A Midnight Summer’s Night Dream
Act Two, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
“’Am not I Hermia? Are not you Lysander?’ This is Hermia’s question in the middle of the play, act 3, scene 2, when the play’s world is more disordered. It is a necessary question, and a familiar one in the Shakespearean middle world or dreamworld. In The Comedy of Errors one of the twin Dromios asks, ‘Am I Dromio? Am I your man? Am I myself?’ King Lear will later offer a poignant version of the same desperate, disoriented query: ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ In Dream, this is a question that will be asked, in various modes and keys, by Bottom and Titania and by Helena and Demetrius, as the world of the Athenian wood strips them of what they thought were their identities. For it is of course the ‘wood near Athens’ that is this play’s interior world. Lysander and Hermia decide to run away, and their path takes them through the wood. In fact, Dream, presents one of the clearest examples of the characteristic Shakespearean triple pattern: from (1) a world of apparent reality and order, with seeds of disorder, to (2) a middle place, an interior world of transformation, in which things become far more evidently disordered (characters wear costumes, masks, or disguises, or acquire asses’ heads; they play unaccustomed roles, higher or lower on the social scale, and are freed by fiction ), and then out again into (3) the exterior world, the world of so-called reality – though still onstage – armed with new knowledge, and better prepared to rejoin the ongoing world of social action. This kind of basic triple pattern is consistently present in Shakespeare’s plays regardless of their genre; it is not solely a comic mode, but rather represents as fundamental the inside/outside structure of dramaturgy as well as of theme and setting. Needless to say, variations on this structure are as important as adherence to it.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream many of these elements – night, illusion and dream, disguise and playing, self-dramatization – are present, but they are combined with a geographical location, the wood near Athens. If the basic rhythm is seen as court/country/court, or civilization/wilderness/civilization, the play invites us to ask a fundamental question: Which is really more civilized? The law that would send Hermia either to a nunnery or to death if she refuses to marry as her father directs? Or the world of change and possibility? For above all, the Athenian wood, like most Shakespearean middle worlds, is a place of transformation. Pursuing Hermia and Lysander, Demetrius is chased into the wood by Helena. Chagrined, he tells her that is ‘wood within the wood.’ ‘Wood,’ derived from the Old English word wod, means ‘mad’ or lunatic.’ He is maddened and also ‘wooed’ (by Helena), within the wood. But to be wood within the wood is also to become part of the wood, to take on its qualities, to become as transformative and changeable as the wood itself.
The title of the play comes from the concept of ‘midsummer madness,’ the idea in folk culture in England (and also in Ireland, Sweden, and elsewhere in medieval Europe) that on Midsummer Eve, June 23, the longest day and shortest night of the year, madness, enchantment, and witchcraft would invade and transform the world. The idea is a very old one; it goes back to agrarian festivals held when spring plowing and planting were over, and harvesttime was far off. The holiday was often celebrated with ‘somergames’ – sports, plays, drinking, and dancing, and witches, fairies, and mischievous sprites were thought to range abroad, playing pranks on livestock and on human beings. This is one reason the critic C.L. Barber dubbed Dream a ‘festive’ comedy. Within the design of the play this larger and more anarchic cultural festival – in which the fairies and Puck (Robin Goodfellow) are major actors, but which is to a certain extent invisible to mortal eyes – surrounds and shadows the high-cultural and quintessentially civilizing event of the noble or royal wedding, with its hope of legitimate offspring and political succession.
The transformations in the wood are of two kinds: literal and figurative. Which kind is implemented seems to be a matter of social decorum: a ‘low’ character like Bottom is literally turned into an ass and becomes the object of amusement, horror, or – for Titania – sexual desire, whereas the young aristocrats are transformed more genteelly by the use of language and dramatic action. Helena says she will stick to Demetrius’s side like a ‘spaniel,’ the most loyal and servile of dogs, but she does not turn into a spaniel on the stage. Whether she turns into a ‘bitch’ is another question, one that raises for our age the shifting borderline between the literal and the figurative. So on the level of the lovers, and the court – what we might call the conscious level of the play – such transformations remain safely metaphorical. Below the level of the conscious, among the artisans and the fairies and spirits, the changes appear physical and corporeal, as in a dream of cartoon…
Not only are the denizens of the Athenian wood in a process of change, the nature and weather of the wood itself have become disordered. This is a clear case of ‘sympathetic nature,’ again played out on in a dramatic frame. The ostensible cause is a quarrel between Oberon and Titania for the possession of a little Indian page boy, whose birth is described by Titania in images of rich fertility:
The fairyland buys not the child of me.
His mother was a vot’ress of my order,
And in the spiced Indian air by night
Full often hath she gossiped by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking th’embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind,
Which she with pretty and with swimming gait
Following, her womb then rich with my young squire,
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles, and return again
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy;
And for her sake I will not part with him.
In this beautiful passage we hear again the tonic note of mortality so essential to Shakespearean comedy: ‘But she, being mortal, of that boy did die.’ Once again, death frames comedy. A figure mentioned in the play – someone we are told about but never actually meet – dies, offstage, and gives the play a depth, resonance, and chiaroscuro beyond its shimmering surface. We saw this with the lady Catherine’s sister in Love’s Labour’s Lost, who – we are told – died of love. We will see it again in the fictional ‘sister’ mentioned by the disguised Viola in Twelfth Night, who pined away ‘like patience on a monument,/Smiling at grief.’ And we will see it again at the end of this play, in the ‘Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe,’ where yet again lovers will die for their love. It is the path not taken for characters in these stage comedies. We could say that characters offstage die so that those onstage may live, and learn.
The changeling boy is a key figure in Dream, although he has no lines, and in some productions he never even appears. He is the emblem of desire – irrational, unattainable – and in fact of what critic Rene Girard nicely termed ‘mimetic desire,’ the desire for someone else’s desire. The person who desires, Girard argues, derives his or his desire from envy or emulation. What someone else possesses, or loves, becomes valuable or desirable because it is already desired. Thus the basic pattern of erotic life is triangular. Love and envy art part of the same structure. A loves C because B loves C is one possible outcome. But another is A professes love for C because A loves/desires/envies B. Here Titania has the boy, so Oberon wants him. By the end of the play Oberon gets him, taking this young page away from the all-female world of the Fairy Queen, where Titania wants to ‘crown him with flowers’ and keep him as her private attendant, and school him instead as a knight, to ‘trace the forests wild.’ A changeling was a child secretly substituted for another in infancy, particularly left (or in this case, taken) by fairies. The word ‘changeling’ could also denote, in a looser sense, a fickle or inconstant person. Demetrius and Lysander could also be considered changelings in love. As a rhetorical figure, ‘the Changeling, according to George Puttenham’s important handbook The Arte of English Poesie (1589), was an interchange of two elements of a proposition, with the ordinary relations between them reversed, ‘as he that should say, for tell me troth and lie not, lie me troth and tell not.’ The technical term for this is ‘hypallage,’ from the Greek word for ‘interchange,’ and in Quintilian is equivalent to metonymy. The rhetorical pattern of exchange can be seen to underlie the structure of language and action throughout the play, where at one time or another every character is a changeling, and many utterances – seem to mean the opposite of what they say.
In dramatic terms, what is most important about the little Indian changeling is that he is the object of desire. He represents, in effect, the powerful irrationality of desire itself, as well as the element of ‘change’ that afflicts every aspect of the play. In the most local sense, he is the cause of the quarrel that has brought dissension and disorder in the court: a loss of fertility, a failure of marriage, and a threat of barrenness. Theseus has threatened Hermia with the nunnery: Titania has left Oberon’s bed: ‘I have forsworn his bed and company.’ Because the wood world is a literalizing world, a world in which human ‘asses’ look like asses, the barrenness and unnaturalism structure of language and action throughout the play, where at one time or another every character is a changeling, and many utterances – seem to mean the opposite of what they say.
In dramatic terms, what is most important about the little Indian changeling is that he is the object of desire. He represents, in effect, the powerful irrationality of desire itself, as well as the element of ‘change’ that afflicts every aspect of the play. In the most local sense, he is the cause of the quarrel that has brought dissension and disorder in the court: a loss of fertility, a failure of marriage, and a threat of barrenness. Theseus has threatened Hermia with the nunnery: Titania has left Oberon’s bed: ‘I have forsworn his bed and company.’ Because the wood world is a literalizing world, a world in which human ‘asses’ look like asses, the barrenness and unnaturalism of Titania’s sexual abstinence is transferred to the nature and the weather of the countryside. We might bear in mind that this landscape, though officially ‘Athens,’ looks a great deal like Shakespeare’s England. The winds have sucked up fogs from the sea, the rivers have overflowed their banks, the corn in the fields is rotted before it is ripe:
The nine men’s morris is filled up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter cheer.
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And through this distemperature we see
The seasons alter; hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An ordorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mock’ry, set. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world
By their increase now knows not which is which;
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension.
We are their parents and original.
Unreasonable weather, sickness, and disorder are rampant in the ‘mazed world,’ and the cause is the quarrel between Oberon and Titania, the Fairy King and the Fairy Queen. ‘We are their parents and original’ – the misconduct of these two, like the errors of Adam and Eve, disorder the world around them. A discord in temperament becomes, in the un-metaphored world of the wood, a discord in temperature.
This play represents the audience with three parallel worlds, and three rulers or stage mangers who try to dictate action and choice: Theseus, who rules the court world of Athens; Oberon, who rules the fairy world of the wood; and Peter Quince, who rules, or rather tries and fails to rule, the equally disordered world of the ‘rude mechanicals’ or artisans – a world of fiction and of art. Each of these ‘worlds’ is a reflection and refraction of the others, and the point is often made in production through the time-honored custom of the doubling of parts. Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later taken under King James’ protection and renamed the King’s Men, had around fifteen members. The company also employed apprentices and occasional hireling players for its productions to fill out the cast. But doubling parts was standard practice, and since the playwright wrote plays for the company (and sometimes acted in them), this often led to a kind of dramatic construction that would allow the audience to recognize linkages between and among characters. The limitation became an artistic opportunity. A subliminal connection, sometimes fostered by linguistic or thematic cues, could be made across the story line of the plot.”
I’m going out of town on business for the rest of the week and I won’t have a lot of time…and I don’t want to miss any part of our discussion of the Dream, so my next post, will be Thursday night and will continue with more background and discussion of the big picture of Act Two. My Sunday evening post will be a collection of interesting items celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday this week. On Tuesday evening, April 1, I’ll post on Act Three. Hope this doesn’t inconvenience anyone…