The fleeting but forceful mention of Philomel in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Shakespeare is an oblique reference, noticed perhaps only by the knowing reader, to the Greek myth in which the Philomela, the princess of Athens, was sexually assaulted by her lustful brother-in-law, Tereus. When Philomela threatened to tell the world of the violation, claiming that she would move any listener with her capacity for words, Tereus cut out her tongue, silencing her. Philomela was subsequently transformed into a nightingale, a bird known for its unique song. The appeal to Philomel in this important passage from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Shakespeare, then, becomes a signal and symbol in this Shakespeare play that references violence, and though the type of violence alluded to is not physical, the use of this reference indicates that the consequences of psychological violence can be just as severe.
Although A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy, there are several darker themes that are integrated throughout it although they are subdued and, as in the case with the reference to Philomela, not always directly noticeable without an understanding of the reference. There are two specific references to Philomel in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first reference occurs after Titania’s exchange with Oberon, who jealously wants Titania’s changeling for himself. The exchange which comprises on the important passages from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Shakespeare, in which Titania refused to give over the boy, makes Oberon still more angry, and he decides to brush his wife’s eyes with a potion that is intended to “silence" her love for the young boy and direct her attention and affection back toward her husband. While this act is not overtly violent in terms of physical violation, it does rob Titania of her own decision-making capacity, effectively silencing her and making her unable to express herself or her own desires.
Her fairies sing for her, calling upon Philomel to “Sing in our sweet lullaby" so that their “lovely lady" will come to no harm (II.ii.25, 29). The morning lark appears again in Act IV, Scene I, when Titania has fallen in love with Bottom, an unlikely and improbable object of affection. Again, the trilling of the nightingale signals danger, and indeed, Oberon turns to his wife and makes a direct reference to silence, which he describes as sad. While the tone of the play is rather light-hearted, this reference does add a darker tone to the deeper meanings of these exchanges between husband and wife and forces the reader to look beyond the surface of this event of silencing.
This narrative of psychological violence underlies the otherwise comic play, hinting at the subtle but sinister aggression that people who love one another perpetrate against each other. The examples involving Titania are not the only situations in which people are silenced and victimized and again, despite the relatively light-hearted tone of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there are numerous references throughout the play, involving a wide range of characters, including women in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Hermia, Helena, and even the inept and verbally bumbling Bottom. Anytime that anyone’s true voice is silenced, Shakespeare seems to suggest, that the person who is not longer able to express his or her thoughts or desires has somehow been done harm. Instead, we must work to protect one another’s right to speech and expression, allowing each person to voice—literally and symbolically—their own truths. Also, just as in the case of the poor Philomela who was not able to express herself, it should be kept in mind that those who are less powerful must insist upon their right to speak and to be heard, even in situations where others have attempted to marginalize and silence them.