The Curse of Control:
Titania’s Relationship with Mortals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By Ayla Sumer

How do one’s limitations define their experience of the world around them? How can one meaningfully make choices, despite their own powerlessness? In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he explores these ideas through the perspective of the powerful and immortal fairy queen Titania. Titania directly involves herself in the lives of the mortal characters, allowing interesting interactions between their differing experiences to emerge. Although one would expect her to feel liberated by her immortality and power, her relationship with her own experience and desire to involve herself in the lives of the mortal’s reveals the opposite. Through Titania’s relationship with mortal life, Shakespeare reveals the fundamental limitations she feels as a result of her immortality.

Through her attachment to mortal characters, Titania reveals her interest in the transient aspects of mortal life. Describing her exchanges with her mortal servant, Titania describes how they watched the boats and “laughed to see the sails conceive/And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind,” using the alliteration of “wanton wind” and “big-bellied” to indicate her enjoyment of this experience (Shakespeare 2.1.132-133). When she later reveals that her servant’s pregnancy would mimic these ships, bringing goods to her “As from a voyage, rich with merchandise,” Titania’s comparison between the ships and her servant becomes apparent (2.1.139). Her extended metaphor demonstrates how, like the ships, mortals represent exciting and interesting experiences, evidenced by her word choice of “rich.” She draws this comparison with the idea of pregnancy, revealing the underlying reason behind her interest in the lives of the mortals. She is fascinated by their experiences because they are subject to external forces, such as the “wanton wind,” that bring about changes, including pregnancy. In contrast, as Titania is not subject to these forces, she cannot experience these changes. Fundamentally limited by her inability to experience change, Titania involves herself in mortal life, particularly interested in its transient aspects.

Titania exhibits a paradoxical desire to permanently encapsulate the fleeting aspects of mortals, demonstrating her subconscious awareness of the limitations of her immortality. Becoming infatuated with Bottom, she describes how she “will purge thy mortal grossness so” (3.1.162). Her word choice with “mortal grossness,” indicates the fact that the “mortal” aspect of him, meaning he is subject to death, is unappealing. Through her imagery with the word “purge,” she evokes the idea that his mortality is a separable part of him. Her phrasing in this quotation is particularly important, as despite her interest in the transient aspects of mortal life, she wishes to remove his mortality, which would directly eliminate his ability to experience change. This demonstrates her subconscious acceptance of the limitations of her immortality because she is trying to change his mortality in order to maintain the relationship. Not only does this reveal that the very nature of mortality and change cannot be permanently encapsulated, but that Titania is trying to surpass the limitations of her immortality and bring aspects of mortals into her own experience.

Conceding her relationships with mortals, Titania accepts the impossibility of experiencing mortal life and her own powerlessness. Describing Titania’s interaction with Bottom, Oberon recounts how the dew on the flower crown Titania places on Bottom’s head “Stood now within the pretty flouriets’ eyes,/Like tears that did their own disgrace bewail” (4.1.56-57). As Shakespeare previously established Titania’s control over the natural world, these flowers represent a reflection of her sadness. Shakespeare utilizes this indirect comparison and the word “disgrace” to additionally evoke ideas of powerlessness, as though Titania has been rendered helpless, like a small flower. At this moment, Titania interacts with Oberon after being apart from him for the entirety of her relationship with Bottom. Oberon describes how he “at [his] own pleasure taunted her,” for her relationship with Bottom, inducing ideas of observation, as though Oberon was simply watching her for his “own pleasure” (4.1.58). This reveals the fundamental reason behind Titania’s feelings of inferiority and powerlessness. Although she previously ignored the realities of the limitations of her immortality, confronting him reminds her of her role as an observer, as though she should be watching mortals rather than involving herself in their lives. She feels tied to her immortality and Oberon, and he serves as a reminder that her relationships with mortals only delay her inevitable return to an observer of mortal life. Consciously realizing that she is truly the powerless and her desire to experience mortal life is unobtainable, Titania severs all connection to mortals.

Throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the mortal characters of the play appear to be entirely dictated by external forces, including the fairies’ whims and the rules of society. However, they interpret their situation and continue to make choices. In contrast, even though Titania appears to have complete control over her situation, she demonstrates the fundamental limitations of her immortality, as she is not subject to change and is forever limited in her decisions. Titania is Shakespeare’s way of reconciling the fact that despite one’s little control over fate and time, the limited nature of life and capacity for change provides mortals with more freedom and allows them to derive meaning from something they are powerless in.