Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 367-424).
Act 1, Scene 1 (377-82, T & Hyppolyta’s courtship, Egeus’ demand, Helena’s complaint, Lysander’s plan)
The play opens with a conversation between Theseus, Duke of Athens and the Amazon Queen he has conquered and is now set to marry. The archetypal “war between the sexes” has given way to the “pomp . . . triumph . . . [and] revelling” (378, 1.1.19) of a wedding ceremony. Theseus, though himself somewhat impatient, promises Hippolyta that violence and chaos will give way to marital decorum and an orderly society. But as Lysander soon says to Hermia, “The course of true love never did run smooth” (380, 1.1.134), and soon Egeus comes onto the scene to stir up trouble (378, 1.1.21-22). His daughter Hermia has refused the suitor named Demetrius that he has chosen for her, and now the father importunes the Duke to uphold the harsh law of Shakespeare’s Athens (378, 1.1.41-42). Hermia must assent to a life with Demetrius, or she will either forfeit her life or remain a virgin for the rest of her days. Such outlandishly cruel “laws” are useful in comedies and romances since they allow the playwright to deal with primal issues of life and death, to depict universal struggles in the starkest manner. The Terrible Father is a handy device in Shakespeare’s bag of drama-tricks, and here he serves as an obstacle in the path of the lovers Hermia and Lysander. The father is perhaps jealous, and he aligns himself with the symbolic power of absolute interdiction. He envisions a rival order to the one Theseus has staked out, one that allows no room for his daughter Hermia to pursue natural desire. The result is confusion, chaos, and vexation. Lysander has a plan, which is to take refuge in the woods not far from Athens, and then to travel to his aunt’s home, where Athenian law does not apply (380, 1.1.157-67). This plan will take the main couples off to one of Shakespeare’s most beloved green worlds, the fairy kingdom of Oberon and Titania.
Helena now enters—she is Hermia’s childhood friend, and has problems of her own to deal with. She is in love with her former suitor Demetrius, who now cares only for Helena. When Lysander tells her of his plan to steal away with Hermia into the forest, Helena decides to reveal this information to Demetrius for her own selfish benefit. A strain of jealousy against Hermia is evident in Helena’s comment, “Through Athens I am thought as fair as she” (382, 1.1.227). She puts much faith in the power of love even as she says this profound feeling involves neither judgment nor clarity of vision: “Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transpose to form and dignity” (382, 1.1.232-33). Perhaps it is not quality in the lover that we love, but rather what we ourselves project onto or into the beloved. Love is a thing of fantasy, and is not amenable to reason. The main question that the play poses has to do with the extent to which we can direct desire so that it guarantees order, social harmony and decorum.
Act 1, Scene 2 (382-84, Quince hands out roles; Bottom’s desire to play all of them)
This comic scene continues the theme of transformation introduced in Scene 1. Several workingmen have determined to compete for the honor of putting on a play in the presence of the Duke and Hippolyta. Their conversations give us some of Shakespeare’s most notable commentary on his chosen profession, if we may be so bold as to make such a connection. Peter Quince is the director of Pyramus and Thisbe, a tragic play about star-crossed lovers. Bottom the Weaver is to play the hero Pyramus (383, 1.2.16), but he wants to play everything else as well: “let me play Thisbe too” (383, 1.2.43) and “Let me play the lion too” (384, 1.2.58). To the latter request, he receives the answer that he would roar too loud and frighten the ladies – we will come across this concern about excessive realism again in Act 3, Scene 1 (394-95, 3.1.8-60), but for now, it’s easy to see that Nick Bottom is a delightful narcissist who wants to project himself into everything around him and that he is excited about the prospect of using art to escape everyday reality. The mechanicals are interested in maintaining the element of surprise, which is why they decide to go to the palace woods, lest interested parties find out about their play (384, 1.2.82-85).
Act 2, Scene 1 (384-90, Oberon and Titania quarrel; enter Robin Goodfellow)
We now meet the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, whose lineage, I’ve read, goes all the way back to fifth-century Frankish Merovingian times. The fairy world in this play is one of Shakespeare’s “green worlds,” but it isn’t exactly remote from the human world and its concerns. (The same would be a fair statement about As You Like It’s Forest of Arden.) Magical transformations happen in this “palace wood,” but Oberon and Titania are beset by the same jealousies as foolish mortals: Puck and his fairy conversation partner tell us that these monarchs are at present separated over the custodianship of “A lovely boy stol’n from an Indian king” (385, 2.1.22), a changeling to whom Titania is particularly attached (since the boy’s mother was a votary of hers – a changeling is either a fairy child put in place of a stolen human child or, as in this case, the human child that has been taken), but whom Oberon wants for a “Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild” (385, 2.1.25). Perhaps we are also to understand that Titania would keep the boy just as he is, while Oberon would initiate him into maturity.
The unhappy couple sling accusations of infidelity (with the mortal king and his consort, no less) at each other (386, 2.1.63-76), and their squabbling has already, Titania reveals, resulted in natural disorders that cause trouble for lowly humans just trying to till the soil and raise their crops: “The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn / Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard” (386, 2.1.94-95).
Perhaps Titania is partly concerned to maintain her own sphere of authority by withholding from Oberon something he dearly covets, so the fairy monarchs have their own invisible war of the sexes going on: she refuses to surrender the boy: “His mother was a vot’ress of my order … / And for her sake do I rear up her boy; / And for her sake I will not part with him” (387, 2.1.123, 135-37).
Oberon decides on the spot to punish Titania for her obstinacy, so he summons Puck to find the magical flower with which to cast a spell on her: the pansy, which acquired its great property of inspiring love from the bolt of Cupid 387-88, 2.1.146-48, 165-74). The flower causes love at first sight, regardless of the object, so it serves as an emblem of the power that Hermia had invested in love itself. Oberon hopes by this device to extort the Indian boy from her in exchange for releasing her from whatever love relation the flower causes her to forge.
Puck, Oberon’s helper, is mischief in its lighter aspects—not the murderous Mischief invoked by Antony in Julius Caesar (the one that accords so well with “havoc” and “the dogs of war”; see Norton Tragedies 295, 3.1.276). Still, I suppose we could understand Robin Goodfellow, as his full name runs, to be the obverse of the chaste power that overlooks the entire play – namely, Diana, virgin goddess of the moon (377, 1.1.4).
Act 2, Scene 2 (390-94, Oberon be-pansies Titania; Puck mistakenly bewitches Lysander)
The transformations enjoined by Oberon are supposed to yield predictable results, but it’s hard to control such a magical power. Puck mistakenly sprinkles Lysander instead of Demetrius (392, 2.2.76-77), Lysander falls in love with Helena and out of love with Hermia. Puck can’t process the fact that Lysander and Hermia are sleeping apart simply because they’re following the human custom of chastity before marriage, not because they are angry with each other: “Nay, good Lysander; for my sake, my dear, / Lie further off yet; do not lie so near” (391, 2.2.49-50). Puck is a natural creature, and cares nothing for customs of any sort. Helena is outraged at Lysander’s strange new affection (393, 2.2.129-40), and Hermia can scarcely believe Lysander isn’t near her side when she wakes up recounting her bad dream: “Methought a serpent ate my heart away” (393, 2.2.155), and decides to go off in search of him. Lysander claims to be following his reason in choosing Helena and rejecting Hermia (393, 2.2.126-28), but reason has nothing to do with it. Neither does his “will,” which he claims is being led by reason. Well, at least Oberon carried out his part of the plan properly—he began the scene by squeezing pansy juice onto Titania’s eyelids (391, 2.2.32). Another name for the pansy is “love-in-idleness,” which reminds us that love involves a narcissistic projection of qualities into a beloved object to bind it to us.
Act 3, Scene 1 (394-98, Quince & Co.’s artistic concerns; Bottom translated, charms Titania)
Our lowly actors are hard at work for the nobility’s viewing pleasure. Bottom continues to be determined to avoid excessive realism: “There are things in this comedy of Pyramus and Thisbe that will never please” (394, 3.1.8-11), he says, and finds the solution to this problem in a cunning prologue that will reassure the audience they are only watching a play. Snout worries about the lion, so Bottom decrees that he must show his humanity through his suit (394, 3.1.32-34). The issue of the moonlight must also be worked out (395, 3.1.51-55). Aside from the moonlight, the second difficulty is how to represent a wall, but Bottom has an ingenious strategy to deal with this: one of the actors will stand on the stage and create a crack with his hands held a certain way, which will signify the crack through which Pyramus and Thisbe will speak (395, 3.1.57-60). Bottom and others’ concerns (394-95, 3.1.8-60) about excessive realism and representational detail may indicate that they have trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy, so they think their betters have the same problem. Still, the first problem in particular is an important neoclassical concern: what is the moral impact of fictional representations? Can mere fantasies cause distress? Of course they can – and in fact, Helena had described the power of love similarly in the first act (382, 1.1.232-33). Anything that is worth something is probably also capable of causing distress when mishandled or misunderstood.
With regard to the second issue – that of representation’s basic limits (how realistic can and must our play be?), it is worth remembering that we take for granted today a host of cinematic special effects when we watch a film of Shakespeare—at least when we watch excellent Hollywood versions like Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice or Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, or Julie Taymor’s remarkable film Titus. When we go to watch an actual play, however, we are much closer to the possibilities of Shakespeare’s own day. One can only do so much by way of illusion on the stage, so we find Shakespeare often asking his audience to use their own imaginations, lest the play fall flat. One of the most famous instances occurs in Henry V, in which the prologue-speaker begins, “O for a muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention: / A kingdom for a stage, princes to act / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!” (Norton Histories 770, Prologue 1-4) The advice given the audience there is, “‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, / Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times, / Turning th’accomplishment of many years / Into an hourglass…” (770, Prologue 28-31). When it came to representing fairy kingdoms and the personages therein, Shakespeare must have known how similar any playwright’s efforts must be to those of Peter Quince and his actors. Still, his great clown Feste in Twelfth Night sums up the power of fiction when he sings at the end of the play, “But that’s all one, our play is done, / And we’ll strive to please you every day” (Norton Comedies 750, 5.1.394-95). You must leave the charmed circle of the theater when the performance ends, but you can return there again and again, so that in this sense, at least, art and life perpetually interweave. Perhaps Shakespeare thought the combined power of artistic representation and the audience’s fancy or imagination was impressive enough to void excessive concern over the limitations of his plays.
Puck determines that partially transforming Bottom into an ass will be his contribution to the play (395, 3.1.65-68), and all the other actors are frightened from the scene. Bottom suspects a plot on their part: “This is to make an ass of me, to / fright me, if they could; but I will not stir from this place, do / what they can” (396, 3.1.106-08). We now see another side to Bottom’s desire to transform himself into anything and everything: perhaps this desire indicates a degree of narcissism and a strong need to control his surroundings, not necessarily a healthy imagination. As mentioned earlier, some have said that Bottom’s over-concern about realism indicates a lack of imagination, not an excess of it. It may also be the case that Shakespeare is having fun at the expense of early neoclassical criticism, which insists that the audience falls prey to “dramatic illusion” and takes what it sees on the stage for the real thing. If all this is true, it seems comically appropriate that he should be “translated” (396, 3.1.105) into a stubborn, obtuse donkey. But Titania awakens to the sight of him, and the magic juice does its work: “thy fair virtue’s force perforce doth move me / On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee” (396, 3.1.124-25). She makes him an offer he can’t refuse, considering her powers and high state: “Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no” (397, 3.1.135). I would not be harsh with Bottom – if he cannot manage his fantasy projections, he isn’t alone in the play in not being able to do that. Narcissism and projection are part of love as well. How aware are most people of that fact?
Act 3, Scene 2 (398-407, Oberon bewitches Demetrius, orders Robin to fix his error; couples argue in the forest, both men pursuing Helena: chaos; Oberon’s desire for peace)
Puck relates how he transformed Bottom (398, 3.2.1-32), then in Oberon’s presence he discovers his error in having sprinkled pansy juice on Lysander rather than Demetrius: “This is the woman, but not this the man” (399, 3.2.42). Oberon is pleased that Titania has fallen in love with the transformed Bottom, but he is not pleased about Lysander’s situation, and sets about making things right. Oberon now bewitches Demetrius (400, 3.2.99) to turn his affections towards Helena, while Robin sees good sport in the coming fireworks amongst the couples (400, 3.2.111-15).
Helena continues to believe she is the butt of a cruel joke when Demetrius and Lysander vie for her attention: “You both are rivals and love Hermia, / And now both rivals to mock Helena” (401, 3.2.156-57). She laments to Hermia, “is all quite forgot? / All schooldays’ friendship, childhood innocence?” (402, 3.2.202-03). Hermia protests her innocence truthfully, but soon things turn ugly when her weak point is found: she fears being mocked for her short stature: “[Helena] … hath made compare / Between our statures; she hath urged her height …” (404, 3.2.291-92).
Demetrius and Lysander go off into the woods to fight a duel (405, 3.2.337-38), and Oberon orders Puck to follow them and keep anything untoward from happening. With the men and the women alike quarreling, we have reached the height of chaos in this play. The assumption Hermia makes is not so hard to fathom. The matter of attraction or the lack thereof strikes at the very heart of a person’s identity. Puck is ordered to fix his mistake with Lysander (405, 3.2.355-69), while Oberon himself will extort the Indian boy from Titania in exchange for releasing her from her love match with an ass. What Oberon the comic king seeks above all is harmony: “I will her charmèd eye release / From monster’s view, and all things shall be peace” (406, 3.2.375-78). The scene ends with both human couples fast asleep not far from one another.
Act 3, Scene 3 (407-08, Robin corrects his error with Lysander)
In the third scene, Robin Goodfellow finally corrects his earlier mistake: “Jack shall have Jill, / Naught shall go ill, / the man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well” (408, 3.3.45-47). Robin doesn’t sharply differentiate one human couple from another: to him, what matters is the coupling itself, the simple fact of union, and he doesn’t trouble himself with the choice of object.
Act 4, Scenes 1-2 (408-14, Robin corrects his error, Oberon unvexes Titania, they reconcile; Theseus and Hyppolita converse; Bottom recovers, waxes philosophical; play’s preferred!)
Bottom satisfies his nonhuman desires with some delicious hay, and then gives in to sleep while Titania lies next to him (409, 4.1.30-42). Oberon has succeeded in his plan to extort the Indian boy from Titania, so he tells Puck to turn Bottom back into a man (410, 4.1.80ff) while Oberon himself undoes his magic against Titania (409, 4.1.67), using now the antidote to the pansy, Dian’s bud. Then he tells us something about the nature of that word “dream” in the title of the play: the human couples will “to Athens back again repair, / And think no more of this night’s accidents / But as the fierce vexation of a dream” (409, 4.1.64-66). What we have been witnessing is a species of “vexation” in which nothing holds true about even those things in which we put most stock; everything is subject to whimsical magic and is beyond our control. But no lasting harm will come of this fitful state of agitation since all of the couples concerned will end up properly sorted by the end of the play and Bottom’s strange metamorphosis is only temporary; if, as some have said, there is an element of satire here, it is not particularly sharp-edged. The play deals with passion in a curiously dispassionate, bemused, moonstruck manner. This fairy-land perspective has already been captured when Puck says to Oberon in 3.2, “Shall we their fond pageant see? / Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (400, 3.2.114-15) We know that chaste goddess Diana is looking over the whole affair from her distant perch. The final task of the fairy king and queen will be to bless the wedding day and grounds for Theseus and the other mortals: strife and confusion will give way to courtly decorum and blessings (410, 4.1.84-89).
At the palace, Hippolyta still shows some of her old spirit, reminding Theseus that she has kept still better company than him—his hounds may be very fine, but she has heard the dogs of Hercules and Cadmus, and is dubious about Theseus’ claims of supreme tuneableness (411, 4.1.109-15). The tenor of this conversation is civil, and so a far cry from the violence that forged the union of Theseus and Hippolyta. Egeus does his best to ruin everything by remaining constant to his grinch-like principles, importuning Theseus for due severity: “I beg the law, the law upon his head” (411, 4.1.152). But Demetrius, Egeus’ favorite, robs him of the opportunity by declaring his renewed interest in Helena, which leaves Hermia free to marry Lysander. The Duke offers a triple wedding, and the happy couples decide to follow Theseus and tell about their forest dreams (412, 4.1.194-95).
Meanwhile, Bottom is waxing philosophical about his “vision”: “Man is but an ass if he go about t’expound this / dream” (412, 4.1.201-02), says he, and then supposes that even though he can’t explain the dream itself, he might get it turned into an oddly unsettled “ballad” with Peter Quince’s help, and have it sung at the end of the play (413, 4.1.207-10). The others are waiting for him to make his appearance, lest they lose their shot at courtly patronage suitable to their lowly rank, but Bottom arrives just in time (413, 4.2.25-27), keeping mum about his great adventure with Titania. Of all the characters in the play and for a reason worth pondering, he alone has been privileged to see the fairies. Bottom doesn’t change even when he is transformed into a demi-donkey: perhaps his genius is to be unfazed by such strange events. He is at home in fairyland, at home in the dream-world from whence issues waking human desire. In this sense, Bottom has bragging rights– he is not “vexed” in the same way the other characters are, even though Oberon thinks he is. The rest of us live fitfully trying to negotiate the gap between waking and sleep, reality and fantasy, what is and what might be, but not Nick Bottom.
Act 5, Scene 1 (414-21, Theseus offers constructive art criticism, the Pyramus and Thisbe proceeds)
Theseus, as we see here, is having none of this day’s talk about fairyland “antique fables” (414, 5.1.2-3) such as the now-happy couples have related to them about their time in the woods. In his view, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact” (414, 5.1.7-8), and he expounds further that the poet’s “imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown” and then his “pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (414, 5.1.14-17). Imagination, he continues, is bound to provide causal agents for anything it treats: “in the night, imagining some fear, / How easy is a bush supposed a bear!” (414, 5.1.21-22) Theseus sounds politely dismissive of the arts, but he finds in them entertainment “To ease the anguish of a torturing hour” (414, 5.1.37). In other words, unlike Bottom and some of the mechanic players, the noble Theseus has no trouble making distinctions between the real and the purely fanciful; he will view the play from an “aesthetic distance” unavailable to the Bottoms of the world. But isn’t the joke on him, at least to some extent? Within the play, fairyland is as real as anything else, so all those strange transpositions of love objects and, of course, the “translation” of Bottom, really happened.
But we need not consider Theseus unappreciative—he is the most indulgent of critics with the ridiculous spectacle put on by the Pyramus and Thisbe crew. Theseus is able to laugh at the players’ infelicities and accept the honesty with which they set forth their representation, in spite of his master of revels Philostrate’s (or Egeus’, in our Norton text) contempt for them. Theseus associates glib illusionism with dishonesty, similar to the fair words of a selfish counselor: “I will hear that play; / For never anything can be amiss / When simpleness and duty tender it” (415, 5.1.81-83). When Hippolyta labels the play “the silliest stuff that ever I heard” (418, 5.1.207), Theseus sums up his critical acumen this way: “The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst / are no worse if imagination amend them” (418, 5.1.208-09). The representation onstage we might describe by saying that it is a framework or skeleton that the audience members must then bring to life with imaginative sympathy. The Pyramus and Thisbe production goes pretty much as planned, a mixture of preposterous ineptness and genuinely affecting drama (418-20).
One thing I enjoy about Shakespeare’s staging of the Pyramus and Thisbe play is how the aristocratic audience seems both genuinely engaged and yet capable of conversing amongst themselves, making jokes, and passing critical judgments. I think Shakespeare must have noticed this sort of behavior at large theaters where he staged his plays (the Globe opened in 1599, and after 1609 or so, he also put some plays on at the more intimate Blackfriars). A Shakespeare play in a big theater would have been spellbinding and yet quite a “social affair,” as I imagine it.
Act 5, Scene 2 and Epilogue (422-23, Fairies bless the weddings at the palace, Robin asks audience’s indulgence)
Oberon, Titania and the fairies blass the palace of Theseus and Hippolyta: “Hand in hand with fairy grace / Will we sing and bless this place” (422, 5.2.29-30). Puck’s epilogue is effective, as he leaves matters to the audience’s imagination: it is their prerogative to judge what they have seen, and their burden to perpetuate the play in their own minds or let it pass away. To some degree like love itself, the theater (“make-believe”) is a power in the world and one to be treated with due regard. A Midsummer Night’s Dream therefore begs indulgence for its excellent mockery of romantic desire as an irrational, chaos-inducing force in human affairs that nonetheless seems conducive to individual happiness and good social order: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended: / That you have but slumbered here, / While these visions did appear …” (423, Epilogue 1-4).
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake