The Bardathon: 8 – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Romeo and Juliet was followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream – another masterpiece on the same themes, but in a very different key. It’s uncertain which was written first, but it’s generally agreed that whatever the order of writing, these two plays followed each other in quick succession. And plot elements such as young love, tyrannical parents, etc. all reappear. But, although Romeo and Juliet was paced like a comedy, its tone is ultimately tragic: the unpredictable and sudden nature of its violent outbursts could hardly have led to anything else. In contrast, although there is much unpredictability in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – at least, for those coming to the work for the first time – there is no sense of violence: the tone is, throughout, comic. Even the threat of a tragic outcome that compels Hermia and Lysander to elope together is not presented as particularly threatening.

We get once again Juliet’s image of love being like a lightning flash:

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream;
Brief as the lightning in the collied night.

But it’s the dreamlike element of love Shakespeare focuses on here, rather than its tragic brevity. That potentially tragic element now becomes the subject of parody – the hilarious Pyramus and Thisbe scenes of the “rude mechanicals”. (And I like to imagine, incidentally, that the Wall in the Pyramus and Thisbe play is a knowing reference to a prop that didn’t perhaps work too well in the earlier production of Romeo and Juliet – the wall that Romeo leapt over to enter the Capulets’ garden.)

Shakespere’s control of a very intricate and multi-stranded plotline is masterly. The amorous confusions of the four lovers; the rude mechanicals putting on the play; the quarrel between the king and queen of fairy-land, leading to these wonderful scenes between Titania and Bottom with an ass’s head – and all of these framed by the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta … It’s astonishing how much plot Shakespeare gets through is so short a time. And it’s even more astonishing that despite the speed of so complex a plot, there seems to be all the time in the world for some of the most lyrical poetry that even Shakespeare ever wrote.

And neither does Shakespeare forget the humour. The scenes with the “rude mechanicals” are a gift for any troupe of good comic actors. And yet, although we laugh at their simplicity, we never look down on them: Shakespeare loved all his creations, and he communicates the affection he has for them. I particularly love Bottom’s courtesy to his fairy attendants, and the way he takes for granted the most magical and wondrous of events. And it would be a poor comic actor who couldn’t get a laugh out of something such as this:

TITANIA
What, wilt thou hear some music,
my sweet love?
BOTTOM
I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let’s have
the tongs and the bones.

Just one thing that puzzles me – not so much about the play, but about what is often said about it: it is often said that the fairy world has a dark side, and that it represents some of the murkier aspects of the human psyche, and that the more traditional productions ignore this. I suppose all the productions I have seen have been traditional, but I just don’t get this: I can find nothing at all dark about this fairyland. It is true that the quarrel between Oberon and Titania has caused the crops to fail, but this was not out of malice to mankind: and in any case, Shakespeare merely mentions this in passing – it’s hardly a major feature of the play. And it is true that Puck plays tricks of mortals, but there’s nothing particularly nasty or cruel about them: they’re just childish pranks. When Oberon sees Helena being spurned by Demetrius, his reaction is pity for her, and he strives to make things well. And at the end, the fairies bless the marriages. Where in all this are the darker aspects of the human psyche? Even with the scenes between Titania and Bottom with his ass’s head – surely amongst the most famous images in all literature – Shakespeare avoids the indelicate. One of the sources for this was surely The Golden Ass by Apuleius, in which the principal character is transformed into a donkey. In one chapter of that book, a certain lascivious lady, impressed by the size of the protagonist’s member (this is when he is in the form of a donkey), has sex with him. There is not even a hint of anything so gross in Shakespeare’s play.

I am afraid that I cannot see this play as anything other than a most delightful idyll – a peal of good-natured laughter at human folly, and a celebration of the transforming power of the human imagination. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare had worried that his excessive delight in language could move him away from reality: in Romeo and Juliet, he had contrasted imaginative linguistic exuberance that did not actually mean anything (e.g. Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, which seems to be looking forward to A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with a language that depicted profound human emotion; and, having achieved that, he celebrates here the human imagination which, he now sees, can transform the very nature of our lives. It’s no more the sterile games with words that Berowne and his friends had so delighted in: instead, language is here transformed into something quite startlingly different.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Michael H. on March 7, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    This is the play of Shakespeare’s that I know better than any other. It was the second professional Shakespeare I ever saw. (Irene Worth as Helena, Paul Rogers as Bottom, Robert Shaw as Lysander, Alan Badel as Quince, Kenneth Griffith as Oberon, Jill Balcon as Titania. Brian Smith (Taplow in ‘The Browning Version) was Puck.
    I have appeared in it five times playing – as I got older – Puck, Oberon, Lysander, Bottom and Quince. Its magic has become part of my consciousness.
    Directors can sometimes be accused of emphasising the so-called darkness, and the grosser aspects of Titania’s relationship with Bottom as donkey. Peter Brook was guilty of this in his famous circus production performed in a white box with Oberon and Puck on trapezes. I saw this brilliant production, but I have to say that it wasn’t especially funny.
    The most bizarre production was Robert Lepage’s for the National Theatre which took its cue from Titania’s speech about the weather. There was a large pool of water in the middle of the stage surrounded by mud in which a lot of the action took place. The scene of the lovers’ quarrel largely took place in the water. Sitting near the front I was aware that the actors were literally wet through and shivering with cold. Then as the spell was lifted a stream of warm rain (I could see the steam) poured down upon them.
    I would love to see a production – no expense spared – in which as Philostrate lists the entertainments that are on offer to Theseus we ACTUALLY SEE THEM. Imagine local amateur performers shuffling forward. ‘The battle with the centaurs to be sung by an Athenian eunuch to the harp’. (A retired school-teacher), ‘The Riot of the tipsy bacchanals tearing the Thracian singer in their rage ( the local women’s dance group). ‘The thrice three Muses mourning for the death of learning late deceased in beggary.’ (performed by members of the Women’s Institute).
    It’s a magical play, one of the most perfectly constructed plays ever (like ‘The Importance of Being Earnest) and almost never fails to enchant.
    But I have never been able to take the story of Pyramus and Thisbe seriously in other contexts thanks to Will’s definitive version. He must have beebn aware that it was somewhat absurd to start with.

    Reply

  2. Totally agree about the dark fairyland visions. They seem absurd to me. I wrote about that on my other blog: shakespeareinthemountains.wordpress.com

    Reply

    • Hello Jason, I had a quick look at your blog (I shall explore more closely later) but couldn’t find your piece on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. No doubt it is just me being obtuse as usual!
      Your mountain walks seem fascinating, although, given my current state of health, I doubt I’d be up to it! Shame, really – Wordsworth’s Prelude is a huge favourite of mine!

      Reply

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