Off The Shelf

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is ridden with references to nature and specifically weather.

Why did Shakespeare think it was important to have his characters, particularly his fairies like Titania, the fairy queen, and Oberon, the fairy king, talk about bad harvests and horrid weather? William Shakespeare is indeed writing about an actual historically and scientifically proven phenomenon.

The 1590s were a particularly difficult decade across Europe. The bad weather caused massive bouts of widespread crop failure; this bad weather was characterized by wet springs and cold summers. The summer of 1594 was particularly rainy and caused floods and wrecked bridges. Titania’s speech in Act II, scene I draws particular illusion to the weather. She refers to the corn rotting in the field before it could ripen:

The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard (II. i. 94-96)

Natasha Napoleao as Titania. Designed by Alison Yanota. Photo by Ed Ellis.

Natasha Napoleao as Titania. Designed by Alison Yanota. Photo by Ed Ellis.

The cold, wet summers led to a raise in wheat and food prices. A royal proclamation of 1596 states, “The sellers of Corne, as rich Farmers, and Ingrossers, do pretend to raise the prices by colour of the unseasonablenesse of this Sommer: yet that being no just cause to raise the prices of their olde Corne of the last yeeres growth.” It was in the mid-1590s Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream and had witnessed the effect of cold summers and poor harvests firsthand.

The consistently bad weather of this period is not a coincidence. The advent of the 16th century signals the beginning of what is now defined as ‘The Little Ice Age,’ a period of global cooling across the globe. The Little Ice Age is typically defined as the period from the 16th to 19th century. Examples of the decreased temperature is seen in the artwork of the period; canals and rivers in Great Britain and the Netherlands routinely froze deeply enough to support ice skating and winter festivals.

Unlike today when climate change is a fairly normal fact of life, for people in the early modern period climate change was unimaginable. Many people believed the weather change was the result of human activity (again, not unimaginable today), the result of either moral or immoral activity. God punished humans for their actions collectively through bad weather, or individually with personal misfortune (the loss of a child, sickness, etc.). All occurrences in life and nature fit within some divine plan; therefore the human suffering caused by the weather was in some sense deserved and justified.

Shakespeare reimagines this relationship between God and nature into the realm of fairies, specifically the fairy king and queen. Alongside issues of climate Shakespeare alludes to food scarcity, plague epidemics and contemporary social disorders. Shakespeare transposes bad weather into the realm of a fierce domestic quarrel among fairy rulers about the custody of an Indian changeling. Titania and Oberon claim responsibility for the crop failings, bad weather, disease, and loss of festivity:

And this same progeny of evils comes / From our debate, form our dissension (II. i. 115-16)

Once couple has reconciled these climate and social issues disappear.

Feature image: Stuart McDougall as Oberon. Photo by Ed Ellis.

Presenter: U of A Studio Theatre
Event Title: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Dates: Nightly at 7:30 p.m. until Feb. 13, 2016
Matinee Thursday, Feb. 11  at 12:30 p.m.
Venue: Timms Centre for the Arts, University of Alberta
Single show tickets: $12 student, $25 adult, $22 senior available online now at TIX on the Square and at the Timms Centre box office one hour before each performance.

For more details see: https://uofa.ualberta.ca/events/a-midsummer-nights-dream

Leave a Reply