The play: A Midsummer Night's Dream
The plot tweet: Theseus marries his war-won bride; fairy royals fight over a child; four lovers get very mixed up. Puck causes trouble, but all ends well.
My favorite line: "If we shadows have offended, / think but this, and all is mended: / That you have but slumb'red here, / while these visions did appear."
Whenever I read or see Midsummer, I feel a bit overwhelmed: There is so much going on. Theseus and Hippolyta are planning their wedding (and thus creating the framing device of the play), the four Athenian lovers are running amok in the woods, the fairy king and queen are fighting, Puck is causing trouble, the "rude mechanicals" are rehearsing their play for the wedding ... Is there any other Shakespeare play with so many threads of plot? The effect, for me, is of chaos just barely contained.
When I studied the play in college, my professor (the late Albert Wertheim) started the lecture by telling us to pay attention to eyes and visual imagery in the play. Hermia wails, "Oh, hell! To choose love by another's eyes," and Helena complains of Hermia's "blessed and attractive eyes." And, of course, the love potion used on Titania and the Athenian lovers is applied to the eyes. The message, it seems, is that -- at least in matters of love -- the senses are not to be trusted. As Theseus says, "Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, such shaping fantasies, that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends."
In fact, what can the characters of Midsummer trust? Certainly not their emotions or the strength of their relationships. Even their own identities are changeable, as Puck's transformation of Bottom clearly demonstrates. The chaos creates ample opportunities for side-splitting humor, but it is tinged with darkness and an edge of unease. The chaos is controlled, but just barely -- we are so close to the abyss of tragedy. The play within the play, the story of Pyramus and Thisby, reminds us that the descent into tragedy requires only the simplest error.
I have seen Midsummer performed five times in recent years. The funniest, by far, was last summer's performance at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, where the four lovers ended up chasing each other around the stage in their underwear (and the play was set, rather oddly, in Athens, Georgia -- complete with thick Southern accents). By contrast, the darkest performance I've seen was at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where the fairies were presented as a sort of leather-and-lace motorcycle gang.
For me, this is always the central question of the play: How do we interpret the fairies, and Puck in particular? Is he simply mischievous or actively malevolent? The character can be played either way successfully, and I never can decide on my own interpretation. If the play is about barely contained chaos, however, it seems clear that Puck is the embodiment of that chaos. By forcing Puck to correct his errors, Oberon is the normalizing force that prevents the slapstick comedy from veering into tragedy.
The play contains two other characters I find especially interesting. One is Hippolyta, whose characterization is vague and who speaks only a few lines. How does she feel about her future husband and forced marriage? We get the sense that she disapproves of Theseus' harsh judgment of Hermia in the play's first scene, but we know little more. I'd love to see a novelization of her side of the story.
The other character I enjoy is, of course, Bottom. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom suggests that Bottom is the comedic precursor for Falstaff, and I would agree with him if only I didn't detest Falstaff. Bottom is unquestionably ridiculous, but he is impervious to the chaos around him and utters some of the wisest lines in the play. If he were human, he'd be the crazy uncle that everyone rolls their eyes at but always invites to dinner.
What do you think of Bottom? And what are your overall impressions of the play? What's your favorite line? You know what I think -- now it's your turn. Post your comments, and let's get the discussion started!