Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Week 05, A Midsummer Night's Dream

Notes on A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Act 1, Scene 1

The play opens with a conversation between Theseus, Duke of Athens and the Amazon Queen he has conquered and is now set to marry. The archetypal “war between the sexes” has given way to the “pomp . . . triumph . . . [and] revelling” (19) of a wedding ceremony. But as Lysander will soon say to Hermia, “The course of true love never did run smooth” (134), and soon Egeus comes onto the scene to stir up some trouble. It seems that his daughter Hermia has refused the suitor named Demetrius that he has chosen for her, and now the father importunes the Duke to uphold the harsh law of Shakespeare’s Athens. Hermia must assent to a life with Demetrius, or she will either forfeit her life or remain a virgin for the rest of her days. Such outlandishly cruel “laws” are quite useful in comedies and romances, of course, since they allow the playwright to deal with primal issues of life and death, to depict universal struggles in the starkest manner. The “Terrible Father” is a handy device in Shakespeare’s bag of drama-tricks, and here he serves as an obstacle in the path of the lovers Hermia and Lysander. The father is perhaps jealous, and he aligns himself with the symbolic power of absolute interdiction. Lysander has a plan, which is to take refuge in the woods not too far from Athens, and then to travel to his aunt’s home, where Athenian law does not apply.

Helena now enters—she is Hermia’s childhood friend, and has problems of her own to deal with. She is in love with her former suitor Demetrius, who now loves only Helena. When Lysander tells her of his plan to steal away with Hermia into the forest, Helena decides to reveal this information to Demetrius for her own selfish benefit. A strain of jealousy against Hermia is evident in Helena’s comment, “Through Athens I am thought as fair as she” (227). She puts much faith in the power of love even as she says this profound feeling involves neither judgment nor clarity of vision: “Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transpose to form and dignity” (232-33). It is not quality in the lover that we love, but rather what we ourselves project onto or into the beloved. In this sense, then, love is a thing of fantasy, not a thing amenable to reason.

Act 1, Scene 2

We now cut to a comic scene that continues the theme of transformation introduced in Scene 1. Several workingmen have determined to compete for the honor of putting on a play in the presence of the Duke and Hippolyta. Their conversations give us some of Shakespeare’s most delightful commentary on his chosen profession, if we may be so bold as to make such a connection. Peter Quince is the director of Pyramus and Thisby, a tragic play about star-crossed lovers. Bottom the Weaver is to play the hero, but he wants to play everything else as well. In this sense, I suppose Bottom is excited about the prospect of using art to escape everyday reality; but then, his concern about excessive realism (what if the fine ladies should become frightened at the roaring of the lion? etc.) suggests something different. It suggests that he and the other common fellows have trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy, so they think their betters have the same problem. In any case, they are also interested in maintaining the element of surprise, which is why they decide to go to the palace woods, lest interested parties find out about their play.

Act 2, Scene 1

We now meet the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, whose lineage, I’ve read, goes all the way back to Frankish Merovingian times. The fairy world in this play is one of Shakespeare’s “green worlds,” but it isn’t exactly remote from the human world and its concerns. (The same would be a fair statement about As You Like It’s Forest of Arden, to be sure.) Magical transformations happen in this “palace wood,” but Oberon and Titania are beset by the same jealousies as foolish mortals: Puck and his fairy conversation partner tell us that these monarchs are at present separated over the custodianship of “A lovely boy stolen from an Indian king” (22), a changeling to whom Titania is particularly attached (since the boy’s mother was a votary of hers), but whom Oberon wants for his “henchman.” Perhaps we are also to understand that Titania would keep the boy just as he is, while Oberon would initiate him into maturity. The unhappy couple sling accusations of infidelity (with the mortal king and his consort, no less) at each other, and their squabbling has already, Titania reveals, resulted in natural disorders that cause trouble for lowly humans just trying to till the soil and raise their crops. Perhaps Titania is partly concerned to maintain her own sphere of authority by withholding from Oberon something he dearly covets, so the fairy monarchs have their own invisible war of the sexes going on. In any case, Oberon decides on the spot to punish Titania for her obstinacy, so he summons Puck to make mischievous use of that magical flower, the pansy, which acquired its great property of inspiring love from the bolt of Cupid. What the flower causes is love at first sight, regardless of the object. Oberon hopes by this device to extort the Indian boy from her in exchange for releasing her from whatever love relation the flower causes her to forge. Puck, Oberon’s helper, is mischief in its lighter aspects—not the murderous “Mischief” invoked by Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra (the one that accords so well with “havoc” and “the dogs of war”).

Act 2, Scene 2

The transformations enjoined by Oberon are supposed to yield predictable results, but it’s hard to control such a magical power. Puck mistakenly sprinkles Lysander instead of Demetrius, and the former falls in love with Helena and out of love with Hermia. As Edgar Schell of UC Irvine pointed out in one of his lectures on the play, Puck can’t process the fact that Lysander and Helena are sleeping apart simply because they’re following the human custom of chastity before marriage, and not because they are angry with each other. Puck is a natural creature, and cares not for customs of any sort. Hermia can scarcely believe what she hears, and it seems to her that some conspiracy must be afoot. This may sound improbable, but in matters pertaining to love, such an assumption as Hermia makes is not so hard to fathom. The matter of attraction or the lack thereof strikes at the very heart of a person’s identity. Lysander claims to be following his reason in choosing Helena and rejecting Hermia, but of course reason has nothing to do with it. For that matter, neither does his “will,” which he claims is being led by reason. Well, at least Oberon carried out his part of the plan properly—he has squeezed pansy juice onto Titania’s eyelids. Another name for the pansy is “love-in-idleness,” which reminds us that love, again, involves a narcissistic projection of certain qualities into a beloved object, the better to bind it to us.

Act 3, Scene 1

Our lowly actors are hard at work for the nobility’s viewing pleasure. Bottom continues to be concerned to avoid excessive realism: “There are things in this comedy of Pyramus and Thisby that will never please” (8-9), he says, and finds the solution to this problem in a cunning prologue that will reassure the audience they are only watching a play. The lion, as well, must show his humanity through his suit. The issue of the moonlight must also be worked out. Aside from the moonlight, the second difficulty is how to represent a wall, but Bottom has an ingenious strategy to deal with this: one of the actors will stand on the stage and create a crack with his hands held a certain way, which will signify the crack in the wall through which Pyramus and Thisby will speak. It is worth remembering that we take for granted today an entire host of cinematic special effects when we watch a film of Shakespeare—at least when we watch one of those excellent high production value versions like Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice or Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, or Julie Taymor’s remarkable film of Titus Andronicus. When we go to watch an actual play, however, we are much closer to the possibilities of Shakespeare’s own day. One can only do so much by way of illusion on the stage, and so we find Shakespeare often asking his audience to use their own imagination, lest the play fall flat. When it came to representing faerie kingdoms and the personages therein, Shakespeare must have known how similar any playwright’s efforts must be to those of Peter Quince and his players.

Puck determines that partially transforming Bottom into an ass will be his contribution to the play, and all the other actors are frightened from the scene. Bottom suspects a plot on their part: “This is to make an ass of me, to fright me, if they could, but I will not stir from this place, do what they can” (121-22). We now see another side to Bottom’s desire to transform himself into anything and everything: perhaps this desire indicates a degree of narcissism and a strong need to control his surroundings, not necessarily a healthy imagination. As mentioned earlier, his over-concern about realism indicates a lack of imagination, not an excess of it. (This is another point I draw from Edgar Schell; it may also be the case that Shakespeare is having fun at the expense of early neoclassical criticism, which insists that the audience falls prey to an almost complete “dramatic illusion” and takes what it sees on the stage for the real thing.) If all of this is the case, it seems comically appropriate that he should be “translated” into a stubborn, obtuse donkey. But Titania awakens to the sight of him, and the magic juice does its work. She makes him an offer he can’t refuse, considering her powers and high state.

Act 3, Scene 2

Puck discovers his error in having sprinkled pansy juice on Lysander rather than Demetrius, and although Oberon is pleased that Titania has fallen in love with the transformed Bottom, he is not pleased about Puck’s mistake, and sets about making things right. Helena continues to believe she is the butt of a cruel joke when Demetrius and Lysander vie for her attention. She laments to Hermia, “is all forgot?/All school-days friendship, childhood innocence?” (201-02). A Hermia protests her innocence in all truth, but soon things turned ugly when her weak point is found—she fears being mocked for her short stature. Demetrius and Lysander go off into the woods to fight a duel, and Oberon orders Puck to follow them and keep anything untoward from happening. What Oberon seeks above all is peace, and to this end Puck is ordered to fix his mistake with Lysander, while Oberon himself will extort the Indian boy from Titania in exchange for releasing her from her love match with an ass. The scene ends with both human couples fast asleep not far from one another.

Act 4, Scenes 1-2

Bottom satisfies his nonhuman desires with some delicious hay, and then gives in to sleep while Titania lies next to him. Oberon has succeeded in his plan to extort the Indian boy from Titania, so he tells Puck to turn Bottom back into a man while Oberon himself undoes his magic against Titania. Then he tells us something about the nature of that word “dream” in the title of the play: the human couples will “to Athens back again repair,/And think no more of this night’s accidents/But as the fierce vexation of a dream” (67-69). What we have been witnessing is a species of “vexation” in which nothing holds true about even those things in which we put most stock; all is subject to whimsical “magic” and is not in our control. But no lasting harm will come of this vexation since all of the couples concerned will end up properly sorted by the end of the play and Bottom’ strange metamorphosis is only temporary; if, as some have said, there is an element of satire here, it is not particularly sharp-edged. I would just venture that the play deals with the subject of passion in a curiously dispassionate, bemused, moonstruck way. This fairy-land perspective is best captured when Puck says to Oberon in 3.2, “Shall we their fond pageant see? / Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (114-15) We know that Diana, chaste goddess of the hunt, is looking over the whole affair from her distant perch. The final task of the faerie king and queen will be to bless the wedding day and grounds for Theseus and the other mortals.

At the palace, Hippolyta still shows some of her old spirit, reminding Theseus that she has kept still better company than him—his hounds may be very fine, but she has heard the dogs of Hercules and Cadmus, and is dubious about Theseus’ claims of supreme tuneableness. Egeus does his best to ruin everything by remaining constant to his grinch-like principles, importuning Theseus for due severity: “I beg the law, the law, upon his head” (155). But Demetrius, Egeus’ favorite, robs him of the opportunity by declaring his renewed interest in Helena, which leaves Hermia free to marry Lysander. The Duke offers a triple wedding, and the happy couples decide to follow Theseus and tell about their forest dreams.

Meanwhile, Bottom is waxing philosophical about his “vision”: “Man is but an ass, if he go about [t’] expound this dream” (4.2.206-07), says he, and then supposes he might get it turned into an oddly unsettled “ballet” with Peter Quince’s help, and have it sung at Thisby’s death. The others are waiting for him to make his appearance, lest they lose their shot at courtly patronage suitable to their lowly rank, but of course we can’t have that, so Bottom arrives just in time, keeping mum about his great adventure with Titania. Of all the characters in the play and perhaps for a reason worth pondering, he alone has been privileged to see the fairies.

Act 5, Scene 1

Theseus, as we see here, is having none of this talk about fairyland “antic fables” (30. In his view, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact” (7-8), and he expounds further that the poet’s “imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown” and then his “pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing / A local habitation and a name” (14-17). Imagination, he continues, is bound to provide causal agents for anything it treats: “in the night, imagining some fear, / How easy is a bush suppos’d a bear!” (21-22) Theseus sounds politely dismissive of the arts, but he finds in them entertainment “To ease the anguish of a torturing hour” (37). In other words, unlike Bottom and some of the mechanic players, the noble Theseus has no trouble making distinctions between the real and the purely fanciful; he will view the play from an “aesthetic distance” unavailable to the Bottoms of the world. But isn’t the joke on him, at least to some extent? Within the play, fairyland is as real as anything else—so all those strange transposings of love objects and, of course, the “translation” of Bottom, really happened.

But we need not consider Theseus unappreciative—he is the most indulgent of critics with the ridiculous spectacle put on by the Pyramus and Thisby crew. Theseus is able to laugh at the players’ infelicities and accept the honesty with which they set forth their representation, in spite of his master of revels Philostrate’s contempt for them. Theseus associates glib illusionism with dishonesty, similar to the fair words of a selfish counselor. When Hippolyta labels the play “silly,” Theseus sums up his critical acumen this way: “The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them” (211-12). The representation onstage we might describe by saying that it is a framework or skeleton that the audience members must then bring to life with imaginative sympathy. One thing I enjoy about Shakespeare’s staging of the Pyramus and Thisby play is how the aristocratic audience seems both genuinely engaged and yet capable of conversing amongst themselves, making jokes, and passing critical judgments. I should think that Shakespeare must have noted this sort of behavior at the Globe Theater where he staged his plays (later on—after 1609 or so, as I recall—he also put them on at the more intimate, semi-private Blackfriars). A Shakespeare play at the Globe would have been spellbinding and yet quite a “social affair.” Puck’s epilogue is quite effective in this vein, as he leaves matters to the audience’s imagination—it is their prerogative to judge what they have seen, and their burden to perpetuate the play in their own minds or let it pass away.

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