Literary Allusion in “Harry Potter”: Shakespeare and “Harry Potter” – Part 2

Today, Dr. Beatrice Groves continues her discussion of Shakespeare and Harry Potter by looking at one of the Bard’s most famous plays – A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You can read Part 1 of her Shakespearean analysis here, and her analysis of Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes here. If you’re enjoying her literary take on the Potter series – any Ravenclaws in the audience? – be sure to check out Dr. Groves’ book Literary Allusion in Harry Potter!

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One of the most quintessentially Shakespearean aspects of Harry Potter is the revelation of pathos in things that had previously made its audience laugh. One of the funniest scenes in Harry Potter is the delivery of Ginny’s valentine. This episode in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets contains a direct echo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and retains both the comedy and the pathos of Shakespeare’s scene.

To celebrate Valentine’s Day, Lockhart has dressed up some less-than-delighted dwarfs as gold-winged, harp-carrying cupids. The comic disjunction between the grumpiness of the dwarfs and their saccharine outfits is heightened by the disconnect between the love messages they carry and the violence with which they insist on delivering them. A particularly grim-looking dwarf pursues Harry and tackles him to the floor when he tries to dodge hearing his valentine. The dwarf then sings the valentine – which compares Harry’s eyes to fresh, pickled toads and his raven locks to blackboards – while sitting on top of him.

The valentine [that] Ginny has sent to Harry is a type of “blazon[“:] a traditional form of love poetry in which specific features of the beloved (eyes, hair, lips, etc.) are listed and compared to beautiful objects (though these are usually flowers and jewels rather than toads and blackboards).

[A b]lazon breaks down a woman’s beauty into its constituent parts and in doing so, renders her a rather passive object of praise. It was a popular way of describing feminine beauty, but it is in many ways an odd device for love poetry. It objectifies its subject, and its imaginative and flamboyant dissection of the female body suggests that showing off his powers of poetic invention are rather more important to the poet than the woman he claims to be addressing. Traditionally, the blazoning poet is always a “he” and the poetic blazon is of a woman. Harry’s powerlessness in the face of his valentine as he lies pinned to the floor echoes the emasculating nature of the poetic blazon and increases the comedy of the moment.

The comparison of Harry’s green eyes to [a] freshly pickled toad also recalls a specific Shakespearean comic blazon: Thisbe’s lament over Pyramus at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This blazon (which, like Ginny’s, breaks with convention by being addressed by a woman to a man) is performed as part of the play-within-a-play [that] the mechanicals perform at Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding ceremony. This play is intended by Shakespeare to be a comic disaster, and Thisbe mourns over her dead lover’s beauty with a deeply improbable blazon:

This cherry nose,
These yellow cowslip cheeks,
Are gone, are gone:
Lovers, makes moan:
His eyes were green as leeks.                                                           (5.1.326-30)

Thisbe’s similes are all strained, but the triumphantly worst one is left till last.

The performance of both of these blazons to their green-eyed lover[s] have an audience within the fiction as well as outside it. Ginny’s blazon causes the crowd of on-lookers to literally cry with laughter (and the pickled toad simile causes particular amusement). The on-stage audience of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” likewise, mock the performance: Theseus comments of Pyramus’s lament that “this passion – and the death of a dear friend – would go near to make a man look sad” (5.1.283-4).

While the constant interruptions of the play-within-a-play by its aristocratic audience are amusing, however, they ignore the emotional truth behind the performance. In both Midsummer Night’s Dream and Chamber of Secrets, the somewhat brutal reaction of the fictive audience serves to make the real audience reflect on their own amusement. The line “his eyes were green as leeks” always gets a laugh in the theatre, but performers such as Sam Rockwell (in Michael Hoffman’s 1999 film of Midsummer Night’s Dream) manage to acknowledge the comic awkwardness of the simile, while still playing it for pathos. As with Ginny’s comparison of Harry’s eyes to the emerald green of a freshly pickled toad, there is comedy in the poverty of poetic invention; but there is also something more.

Ginny adores Harry, and the discomfort of her public humiliation in this scene is underlined when Malfoy draws spiteful attention to it. Thisbe’s mourning speech, likewise, begins as comedy. But the audience of Midsummer Night’s Dream, like the reader of Chamber of Secrets, may end the scene with an awakened sensibility towards those who have been the butt of the joke and a certain disquiet that they have fallen in with the mockery of the emotionally vulnerable by the powerful.