According to Shakespeare scholar John F. Andrews, we can thank the Bard for making fairies fun.
“William Shakespeare invented fairies in the way that we now think of them as creatures we enjoy fantasizing about. Prior to Shakespeare, most of the references to fairyland would have been sinister and widely regarded as demonic,” said Andrews, who is a producer of Shakespeare in the Garden. A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens Friday, Aug. 17, at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden.
Around 1595, when the play was written, most theatergoers would have been afraid of the character of Puck, the magical sprite who has survived centuries as a fairy archetype of the mischievous — but not evil — sort. Prior to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Andrews said, fairies were considered night beings. Shakespeare changed that perspective with a reference to the coming dawn. At the time, the conventional wisdom held that fairies would vacate because they couldn’t bear the sunlight, Andrews said, but in Dream, Oberon, King of the Fairies, says that they are spirits of another sort. “That’s part of the idea that these are generally benign creatures.”
Andrews was director of academic programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., from 1974 to 1984. In 1987 he founded The Shakespeare Guild, a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating and educating audiences on Shakespeare’s works, and he is the author of numerous scholarly essays on Shakespeare as well as multi-volume reference books, including William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence (1985). In 2017, Andrews collaborated with Rachel Kelly to present The Tempest at Santa Fe Botanical Garden. Kelly, who directs this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, co-founded Shakespeare in Santa Fe and served as its artistic director from 1992 to 2002, when productions were held at St. John’s College. For Shakespeare in the Garden, Kelly and Andrews work with professional and semi-professional actors from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, New York, and elsewhere. Mary Kimball Outten composed original music for the production.
Much as in real dreams, Shakespeare’s comedy has several intersecting plots — the twists and turns of which rely on confusion and enchantment. A young woman, Hermia (Miranda Lichtman, who played Miranda in The Tempest), is in love with Lysander ( Josh Horton). But her father, Egeus (Kent Kirkpatrick), wants her to marry Demetrius (Hania Stocker). If she doesn’t, he tells her, she must either die or spend her life in a nunnery. The Duke, Theseus (Dylan Fitzpatrick), declares this archaic law governing Hermia’s fate enforceable. Complicating matters for Hermia, her best friend, Helena (Miranda Savage), has a terrible crush on Demetrius — but Demetrius wants Hermia. All four young lovers end up in the forest outside of Athens, where they cross paths with Oberon (Fitzpatrick) and Puck (Georgia Waehler).
Oberon has been arguing with his queen, Titania (Skye Pagon), over possession of a changeling child that she has and he wants. Miffed, she intends to stay in the forest until the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta (Pagon), former Queen of the Amazons, whom the Duke has captured. Oberon decides to use the juice of a magical flower, called “love-in-idleness,” in a scheme to get Titania to fall in love with an animal and thereby embarrass her into giving up the changeling. When Oberon glimpses the heartache of the four bickering teens, he orders Puck to spread magical flower juice on the eyes of Demetrius so that he will fall in love with Helena — but Puck applies it to Lysander’s lids instead. Also in the forest is a band of actors, known as the Mechanicals, who are planning to put on a play at the wedding. One of them, Nicholas Bottom (Brennan Foster), gets temporarily turned into a donkey and becomes the object of Titania’s blinkered affection.
“We tend to regard Dream as a play that is bathed in moonlight because there are so many references to the moon,” Andrews said. “We find out very early in the play that all action is going to occur over four days — between the moment when the first conversations occur and the moment when Theseus and Hippolyta marry — and that the wedding will occur at the new moon, which means that we are actually at the darkest phase of the moon.” It’s getting darker and darker as the days proceed, he said, so Shakespeare is really only giving us a sliver of moonlight by which to see, and this lunar phase represents a time of change “that leads to all of the transformations that occur.”
Kelly cites the course of true love — and how it is altered and affected by the relative age and wisdom of the characters — as the play’s most prominent theme. “The teenagers are full of hormones and big dramatic events. Then you have Theseus and Hippolyta, who are more mature. He has captured her, but they are committed to one another, even though they came together through a power struggle. Then there are Oberon and Titania, who have been married for a thousand years.”
The interconnectedness of man and nature is also key for Kelly, who said that when people escape the strictures of their daily life to have a transformative experience, it almost invariably involves going out into the wild. “You want to find the truth, and often it’s confusing and frightening. At the end, everyone’s brought to their knees a little bit and seen some humility.” She said Dream is also an ecologically minded play, made evident in a speech by Titania in which the fairy queen defends the natural world. The dissension between her and Oberon, and the way they are behaving causes a “huge disruption — that they’re responsible for what’s happening in the world, that the seasons are altered. People can’t depend on the snow happening in winter anymore; they can’t depend on spring; everything’s confused. It’s pretty impassioned.”
“It can be interpreted that way,” Andrews said. “Ecology, in some ways, began in Shakespeare’s time. They were very much aware of what was happening in terms of deforestation, for example, and clearing of space for agricultural uses, and taking them away from the common people and turning them over to what we would now call corporate or commercial interests.” Dream, he said, encompasses the sublime to the ridiculous. Theseus’ great speech about imagination contains majestic poetry, while in Bottom’s dream, Shakespeare mangles a passage from First Corinthians, “which is all about revelation and heavenly wisdom — and that often the people who are most open to it are the people who seem least capable of comprehending it.”
For many, it is the enigmatic Puck who lingers in the imagination long after the curtain falls on Dream. His name remains a proper adjective — “puckish” — describing someone who possesses an elfin trickster quality.
“Puck is part of the fairy world, but he can play with the lovers, too, and he is very comfortable in village life. Puck doesn’t really belong in any one domain,” Kelly said. “Puck says, ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be,’ about [the human characters] for all their running around and trying to fix problems that he created — and he then comments upon them in the most interesting ways.”
“At the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., there is a statue of Puck on the west side of the building, which is about two blocks from the Capitol Dome,” Andrews said. “He’s looking toward the Capitol. That is the line that is inscribed on the statue.” ◀
▼ Shakespeare in the Garden presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream
▼ 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17; additional performances 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, through Sept. 2
▼ Ojos y Manos Amphitheater, Santa Fe Botanical Garden, 715 Camino Lejo, 505-471-1903
▼ Opening night $95 with reception; regular performances $10-$45; santafebotanicalgarden.org