Henry Fuseli. Titania and Bottom (1786-89)

Oil on canvas, 85 x 108 inches. London, Tate Gallery.

The image of Titania and Bottom can be viewed at the Tate Museum's website; clicking on the image will enlarge it. Be sure to visit the "display caption" if one appears on the page. There you will find notes written by the staff of the Tate Museum and they will supplement my remarks. The Tate asks also that you visit its homepage.

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The source is A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act IV, scene i. Bottom now wears the ass's head, and Titania says to him,

Come, sit thee down upon this flow'ry bed,
While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,
And stick musk-roses in they sleek smooth head,
And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.

This is one of several illustrations by Fuseli on scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream, a natural source for an artist so often drawn to the subject of dreams and nightmares. The central figure Titania calls on her fairies to wait on the seated Bottom. In Bottom's hand stands Mustardseed, ready to help Peaseblossom, who scratches Bottom's right ear. Cobweb is at the left of the painting, spear poised to kill a bee and to bring the honey-bag to Bottom. At the right is a girl holding the bowl of "dried pease" Bottom has requested. The woman standing behind the girl, looking wantonly from the picture at the viewer, leads a dwarfish old man on a leash. She represents the triumph of youth over age, of the senses over reason--and, in terms of the imagery established by the play itself, the victory of night over day, the forest of Oberon over the court of Theseus, the world of love and dreams over the rational, workaday world of Athens. In this one allegorical image Fuseli captures the polarity of much of the imagery of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The two halves of the painting in fact contrast interestingly with one another. On Titania's right hand (our left side of the painting) is a well-lit scene with an attractive grouping of young women and a young girl in the lower-right hand corner. Contrasted to her is the waxen, gnomish little figure sitting in the lap of a hooded figure in the opposite corner. In opposition to the two figures smiling suggestively out at us on the right are the two women with hands outstretched on the left. Immediately to the left and behind Titania is another woman with arms folded, and she is duplicated on the right; the right-hand figure, however, is cast in shadows and her features are partially obscured. Is Fuseli suggesting to us something of the nature of the fairy world, with a lighter and untroubled scene on Titania's right hand and a darker, shadowy scene on her left hand, an iconographical presentation of the two sides of human nature? Again, this symbolic interpretation of the painting reflects some of the themes in Shakespeare's play.

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Harry Rusche, Emory University, Atlanta, GA

This page was last revised: April 06, 2000