Sunday, June 6, 2010

Discussion: A Midsummer Night's Dream

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!


  1. The only thing I'd add is to note how Shakespeare gives each of the three sub-plots their own language. Theseus and Hippolyta, the nobles, speak in poetry; Bottom and his friends speak in prose; and the Athenian lovers speak usually in rhymed couplets. Everyone has their own level of discourse based on their rank, and it all adds up to a seamless whole.

  2. Great comment! You're right; that definitely helps set the tone for each plot line.

  3. A Midsummer Night's Dream has always been a favorite of mine. I enjoy the play within a play, as it creates a sort of "organized chaos" within the enveloping play. The dialogue between the players of Pyramus and Thisby is hysterical to me, with all the business about having to state that they are just regular people, not the characters they are playing, so as not to offend the ladies at the performance. Just little statements like that make me laugh because it seems like that should be obvious. Did anyone else find it funny that Demetrius was criticizing the play througout the entirety of its performance?

  4. I also noticed a parallel between the forced marriage of Hippolyta and Theseus to that of Hermia and Demetrius. Neither woman was too keen on marrying the men intended for them, however; each woman handled their situation differently. Hippolyta went along with the forced marriage, while Hermia tried to assert her independence and marry for love. Thoughts?

  5. Good points, Rikki! When Demetrius sits there criticizing the play, I always think a bit less of him -- how rude! Of course, it depends on how it's played. Sometimes the actors can hear him, and at other times they can't. I hope he's speaking very quietly!

    I also think Hippolyta can be played differently as more or less submissive. I've seen productions in which her outrage about Hermia's predicament (although silent) is the reason Hermia receives a third option: joining a nunnery rather than unwanted marriage or death.