Saturday, May 21, 2011

Spirits of Another Sort

“Wisdom has build herself a house.” (Proverbs 9.1)

God (absolute being, not pictured)

Angel (higher spirit)
Heavens (planetary intelligences)
Human Being
Animal (here, a lion)
Plant (here, a tree)
Active Thing=
Flame

Passive Thing=
Rocks


Among the many smart things that Shakespeare does in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the most effective is his combination of down-home folklore with high-minded philosophy. English villagers and townspeople alike knew about beings like the Fairy Queen (sometimes called Mab – as in Mercutio’s famous speech in Romeo and Juliet) and Robin Goodfellow (sometimes called the Lubber Fiend – that is, “Laboring Spirit”) and their connections with the natural and supernatural worlds. Renaissance philosophy proposed that there was a Chain of Being, a ladder or stairway linking, at the bottom, raw matter (pure Becoming) and, at the top, the divine (pure Being). Everything in existence fits somewhere on the ladder -- see the illustration above.

The diagram cheats a little bit here: humankind is theoretically the mid-point between becoming and being. There was also a category between humans and the heavens, between reasoning creatures and the intellectual beings that kept the planets and stars on their proper courses. This additional category was for elemental spirits connected with the powers and properties of the four elements – air, fire, water, earth. Think of Ariel in The Tempest, clearly a spirit of air. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies of English folk tales are presented as elemental spirits. Titania and her followers keep the seasons in proper order through their graceful dances; Oberon understands the occult properties of flowers and herbs; Puck can travel up and down the Chain of Being at will, assuming any form he wishes. He can even be a passive thing like a stool, which he then makes active – slipping out from under a teller of folk tales.

These are literally superior beings, which explains their mixed attitudes of affection and condescension and sometimes contempt (“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”) toward humankind. It’s important to remember that any fairy, even an attendant or henchman, is literally (if not dramatically) superior to the noblest human. The fairies’ higher status on the Chain of Being explains why they have (from the human perspective) such extraordinary – one could say magical – powers and why they inspire such fear and awe.

Watch for further details of the Flatwater Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night's Dream -- coming to downtown Lincoln and to city parks this June!

(Illustration from 16th-century edition of Ramon Llull's Liber de ascensu et decensu intellectus)

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