Mar 8, 2013
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Midsummer’s Eve, Summer Solstice
The Summer solstice was traditionally celebrated by the Celts, as well as the Germanic tribes of mainland Europe on June 21. Bonfires and special celebrations marked what Druids considered the wedding of Heaven and Earth. Widespread customs and rituals invoked the love and fertility magic typically attributed to nature and wood spirits. Like All Hallows (Halloween), Midsummer was considered a day when the boundaries between the worlds are thinnest, mortals have strange experiences, and when Otherworlders and Faerie travellers crossover to visit our plane, intermingle and sport with humans.
It has been generally assumed that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written by Shakespeare sometime around 1595, in honor of the wedding of an aristocratic couple. There are also strong hints in the text which indicate that Elizabeth I was likely in attendance for the initial presentation of the play (“… a fair Vestal, throned by the West”).
Pulling together Britannic folklore with aspects of Greek mythology, Shakespeare fashioned a light comedic romance comprised of elements which were to become his basic comedic formula: confusion, mischief and the exasperation that ensues between pairs of couples, consummating in multiplicities of marriages. The play also suggests many structural similarities with masque, which was then a popular form of whimsical entertainment for special occasions.
The play begins amid the pragmatic bustle of wedding preparations for Duke Theseus and his captive Amazon war bride, Hippolyta. The second Act introduces the King and Queen of the Faeries, Oberon and Titania, setting the stage for a contrast (and inevitable collision) of rational with fanciful, earthy with airy. Somewhere between these poles are found the pairs of lovers, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, and the group of artisan actors, headed by Peter Quince and Nick Bottom. These two “middle groups” are destined to encounter the inversion of realms, as both fatefully hurtle headlong into the woods. The forest then becomes the magical portal wherein possession becomes law. Here, the solid reassurances of the waking world are suspended, while the Dream replaces reality with illusion. Skillfully, Shakespeare plies Bottom’s trade and weaves together the four subplots, artfully overlapping and intersecting them at precise junctures.
“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends…”
Act V. i. 5-7
Undoubtedly, the overarcing theme of the play is romantic love, in its varied forms, permutations, consternations, confused expression, madness, and ultimate fulfillments. This conclusion may be readily observed in plot elements ranging from the squabbles and spitefulnesses between Oberon and Titania, Helena’s laments, the fickle love declarations between the four young lovers (irregardless of the influence of Oberon’s love philtre), the preceding adversarial relationship of Hippolyta and Theseus, even in the unintentional farce created by Quince’s company in their interpretation of the tragic relationship of Pyramus and Thisbe. Setting aside the obvious comedic effect of a romantic tragedy as the mechanicals’ choice of offering for a wedding, the inclusion of the story by Shakespeare himself appears to purposefully mirror the theme he will explore starkly in Romeo and Juliet. We, as audience, are reminded that while the madness of love may be fertile ground for amusement, it may also spur tragic events and irrevocable choices to a fatal conclusion. The comedic reminder mutes the impact, but nevertheless presents the circumstances for consideration. Bottom’s admonitions early in Act I to disclaim the “frightening” elements of lion, suicide and tragedy to spare the audience affright are bookended by Puck’s matching disclaimer at the very end of Act V:
“If we shadows have offended,
think but this and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear;
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream…”
Act V. i. 418-23
These delicate “advisements” seem to assert that the play is merely a harmless exercise in imagination. Theseus’ comments in Act V, I, (“The best in these kind are but shadows…”) also reflect this literalist view which takes art at face value, as mere entertainment, and does not extend unto it a deeper Universal meaning. Especially for those who are well-versed in Shakespeare’s grimmer offerings, there is certainly room for doubt. Additionally, Puck (or Robin Goodfellow) may also be more familiarly known as a Trickster, the archetype which blurs lines between “light” and “shadow” with a winking smile. Girded by this fact, it seems more likely a subtle reminder of the importance of imagination as tempered by judgement and an allusion to its elusive but often powerful effects.
Unlike Shakespeare’s later, more developed comedies, most characters in the Dream are largely devoid of troubling complexities and do not encounter protracted travails or consequences. Indeed, the play spans but a single midnight of mishap through morning before all complications are resolved by happy reunions. In fact, a common thread running through Shakespeare works is the distinction of a character’s personality among others to indicate maturity. Stock characters and interchangeability are used to effect the idea of a lack of worldly wisdom and need for development. Additionally, the concept of traversing woods/forest has served as a frequent allegory for gaining insight and experience into the ways of the world. A significant number of “fairy tales” may be found with this motif presenting as the complication at the beginning of the protagonist’s journey. Generally, the journey offers opportunities for advancement, betterment of station, and resolution of difficulties. The bliss of naiveté may be comfortable and safe, but it is impossible to maintain and yet grow. Therefore, out of the nest goes the naif in his (sometimes reluctant) pursuit of a distinct identity. To come through the confusion intact after wandering the woods is the ultimate goal. The four lovers’ experiences reflect this device, as does the depth of their confusion. Romance is fine for a time, but marriage is generally considered the “realized” ideal for male-female courtships in Shakespearean ouevre. Pairings are meant to emphasize the complementary nature of male and female – a good match is one where the personalities are both well-defined and self-directed, yet interdependent.
Bottom and Puck are largely considered to be the most fleshed out personalities among the dramatis personae, affording more opportunity for a player to inhabit. Both possess more detail and definition owing to their worldly experience and grasp of universal human foible. As a varietal of typical Shakespearean clown, Bottom plays a unique role in directing the audience’s attention to a primary theme (reality vs. imagination). For all his swagger and overweening confidence, he remains the only mortal to directly interact with the Faerie realm, managing such with characteristic aplomb and equanimity. One is left to wonder, though, if Bottom would retain his agreeable nature were he not able to dismiss his encounter as a “bottomless Dream”. The mortal characters share this permission to rationalize, and it is fitting to footnote that only the fairy folk are indeed able to grasp the “reality” of the play’s events.
So it is that Shakespeare reminds us yet again that art imitates life, in that we mere mortals are never truly able to see our own reality clearly. We are all dreamers in this same sense…