How do you think of Titania? Oddly enough one of the first things to come into my mind is an operatic aria, one you don’t hear much nowadays: ‘Je suis Titania’ from Mignon by the nineteenth-century French composer Ambroise Thomas. (He also wrote the opera of Hamlet that was recently televised from the Met.) The libretto of Mignon is based on Goethe, not Shakespeare, and the aria is a jolly, delicate piece of coloratura, full of runs and high notes, in the rhythm, if I remember rightly, of a polonaise. It’s a real show stopper, a virtuoso piece that I associate with singers like Gwen Catley (that dates me) and Joan Sutherland. It doesn’t have much to do with Shakespeare but its airy grace and fragile, filigree beauty suit my image of the character. And the visual image that comes into my mind is of Judi Dench, first in the Peter (no, spell check, not pewter) Hall Stratford production of 1962. It was a visual delight, with a beautiful set by Lila de Nobili, all gauzes and greenery, and wonderful performances from Ian Richardson as Oberon and Ian Holm as Robin Goodfellow. And at the centre of it was Judi, looking exquisite in a costume that might have been worn by Queen Elizabeth. Her silvery verse speaking was to match, that well-known catch in the voice giving humanity to the jewelled language. And then again, only last year, she played the same part, at the age one must ungallantly record of 75, again directed by Peter Hall and this time with a wordless prologue in which she appeared as the Queen of England before assuming the role of Queen of the Fairies. It was just as lovely a performance, memorable above all for the laughing tenderness with which she embraced the asinine Bottom.
A film was made of the Stratford production in the beautiful grounds of Compton Verney, and in this Titania appeared almost naked, bare-breasted in the woodlands. This image serves to remind us of the sensual side of the Fairy Queen, one which became prominent in the works of visual artists long before it was discovered by literary critics. The Birthplace Trust’s current exhibition on Shakespeare’s Women features a remarkably languorous, sexy painting of Titania by George Romney, and both female and male members of Oberon’s court become the objects of sexual fantasy in many nineteenth-century paintings by artists such as Henry Fuseli, Richard Dadd, and Francis Danby. On the wall of my office here in Stratford hangs a lovely little water-colour by a minor but charming early nineteenth-century illustrator, John Massey Wright, in which a wide-eyed and bare-breasted Titania raises her arms in astonishment at the sight of the sleeping Bottom, while, behind her, Oberon, bare-chested and with manly thighs, points scornfully at the object of her dream-fantasy. The character of Titania, like the play itself, figures very variously in the imaginations of its interpreters.