawing them;
   So do we flutter in the glance of youth
   And fervid fancy,--and so perish when
   The eye of faith grows aged;--in sad truth,
   Feeling the sway, O Time! …