1. A Midsummer Night's Dream signals a leap forward in Shakespeare's art. After four early comedies where some of his ideas and devices are developing, this play reveals the inner structures of comedy from several different angles. Like The Taming of the Shrew it has a play within the play, but here it occurs in Act 5, not as a prelude to the main action. Three plots are woven together in a more intricate way than in Shrew, where we alternated between the Kate-Petruchio and Bianca-Lucentio stories after seeing the Induction with Christopher Sly. In Midsummer we experience different worlds in different scenes.
Interpretation: performance and the text.
4. In the first scene of Midsummer, Hermia's father choses her husband for her. The BBC version is unusually serious in its pacing and closed-in set, with a constantly ticking clock in the background reminding us that time is wasting for the older generation:
MND BBC 1.1
Duke Theseus, of course, has his own life sorted out, although the conquered Queen of the Amazons looks less than happy about their upcoming wedding, the product of her military defeat. The Hoffman film is lighter in tone than the BBC, and we see quite a different Helena. Her "beauty," as the play says, is equal to Hermia's, and her rejection by Demetrius' is a product of his fickleness:
some o'er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so;
He will not know what all but he do know.
And as he errs, doting on Hermia's eyes,
So I, admiring of his qualities...
For ere Demetrius look'd on Hermia's eyne,[eyes]
He hailed down oaths that he was only mine; (1.1.226-231,242-244)
When Helena is made up to look rather odd in the BBC, it sets up a complicated irony later in the forest, when she exclaims, "I am as ugly as a bear":
Hermia, wheresoe'er she lies,
For she hath blessèd and attractive eyes.
How came her eyes so bright? Not with salt tears.
If so, my eyes are oft'ner washed than hers.
No, no, I am as ugly as a bear,
For beasts that meet me run away for fear.
Therefore no marvel though Demetrius
Do, as a monster, fly my presence thus.
What wicked and dissembling glass of mine
Made me compare with Hermia's sphery eyne? (2.2.90-99)
Shakespeare's intent, I think, is to show us that Helena has internalized her rejection, and sees herself as ugly. In the Hoffman film, she is as attractive as Hermia, and the tone is much brighter:
5. Although Hermia and Lysander have their emotional affairs in order, that will not last long. Once they enter the enchanted forest, magic spells will make their relationship as shaky as Helena and Demetrius. Before we can interpret fairies and magic, however, we need to meet the amateur actors who wil help lead us to the world of magic and art:
Bottom and his friends know next to nothing about how an audience might react to a play, and in a sense that's a clue for us to follow. This is the first of many scenes leading to "Pyramus and Thisby" in Act 5, where two audiences are watching: the lovers and ourselves. We need to see ourselves in the characters of Midsummer to understand that this is a play about art and imagination as much as love.
6. When the lovers enter the forest, Oberon and Puck become Shakespeare's surrogate authors, writing the lovers' destinies with their magic transformations. Consider this diagram. Shakespeare creates and controls Oberon and Puck, but they control the lovers. Here is the BBC's image of the enchanted world:
MND BBC 2.1
The fairies are more dangerous in the BBC version than in the Hoffman film, closer to the old world of Faërie in Celtic tales. Oberon is dangerous to Titania when she will not yield up the page boy, and Puck is dangerous to the lovers because he loves chaos.
7. Here are two contrasting images of the interaction between the fairies and the lovers in 2.2. In both cases we see that magic changes the lovers, and that they are unawares, thinking that their changes in affection are reasonable. Even these Dionysian heroes of comedy fall into their own excesses, symbolized by the magic juice. The Hoffman film is playful and benign:
The BBC studio production is more faithful to the text and is more ominous, in fact a nightmare for Hermia:
MND BBC 2.2
The full text emphasizes the blindness of the lovers in Lysander's speech:
with Hermia! No; I do repent
The tedious minutes I with her have spent.
Not Hermia but Helena I love:
Who will not change a raven for a dove?
The will of man is by his reason swayed
And reason says you are the worthier maid.
Things growing are not ripe until their season:
So I, being young, till now ripe not to reason.
And touching now the point of human skill,
Reason becomes the marshal to my will,
And leads me to your eyes, where I o'erlook
Love's stories, written in love's richest book. (2.2.111-122)
Fairy magic and Shakespeare's art have subverted love, but all three elements are closely intertwined. We should remember this during "Pyramus and Thisby" in Act 5.
8. Bottom and his friends have their own brush with magic and love when Puck decides to make Bottom his victim, interrupting a rehearsal in the forest:
MNDKline Bottom transformed
Oberon's magical revenge on Titania, making her fall in love with a "monster," shows the disorder love and jealousy can cause in the green world before the final transformations restore comic order. Bottom speaks more than he knows:
I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again:
Mine ear is much enamoured of thy note;
So is mine eye enthrallèd to thy shape;
And thy fair virtue's force perforce doth move me
On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee.
Bottom. 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 neighbors will not make them friends. Nay, I can gleek upon occasion.
Titania. Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful. 3.1.138-149)
9. The lovers are in a perfect frenzy in 3.2 before Oberon decides to rein in Puck's love of anarchy:
MND BBC 3.2
The wild confusion of the night is a Dionysian comic nightmare, emotions raging unchecked. Love unbalanced is no better than love suppressed, it seems, and some kind of order must be restored by the playwright and his surrogate Oberon:
I have the boy, I will undo
This hateful imperfection of her eyes:
And, gentle Puck, take this transformèd scalp
From off the head of this Athenian swain,
That, he awaking when the other do,
May all to Athens back again repair
And think no more of this night's accidents,
But as the fierce vexation of a dream. (4.1.65-72)
MND BBC 4.1
10. Act 5 knits up all the unravelled strings of plot and feeling, but the human characters are confused about what has happened. Theseus and Hipployta debate the matter, he as the ruler who sees everything as a product of order and reason, and she as a more intuitive, Dionysian presence:
'Tis strange my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.
Theseus. More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
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...
Hippolyta. But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable. (5.1.1-8,23-27)
Bottom too is confused as he awakes in 4.1, but is confident that their play will make all well:
MNDKline Bottom awakes
He believes in the world of "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet" which Theseus dismisses, and indeed the play he stars in becomes a final symbol of how love, magic, and art coincide in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
11. "Pyramus and Thisby" is a comic reversal of Romeo and Juliet, a double suicide for love. Shakespeare wrote both plays at about the same time, and plays with the difference between comedy and tragedy. When Hermia awakens in a panic at the end of Act 2 ("Either death or you I'll find immediately") she echoes Juliet at the end of Act 3 (" If all else fail, myself have power to die"). Their fates, as we know, are quite different. Fairy magic and Shakespeare's art have first complicated and then resolved the lives of the young lovers, who now settle down to watch a travesty put on by the worst actors in the world. The women are more sympathetic than the men, but the irony is that they don't recognize themselves in the tragedy. Do they learn from the play? Do we learn from the play?
MND Hoffman P&T
12. Oberon, Titania, and Puck end the play by blessing the couples, promising health and happiness. This comic guarantee is appropriate in a play about playing, a "metadrama," Shakespeare's uncovering of his artistic process. Magic has come to symbolize both love and art, and so Puck's Epilogue seems straight from the author:
MND BBC 5.1
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a wonderful play to show young audiences, since there's so much fun just on the surface. We might consider Bottom's take on the more complicated visions of the play:
I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was—and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream. It shall be called "Bottom's Dream," because it hath no bottom; (4.2.207-220)
As you decide what to write on, consider these sketches. They contain many of the ideas I've proposed above, and may aid you in your thinking. There are also fine articles in the Signet edition by Clemen ("Introduction"), Brown, Kermode, Bamber and Slights. On our course page I've given you four rich and interesting sites to explore.
Remember to quote your sources, and give the page number or web address. Here's a section from the bottom of my home page:
Research and Documentation Online
A Guide for Writing Research Papers (MLA style)
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