The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0506 Wednesday, 6 November 2013
Date: November 6, 2013 at 7:35:48 AM EST
Subject: Charles Isherwood on MND
[Editor’s Note: I missed this when it first appeared in The New York Times, but I include it now for any further discussion that might be generated regarding Midsummer Night’s Dream, Taymor or otherwise. –Hardy]
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” may have earned its high berth on the Shakespeare hit parade because it’s a bundle of high-spirited hijinks, but its view of love is divided.
October 31, 2013
By Charles Isherwood
It should not be strange to encounter any of Shakespeare’s plays at any time of the year, so firmly ensconced are they in the canon. And yet there’s something a little startling in the arrival of a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opening in November, as Julie Taymor’s upcoming production at Theater for a New Audience will. The play is among Shakespeare’s most beloved and most frequently produced, but it has mostly become a rite of summer, often performed outdoors, with picnickers sharing bottles of wine and children romping on grass.
The title, naturally, has something to do with the play’s usually being relegated to the sticky months. But “Dream” is also one of the most surefire comedies ever written, and it features not one, not two, not three, but four journeys (of sorts) ending in lovers’ meeting. Shakespeare comedies often conclude with nuptials in the offing, but this play offers a stage full of contented lovers, gathering to watch a hilariously amateurish enactment of a love story — the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe — that ends rather more unhappily.
That scene is among the most reliably hilarious in any Shakespeare play, and so is the scene in which Lysander and Demetrius, now both passionately declaring their love for a bewildered Helena, are joined by a dumbfounded Hermia, and a four-way game of verbal fisticuffs ensues. These passages rarely fail to engender merriment, which is another reason why “Dream” has become so popular: it’s the rare production, amateur or professional, that doesn’t nail at least these bits.
Plus: fairies flitting around the stage, the wonderfully dopey Bottom, perhaps the greatest of Shakespeare’s comic doofuses, and a fairly breezy running time.
But what struck me most upon a recent re-reading of the play was not the dizzy joyousness of its comedy, and the sunlit ending, but instead the darkness from which all this benevolence emerges. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” may have earned its high berth on the Shakespeare hit parade because it’s a bundle of high-spirited hijinks, but its view of love — the primary theme of the play — is decidedly divided. I noticed, among other things, how variations on the word “hate” recurs with startling frequency, and how each of the four romances depicted is shadowed by moments of betrayal, cruelty, deception — or worse.
Consider the often-breezed-by opening moments, in which Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his beloved Hippolyta, are preparing for their nuptial festivities. Rather bluntly, in what is just his second speech, Theseus recalls, “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, and won thy love doing thee injuries.” (Some versions of the story have Theseus capturing Hippolyta while waging war on the Amazons.)
Yikes! Not exactly what you’d expect a fellow to bring up during the wedding planning. Of course his next lines are a gallant vow to wed her in “another key,” but the strange note of violence between men and women that has been so quickly struck will recur again and again throughout the play.
It is only moments later, in fact, that Theseus is threatening a young woman with death, when Egeus comes to the Duke to demand that his daughter Hermia obey his wish that she marry Demetrius, a desire she insists on flouting due to her love for Lysander.
Love, it appears in this most love-struck play, can get you in deep, potentially fatal trouble. As in much of Shakespeare, the human heart and its movements are depicted as arbitrary, fickle, unreasonable and prey to outside influences. But few of his works offer as many and as memorable examples of the manner in which love can go awry.
In the realm of the fairies, too, love is inconstant and inspires brutality when it is thwarted. The fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, are already mid-quarrel when they arrive on the scene. The primary beef between them is Oberon’s rather arbitrary demand that Titania hand over one of her young attendants. The boy means much to her — in a moving, lyrical speech she describes how his mother, a great friend, died in childbirth — but Oberon’s insistence on being given the “changeling boy” seems motivated only by a desire to assert his power.
And of course the method by which Oberon punishes Titania for her refusal to grant his whim — by bewitching her into making love to an ass — is peculiarly perverse and humiliating (albeit, of course, very funny).
While you might chalk up the discord in these relationships to the usual spats between long-partnered adults, the play shows that young lovers can be equally wanton in their loves, equally brutal in their passions. An uncomfortable note of humiliation is struck again when Helena pleads to Demetrius, “Use me but as your spaniel – spurn me, strike me.” He’ll have none of that, even: “For I am sick when I do look on thee.”
Small wonder, then, that when Lysander and Demetrius, under the influence of that fairy dust, both suddenly switch their amorous desires from Hermia to Helena, Helena believes their oaths of love are cruel jokes. “Can you not hate me, as I know you do,” she wails, “but you must join in souls to mock me, too?”
In the playing, of course, much of the venomousness comes across — as it should — as hyperbolic, and therefore comic. And it’s of course true that Titania, Lysander and Demetrius have all been led into their romantic follies not by the yearnings of their own hearts, but by the manipulations of magic.
After the young lovers have been put to sleep and the proper love matches made by another sprinkling of the magic potion, Oberon says, “When they next wake, all this derision shall seem a dream and fruitless vision,” and so of course it does. The play’s last two acts enact a reconciliation between all the warring lovers, and the fatal follies of love are merrily mocked when the Rude Mechanicals make such a delightful hash of the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe.
The genre of romantic comedy would not, of course, exist if the progress of love were depicted without a few speed bumps along the road; the speed bumps supply the jokes. But seeing “Romeo and Juliet” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in close proximity, as New Yorkers can this season, illuminates how differently love is depicted in both plays (despite their being written in close proximity).
In the tragedy, love is depicted as an ennobling emotion, one that brings Romeo and Juliet to a sudden maturity and inspires them to flights of superlative lyricism. Their love is pure and uninflected by doubt, thwarted only by outside circumstances and the enmity between their families.
In the comedy, by contrast, the lovers spend as much time warring with each other as they do offering lyric speeches of devotion. (Actually, the play is rather short on those). Love is depicted as a volatile thing, a source of confusion and contrariness as much as harmony.
It’s only after many trials have been endured – and the female characters, in particular, have been subject to considerable amount of humiliation and abuse – that the men and women of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” can rest easily in the arms of their romantic partners. Or should I make that uneasily?