A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Mid), the lyric comedy, is like Macbeth in that it is both immensely popular and scorned by a group of snooty Shakespeare scholars. The difference in this one is that I tend to side more with the snooty professors. I have seen quite a few productions of this play, and while I enjoy watching it, I do not think that this play keeps pace with the ranks of Shakespeare’s great works. It is by no means at the bottom of the pile, but it struggles around the middle. The great fault of this play can be explained with the anti-Aristotelian sentiment: “the whole is lesser than the sum of its parts.” This can be found in two aspects of the play, both which I will explore here. The first is that there are many subtleties to this play; intricacies that when explored on their own are interesting, but that come to nothing. The second is that there is very little “true” character interaction in this play. Aside from Nick Bottom in his transformative state, every character is in it for themselves and addresses the audience more than the other characters. This is characteristic of Shakespeare’s contemporaries – particularly Ben Jonson – but it is contrary to why Shakespeare has superseded his peers. The result of these two points is an entertaining play, but not a great one. The question to consider as you read through this is: amongst the play’s faults, how much is intentional and how much is an example of Shakespeare not at his best?
I am going to take the Roland Barthes route and discount the supposed historical context of this play, but I will here admit that if the story is true, that Mid was written to be performed as part of a wedding ceremony for some noble in his country house, this alters how we should view the play slightly. However, since this play has moved from its possible context to be part of Shakespeare’s cannon, I think it is fair to consider it in the light of his other plays.
Instead of progressing through the plot chronologically as I have done, I will group this analysis by its characters in order to draw out the two points I will be focusing on. Let’s start with Egeus, Theseus, and Hippolyta: the mortal figures of authority in the play. Let’s start with Hippolyta, who is betrothed to Theseus, Duke of Athens. Now, in Greek mythology, Hippolyta is Queen of the Amazons. Heracles comes with Theseus (and some others depending on the version you read) to steal Hippolyta’s girdle. From here, the versions differ greatly. Some say that Hippolyta led her Amazons in an attack against Athens. Some say that Heracles and Theseus kidnap Antiope, Hippolyta’s sister. Others say that Theseus kidnap Hippolyta herself. Whatever version you read, Hippolyta is pissed and goes on a male-killing spree. Shakespeare takes this well-known Queen and reduces her to absolutely nothing. In Mid, Hippolyta exists only to provide the wedding between her and the Duke that underscores the play. Some try to redeem her by saying “but in Act V she stands up to Theseus and changes his mind and this is really important”: this is not so. Here is the lines such people are referring to:
‘Tis strange my Theseus, that these
lovers speak of.
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!
But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.
Here come the lovers, full of joy and mirth.
Enter LYSANDER, DEMETRIUS, HERMIA, and HELENA
Joy, gentle friends! joy and fresh days of love
Accompany your hearts! (V.i)
Yes, she does express a contrary opinion to Theseus, but Theseus is not the tyrant that Hippolyta supporters claim him to be. He says “I never may believe these antique fables, nor these fairy toys” but he does hint that he will take any action against the lovers. His exclamation of “joy, gentle friends!” is not because Hippolyta made him see that he was wrong – he is just good enough to badmouth people behind their backs and not to their faces. So Hippolyta as a character remains unnecessary and is a strong contender for the female division of “Shakespeare’s most useless character” but Lady Macduff would probably win the title.
Theseus and Egeus (Hermia’s father) represent the law of Athens. Egeus comes to Theseus and says that he wants Demetrius to marry Hermia, but Hermia does not want to because she loves Lysander. Egeus cries for the law, which states that a daughter is the property of the father and can be given in marriage to whomever the father wishes. If the daughter refuses she is either killed or forced to be celibate. The idea of the unbendable law standing in the way of a character’s happiness is common in Shakespeare’s comedies: we see it in Comedy of Errors, Merchant of Venice, and Measure for Measure. This aspect of the play is one of those interesting parts that come to nothing, because by half an hour into the play, you forget that this is a stipulation. Unlike Merchant of Venice in which Shylock is constantly reminding us that the law must be upheld, Hermia (and the audience) pays no attention to the law, and when we are reminded of this law in Act V, it is casually thrown out the window and Egeus is pretty much told to piss off. Compare this to Merchant of Venice and Measure by Measure where in order to subvert the law to save a life, a character or characters must create an elaborate plan. Even in Comedy of Errors, Egeon is saved from the unbendable law by luck. In Mid the throwing out of the law just seems like a way to brush aside something that is not really at the centre of the play.
Speaking of the centre of the play, let’s get to the four lovers: Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander. On the surface we are presented with the following situation: Demetrius loves Hermia, Helena loves Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander are in love with each other. Due to a magical flower sprinkled in the men’s eyes, both Demetrius and Lysander fall in love with Helena and hate Hermia. After all the magic is sorted out, Demetrius admits that he loves Helena and marries her, Hermia and Lysander get married. Due to the use of the magic flower, the relationships between the pairs of lovers and their swift transition from love to hate disallows us to see these relationships as real, creating that lack of involvement between characters that hinders this play. Actors often painfully melodramatize these characters to the point that you wish Theseus would kill the lot of them. Even the wonderfully written Helena is torn to shreds by over-zealous actresses. In a production I saw recently, Demetrius and Lysander were dressed in identical costumes. I think this was a great choice on the director’s part – at least I hope it was a choice and not a matter of “we don’t have a large budget so we bought costumes in bulk.” It really shows how interchangeable the two male lovers are. Neither of them have distinct personalities, and we know (and often care) very little about them. Many productions will have Demetrius as a well-dressed proper male and Lysander as more of a laid back hippy. But the only thing that could even justify such a portrayal is that Hermia’s father favours Demetrius and hates Lysander. Lysander is (as Theseus agrees) as fair as Demetrius, and Lysander protests that he is as wealthy (if not more so) than Demetrius, but he is portrayed as the lover type. He stood outside Hermia’s window and sung to her, wrote her poetry, and gave her gifts. However, during the course of the play he does not display the sentimental tendencies, but is equally as rash as Demetrius.
Hermia and Helena have a bit more life to them. For whatever reason, I do not know why, Shakespeare hammers the point that Helena is taller than Hermia. In Act III, it becomes a point of contention.
Puppet? why so? ay, that way goes the game.
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures; she hath urged her height;
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail’d with him.
And are you grown so high in his esteem;
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.” (III.ii)
Despite the fact that Helena is the taller of the two, Helena says that Hermia is the prettier: did the conception of tall girls as beautiful not exist yet? Or is this just Helena putting herself down because Demetrius loves Hermia and not her?
There is a bit in common with the Helena of this play and the Helena of All’s Well That Ends Well. Both Helenas are desperately in love with a man who treats her like garbage. Demetrius comes across a bit better than Bertram, but not by much. Time for another subtle aspect of the play that is completely overlooked and comes to nothing. Before the action of the play, Demetrius loved Helena and dumped her as soon as he met Hermia:
“For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,
He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.” (I.i)
Doesn’t this make him so much more of a jerk? But the interesting part that is always overlooked is that Demetrius does exactly what the two lovers do under the influence of the magic flower, without the magic flower. This demonstrates (or could if this point was not overthrown) that the magic flower is not as fantastical as it seems but rather mirrors what happens naturally amongst fickle lovers. You might compare Demetrius to Romeo (Romeo and Juliet is said to have been written alongside Mid): Romeo’s love for Rosaline melted as soon as he saw Juliet. The only difference is that Rosaline did not love Romeo back, but we get the idea that Helena and Demetrius were in a good relationship until he saw Hermia and dumped Helena. But, like the Helena of All’s Well That Ends Well, this does not dissuade our Helena from pursuing a man that is not worthy of her. Unlike Bertram who takes Helena because he is defeated, Demetrius decides that because of everything that happened, he actually does love Helena – this change of heart is very consistent with Demetrius’ actions, but makes of a very unsatisfying conclusion. Helena of Mid did not have to work to get her man, unlike the other Helena who had to convince everyone that she was dead, dress as a man, get a local girl to say she would sleep with Bertram, and all that. Hermia and Lysander as well do not have to work for their love because Theseus decides that the law (the obstacle standing in their way) doesn’t matter. So when comparing Mid with All’s Well That Ends Well, even though Mid is a more entertaining play, the lack of problems such as we see in All’s makes Mid little more than entertainment.
I’ll touch briefly on the supernatural characters before moving on to the real star of the show, Nick Bottom. We have Oberon, the king of the fairies, Titania, his queen, Robin Goodfellow but more commonly known as Puck, and Titania’s entourage of fairies. The relationship between Oberon and Titania contribute to a play without consequences. The scene starts off with the problem: Titania has a boy, born of a woman in her service, and Oberon wants this boy. We don’t find out much more about this, and we quickly lose any interest in this boy. But the quarrel is enough for Oberon to get his faithful servant Puck to get the magical flower and make Titania fall in love with some random beast. This happens, and eventually Oberon has him reverse the magic and all is well between king and queen. There’s really not much more to say about this plotline.
A group of random labourers have decided to put on a play for the Duke’s wedding: the play is “Pyramus and Thisbe.” I will get to the meta-play (the most interesting part of Mid) in a bit. Nick Bottom is the epitome of a show-stealer. While, as I mentioned, every character in this play is concerned with themselves alone, Bottom makes this the most apparent. Despite the fact that Peter Quince is the director of the play, Bottom quickly takes control and is eventually seen by the others as their leader. Bottom the character tries to claim all parts for himself and cannot help but giving his opinions about everything. Bottom as a character played by an actor, steals the show – always. Bottom always gets the most laughs, and he is one of the few characters people not too familiar with the play can name in the end. Who the hell knows any of the other mechanicals? Flute? Who is Flute? It’s Bottom, Bottom, Bottom. Puck agrees with me that this man is nothing but an ass, so what does he do? He turns Bottom’s head into an ass’s head. He then puts him next to Titania who wakes up and falls in love with the ass-man. Not only in Bottom physically transformed, but his character is reversed: instead of being the epitome of self-centredness in a cast of self-centred characters, Bottom in ass-form is the only character who truly interacts with other characters. And it’s not Titania. Poor directors have tried to sexualize their Bottom and forced him to reciprocate Titania’s lusty advances. But this is not what Shakespeare wrote, as Harold Bloom illustrates in Shakespeare: Invention of the Human. While Titania is advancing on him, Bottom befriends her fairies, the supernatural equivalent of young boys. Once again, poor directors will sexualize this and turn him into some form of pedophile – this is not the case. Nick Bottom has sex nowhere near his mind. He is content with his natural setting, with nuts (that’s literal nuts not the metaphorical one you dirty-minded people) and hay, and keeping the pleasant company of the young fairies. He is a sentimental ass-man of nature, a true pastoral hero.
I cry your worship’s mercy, heartily: I beseech your
I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good Master
Cobweb: if I cut my finger, I shall make bold with
you. Your name, honest gentleman?
I pray you, commend me to Mistress Squash, your
mother, and to Master Peascod, your father. Good
Master Peaseblossom, I shall desire you of more
acquaintance too. Your name, I beseech you, sir?
Good Master Mustardseed, I know your patience well:
that same cowardly, giant-like ox-beef hath
devoured many a gentleman of your house: I promise
you your kindred had made my eyes water ere now. I
desire your more acquaintance, good Master
This is the only part in the play where one character is genuinely interested in another and not out for his own gains. Then he is transformed back to human and goes back to his old ways. You would think that Bottom would learn something from his experience, but no. Once again, this play is free of consequence, and everything goes back to the way it was before the play started (depending on how you interpret Demetrius, I suppose).
So you can see how this play is entertaining and has a few really interesting points to it, but the lack of consequences seems to derail it. The fact that it is all “a midsummer night’s dream” (as reinforced by the title and Puck’s epilogue) means that nothing that happens in the play matters: it is just a frivolous comedy. I find this detrimental to the work, but perhaps I am just a cynical person who needs his drama to have “drama” in it. This play has often been equated with those light Romantic comedies that earn so much scorn from those who cannot buy into them. I’m not judging anyone who likes this play – there is much to like in it – but I cannot help but compare it to the rest of Shakespeare’s cannon, and on this scale the lack of consequence and lack of character interaction lowers its stature.
I could end my analysis here, but I would be doing myself a disservice. I will now demonstrate how everything I have written about this play was actually all part of Shakespeare’s brilliant plan.
It is impossible to look at the meta-play, “Pyramus and Thisbe) (Pyr) and not see it as a parallel to Mid itself. Pyr is a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (and ancient mythology): it is a tragedy. In brief: Pyramus and Thisbe are in love but are forbidden to see each other. They meet at night, separated by a wall. They are forbidden to wed because of their families’ rivalry (remember, this was written at the same time as Romeo and Juliet.) One night they arrange to meet under a mulberry tree. Thisbe arrives and is scared off by a lion. Pyramus arrives, finds Thisbe’s veil that she left behind, assumed she was killed, and stabs himself. Thisbe returns, sees dead Pyramus and stabs herself. It is tragic, and in Romeo and Juliet the scene is does in a sublimely tragic manner (Romeo’s death is my second favourite Shakespearean death). And yet Peter Quince calls the play “the most lamentable comedy and the most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe” (I.ii) and Bottom notes that it is a “merry” play. This is an extremely bizarre and fascinating blend of comedy and tragedy. If we take Pyr as a mirror of Mid we see that Shakespeare, like Peter Quince, is taking what could be a series of tragic situations (scorned love, sinister plots &c.) and demonstrating what happens when they are transformed into a comedy. Pyr is meant to be played – and is often played – as an absolutely ridiculous farce. The lines are intentionally poorly written, the characters provide too much exposition as to what they are doing, everything is melodramatic to the point of absurdity. The characters take pains to explain to us that although what we are witnessing is tragic and frightening, there are no consequences in Pyr because they are just actors. The lion is not a fierce lion but an actor playing a lion. Pyr does not die, but rather the fictional character being portrayed by an actor dies. All this is done, as Bottom points out, to not offend or frighten the ladies in the audience. Was this the same reason for the consequence free nature of Mid itself? Or is Shakespeare writing this play to make fun of the nature of theatre altogether? Is Mid intentionally bad? And if so, does this make it good? I will end here, and leave you, as Shakespeare does, with this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbqq77AEN_8