Oberon and Titania: The Emperor and Empress

At some point in the not-too-distant past, I talked about the mental connection I make between the Magician and the character of Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Here, I’d like to look at two more Shakespeare characters in connection with the Tarot: Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

To me, no paired couple better represents the Emperor and the Empress of Tarot’s Major Arcana. Oberon is forceful, authoritative, and decidedly male. At his best, he is the ruler of the fairy kingdom. At his worst, he is petty, jealous, and spiteful.

And Titania. Let’s talk about Titania.

She is one of my favorite female characters in all of Shakespeare, which seems strange (in part because she’s such a minor role and in part because there are so many lovely characters in his work–Beatrice, Cordelia, Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, and Cleopatra, to name a few). I find her character so beautifully crafted, because on the surface she’s kind of a floozy, but there’s also so much substance to her if you pay close attention to her character.

What people know of Titania (if they know of her) is her sexual nature. When she first meets Oberon in the woods, he accuses her of adultery; and later, of course, she goes gallivanting about the forest with a literal ass. And it’s true that as the queen of fairy, she is a profoundly sexual being, “a spirit of no common rate”.

edwin_landseer_-_scene_from_a_midsummer_nights_dream-_titania_and_bottom_-_google_art_project

But oh, there is so much more to her.

People always forget the reason that Oberon and Titania are feuding at the beginning of the play: a priestess, dedicated to Titania’s order, has died, and the fairy queen has adopted the woman’s son. And while “jealous Oberon would have the child / Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild”, Titania refuses to give the boy over to her husband. She feels a sense of duty, an obligation to care for the boy in the absence of his mother.

Moreover, this urge to offer care and comfort extends beyond the changeling boy, to the entire fairy kingdom. Titania laments that because of her feud with Oberon, the balance of nature has been destroyed. Crops are withering, the seasons are wrong, and the earth is dying. And unlike Oberon, Titania feels directly responsible for this; she tells Oberon that “this same progeny of evils comes / From our debate, from our dissension; / We are their parents and original”.

What do we see in this couple, then? Oberon is powerful but rash, martial in all the best and worst ways. And Titania is his complement, not only in her feminine sexuality but in her pleas for moderation and reconciliation. The Emperor and the Empress.

Reading this, it may seem like my opinion of the Emperor (and of Oberon) is rather low, but that’s not actually the case. Even in the height of his (unjustified) fury, no one questions Oberon’s right to rule. He is the legitimate fairy king, and for all his faults, he is also–normally–a just and fair ruler.

Moreover, although Oberon may seem selfish and short-sighted when we look only at his relationship to Titania, we also need to remember that it is Oberon (and not his more overtly benevolent wife) who sees the suffering of the young Athenians lost in the woods and tries to put their romantic woes to rights. Oberon commands Puck to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena, to mend the latter’s broken heart. And when Puck, well, pucks up,* it’s Oberon who commands him to undo his errors.

What I’m driving at here is that Oberon does have a sense of responsibility, of obligation to others and of wanting to take care of the world around him. It’s just different than Titania’s. While Titania is concerned with the welfare of the forests, the seas, and the changing seasons, Oberon involves himself directly in the lives of young lovers. They represent different types of concern: one that is more universal and nurturing, and one that is more personal and direct.

To  me, Oberon and Titania are the ultimate power couple, the divine masculine and feminine as I have found them nowhere else. (Or at least nowhere else in literature. Religious traditions get a little more iffy, although I personally would still stick with Shakespeare.) And I see them reflected in Tarot. In Oberon, I see the power, the glory, and–yes–the temper of the Emperor. In Titania, I see the nurturing qualities of the Empress, but I also see the borderline-wanton sexuality that the card can represent at its worst.

Oberon and Titania are, forevermore, my Emperor and Empress. And I, their merry wanderer of the night.


 

*Forgive the pun. I couldn’t help myself. It might also be worth noting that of all the characters in Shakespeare, Puck is the one I most identify with.

 

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4 thoughts on “Oberon and Titania: The Emperor and Empress

  1. I’ve never heard Shakespeare characters compared to Tarot ones. That is a brilliant idea. I would love to know if there were Tarot cards in Shakespeare’s time. Thanks for the well-written insight.

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    1. Tarot emerged in the 14th century (if memory serves) in northern Italy, as a card game for the nobility. From what I understand, it didn’t really gain popularity in Britain until the late 19th century, though, so I certainly don’t think that Shakespeare drew on Tarot symbolism in his writing. But Shakespeare is brilliant because he was so skillful in capturing the human condition, and Tarot endeavors to do the same. Comparisons like this one (or my likening of Tarot’s Magician to Prospero from The Tempest) are arbitrary to a certain degree, because they compare Shakespeare to symbolism that he likely wasn’t conscious of while he was writing; however, I think it’s still interesting to look at parallels between the two, as a way of expanding my personal understanding of each.

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