"I Woo'd Thee with My Sword, / and Won Thy Love Doing Thee Injuries": The Erotic Economies of A Midsummer Night's Dream
Rieger, Gabriel, The Upstart Crow
In a footnote to his introduction to the 1979 Arden edition of A Midsummer Nights Dream, Harold Brooks notes of the Bottom/Titania subplot that:
... though the humour resides partly in contrast between his animal form and her 'airy spirit', even a controlled suggestion of carnal bestiality is surely impossible: jealous Oberon would not have cast his spell to cuckold himself. Her dotage is imaginative and emotional. (1)
Brooks' dismissal is understandable; the idea that "jealous Oberon" might "cast his spell to cuckold himself" as a means of punishing his wife is jarring, and potentially troubling in the extreme. Indeed, the mere suggestion has the potential to undercut the play's comic effect, at least for a modern audience. Of course, whether it would have done so for an early modern audience is by no means certain.
In this essay, I propose that Oberon has indeed "cast his spell to cuckold himself," using erotic desire as a weapon to humiliate his rebellious wife and enforce her submission. He does this in order to reassert his position at the head of his family and, by extension, the state as embodied in the fairy kingdom, while at the same time restoring order to the natural world by remedying the domestic and political chaos which has infected it with "contagious fogs" and "progeny of evils." In his chastising of Titania, and Titania's acceptance of it, we see a clear example of the erotic dominance and submission which underpin the domestic, social, and political economies of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play famously concerned with the nature of erotic desire, and perhaps for this reason it is one of Shakespeare's most perennially popular comedies, performed in various (sometimes truncated) forms since the late sixteenth century. (2) The play's engagement with that desire has been central to critical inquiry for nearly as long. Even Samuel Pepys, one of the play's earliest (and harshest) critics, remarked in his diaries that it showcased "some handsome women." (3) More recent criticism, while no less engaged with the play's treatment of erotic desire, has also tended to comment upon the play's gender dynamics, reading the play in the context of gender relations of the late Elizabethan period in which it was written. Shirley Nelson Garner notes that despite the "renewal" which is promised in the conclusion, the play "recognizes the tenuousness of heterosexuality." (4) Critics such as David Marshall have noted the ways in which the comedy's female characters are marginalized, (5) while Louis Montrose reads the play as a kind of cultural artifact whose treatments of gender and social relations must be understood in relation to the Elizabethan court. (6) Jonathan Crewe built upon this reading, arguing that A Midsummer Night's Dream's "sexual politics" were both complex and "historically specific."(7) In Things of Darkness, Kim Hall reads the comedy as a gyno/xenophobic study in which "threatening female sexuality and power" are displaced into the literal and rhetorical darkness of the forest. (8) More recently, Bruce Boehrer has undertaken a study of the play's "economies of desire," noting the parallels between the play's "bestiality motif" and its "various references to same-sex communities. (9)
While all of these studies are informative and illustrative in various ways, Boehrer's study is particularly to my purpose. I propose here a new reading of the play's "economies of desire," or "erotic economies," as I term them. (10) As critics have long noted, the play is focused on the power dynamics of gender relations, and all of the play's representations of erotic desire emanate from this focus. Arguably the most conspicuous feature of erotic desire as it is depicted in A Midsummer Night's Dream is its close linking with control. Indeed, in the Oberon/Titania/Bottom plot, erotic desire is inextricable from control; it is, in fact, a form of control. …