William Sterling

Music and Art Inspired by Shakespeare 3


No. 3: Midsummer Dreams

Some of Shakespeare’s fantasies especially Midsummer Night’s Dream but other supernatural phenomena such as ghosts as well.

Music – Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Incidental Music.

That music is so familiar that we often forget why it was written. Mendelssohn composed an Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was a still a teenager, perhaps the greatest achievement ever by a teenager, but returned to the play many years later and added a full set of incidental music including the wedding march. It was first used for a real wedding by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, both great fans of Mendelssohn whom they entertained at Buckingham Palace, for the marriage of their eldest daughter, Victoria, to the crown prince of Prussia, the future Kaiser Frederick III at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace in 1858 and has since become probably the best known piece of music inspired by Shakespeare.

As we are just about at Midsummer it is highly appropriate to celebrate Midsummer Night’s Dream which has inspired some of the best art and music of any Shakespeare play. It is not only a celebration of romance but also of fantasy as two of the principal characters are Oberon and Titania the king and queen of the fairies who appear with Puck or Robin Goodfellow, Oberon’s messenger and helper as well as an assortment of other fairies. The play is set in Ancient Athens where Duke Theseus has defeated the Amazons and is about to marry their queen Hippolyta. This is based on the Bronze Age hero Theseus of Minotaur fame and the fairies are watered down versions of the Greek Gods and Goddesses (the name Titania comes from the Titans, the gods before Zeus and Hera). There are three plots to the play: Oberon and Titania are quarrelling over the possession of a changeling and Oberon decides to punish her for keeping the child by making her fall in love with a vile creature. This turns out to be Bottom the Weaver who is given an ass’s head to make him even more unattractive. Bottom is part of a troop of amateur players who decide to put on their own version of the tragic love story of Pyramus and Thisbe as part of the entertainment following Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. Much of the comedy of the play is around the ineptitude of these players and their amateurish adaption of the story. They perform the play at the end (another play within a play) much to the amusement of the guests but in reality the final deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe is actually quite moving albeit something of a parody of the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. The other plot involves a love quadrangle. Hermia loves and is loved by Lysander but her father wants her to marry Demetrius who also loves Hermia. She does not love him but her friend Helena does although Demetrius does not love her. Her father asks Theseus to intervene and says Hermia must obey her father on pain of death. Hermia and Lysander decide to elope and meet in the forest. Helena tells Demetrius hoping to thwart them and get Demetrius to love her in gratitude. Oberon sees what is happening and tells Puck to use some of the love potion he has used for Titania to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena. By mistake Puck puts the lotion in Lysander’s eyes and he falls in love with Helena instead. More mistakes ensue until it is all finally resolved. Hermia gets Lysander and Helena gets Demetrius. After the wedding the fairies appear again and Puck suggests that if we are offended it was all a dream.

I have already mentioned Richard Dadd in an earlier talk – a gifted artist who trained at the Royal Academy but killed his father when he thought he had become the Devil and in 1843 was committed to Bethlem Mental Asylum and later Broadmoor where he continued to paint fantastic works, many inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke” is one of his best loved paintings in the Tate and shows a multitude of fairies with Oberon and Titania prominent high up in the picture. The Fairy Feller is in the foreground about to make his master stroke by chopping an acorn in half with his tiny axe. Its meaning is obscure. His other works are less so. The ultimate sprite, Puck, inspired many artists including Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney (who also painted him with Titania modelled by Emma Hart again), Henry Fuseli (one of whose Pucks wears a habit and was called Friar Puck), Scotsman David Scott and Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner (RA 1875). Also popular with artists was Titania often surrounded by her fairies: William Etty, York born, famous for his nudes (RA 1828), John Simmons, Edward Robert Hughes and one of the so called Victorian “Fairy Painters”, Robert Huskisson, for example. Like Dadd, Sir Joseph Noel Paton was somewhat obsessed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream painting several incidents in the play as well as an earlier incident referred to by Oberon when he is sitting admiring a mermaid when he sees Cupid drop an arrow onto a plant which he then knows can be used as a love potion and which he uses to great comic effect. One of these is making Titania fall in love with Bottom despite his being transferred into a monster with ass’s ears and other attributes. Titania and Bottom inspired artists such as Henry Fuseli (several times), Sir Edwin Landseer, Alexandre Bida, another Frenchman Paul Gervais and German born Charles Buchel. Sometimes the inspiration is Bottom without Titania as with Arthur Rackham and Daniel Maclise. Others, like Dadd and Paton, were interested in Oberon and Titania, including William Blake, and other Victorian Fairy Painters, Theodor von Holst and John Anster Fitzgerald. The humans also hold interest for some artists: Hermia and Helena for Washington Allston (awake) and John Simmons (Asleep), Hermia and Lysander for Simmons, Helena and Lysander for Robert Smirke. The players have not inspired so many but their play might be the inspiration for William Waterhouse’s Thisbe, although she is clearly not Flute in disguise. One of the most beautiful illustrated versions of the play is that produced by William Heath Robinson in 1914: 12 colour plates and 32 other drawings. Best known now for his comic inventions, Heath Robinson was a brilliant draughtsman and should be better known for these illustrations and those for Twelfth Night.

 Music – Excerpt from Mendelssohn’s Overture with music illustrating fairies and even the braying of Bottom as the ass.

Music – Excerpt from Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music with Judi Dench reading relevant passages to accompany it.

 Although Mendelssohn’s music is the best known of any inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream it is not the only music so inspired. Purcell’s “Fairy Queen” includes little of Shakespeare’s original but is certainly a tribute to him. Titania is the Fairy Queen in question and the play was performed round the masque for which Purcell wrote the music to celebrate the 15th wedding anniversary (November 1692) of King William III and Queen Mary II. Benjamin Britten, one of Britain’s greatest opera composers, made a successful operatic version of the play. Some of Puck’s songs have also been set, especially “Over Hill, Over Dale” by Vaughan Williams and Beach.

Other plays which bring in fantasy elements include Cymbeline where the Roman god Jupiter appears, in Antony and Cleopatra Antony’s soldiers see portents they interpret as Hercules before the final battle, Hamlet sees and speaks to his father’s ghost, in Henry VI Part 1 Joan of Arc, who claims to be led by holy visions, is burned at the stake as a witch and in Part 2 the Duchess of Gloucester summons a spirit to reveal her future (which is bleak), Julius Caesar is murdered quite early on the play named after him despite various supernatural warning signs but his ghost haunts one of the murderers, Brutus, his erstwhile friend, Macbeth deals with three witches who predict his future and is also haunted by the ghost of Banquo his erstwhile friend whom he has had killed; the fairies and spirits in the Merry Wives of Windsor are only pretend but we have to believe that some of the characters in the play take them for real. Othello is accused of seducing Desdemona by witchcraft. In The Tempest Prospero has become a magician defeating the evil witch Sycorax, rescuing the magical spirit Ariel from her and imprisoning her son Caliban. Ariel in fact is a much Prospero’s slave as he was Sycorax’s until the end of the play. Modern audiences also have a great deal of sympathy for Caliban who is ugly and deformed but apart from being stupid, disobedient and lazy does not deserve to be treated as badly as Prospero treats him. Prospero uses his magic to create a tempest that wrecks a ship but makes sure all the passengers survive.

Soothsayers appear in Julius Caesar (who is warned to Beware the Ides of March), in Antony and Cleopatra (where Antony is warned he cannot defeat Octavius), at the end of Cymbeline, Lucius’s soothsayer predicts a happy future, and in Richard III the soothsayer warns Edward IV that G will murder him meaning Gloucester but the king interprets as George. There are also dreams in which characters like Calpurnia in Julius Caesar, Posthumus in Cymbeline, Clarence and Richard in Richard III, Queen Katherine in Henry VIII and Pericles appear to have premonitions.

None of these have inspired artists as much as A Midsummer Night’s Dream but there are nevertheless some works. The witches and their conjurations in Henry VI have been portrayed by William Hamilton (Joan of Arc) and John Opie, George Romney and Edward Austin Abbey (Eleanor). Hamlet’s father’s ghost has been pictured by Henry Fuseli, William Blake and Brazilian Pedro Américo (in a composition that includes the graveyard scene with Yorick’s skull). Julius Caesar’s ghost appearing to Brutus was also painted by Blake as well as Richard Westall and Alexandre Bida. Macbeth’s witches are rather more popular with artists: Romney, Fuseli, American William Rimmer, Théodore Chassériau, Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland and Thomas Sully all painted them and Chassériau also painted Banquo’s ghost appearing to Macbeth at dinner. Blake also painted Richard III’s ghostly visitors. The Tempest proved the most popular of the other fantasy stories with artists with Ariel almost as popular as Puck. He has been painted by Henry Fuseli, Henry Singleton, Joseph Severn and John Anster Fitzgerald. Sir John Everett Millais painted him luring Ferdinand, the shipwrecked Prince that Miranda falls for. The maligned Caliban also inspired artists such as John Hamilton Mortimer (ARA 1778), Sir Joseph Noel Paton, Frenchman Odilon Redon, Chalres Buchel (painting Herbert Beerbohm Tree in the role) and another German Johann Heinrich Ramberg (who showed the scene when Caliban was made drunk by Stephano and Trinculo, two of the shipwrecked visitors. William Hamilton, Henry Fuseli and Joseph Wright all showed Prospero holding his magic staff, with other characters apparently performing magic.

Composers have been inspired by all these plays especially The Tempest and the songs of Ariel, but not always to great effect by the supernatural elements. A notable exception is Dimitri Shostakovich who wrote three sets of Incidental Music for Hamlet and each time gave special music for the appearance of Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost.

Music – Shostakovich’s music for 1964 Film, first appearance of Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost

Music – “Where The Bee Sucks,” one of Ariel’s songs, firstly in the setting by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Robert Johnson, then Thomas Arne’s famous setting, so often ruined by generations of schoolchildren but here rendered by Emma Kirkby.

Beethoven was also a fan of Shakespeare and his works sometimes refer obliquely, as in the slow movement of his first string quartet in which he imagined the final scene from Romeo and Juliet. When one of his friends asked him about his Piano Sonata No. 17 he replied that he should go and read The Tempest.

Music – First Movement of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata played by Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen.

In the next talk I return to Hamlet as I shall be looking at “The Scandinavian Connection.” We are cruising around Scandinavia so I shall be concentrating on Shakespeare’s only play to be set in Scandinavia (Denmark) but also at the Scandinavian artists and composers that have been inspired by him.

Below is a printable PDF version of the slides

Lecture 3 slides to print

These episodes from Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time might be of interest

Shakespeare’s Work

Shakespeare’s Life

A Midsummer Night’s Dream