Essay / Culture

Because of Fairies

Recently, I spent twelve hours discussing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with sophomores in the Torrey Honors Institute. (What a job!) I love this play more and more. It’s easy to miss its richness–it’s such a romp!

Here’s the thing that struck me in reading the play this time, and it’s a line that I began each class with: Sometimes thing just work out.

Somehow, and Lord knows how, we inhabit a cultural moment in which we distrust narratives of resolution and reconciliation. Our cynical eye sees goodness and knows–it just knows–that things aren’t that simple. Things don’t hold together; things fall apart. Goodness from afar looks grim up close; it is joyless austerity at best, more likely a hypocritical mask covering the grim truth of humanity. Scandal doesn’t surprise us, but confirms what we already knew–that no one is as good as they appear, that all that glitters is only ever fool’s good. (If you’re looking for a trenchant essay along these lines, check out Marilynne Robinson’s “Facing Reality” in The Death of Adam.)

Christians have good reason to follow this line of thought. We believe in original sin, that, in the words of Bing Crosby in White Christmas, “Everybody’s got a little larceny working in them.” Good luck finding an untarnished heart.

But Christians also have abundant reason to follow another line of thought. We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, and so we believe in more than mere suspicion. We believe, too, in unexpected resolution. Without an ounce of the saccharine, Christians believe that enemies can become friends, that the death can–and have, and will–rise to new life. And so I find Midsummer a marvelous tonic for my sub-Christian skepticism in the face of resolution and reconciliation. I find in it a gentle rebuke in its rollicking insistence that sometimes things just work out.

But wait–there’s more. How do they work out? Well, at the start of the play, there’s a Rome and Juliet scenario, with star-crossed lovers on their way out of town to get married, against her father’s wishes. In Romeo and Juliet, this scenario ends in a double suicide. In Midsummer, it ends in a triple wedding. What’s the difference? Why do the lovers in this place end up happily paired off, with the right men loving and being loved by the right women? One student scrunched her brow and offered hesitantly, “Because of…fairies?”

She was exactly right. Because of fairies. The lovers enter the forest, and the magic of mischievous fairies works to the end that, returning home, they are reconciled, rightly matched, and ready to get hitched. In a modern tale, were we to dare such reconciliation, we would at least be sensible enough to attribute this readiness for marriage to the moral progress of the lovers. Or perhaps they found the right recipe or followed the right plan, thus being rewarded with marriage. But that’s just it; they lovers don’t progress in character or knowledge. Moral progress and methodism have nothing to do with it. Marriage in Midsummer couldn’t be further from a reward; it’s a gift.

What I love about this play is that it defies explanation. No calculus can explain a gift, after all. Consider Midsummer a witness to the wide mercy of our God, who gives lavish gifts, and whose distribution of them cares little for the qualifications of its recipients. Midsummer is a witness to the deep truth that marriage–like all of God’s best gifts–is a gift, to be received with dumbfounded, gobsmacked gratitude. Perhaps that’s why St. Paul likens it to the covenant of God with the church–because it evokes the saving God by whose mercy things, at the Last Day, will just work out.

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