Yeah, yeah, Saltburn shares a lot with Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. We get it, Mac, we’ve torn it apart in the pub, we’re several beers deep on the nuances. But hark! There’s another subtle textual reference in Emerald Fennell’s thriller that’ll have you digging out your other English textbooks to fuel another round.
Folks, it’s Shakespeare. ✨pause for harmonious groaning✨
Hear me out. The Bard’s magical and lusty romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not only the theme for Oliver’s opulent birthday party in Saltburn, but also a key text to exploring the complex relationship between Oliver (Barry Keoghan) and Felix (Jacob Elordi), and how power and status determines their roles.
Like the lofty fairy monarchy in Shakespeare’s tale, the wealthy, spoiled, beautiful Catton family exists simply to dabble in the excess and splendor of their realm, with a spot of human manipulation here and there. But specifically, Felix and Oliver embody two characters essential to A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Oberon and Puck.
Physically, it’s all in their party costumes: Felix (Jacob Elordi) dons a pair of enormous wings, channeling Oberon, the King of the Fairies — an outfit foreshadowed by his large chest tattoo of a wing. Meanwhile, Oliver (Barry Keoghan) adorns himself with antlers as Puck, Oberon’s mischievous shit-stirrer and servant.
These fitting sartorial choices not only look banging but also elucidate deeper themes and traits in them and other characters. For example, Felix’s father James (Richard E. Grant) dresses up as Theseus, Duke of Athens, the highest-ranking human character whose wedding bookends A Midsummer Night’s Dream — and whose dalliance with the Minotaur in Greek mythology is referenced in the Cattons’ doomed maze. Yep, there’s a lot of hidden imagery in Saltburn.
In case you weren’t done with your school exams, let’s dabble in a little intertextual debauchery.
Felix: The beautiful and bored royal
Credit: MGM and Amazon Studios
In case you didn’t catch it from that golden wingspan and cheeky twinkle in his eye, Felix makes a vague stand-in for the magical monarch Oberon. In this case, the King of the Fairies is the young prince of Saltburn and 2000s Oxford campus ruler. Though he’s not as calculating as Oberon — though driving Oliver back to Preston and his brutal fallout with Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) might suggest otherwise — Felix does embody Oberon’s bored and beautiful countenance. Elordi easily plays Felix with the same frivolous, sultry intensity as Rupert Everett’s Oberon in Michael Hoffman’s 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It’s not a direct hit; Oberon is described by Puck as “jealous,” something Felix only really indicates when Oliver and Felix’s sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver) grow close. However, Oberon does love bringing people together through magic flower juice, which Saltburn’s princeling indeed does, and he does relish his power.
In Saltburn, Felix’s mother Elspeth (Rosmund Pike) dresses up as Titania, Queen of the Fairies, for the party. Yet she shares the role with her daughter Venetia. The affluent, glittering, and extremely bored Cattons tend to adopt a new lost souls like Oliver Quick and Poor Dear Pamela (Carey Mulligan) each summer, just as Oberon and Titania find new lost humans to toy with in Shakespeare’s play, leading various mortals through the glimmering night “hand in hand, with fairy grace”.
But Felix is mainly rendered Oberonian through his diabolical bestie: Oliver “Puck” Quick. And like Puck and Oberon, Oliver and Felix’s relationship is all trust and power dynamics.
Oliver: The horned mischief-maker
Credit: MGM and Amazon Studios
With his small antlers and penchant for trickery, Oliver embodies a deeply sinister version of the mischievous Puck, “that merry wanderer of the night”, Shakespeare’s sprite, often depicted as a satyr. Like Oberon’s own personal Loki, Puck does the king’s bidding (not necessarily well) and acts as a guide for the audience through the hijinks of the play. Similarly, Oliver leads us through Saltburn as its narrator. Puck is a shrewd eavesdropper — “sometimes lurk I in a gossip’s bowl” — just like Oliver, and his loyalty to Oberon does not make him mindless. Oliver’s tendency toward manipulation and trickery aligns with Puck’s, the master puppeteer behind the king.
In Shakespeare’s tale, Puck is Oberon’s confidante and fixer. In this privileged position under the wing of the forest’s monarch, Puck can have a little fun, playing a few tricks on weak-hearted humans who stray too far into the woods.
Here’s how the Royal Shakespeare Company describes Puck:
“Puck is Oberon’s servant, and seems to willingly carry out his commands, speaking politely and respectfully to the King of the Fairies. In carrying out his orders, and ultimately making a mistake, Puck becomes the catalyst for most of the drama, and the comedy, in the play. To what extent Puck enjoys his tasks, or the mischief he is able to get up to while carrying them out, is open to interpretation…”
In the play, when a fairy questions Puck’s identity, she calls him a “shrewd and knavish sprite” that “mislead[s] night-wanderers, laughing at their harm”, which fits Oliver like a glove.
Whether Oberon and Puck’s relationship is strictly platonic is the stuff of academic debate, but Oliver’s love for and obsession with Felix is not. “My gentle Puck, come hither” indeed.
But where their dynamic best overlaps with Shakespeare’s duo is Oliver’s spending every waking hour trying to please Felix, who can easily cast him aside. “I just gave you what you wanted!” Oliver cries in the maze during the party. It’s comparable to Puck’s response to Oberon accusing him of negligence in their plans and that he “committ’st thy knaveries wilfully” in the play — “Believe me, king of shadows, I mistook. / Did not you tell me I should know the man / By the Athenian garment be had on? / And so far blameless proves my enterprise,” Puck says. Essentially, you wanted what you wanted, this is what you’ve got.
At the end of Saltburn, as Oliver dances through the halls of the estate naked, you could forgive him for dropping a little of Puck’s closing monologue, winking down the camera: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear.”
Alas, the nightmarish visions of Saltburn are no dream for the Cattons.