An Introduction to A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By Dennis Abrams
In his diary entry for September 26, 1662, Michaelmas Day, Samuel Pepys noted, I sent for some dinner and there dined, Mrs. Margaret Pen being by, to whom I had spoke to go along with us to a play this afternoon, and then to the King’s Theatre, where we saw “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.”
I am prepared to say, for the record, that on this occasion, Mr. Pepys is terribly horribly wrong. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s greatest achievements, a glorious, funny, magical play that is pretty close to perfection from start to finish. In it, I think, the play in which Shakespeare, having written ten plays prior, finally put all his gifts together and created a masterpiece.
It is, in fact, one of the most enduringly popular of his comedies, and is probably the most widely acted play in the canon. But that can be considered something of s mixed blessing: mined by Victorian producers (and many 20th century producers as well), for its spectacular stage potential (not to mentions its hosts of fluttering fairies), it is safe to say that it has only been in the last few decades that the Dream has been recognized as the dangerous, slightly subversive, high-wire piece of theatrical magic that it truly is. Though Shakespeare’s cast of characters could have been recruited from any number of traditional Elizabethan masques – there’s a long-standing theory that he drew upon boyhood recollections of royal festivities held in Warwickshire – in the play his fairies influence, and subvert, and undermine, and play with, mortal life and love with mischievous and often unsettling power. Indeed, audiences and critics have often come to believe that the emotional tug-of-war between Oberon, Puck and Titania eclipses those of Shakespeare’s human Athenian lovers as the wander through the forest at night-time. But it is perhaps the collisions between the Dream’s varied social worlds that most surprise and enchant readers and audiences alike. During the course of the comedy, unexpected transformations and translations occur on a regular basis; and in the pseudo-tragedy/farce that brings things to a halt, performed for the Athenians by a troupe of local artisans, Shakespeare not only sends up the business of theater itself, but most likely his own previous play, the true tragedy Romeo and Juliet.
From Harold Bloom:
In the midst of the winter of 1595-96, Shakespeare visualized an ideal summer, and he composed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, probably on commission for a noble marriage, where first it played…Nothing by Shakespeare before A Midsummer Night’s Dream is its equal, and in some respects nothing by him afterward surpasses it. It is his first undoubted masterpiece, without flaw, and one of his dozen of so plays of overwhelming originality and power. Unfortunately, every production of it that I have been able to attend has been a brutal disaster, with the exception of Peter Hall’s motion picture of 1968, happily available on videotape. Only The Tempest is as much distorted in recent stagings as A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been and is most likely to go on being. The worst I recall are Peter Brook’s (1970) and Alvin Epstein’s (a Yale hilarity of 1975), but I cannot be the only lover of the play who rejects the prevailing notion that sexual violence and bestiality are at the center of this humane and wise drama.
Sexual politics is too much in fashion for me just to shudder and pass by; A Midsummer Night’s Dream will reassert itself, at a better time than this, but I have much to say on behalf of Bottom, Shakespeare’s most engaging character before Falstaff. Bottom, as the play’s text comically makes clear, has considerably less sexual interest in Titania than she does in him, or than many recent critics and directors have in her. Shakespeare, here and elsewhere, is bawdy but not prurient, Bottom is amiably innocent, and not very bawdy. Sex-and-violence exalters really should look elsewhere. Titus Andronicus would be a fine start. If Shakespeare had desired to write an orgiastic ritual, with Bottom as ‘this Bacchic ass of Saturnalia and carnival’ (Jan Kott), we would have a different comedy. What we do have is a gentle, mild, good-natured Bottom, who is rather more inclined to the company of the elves – Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed – than to the madly infatuated Titania. In an age of critical and theatrical absurdity, I may yet live to be told that Bottom’s interest in the little folk represents a potential for child abuse, which would be no sillier than the ongoing accounts of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It is a curious link between The Tempest, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream that these are the three plays, out of thirty-nine, where Shakespeare does not follow a primary source. Even The Merry Wives of Windsor, which has no definite source, takes a clear starting point from Ovid. The Tempest is essentially plotless, and almost nothing happens in Love’s Labour’s Lost, but Shakespeare uniquely took pains to work out a fairly elaborate and outrageous plot for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Inventing plot was not a Shakespearean gift, it was the one dramatic talent that nature had denied him. I think he prided himself on creating and intertwining the four different worlds of character in the Dream. Theseus and Hippolyta belong to ancient myth and legend. The lovers – Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius – are of no definite time or place, since all young people in love notoriously dwell in a common element. The fairies – Titania, Oberon, Puck, and Bottom’s four chums – emerge from literary folklore and its magic. And finally, the ‘mechanicals’ are English rustic artisans – the sublime Bottom, Peter Quince, Flute, Snout, Snug, and Starveling – and so come out of Shakespeare’s own countryside, where he grew up.
This mélange is so diverse that a defense of it becomes the hidden reference in the wonderfully absurd exchanges between Theseus and Hippolyta concerning the music of the hounds in Act IV, Scene 1, lines 102-37, which I shall consider in some detail later. ‘So musical a discord, such sweet thunder” has been widely and correctly taken as this play’s description of itself. Chesterton, who sometimes thought the Dream the greatest of all Shakespeare’s plays, found its ‘superior literary merit’ to be ‘a merit of design.’
As an epithalamium, the Dream ends with three weddings, and the reconciliation of Oberon and Titania. But we might now know that all this was an extended and elaborate marriage song if the scholars did not tell us, and from the title on we know that it is (at least in part) a dream. Whose dream? One answer is: Bottom’s dream or his weaving, because he is the protagonist (and the greatest glory) of the play. Puck’s epilogue, however, calls it the audience’s dream, and we do not know enough precisely how to receive Puck’s apologia. Bottom is universal enough (like Joyce’s Poldy Bloom or Earwicker) to weave a common dream for all of us, except insofar as we are Pucks rather than Bottoms. How are we meant to understand the play’s title? C.L. Barber pointed out Dr. Johnson’s error in believing that ‘the rite of May’ must take place on May Day, since the young went Maying when the impulse moved them. We are neither at May Day nor at Midsummer Eve, and so the title probably should be read as any night at all in midsummer. There is a casual, throwaway gesture in the title: this could be anyone’s dream or any night in midsummer, when the world is largest.”
Intrigued? Settle back, and put on Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture and Incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Trust me on this – you’re going to love this play.
Our next reading: A Midsummer Night’s Reading, Act One
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning