- “More Aerial, More Graceful, More Perfect”: Madame Vestris’s Oberon, Victorian Culture, and the Feminized Fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1840–1914
In most modern productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s king and queen of the fairies have a volatile, passionate relationship that is rooted in the sexual chemistry of two powerful figures colliding. This explosive dynamic is particularly alluded to in visual portrayals of Oberon, in which the king of the fairies is often teeming with masculine virility. Consider, for example, recent portrayals of the fairy king: from a bare-chested Rupert Everett in the 1999 movie version to a bare-chested John Light in the 2013 Globe production to a bare-chested David Harewood in Julie Taymor’s 2013 filmed staged version, Oberon is a warrior who is formidable, sexy, and abounding with machismo.
Yet it was not always this way. From 1840 until 1914, with only a couple of minor exceptions, women always played Oberon (Williams 93). This trend was originated by Lucia Elizabeth Vestris in a highly influential production in 1840 at Covent Garden wherein she cast herself as the King of Shadows. Vestris, better known to her contemporaries as Madame Vestris, was an actress-turned-producer-and-manager who ran theatre companies at the Olympic and Covent Garden, and she was a bona fide celebrity of the Romantic and early-Victorian stage. Vestris’s portrayal proved influential, and for almost seventy-five years, no American or English production featured a man in the role (Norwood xvii).
Vestris’s production is notable not only for instating the convention of all-female fairies but also for regenerating interest in Dream as a viable piece of live theatre. This change in precedent is particularly noteworthy as Dream is now one of the staples of repertory companies and Shakespearean festivals (Griffiths, Introduction 1). However, after the Restoration, in 1660, Shakespeare’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream fell out of popular favour, and it was performed only in fragments (Griffiths, “Neglected” 386). The reasons for its disappearance from the post-Restoration stage and its reinstatement in 1840 as a live theatrical piece filled with female fairies are directly related. In both instances, concerns about the viability of mortal humans playing non-mortal fairies ran rampant. Throughout the centuries, [End Page 251] fairies had become extensively romanticized, and it was impossible to stage Shakespeare’s full script with its faulty, flawed, and feuding fairies. However, with the proliferation of fairy extravaganzas in the 1830s and 1840s, especially as they contained abundant references to Shakespeare,1 producers found it imperative to return to Shakespeare’s original script.
By making the fairies women, Vestris capitalized on the associations among women, children, and supernaturality, thus allowing her to portray idealized nineteenth-century fairies. Yet as these fairy portrayals became increasingly feminized, they also became progressively more childlike, pure, and naive. Though modern scholars are keen to see feminist undertones in Vestris’s production—for example, Elizabeth Schafer writes that “the production presented a very suggestive image of female power” and that it brought “traditional notions of femininity and masculinity . . . provocatively to the fore” (198, 199), and Gary Jay Williams adds that it “addressed the patriarchal Victorian culture in complex, fascinating ways” (93)—this enthusiasm is tempered by its contemporary reception. Throughout the Victorian and early Edwardian age, the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were the objects through which the era’s anxieties about innocence, idealism, passivity, and femininity were debated, and Vestris’s self-fashioned and gender-bending performance was indicative of the nineteenth-century impulse both to idealize and infantilize women. However, this valorization and patronization of Vestris’s Oberon was moderated by the history of the breeches role—an acting role wherein an actress wearing tight-fitting breeches played a man’s part—including Vestris’s personal history in breeches roles, to hint at the power and sexuality of Shakespeare’s fairy king. Vestris’s feminized Oberon thus showcased the contradictions and complexities of Victorian society regarding the display of the female body, and Vestris’s performance worked on two different and contradictory levels through capitulating to feminine idealization...