Midsummer Night’s Dream

I have a confession to make: I’ve never been a huge fan of this play.  It’s a classic, it’s cute, but I’ve never thought that the romantic confusion was incredibly hilarious – even before I read all of Shakespeare’s other comedies.  The funniest part in any production that I’ve seen is always the play-within-a-play at the end, and the faeries and the lovers are just an excuse to have that hilarious show at the wedding reception for Hippolyta and Theseus and everyone elseBut, having read it through the play instead of just seeing it performed by actors who are trying to be funny, I’m starting to realize the value of the play.  As Theseus states: “For never any thing can be amiss When simpleness and duty tender it.” 

It can be creepily beautiful, not just campy.

This play is written in that weird anachronistic world that became so popular during the Rennaisance, where Medieval knights co-existed with ancient Greece.  Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale is like that: Chivalry in the time of Oedipus and Antigone.  So already, you have Theseus as a Duke of Athens, but his betrothed is Queen of the Amazons, who apparently went bear hunting with Hercules at one point.  So it’s set in a completely mythological hybrid world, where Faeries are also presented as omnipotent forces – indeed, the battle between Oberon and Titania has created plague and natural disasters all over the world: “And this same progeny of evils comes from our debate, from our dissension; We are their parents and original.”  This is important, because the human world and the faery world are intertwined.  It is not a human world being interrupted by the faery world, it is both at the same time.  Honestly, I would double cast Theseus with Oberon, King of the Faeries, and Hippolya with Titania, Queen of the Faeries.  The power and domain of these monarchs overlap, and inhabit the same strange world.  To treat the human world as separate from the faery world is wrong: they are the same world, and the fantastical imagery must run strongly through both.

For example, this bear standing on a whale corpse.

The problem that seems to exist with this play (which is shared with a lot of other Shakespeare plays) is that people really want to make it boring, and literary in the worst sense of the word.  They have a flat idea of what the faeries ought to be, and they imitate that instead of actually serving the text.  Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, for example, is not a friendly creature.  He’s a dick, actually.  He brags to a Faery that he transformed himself into a stool so that he could make an old woman fall.  Because he’s a dick.  Sure, he’s playful, but he’s playful the same way that a child who is ripping wings off of butterflies is playful.  When he says, “else the Puck a liar call,” I think that moment is actually very menacing.  That is not to say Puck is never benevolent: he feels genuine delight when his magic flower makes Demetrius fall in love with Helena.  When he famously exclaims “What fools these mortals be!” it is because he has never taken the time to watch them love.

In any case, his antics are genuinely funny

Although the Faeries in conflict are inherently funny, the human conflict at the heart of this play is not funny. Lysander loves Hermia, but Hermia’s father Egeus has betrothed her to Demetrius who also loves her.  Hermia wants to marry Lysander, but the backwards and fucked up laws of Athens allow for Egeus to kill his daughter if she disobeys his wishes.  The other distinctly not-funny aspect of this conflict is that Demetrius “Made love to Nedar’s daughter, Helena, And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes, Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry Upon this spotted and inconstant man.”  Yeah.  Demetrius took Helena’s virginity because he couldn’t get any action from Hermia, and Helena still loves him even though he is clearly a douche.  The bulk of the play is Lysander and Hermia trying to escape the threat of execution by fleeing through the woods, while Demetrius chases them and Hermia chases him.  Their passions become pawns in a comedic power play between godlike creatures, but the passions themselves are pretty inherently dramatic, if not tragic.  As Bottom poignently remarks at one point: “Reason and love keep little company together now-a-days.” In my opinion, that human conflict should not be slapstick at all.

The comedy comes from the magical elements.

What I do really like about this play is the timelessness of it.  Of all the Shakespeare plays that I’ve read (and it’s a substantial chunk of them now), it’s the only onw that comes to mind which does not require any real cuts.  With a solid cast of actors, and a competant director at the helm, you can do this play without any modification to the text and a modern audience will be able to follow the action.  You just need a good grasp oon the language and the rest plays out on its own.  I think a lot of people like to remove the language and hide the nuances that allow darkness to creep around the edges.  Oberon, for example, is “the king of shadows.”


Henry Fuseli seems to understand the creepiness of the source material, but nobody else does.

It’s a really cool world.  Just because the Faeries have to power to create flowers and rainbows does not mean that flowers and rainbows are everything in their world.  Puck casually mentions “ghosts, wandering here and there, Troop home to churchyards: damned spirits all, That in crossways and floods have burial.”  If you look at this text, the Faeries here have far more control over the human world than the Witches of Macbeth.  The way people like to stage those Witches manipulating the actions of characters in that play, beyond where the text says they are present, I think you could stage Midsummer with the Faeries manipulating every small thing.  But really, i don’t think you even need that.  Like any Shakespeare, you need to just embrace the text and let your concept of the world flow from that instead of forcing ideas onto it.  The result is a comprehensive and fantastic world, and not some normal world clashing with a magic one.

The imagery, however is whatever crazy thing you want.

And those are my thoughts for the moment.  I like it more than I used to, just from reading it and seeing the depth of the text.  I actually do want to perform in it one of these days, or direct it, and create the bare and honest version that exists in my mind

Going back to the roots of faeries as malevolent beings.

I will return next week with Merchant of Venice, another so-called comedy with intensely dark elements.  I’m excited.

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  1. […] That’s right, Duke Theseus and his wife Hyppolita – you may remember their names from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Like I said, […]

  2. […] be relatively obscure in popular culture – nowhere near the status of Romeo & Juliet or Midsummer Night’s Dream – it is frequently cited as the favorite play of Shakespeare fans.  And with good reason, because […]

  3. […] to me, and yet it’s done so often for some strange reason.  Unlike the overproduced tales in Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet, – those scripts actually have merit when viewed on their own – you […]



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