Fairies and Wizards? A Midsummer Night’s Dream and What We Might Expect from The Crimes of Grindelwald

In my Muggle professor job, I love teaching some of the greats of literature. One of my favorites, for my own enjoyment and for sharing with my class, is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream | William Shakespearemodel comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In addition to literary depth, symbolism, themes, and plenty of laughs, the Bard’s romp through the fairy-haunted forest also offers my students some great connections with other texts, including popular ones they enjoy, like J.K. Rowling’s stories of the Wizarding World. With the second film in the Fantastic Beasts series galloping into theaters this November, it’s a good time to check out some of the connections this story already shares with MND and to make some guesses about what we might see in The Crimes of Grindelwald that will echo the adventures of some really bad actors, two pairs of hapless lovers, and a few aristocrats, when the mortal world intersects with some quarrelling fey and their minions. Follow me after the jump for some thoughts and possible predictions!


It should come as no surprise that alchemy is a major connecting feature between these stories. As we’ve discussed here countless times, Shakespeare is one of the great masters of alchemy.  Cherry Gilchrist, in The Elements of Alchemy, points out how beautifully MND fulfills the alchemical drama. She demonstrates that, in addition to the fact that alchemy, like the play, revolves around transformation, many other alchemical elements are present as well. Clearly, the play is one in which transformation matters. There is little doubt that one of the play’s most iconic images is that of poor Bottom, with his noggin changed to that of an ass. The change is both a demonstration of the power of the supernatural to alter reality and of the often-mercurial tricks played upon humanity by the amoral forces of the fey. In addition, it is, like all alchemical transformations, a transmission of truth: Bottom is already an ass in name, intellect, and demeanor. Puck just takes the next step. Other transformations are not so obvious: the troublesome love flower transforms the loyal Lysander into a cad who abandons Hermia while it transforms the cad Demetrius into a loyal swain to Helena, whom he had scorned (my students are sometimes troubled by the fact that Demetrius remains under the spell of the love flower at the end of the play, though I remind them that there are plenty of people who require medication to have normal human relationships).  It transforms Titania’s stubbornness over the Changeling child into compliance as she hands him over to Oberon, thus transforming the world as the fighting fairies reconcile and end the upset of the natural environment caused by their dissension.

The flower itself, as a tool for transformation, is an alchemical symbol, as, according to Oberon, it was created when Cupid missed his shot at “the imperial votress,” Elizabeth I, thus allowing her to continue “fancy-free,” unhindered by the complexities of love that bedevil the play’s characters.  That arrow, according to myth, had a golden head, while the arrow that Cupid used to instill hate, rather than love, had a head made of solid lead. Those two elements are, of course, the central players in alchemy and alchemical literature all the way up to present day and Rowling’s next installment of adventures in magizoology.Artemis and Eros

The Wizarding World is, like Shakespeare’s forest, a place that exists parallel to the mortal world, as well as a place where alchemical transformations are possible. We have already seen some of those transformation elements in Newt’s story, primarily in the juxtaposition of the Muggle/No-Maj world and the Wizarding one. In the process, people and lives are transformed. At the end of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Frank the Thunderbird initiates a truly spectacular transformative sequence that mirrors the effect of the fairy world on the human one in MND as rain washes away all the negative effects of magic, and the affected humans are left slightly befuddled but without any real memory of recent events. Just as weather is affected by magic in MND, in the New York of Fantastic Beasts, rain is the instrument of Image result for fantastic beasts firebirdcorrection for magic run amuck, and even newspaper headlines are re-written to change panicked announcements of magical happenings in favor of bland announcements of unusually wet weather. While Rowling uses the gold and lead cues of alchemy all through the original Hogwarts adventures, she litters Newt’s story with those metallurgical signposts as well, from the name of the Goldstein sisters to the avaricious habits of the gold-grabbing Niffler.


Also, while Bottom is left with a memory of the strange happenings that gave him a donkey head and plopped him into the arms of Titania, he believes these events to have been part of a dream so remarkable that he wants to include an account of it in the performance he and his theatrical friends plan for the upcoming royal wedding, and he plans to call the story” Bottom’s Dream,” not because his name is Bottom, oddly enough, but because the dream has no bottom to it. In Fantastic Beasts, we have the much brighter Dan Fogler and Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)but equally out of his element Jacob Kowalski, who also develops a relationship with a supernatural, beautiful “Queen,” the lovely Leglimens Queenie Goldstein; when the spell is broken, he too retains enough memory of it to recognize Queenie months later, and to unconsciously touch the spot where he was first bitten (literally) with the magic bug.  Since the previews for Crimes show Jake eagerly signing up for more adventures with his pal Newt, we can concur that, like Bottom, he considers himself better for his sojourn into the magical world. However, while one night in the forest seems to have been quite enough for one hapless weaver with theatrical aspirations, it seems safe to assume that Jacob will be traveling between his own, non-magical, world, and the world of his magical friends, for the upcoming film and the subsequent ones.

Divided Couples

Certainly, Jacob likes the novelty of the magic world and is also drawn in by his friendship with Newt and his odd creatures, but it’s clear that the biggest draw of the magical world is Queenie herself, and moviegoers are doubtless eager to see how their star-crossed love will develop in Crimes. Couples, especially ones who do not always get along, are central elements in alchemy, as well as in literary alchemy, with the opposed forces coming together to create something new and wonderful, though the opposed components, the members of the couple, may be destroyed or remade in the process. The theme of oppositional, or quarrelling, couples is one familiar to us through much of Shakespeare’s and Rowling’s work, from the warring Montagues and Capulets whose scions marry, die, and create an otherwise unobtainable peace, to the bickering Ron and Hermione. We have already seen Jacob and Queenie as a pair who represent two different worlds; though they themselves do not quarrel, their worlds certainly do.

While the Wizarding World and the forest outside Athens of Midsummer Night’s Dream are not exact counterparts, both the play and the films revolve around the opposition between the supernatural world and the “real” world of mortals and Muggles. In the forest, all rules of the mortal world are suspended, and thus, through a night of chaos, problems are corrected, and everyone gets the conventional Shakespeare comedy happy ending (which I usually describe to my students as resembling an episode of Oprah: “And you get a wedding, and YOU get a wedding! Weddings for everyone!”); even the worst actors in the world manage to pull off an entertaining performance out of all proportion to their skill level.

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Tina and Newt may also represent another oppositional pair. Although we know, thanks to the preface to the original Fantastic Beasts, that Tina will be the eventual Mrs. Scamander, the introduction of an attractive assistant for Newt, and the central role of his old friend Leta Lestrange paves the way for at least some competition for the hapless case-carrying wizard’s heart, and perhaps some real conflict.

The first official cast image for the movie stresses this organization around couples, positioning them in a scene that is meticulous in its composition, as our esteemed headmaster so beautifully demonstrated in this amazing post upon the image’s release.

Like MND, Crimes will clearly be a story about couples, about pairs being coupled and uncoupled to create the transformation central to an alchemical tale. In some ways, Dumbledore and Grindelwald represent the ultimate quarrelling couple, and their conflict, strangely enough, will set the stage for the much later defeat of a wizard whose crimes are much darker than even Grindelwald’s. Their position in the cast photograph, as noted upon its publication, enforces that dynamic.

Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Claudia Kim, Zoë Kravitz, Ezra Miller, and Callum Turner in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

Time will tell about the other couples and their quarrels that may lead to an alchemical resolution, but we can certainly expect to see some serious overlap with MND based on just the names of the characters. Newt’s older brother, Theseus, seems to share more than just a name with the Duke of Athens whose wedding sets the frame structure for Shakespeare’s play. Like the Duke, Theseus Scamander seems to be a person of influence and power, a “war-hero” like his namesake, who, in both mythology and in Shakespeare’s London-flavored Athens (he made no attempt at historical verisimilitude, instead imbuing his “Ancient Greeks” with the social and cultural elements of his own time and place), has conquered the Amazons and is marrying their queen. In some productions of the play, this relationship is a negative one, with the war prize Hippolyta being marched down the aisle in chains. I have seen her costumed just that way, with bracelets and jewels that are really shackles. In other interpretations, their union is more mutual, a logical solution to end the war, reflecting their mature and political outlook. Theseus, in particular, is a man of “cool reason” who has trouble getting his head around the kooky nocturnal adventure related by the young lovers. My favorite production preserved the play’s comic joy by presenting a Theseus and Hippolyta who could be described as having a “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”  relationship: attracted to one another by their conflict. In this production, at Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville, NC, a few years ago, Theseus and Hippolyta performed almost all their dialogue together while fencing, a la Gomez and Mortica, in a sassy, sexy little dance (including jaunty little foil slaps on backsides), showing that yes, these two fought against each other in combat, but that is actually what turns them on about each other.Plate 11. Scene on the terrace of the palace of Theseus and Hippolyta, watching from a sofa in background at left the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, acted in foreground, accompanied by musicians on the lyre and flute at left; proof illustration to 'A Midsom

The Theseus and Hippolyta (Leta) that we see so far in Crimes may take either of the directions that directors can choose for Shakespeare’s royal couple: conqueror and defeated enemy or affectionately  reconciled combatants. Certainly, though, they reflect the high social status of Shakespeare’s Duke and Duchess, as evidenced by the clothes and demeanor we’ve seen so far (I’m already imagining poor mustard-on-the-face Tina comparing herself to glamorous Leta). It will also be interesting to see how the film uses these characters since, in MND, they are important catalysts rather than central players: their marriage sets the scene for most of the play’s conflicts, setting in motion the plots of the four lovers and the mechanicals. Will Theseus Scamander and Leta Lestrange be more central participants than their namesakes, or will they also be figures whose roles are more supporting, important to creating situations rather than acting in those situations? That is a question we’ll want to address come November.Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

In many productions, the actors playing Theseus and Hippolyta double as Oberon and Titania, the play’s extremely obvious quarreling couple. The two royal pairs never appear on stage at the same time, and the Elizabethan concept of the fey as powerful, lordly beings (not necessarily diminutive creatures with butterfly wings; that’s the Victorian image) matches up well with the lordly Athenians.  Oberon and Titania have a relationship evocative of classical gods: they are married but routinely dally with humans, their dissention is over something that seems minor (it’s over a minor, actually, a custody battle), and their conflict has had serious repercussions on the natural world). With a host of characters who are magical beings, it will be interesting to see what elements play out in Crimes that may mirror the strife between Oberon and Titania.

It will also be interesting to see if a Puck figure clearly emerges. While Jacob certainly offers some of the comic relief Puck also provides, he is not a trickster or supernatural. Grindelwald certainly interferes in the lives of mortals as Puck does, but he is a darker figure, immoral, rather than the amoral sprite whose pranks are not meant to harm, but who certainly enjoys the endless reality show of observing human behavior. I think that if any of our Crimes characters play a Puck role, it is Dumbledore. His humor is often Puckish, and though he is far more in control of events than is Oberon’s wingman, he is also a figure who can step out of the story and even communicate directly to the audience: in MND, Puck addresses the reader or watcher with a (fairly) sincere apology to those who may have hated the play, and a plea for applause to those who liked it: “Give me your hands if we be friends”; Dumbledore, the voice of the prefatory material in the original Fantastic Beasts book, also speaks directly to the audience, explaining Newt’s background, thanking us for buying the book, and describing the charity it supports.  These shared fourth-wall-breaking roles may offer hints about their connection, but the most obvious connection is in the way both Puck and Dumbledore are outsiders. Despite his positioning as Grindelwald’s opposite number, Dumbledore, as we know him through his extended story arc, is a loner. Gregarious and friendly, with many counted among his circle, he is nonetheless a singular figure who holds his cards close to his vest. He has allies, but no partner. Like Puck, who dances in and out of everyone else’s story but is left alone with the audience at the end, Dumbledore is a force unto himself who does not belong to a couple.Jude Law and Jonathan Saint-James in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

Shakespeare’s lovers certainly show that the course of true love never runs smoothly, especially not when the Bard of Avon is at the wheel of their theatrical ship. Thanks to the love flower and good old-fashioned jealousy, we have Demetrius and Lysander trying to kill each other, sometimes over Helena, and other times over Hermia. We have Helena and Hermia engaged in what I argue is the best cat-fight ever written, and we have both women, at various times, in conflict with men who once professed to love them. They run back and forth across the stage, trying to resolve their usually humorous quarrels, in sequences that I often describe to students as “one groovy song short of a Scooby Doo chase scene.” It will be interesting to see if Crimes, which so far looks pretty serious, includes such screwball antics, but I think it is safe to bet that we will see a host of obstacles to the smooth running of our lovers’ courses. We can probably safely expect mistaken intentions, miscommunication, confusion, and misunderstandings in abundance.

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Elements and Humors

While there is certainly much more to the alchemical structures of both stories, one last element that we can probably safely expect in Crimes is actually related to multiple elements and to the theory of humors that informs much of Shakespeare’s writing and which we have been expecting to be a major factor in the Wizarding World as it evolves in these films. Rowling has long used characters reflective of the four humors, just as Shakespeare has, but it now seems that she is presenting four couples that each represent one of the humors and its corresponding element. This is also Shakespeare’s bread and butter, as illustrated beautifully in Wendy Jean McPhee’s 1996 doctoral thesis ARCANA IN SHAKESPEARE’S COMEDIES WITH SPECIFIC REFERENCE TO ‘THE COMEDY OF ERRORS’ AND ‘A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.’ McPhee’s excellent work points out how Shakespeare’s four lovers each represent an element: “fire in ‘Helen’ (torch of reeds), air in ‘Hermia’ (female of Hermes — the Greek for Mercury, whose element was air), water in ‘Lysander’ (from the chemical loosening as in catalyst — hence the liquid vitriol and water), and earth in ‘Demetrios’ (son of Demeter, earth-goddess), who thus becomes a subject matter of alchemical process.”  If we match those elements up to their humor counterparts as with the great chart our Headmaster references in the original post on the photo, that equates Hermia with blood as a sanguine figure; Helena with yellow bile as the choleric, Demetrius as Earth as the melancholic; and Lysander with water as a phlegmatic.

Though Rowling is certainly putting her original spin on the old models, as she always does, the four central couples of Crimes appear, at least at this point, to have similar connections. As pointed out in that great original post, Jake and Queenie=sanguine, Newt and Tina=melancholic, Theseus and Leta=choleric; Credence and the Maledictus=Phlegmatic. That analysis is spot on, and it beautifully connects with Shakespeare’s humor-coding.  While each author is using the same basic lexicon on humors, each is also spinning the language of humors in a unique way. For example, Shakespeare’s melancholic character is the “earthy” Demetrius, a fellow I have often described as suffering from the same syndrome as dogs who chase cars: he only wants what he cannot have. He wants Helena until she returns his affections, and then he wants Hermia, who clearly does not reciprocate. Only by the intervention of earthy nature spirits can Demetrius be “fixed” by the application of the love flower that actually resets him to his default position of loving Helena, freed from his humoral character flaw of inconstancy. But melancholic are not always inconstant, or even indecisive, like poor Hamlet, king of the land of melancholy. In fulfilling this role, Newt and Tina can instead represent the quiet, introspective aspect of this humor, as well as its positive aspects of creativity, imagination, and enthusiasm that are evident when the humor is well balanced. After all, Hamlet isn’t just a guy who can’t make up his mind. That’s what happens when he’s out of sorts. He is also a deep thinker and scholar when he is balanced.  Hufflepuff Newt clearly aligns with the earthy badgers who also fit this element.

In some aspects, though, the MND humor line-up is an obvious match. The Sanguine Kowalskis are thus in the same league as Hermia, who, among the lovers, is the most level-headed. Unlike the men, both distracted by the love flower, or Helena, distracted by low self-esteem that is also self- absorption, Hermia is befuddled by the turns of events, and angry when she assumes Helena has conspired against her, so her role in the play predicts that Jake and Queenie may face trials, but their love and devotion will be constant.

Lysander, our phlegmatic, doesn’t really seem like a Slytherin, though our scary circus pair includes a woman who turns into a snake,until we look at the dream that bedevils Hermia, abandoned by Lysander after Puck mistakenly applies the love potion to his eyes, instead of to Demetrius’s, at the end of Act II.



Upon awakening alone, she says:

Help me, Lysander, help me! do thy best

To pluck this crawling serpent from my breast!

Ay me, for pity! what a dream was here!

Lysander, look how I do quake with fear:

Methought a serpent eat my heart away,

And you sat smiling at his cruel pray.

Lysander! what, removed? Lysander! lord!

What, out of hearing? gone? no sound, no word?

Alack, where are you speak, an if you hear;

Speak, of all loves! I swoon almost with fear.

No? then I well perceive you all not nigh

Either death or you I’ll find immediately.

So even though Lysander is not normally a snake, his Slytherin qualities do emerge upon his encounter with that dangerous little love flower!

We may have to wait and see how, exactly, Theseus and Leta’s relationship works and connects with the choleric features epitomized by Helena in MND. Will Rowling take a conventional approach, which will include switched roles (Helena chases Demetrius, an experience likened to deer chasing the hounds) and eventual reconciliation? Or will this couple’s fiery nature be one that cannot be controlled and harnessed?

Waiting for November

While these are just a few of the interesting questions and theories we’ll have to ponder for the next few months, there is no doubt that Shakespeare’s masterful comedy is one of the playbooks from which Rowling and her team are operating for the construction of The Crimes of Grindelwald. Though this may not be a story that can be happily resolved by getting everyone married off, it is doubtless going to be one that will continue to invite our analysis and speculation. I look forward to your thoughts as well, or, if you did not enjoy these ruminations, think but this this, and all is mended, that you have but slumber’d here, while these visions did appear.

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  1. Beatrice Groves says

    Thanks for a great post Elizabeth! I really enjoyed it.

    It is good to see Rowling using A Midsummer Night’s Dream again. As you note, an interesting general link between the Wizarding World and Shakespeare’s faery world is that Rowling has created, as she says, ‘a fantastic world that has to live shoulder-by-shoulder with the real world’ (2001). In much fantasy writing, magical lands – such as Narnia or Middle Earth – remain resolutely separate from the ‘real’ world. Rowling, however, thinks that the way in which the Wizarding World runs parallel to our own is one of the main appeals of her creation: ‘there’s something delicious in this idea of hiding in plain sight, that there is a world within a world, that we could all access’ (2016). And this is a link with A Midsummer Night’s Dream which Fantastic Beasts shares with Harry Potter. As I wrote in my Literary Allusion in Harry Potter I think there are some very direct links with the play in Harry Potter, such as that between Thisbe’s unintentionally comic blazon of her green-eyed lover Lysander and Ginny’s unintentionally comic blazon of her green-eyed lover-to-be Harry (and both use very funny similes: ‘His eyes were green as leeks’ [Thisbe]; ‘His eyes are as green as a fresh pickled toad’ [Ginny]).
    On your point about the doubling of Titania/Oberon and Hippolyta/Theseus: when I was studying Dream as an undergraduate in Cambridge I came across a ‘droll’ in the rare book’s room – a short, comical excerpt from Dream performed (perhaps in inns) during the out-lawing of theatre in the Commonwealth. The dramatis personae for this mid-17th century text noted the doubling of Titania/Oberon and Hippolyta/Theseus: it is the first explicit evidence I know of that the pair were doubled in early modern times!
    I love your point about the Hippolyta/Leta name connection. Leta is a sufficiently unusual name that many of us thought she was reusing the name Leda before the script came out! It being a nickname for the mouthful Hippolyta is a nice idea, esp. given the exactly parallel pronunciation and her pairing with Theseus.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    I’ll second Dr. Groves – though I had never thought of or encountered attention to such parallels and connexions! (And, what a marvellous gallery of different illustrations!) The similarities of Wizarding World and Shakespeare’s ‘faerie’ are brought out vividly by your discussion, including its seclusion and its momentous interaction, whether baleful or beneficent.

    I’m similarly ‘innocent’ of scholarly attention (or possible authorial hints or confessions) to any parallels or more between the Wizarding World and that of The Tempest. But your detailed attention to characters has got me wondering… Dumbledore, as you describe him, seems a bit Prospero-like, and, as you note, “Grindelwald certainly interferes in the lives of mortals as Puck does, but he is a darker figure, immoral, rather than the amoral sprite whose pranks are not meant to harm” – MND, indeed, lacks any such malice. Not so, The Tempest. The Wikipediast tells us “Die Geisterinsel, a 1778 version of the play in German, includes a living Sycorax, a witch who has full power during the night, while Prospero rules the day. In this play, she is the one who causes the tempest and shipwreck, not Prospero; Prospero is extremely wary of her actions as each night approaches, as she has power over those who sleep. Several times he struggles to keep Miranda awake to protect her from Sycorax’s power.” (And a quick look at the 1800 edition of Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter’s libretto, via an external link in the German Wikipedia, suggests this is an accurate description.) In Shakespeare, neither Sycorax – nor her ‘god’ Setebos, for that matter – appear as ‘magical’ opponents, but the trusting Prospero of yore has been betrayed and successfully bested (for a time) by the man closest to him – his brother, Antonio, whose malicious scheming continues unabated (in Auden’s imagination, even after the end of the play!). But, then again, Antonio is not the threat Grindalwald is. (I am also left wondering if Aberforth may feature in this film?)

    Again, Shakespeare’s Theseus, like all classical versions I know, has no brother, younger or otherwise, while two sets of brothers are prominent in The Tempest – but if young Newt in his turn seems Prospero-like in some respects, Theseus does not look to be like Alonso or Antonio.

    I must say, Credence Barebone cum Obscurus in the first film did remind me at times of the Calibanic “monster from the id” in Forbidden Planet, and it will be interesting to see how any Prospero-like characters work with him to his good.

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