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Wednesday, 3 February 2021

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

What a charming and delightful thing to read after the darkness of Macbeth and Othello

In many ways, this is a lovely surprise. I didn’t know there would be 3 groups of characters and various subplots, and didn’t know there would be a play within a play:  

- The Athenians: Theseus the Duke and his betrothed Hippolyta, Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, etc.; 

- The craftsmen who perform a play for them at the wedding: Peter Quince, a carpenter (Prologue in the play), Nick Bottom, a weaver (Pyramus), Francis Flute, a bellows mender (Thisby), Snug, a joiner (Lion), Tom Snout, a tinker (Wall), Robin Starveling, a tailor (Moonshine);

- And the fairies: Oberon (King of the fairies), Titania (Queen of the fairies), Puck (or Robin Goodfellow), Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, Mustardseed, etc. 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is generally categorised as a comedy, but it’s quite different from the comedies I read before—Twelfth Night and As You Like It. It is a fairytale. It is a world of fairies and love potion and a guy suddenly finding himself having an ass’s head. 

One of the things I particularly like is that in a world that has the logic of fairytales, the characters still react in a realistic way. I mean, at the beginning of the play, Demetrius and Lysander both want Hermia but she only loves Lysander, and Helena is heartbroken because she was abandoned by Demetrius, so the fairies intervene but make a mistake by putting the love potion in Lysander’s eyes and inadvertently making him fall in love with Helena, then Oberon, the king of fairies, makes Demetrius fall in love with Helena. All that is fantasy stuff, but Helena’s reaction is realistic—she thinks they’re making fun of her. 

“HELENA. O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent

To set against me for your merriment:

If you were civil and knew courtesy,

You would not do me thus much injury.

Can you not hate me, as I know you do,

But you must join in souls to mock me too?

If you were men, as men you are in show,

You would not use a gentle lady so;

To vow, and swear, and superpraise my parts,

When I am sure you hate me with your hearts.

You both are rivals, and love Hermia,

And now both rivals, to mock Helena:

A trim exploit, a manly enterprise,

To conjure tears up in a poor maid’s eyes

With your derision! none of noble sort

Would so offend a virgin, and extort

A poor soul’s patience all to make you sport.” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

Is that not so good? Even better is Helena’s speech a short time after, when Hermia appears and doesn’t understand what’s happening, and Helena thinks that Hermia’s part of the game:

“HELENA. Lo! she is one of this confederacy.

Now I perceive they have conjoin’d all three

To fashion this false sport in spite of me.

Injurious Hermia! most ungrateful maid!

Have you conspir’d, have you with these contriv’d

To bait me with this foul derision?

Is all the counsel that we two have shar’d,

The sister-vows, the hours that we have spent,

When we have chid the hasty-footed time

For parting us, O! is it all forgot?

All school-days’ friendship, childhood innocence?

We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,

Have with our neelds created both one flower,

Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,

Both warbling of one song, both in one key,

As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds,

Had been incorporate. So we grew together,

Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,

But yet an union in partition;

Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;

So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart;

Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,

Due but to one, and crowned with one crest.

And will you rent our ancient love asunder,

To join with men in scorning your poor friend?

It is not friendly, ’tis not maidenly:

Our sex, as well as I, may chide you for it,

Though I alone do feel the injury.” (ibid.) 

The anger! The hurt! That just breaks my heart.

That’s the power of Shakespeare—even in a charming fantasy play, where people fall in love at random and fight each other under the effect of love potion so that Puck the fairy exclaims “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”, there are many moving moments. Shakespeare can in a few lines convey or give us a glimpse of a character’s depth and make us see them differently, when most writers would need dozens of pages. In the blog post about Othello, I wrote about Emilia, but the best example would be a single line in Twelfth Night, said by the dim-witted and ridiculous Sir Andrew Aguecheek: “I was adored once too.” (Act 2 scene 3) You can’t look at him the same way again after that line.

But that is enough seriousness for this magical play. The point of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I think, is to delight, and it is delightful. The fairies intervene again and in the end all is well. Did I say the characters reacted in a realistic way? The counterexample is Nick Bottom, who seems to notice no difference about his metamorphosis, except feeling “marvellous hairy about the face”. Like Gregor Samsa, he’s unperturbed. 

Nick Bottom is also the only mortal in the story who can see the fairies, but he’s cool about seeing them just as he’s cool about the profession of love from Titania: 

“Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that: and yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days. The more the pity, that some honest neighbours will not make them friends.” (Act 3 scene 1) 

As Tony Tanner notes in his introduction: “You will hardly find more wisdom in the wood than that.” 

Nick Bottom is the one who I think would change after his experience in the forest however, the one who is transformed after “a most rare vision”. 

I’m ending my blog post with Theseus’s speech near the end of the play:  

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,

Are of imagination all compact:

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,

That is, the madman; the lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And, as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name…” (Act 5 scene 1) 

Theseus is here speaking against the imagination, but how imaginative and magical this play is!

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