Lord, what fools these mortals be!
Midsummer Night’s Dream is a strange beast of a play. While many Shakespeare plays have a secondary plot concerning a secondary set of characters, Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t really have a main story line or a main character – there are four pairs of lovers, and four plots that overlap. There’s also another play within a play, and the story takes place in the real world, as well as in a fairy world, which I guess a sort of magical alternative reality. It’s not considered a great masterpiece, but is probably the most commonly performed of Shakespeare’s plays – there’s a large cast, and the fantasy elements allow for a visually spectacular production.
The first plot concerns Helena and Hermia, who have been friends since childhood. Egeus, Hermia’s father, demand that she marry a man of his choosing, one Demetrius. Hermia however is in love Lysander, Demetrius’ friend. Egeus demands Theseus, Duke of Athens, that he make Hermia marry Demetrius, else be killed. Theseus finds this a bit harsh, and tells Hermia to yield to her father’s desire or become a nun. Lysander pleads his case – Demetrius has been courting Helena, who is now in love with him.
I am, my lord, as well derived as he,
As well possess’d; my love is more than his;
My fortunes every way as fairly rank’d,
If not with vantage, as Demetrius’;
And, which is more than all these boasts can be,
I am beloved of beauteous Hermia:
Why should not I then prosecute my right?
Demetrius, I’ll avouch it to his head,
Made love to Nedar’s daughter, Helena,
And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes,
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,
Upon this spotted and inconstant man.
Egeus and Theseus fail to give in, and Hermia and Lysander agree to run away together. Helena tells Demetrius about the plan and he pursues them, and Helena him, into the forest.
The second plot concerns five artisans – Peter Quince, Nick Bottom, Francis Flute, Robin Starveling, Tom Snout and Snug – who are putting together a play to perform for Theseus in his wedding feast. Their chosen play? “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe”. They decide to go the same forest to rehearse.
In the forest, the king of fairies, Oberon, is camping with – sort of – his wife, Titania, and their train of attendants. Titania has taken in a little Indian boy, son of her worshiper, and is refusing to give him up to Oberon; this has caused them to become estranged. To punish her, Oberon tells his henchman Puck to get him an elixir of a flower called love-in-idleness (not an actual, existing plant, I’m sorry to tell you) to put in Titania’s eyes when she’s sleeping, making her fall in love with the first creature she sees when she wakes up.
In the forest, Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius are running around in circles. Oberon observes Demterius’ cruelty to Helena and her devotion to him, and asks Puck to use some of the elixir on Demetrius. Puck has never seen either, and puts the elixir in the eyes of Lysander instead, making him to fall in love with Helena, who has stopped to check if he’s dead or sleeping. Oberon sees Demetrius still scorning her, and in turn makes him fall asleep and then fall in love with Helena upon wakening. Rather than believe either of them, Helena thinks that they are mocking her; Hermia finds out and accuses Helena for stealing Lysander from her. To rectify the situation, Oberon orders Puck to lift the charm off Lysander, who goes back to loving Hermia.
Elsewhere, Titania wakes up from her nap, and encounters Bottom, whom Puck has charmed into having a donkey’s head, immediately falling in love with him.
While Titania is besotted by Bottom/donkey, Oberon takes the child, and orders Puck to remove the donkey’s head from Bottom, while he releases Titania. All is arranged – Helena and Demetrius, and Hermia and Lysander are waken up, thinking it has all been a dream, by Theseus and Hippolyta who are out hunting, and as Demetrius no longer loves Hermia, Theseus overrules Egeus allowing her to marry Lysander, and orders a triple wedding.
Back in Athens, the mechanicals’ play is chosen from a selection of truly tedious sounding entertainments to be performed to the Duke and his fellow newly-weds.
‘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 play is truly terrible (and somewhat resembles Romeo and Juliet), but the audience, despite gently mocking it, finds value in its sincerity. The evening draws to and end, and Theseus orders the lovers to bed. The fairies enter and bless the Duke’s house and all its occupants with good fortune. They all depart, and Puck is left alone on the stage to suggest the audience that they too may have been dreaming it all.
I have seen this play many, many times, and I have actually no idea what it’s about. Over the centuries, various critics have been equally troubled by it – its depictions of love, female disobedience, lack of “proper decorum” in observing social positions, and general madcappery have regularly offended the delicate sensibilities of critics, who have found the female characters immoral and the mechanicals greedy lowlives. Of the lovers, Theseus and Hippolyta are seen as the rational, mature ones – he compares a lover to a madman and a poet, love to a trick of imagination.
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 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 supposed a bear!
There is an element of arbitrariness to the love – both Helena and Hermia, and Lysander and Demetrius are almost interchangeable, as in a way are Theseus and Oberon and Titania and Hippolyta (these characters are never on stage at the same time, so they are sometimes played by the same actors), and their quarrels are solved by magic potions. Jan Kott sees the play as a sort of metaphor of a decadent, lavish party where the guests have got drunk, done all sorts of things they wouldn’t normally do, and eventually wake up to a bitter, confusing reality, feeling ashamed of what they have been up to – and then go on to pretend that none of it really happened.
I many ways the most interesting, most problematic character in the play is Puck – the manipulator-in-chief, jester, wise knave, poet. He makes it all happen, yet it is perfectly possible to explain the plot without even mentioning him. What is he? Who is he? Is he entirely benevolent? It he devilish? The character is based on folklore – he was a house sprite, a benevolent creature if treated well, willing to make life very difficult to those who didn’t.
It’s hugely entertaining, with a lot of potential for all sorts of on stage shenanigans.
Terry Pratchett’s novel Lords and Ladies is a parody of the play, set in the Discworld.
What say thou?
Thanks to Midsummer Night’s Dream, we know that the course of true love never did run smooth, and that love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind. We also feel that to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays. And tell people to take pains. Be perfect. There’s a lot of good dialogue and few good speeches. Hermia even gives the first known walk of shame speech in Act 3, scene 2:
Never so weary, never so in woe,
Bedabbled with the dew and torn with briers,
I can no further crawl, no further go;
My legs can keep no pace with my desires.
Here will I rest me till the break of day.
Heavens shield Lysander, if they mean a fray!
My favourite however is Thisbe’s soliloquy when she finds her lover dead in the play-within-play.
Asleep, my love?
What, dead, my dove?
O Pyramus, arise!
Speak, speak. Quite dumb?
Dead, dead? A tomb
Must cover thy sweet eyes.
These My lips,
This cherry nose,
These yellow cowslip cheeks,
Are gone, are gone:
Lovers, make moan:
His eyes were green as leeks.
O Sisters Three,
Come, come to me,
With hands as pale as milk;
Lay them in gore,
Since you have shore
With shears his thread of silk.
Tongue, not a word:
Come, trusty sword;
Come, blade, my breast imbrue:
And, farewell, friends;
Thus Thisby ends:
Adieu, adieu, adieu.
This might be the one play where I don’t really have one – or rather, who I like the best depends on how they are played on stage. I have both loved and hated Theseus, Titania and Puck, for example.
None. I saw this play in Shakespeare’s Globe few weeks ago, the new Emma Rice production which is at time irritating, roaringly funny (though I could see from where my friend and I stood a man who didn’t laugh once), and at times quite magical.
The header painting is by William Blake, the painting of Titania and Bottom by Henry Fuseli, the fairy portrait by Robert Hughes, and the portrait of Puck by Johann Heinrich Füssli. The Globe production runs till September 11th.