A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: Following the weddings of all three couples (Theseus and Hippolyta, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius), Theseus demands entertainment which the artisans provide – to the court’s increasing bemusement. The “plot” concerns Pyramus and Thisbe, divided lovers, who arrange to meet and communicate through a chink in a wall. Later, Thisbe sees a lion and flees, dropping her mantle, which Pyramus picks up, woefully certain that his lover has been eaten. He kills himself just before Thisbe reappears, finds the dead Pyramus, and does likewise. The court struggles to contain its laughter as Theseus orders everyone to bed, Oberon and Titania bestow their blessings on the newly-wedded couples, and Puck brings the proceedings to their end.
So much to go over, in this, what I think has to be Shakespeare’s greatest work written by this point in his career. The dialogue between Theseus and Hippolyta. The performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” which, needing to take nothing into account for time and taste or footnotes is still very very funny (including the remarks from the audience), and is, obviously I think, a burlesque or parody of the last act of Romeo and Juliet. And the final slightly mysterious moments of the fairies’ blessing, and Puck’s last speech. Who, exactly, is dreaming who?
From Frank Kermode:
“Theseus’ set piece at the opening of the last act deals with the fantasies of lunatic, lover, and poet, but these are matters ‘which none of the princes of the world know,’ which must be spoken of ‘in a mystery’ (1 Cor. 2:7). ‘God hath chosen the foolish things of the of the world to confound the wise.’ (1 Cor. 1:27): in a way he has chosen Bottom, not Theseus, who is mistaken a bout lunatics, lovers, or poets. The imagination which Theseus thinks to be out of control is the instrument of powers he does not understand. The doubts of Hippolyta (V.i.23-27) encourage one to believe that this ‘prince of the world’ has got it wrong. The love of Bottom’s bottomless vision at least compliments, if it does not transcend, the rational love of Theseus. Bottom’s play, absurd as it is, speaks of disasters, the disasters of Pyramus and of Romeo and Juliet, which do not cease to happen but for a moment become farcically irrelevant, on a marriage eve. ‘Tragical mirth…hot ice and wonderous strange snow’ is a good description of the effect of this play.
One of its characteristics deserves further mention, since it recurs with force in Shakespeare’s later work. I mean the bursting through into the action of what seems a merely verbal trick. Here it is the insistent talk of eyes, the patterns of blindness/insight, wood and city, phantasma and vision, love vulgar and love celestial. The juices of love-in-idleness and of ‘Dian’s bud’ are there as complements to the talk of eyes and sight; Bottom’s dream as the complement or opposite of the rationality of a prince of the world. Word and action go together, and the word must be closely attended to.”
From Van Doren:
“Bottom likes music too. ‘I have a reasonable good ear,’ he tells Titania. ‘Let’s have the tongs and the bones.’ So does he take an interest in moonshine, if only among the pages of an almanac. ‘A calendar, a calendar!’ he calls. ‘Find out moonshine, find out moonshine.’ When they find the moon, those Athenian mechanics of whom he is king, it has in it what the cold fairy moon cannot be conceived as having, the familiar man of folklore. Bottom and his fellow domesticate the moon, as they domesticate every other element of which Shakespeare has made poetry. And the final effect is parody. Bottom’s amazed oration concerning his dream follows hard upon the lovers’ discourse concerning dreams and delusions; but it is in prose, and the speaker is utterly literal when he pronounces that it will be called Bottom’s dream because it hath no bottom. Nor is the story of Pyramus and Thisbe as the mechanics act it anything but a burlesque of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’
O night, which ever art when day is not!…
And thou, O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall,
That stand’st between her father’s ground and mine!
Thou wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall.
Shakespeare has come, even this early, to the farthest limit of comedy. The end of comedy is self-parody, and its wisdom is self-understanding. Never again will he work without a full comprehension of the thing he is working at; of the probability that other and contrary things are of equal importance; of the certainty that his being a poet who can do anything he wants to do is not the only thing to be, or the best possible thing; of the axiom that the whole is greater than the part – the part in his instance being one play among many unthinkable plays, or one man, himself, among the multitude that populate a world for whose size and variety he with such giant strides is reaching respect. Bully Bottom and his friends have lived three centuries to good purpose, but to no better purpose at any time than the one they first had – namely, in their sublime innocence, their earthbound, idiot openness and charity of soul – to bring it about that their creator should become not only the finest of poets but the one who makes the fewest claims for poetry.”
“The play’s greatest internal fiction is neither Hermia’s song and sampler nor ‘Bottom’s Dream,’ but rather that gloriously flawed artifact, the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ play, dubiously offered to Theseus and Hippolyta as entertainment for their wedding celebration:
[reads] ‘A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe: very tragical mirth.’
‘Merry’ and tragical’? ‘Tedious and brief?’
That is, hot ice and wondrous strange snow.
How shall we find the concord of this discord?
The speaker is – of course – Theseus, ever unwilling, in this play, to trust the products of the imagination or of the poet’s pen. ‘Hot ice’ and ‘strange snow’ are familiar oxymorons, standard practice in the ‘Petrarchan’ poetry of the time, and utilized by Romeo at his least imaginative when he fancies himself a lovelorn swain pining for the elusive Rosaline. As for ‘concord’ and ‘discord,’ these terms resound throughout the play. Like the lovers’ tales when they emerge from the wood, tales Theseus found ‘more strange than true,’ the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ play, like the larger play that contains it, grows, as Hippolyta says, to ‘something of great constancy.’ Like the equally anarchic and inept pageant of the ‘Nine Worthies’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost, this play-within-the-play, performed by social inferiors for their putative betters, confronts the themes, aspirations, and pretensions of the aristocrats and comments on the larger play that contains it.
As presented by Peter Quince and his players, ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ is nothing less than the countermyth of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the thing that did not happen, the tragedy encapsulated within the comedy and reduced to a manageable, bearable, and laughable fiction. For if A Midsummer Night’s Dream has many points in common with Romeo and Juliet, the plot of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ is, in effect, the plot of Romeo and Juliet. A pair of lovers, forbidden by their parents to marry or even meet, come together in the middle of the night at a dark tomb to share their love. The lady, Thisbe, arrives before her lover and is at once forced to flee, chased by a lion and leaving behind her a misleading clue, her mantle. Pyramus, grief-stricken, taking the bloody mantle as the sign that his beloved is dead, draws his sword, stabs himself, and dies. The lady Thisbe then returns and kills herself. It is the story of Romeo and Juliet. But it is also the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the story as it might have been.
Consider the prop, the bloody cloak, or mantle: ‘Thy mantle good,/What, stained with blood?’ Pyramus exclaims in stagy disbelief. As is also the case with a more famous red-stained prop in Shakespeare, Othello’s handkerchief embroidered with strawberries, the bloody mantle here, especially when its discovery is greeted by Bottom/Pyramus with the histrionic exclamation that ‘lion vile hath deflowered my dear,’ suggests a sexual misadventure. Bottom’s word ‘deflowered’ is inadvertently apposite; he seems to think it means something more like ‘ravaged’ or ‘destroyed,’ but the sexual overtones are clear, whether or not ‘Pyramus’ can hear them. And the threat of sexual violation – as well as the gentler mode of sexual invitation – has been present in the larger play since Demetrius warned Helena not to follow him into the wood, and since Lysander beckoned to Hermia to share a single piece of turf as a pillow. Violation by a ‘monster,’ whether the serpent of Hermia’s dream of the ass-headed hybrid of Bottom’s has been a constant theme, [MY NOTE: I’ll reluctantly acknowledge this, kind of.] and we should recall that the lion of the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ play, like Bottom, is a hybrid man-and-animal, in this case with the body parts reversed: instead of a man with an ass’s head, the actor who plays the ‘lion’s part’ opens his costume to reveal that he has the head of a man.
A few observations about the language and spirit of this ‘lamentable comedy’ will serve to demonstrate its sublime capacity to produce both laughter and rueful recognition. The rhyming prologue, for example, is declaimed in such a way as to reverse and undermine everything it appears to be saying. This is a familiar trick of early modern drama: ‘unpointed,’ or unpunctuated, letters, open to profound misconstruction because the lack of punctuation leads to basic errors in reading, are central plot devices. But the misconstruction is usually an inset – a letter, prophecy, or other text is presented for interpretation – rather than constituting the very fabric of the play, as here:
Quince [as Prologue]
If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think: we come not to offend
But with good-will. To show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then we come but in despite.
We do not come as minding to content you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent
The actors are at hand, and by their show
You shall know all that you are like to know.
‘We do not come as minding to content you.’ ‘[W]e come but in despite.’ ‘All for your delight/We are not here.’ The Prologue itself is in a constant state of metamorphosis and transformation. As Theseus notes, in a phrase that could well stand as a description of the entire midsummer night spent in the woods, ‘His speech [is] like a tangled chain – nothing impaired, but all disordered.’
The playwright is able to use this metadramatic medium, the play-within-the-play, to make gentle mock not only of the Athenian lovers but also of the work of other poets and playwrights, notably the old-fashioned habit of using alliterated words and phrases (Pyramus’s ‘Whereat with blade – with bloody, blameful blade — /He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast’) and histrionic ‘Senecan’ apostrophes and exclamations:
O grim-looked night, O night with hue so black,
O night which ever art when day is not;
O night, O night, alack, alack, alack,
I fear my Thisbe’s promise is forgot.
The speaker is, again, the unflappable Bottom, in his element. At the opposite end of the scale of confident performance is the total breakdown of fictiveness that comes with Moonshine’s halting account: ‘All I have to say is to tell you that the lantern is the moon, I the man in the moon, this thorn bush my thorn bush, and this dog my dog.’ Literalization here replaces literary figure and rhetoric. The truth-telling Starveling as Moonshine anticipates the more profound and pointed literalisms of the gravedigger in Hamlet (Hamlet: ‘Upon what ground?’ First Clown: ‘Why, here in Denmark’) and the Porter in Macbeth. Likewise, the grieving Thisbe offers an inadvertently anti-Petrarchan description of the dead Pyramus, who here has white lips, a red nose, and yellow cheeks, and eyes ‘green as leeks,’ in contrast with more orthodox beauties in poetry, who have red lips, pale skin, dark eyes, and yellow hair – and are women.
The wood near Athens has been full of dangerous serpents and monsters, whether in dreams, in rhetoric (Lysander says he’ll shake Hermia from him like a serpent), or in action. As stern parent, Egeus, has compelled the lovers to meet secretly. Dangers are all around them, and the Athenian’s escape from danger, back to the world of comedy and marriage, is fortunate but not inevitable. The ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ play neutralizes and makes manageable all the dangers they could have encountered. And it is a measure of their own limitation that none of the noble spectators can see any connection between the play they are watching and the one they are in. [GOOD POINT!] In Dream, it is Theseus who shows some compassion for the amateur actors and their efforts (‘never anything can be amiss/When simpleness and duty tender it’), though Hippolyta, despite her acerbic verdict on the play’s quality (‘This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard’), will feel great empathy for the plight of Pyramus. Both royal spectators are right: the play is silly – but it is true.
Once the play is over, and the stage littered with ‘dead’ bodies, the actors at once leap to their feet and begin to caper about in their bergamask dance. Theseus prudently declines to hear (or, rather, as Bottom offers it, to ‘see’) an epilogue. At the close of the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe dance does replace death, comedy replaces tragedy, and, as was the case at the end of Romeo and Juliet, no one onstage seems to have fully understood what has taken place. Nor do the characters seem to perceive, or particularly to value, the role of art (including theater, and the play-within-the-play) in drawing off and civilizing the element of tragedy implicit in the human condition. It is left to Puck, the spirit of transformation, imagination, and anarchic mischief, to deliver the final word, as the lovers go to their beds accompanied by songs of fertility and procreation once again:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have slumbered here,
While these visions did appear;
And this week and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream…
There was no play – there was only a dream. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has taken place only in our imaginations. So says Puck, as he sweeps the dirt behind the door, trying to protect the threshold, the limen, the boundary between inside and outside, art and life, comedy and what lies beyond its borders.
Puck’s epilogue, the ‘real’ epilogue of the play, thus revisits and revises the prologue of ‘Pyramus and Tisbe,’ which had begun ‘If we offend, it is with our good will./That you should think: we come not to offend/But with good will.’ Where the mechanicals had been prevented from offering their epilogue, Shakespeare now supplies one, and thus reasserts the playwright’s control of the ‘fourth wall’ that is the particular, brilliant province of theater. But as the play has already hinted, what lies beyond is history, tragedy, fable, and loss: the offspring of Hippolyta and Theseus will be the ill-fated Hippolytus, the erotic obsession of Theseus’s second wife, Phaedra, and the beasts in the wood will not always be so gentle as the ass-headed Bottom or the timorous man-headed lion. Moreover, something else lies beyond the threshold, as well, for that threshold, that limen, is the boundary between actor and audience, itself marked and beached by the device of the epilogue. ‘The best in this kind are but shadows,’ said Theseus, meaning actors and plays, and anticipating Puck’s ‘If we shadows have been offended.’ A play is a fiction, art is an illusion, ‘no more yielding but a dream.’ Can we blamed if we wonder – now that we have been told that we are reality – when someone else will wake and recognize that we are only dream? Can we be blamed for looking over our shoulders, and wondering who is watching the play in which we are acting, while we watch, onstage, actors watching actors who play actors performing a play? An actor playing Theseus watches an actor playing Bottom play the part of Pyramus, and feels secure in his own comparative reality. The final ambiguity is the ambiguity of all drama, and of art that always shadows the dream world: ‘It seems to me/That yet we sleep, we dream.’”
“When…sweet bully Bottom returns to his friends, he will not speak in those [visionary[ tones. Shakespeare, though, has not forgotten this ‘more gracious’ aspect of bottom, and subtly opposes it to the famous speech of Theseus that opens Act V. Hippolyta muses on the strangeness of the story told by the four young lovers, and Theseus opposes his skepticism to her wonder.
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:
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,
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy,
Or, in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush suppos’d a bear!
Theseus himself could be called, not unkindly, ‘highly unimaginative,’ but there are two voices here, and one perhaps is Shakespeare’s own, half-distancing itself from its own art, though declining also to yield completely to the patronizing Theseus. When Shakespeare writes these lines, the lover sees Helen’s beauty in a gypsy girl’s brow, and yet the prophetic consciousness somewhere in Shakespeare anticipates Antony seeing Helen’s beauty in Cleopatra. ‘Imagination,’ to Shakespeare’s contemporaries, was ‘fantasy,’ a powerful but suspect faculty of the mind. Sir Francis Bacon neatly stated this ambiguity:
Neither is the Imagination simply and only a messenger; but is invested with or at leastwise usurpeth no small authority in itself, besides the duty of the message.
‘Usurpeth’ is the key word there; the mind for Bacon is the legitimate authority, and imagination should be content to be the mind’s messenger, and to assert no authority for itself. Theseus is more a Baconian than a Shakespearean, but Hippolyta breaks away from Theseus’s dogmatism:
But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigur’d so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable.
You could give Hippolyta’s lines a rather minimal interpretation, stressing that she herself distrusts ‘fancy’s images,’ but that seems to me a woeful reading. For Theseus, poetry is a furor, and a poet a trickster, Hippolyta opens to a great resonance, to transfiguration that affects more than one mind at once. The lovers are her metaphor for the Shakespearean audience, and it is ourselves, therefore, who grow into ‘something of great constancy,’ and so are re-formed, strangely and admirably. Hippolyta’s majestic gravity is an implicit rebuke to Theseus’s scoffing at the poet’s ‘fine frenzy.’ Critics rightly have expanded their apprehension of Shakespeare’s ‘story of the night’ beyond the Dream, marvelous as the play is. ‘No, I assure you, the wall is down that parted their fathers’ is Bottom’s final resonance in the play, and transcends Theseus’s patronizing understanding. ‘The best in this kind are but shadow,’ Theseus says of all plays and playing – and while we might accept this from Macbeth, we cannot accept it from the dull Duke of Athens. Puck, in the Epilogue, only seems to agree with Theseus when he claims that ‘we shadows’ are ‘but a dream,’ since the dream is this great play itself. The poet who dreamed Bottom was about to achieve a great dream of reality, Sir John Falstaff, who would have no interest in humoring Theseus.
And finally, from Tanner:
“Bottom is a weaver, and an actor (= a ‘patched fool’) who feels sure he can play every role (male, female, animal); just as Arachne would represent all the Ovidian stories in her tapestry. In this, he is surely like Shakespeare himself. Peter Quince is the carpenter/stage manager who tries to hammer and nail the play into a structured shape; Snug, the joiner, does what he can to join rather incompatible identities together; but it is Bottom who weaves it all into a seamless fabric. (The Elizabethan theater was closer to the workshop than to the court.) Bottom is, indeed, a literalist; but in being so, he makes basic discoveries about the art, or ‘devices’ of theatrical representation. At the first rehearsal, Bottom runs over what he believes to be the problems of audience reaction. Pyramus commits suicide, and you can’t have that on stage. But Bottom has a saving ‘device’: he will ‘tell them that I Pyramus am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver.’ Just so: an actor both is and is not himself. Playing the lion is even trickier, since ‘to bring in…a lion among ladies, is a most dreadful thing.’ Bottom sees the way:
Nay, you must name his name, and half his face must be seen through the lion’s neck, and he himself must speak through, saying thus, or to the same defect – ‘Ladies’ – or, ‘Fair ladies – I would wish you’ – or, ‘I would request you’ – or ‘I would entreat you – not to fear, not to tremble: my life for yours. If you think I come hither as a lion, it were pity of my life. No, I am no such thing. I am a man as other men are.’ And there indeed let him name his name, and tell them plainly, he is Snug the joiner.
Barkan makes the nice observation that this image of Snug showing himself as half-man and half-lion, is reminiscent of familiar book illustrations to the Metamorphoses of characters ‘in the midst of Ovidian transformation’. Certainly, Bottom is here ‘laying bare,’ in the simplest terms, a basic truth about the curious relation between an actor and his role, and a character and his metamorphosis. The others see comparable problems in the matter of the requisite moonlight, and the dividing wall. ‘Two hard things,’ they say – ‘to bring the moonlight into a chamber,’ and ‘you can never bring in a wall.’ (Joking allusions here, to the orchard wall leapt by Romeo in the almost entirely moonlit other play – Shakespeare can, of course, accomplish these ‘effects’ effortlessly.) Quince and Bottom realize that they must use someone ‘to disfigure, or to present, the person of Moonshine…[and] to signify Wall.’ First steps in symbolism – something or someone can stand for, present, signify, dis-figure (that happens, too) something or someone else; Shakespeare shows Theatre itself beginning to learn its own essential ‘devices.’ Of course, honest, literal Bottom – Bottom, feeling his way, is ensuring that any chance of achieving convincing ‘illusion’ in their performance is hilariously destroyed. But that is all right, since Bottom-Shakespeare can effortlessly contain it all within the larger illusion with which he is holding us entranced. ‘Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play-within-a-play with a difference. Romeo and Juliet – in another key!
But why this play for a wedding night entertainment? Here we need to think of ‘exorcism,’ as first suggested, I think, by Barber. The play is announced in (unintentional) Romeo-ish oxymorons which prompt Theseus to comment:
Merry and tragical? Tedious and brief?
That is, hot ice and wonderous strange snow.
How shall we find the concord of this discord?
The ‘discord’ of the performance only serves to emphasize and enhance the ‘concord’ achieved in the main play. And a self-destroyingly bad play about self-destructive lovers may be no bad thing to enact on a wedding night – one ‘botch’ laughingly driving out another, as it were. And, just in case anyone present is lingeringly disturbed even by this minimally convincing (indeed, maximally un convincing) representation of the ill-fated young lovers, Bottom (‘dead’ Pyramus) leaps up and, in a last triumphant, speech, announces that no one is dead – “No, I assure you; the wall is down that parted their fathers.’ That is the final ‘turn’ that Shakespeare gives to his re-vision, re-version, of Romeo and Juliet.
At the end, the forest fairies enter the palace (as, earlier, the palace had entered the forest). Puck comes on with a broom, to sweep away all possible present and future ills: Robin-Cupid as good house-fairy (in due course, he will be transformed into Ariel – but that is another play).
Not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallowed house.
Titania bestows blessings and ‘fairy grace’ upon the whole place. Oberon performs a lustration ‘with this field-dew consecrate’ (‘dew’ is another word which occurs more often in this play than elsewhere), and wards off all possible defects from the children to come:
And the blots of Nature’s hand
Shall not in their issue stand.
Never mole, harelip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despised in nativity,
Shall upon their children be.
Some commentators have seen the whole play as operating as an exorcism of the anxieties and fears associated with leaving the virginal security of childhood, and entering the unknown territory of active sexuality (hence the assorted, though temporary and harmless, terrors and ‘monsters’ in the woods – the ‘spotted snakes’ near the sleeping Titania; Hermia’s dream of a serpent eating her heart; the threatened ‘vile thing’ which turns out, however, to be Bottom). Certainly, by the end, all fears and worries have been purged, blessed, washed, wished away. And the sleeping palace is bathed in the distinctive light of the play:
Through the house give glimmering light,
By the dead and drowsy fire
Glow, gleam, glint, glisten, glitter, glim, glimpse, glimmer (dim gleam), glimmering – all from old Saxon and German ‘gl-‘ words describing a light, a something, which shines brightly, shines faintly, shines briefly. This is the almost indescribable light in which we see the play. ‘If we shadows have offended,’ says Puck, coming forward at the end – well, just tell yourselves you fell asleep and had a silly dream. But supposing that they haven’t ‘offended,’ but, rather, ravished us – what kind of experience shall we say we had then? Everyone will find their own words – but certainly there is no experience quite like it. Critics often say that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s most lyrical play; and that is no less than the truth. Indeed, I cannot see that a more magical play has ever been written.”
So…what kind of experience did you have with the play? Share your thoughts and opinions with the group!
My next post, Shakespeare’s Sonnet #87, Thursday evening.