If you go down to the woods today: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

As I mentioned in my last piece, on Romeo & Juliet, this comedy is Shakespeare’s most popular, being performed more often than any other Shakespeare play (and by extension, more often than any play by anyone else) in recent times. That this should be the case is no great surprise: it doesn’t require any knowledge of English history, it doesn’t require you to have a high tolerance for gore and unusual dietary practices, and it’s a lot funnier than the comedies that Shakespeare had written up to this point in his career. It’s a great example of mixing high and low that Shakespeare is so adept it, with its high-born lovers and low-born artisans getting pretty much equal time. Throw in some fairies and magic and you’ve got something for everybody. Even The Beatles got on board with it:

The brilliant conception that Shakespeare came up with for this play was of the theatre as a place of dreams and the imagination. It features a play within a play (“Pyramus and Thisbe”, as in the clip above), and much discussion of the role of the imagination and dreams. The play opens with talk of dreams as Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his wife-to-be, the Amazon queen Hippolyta, look forward to their wedding: “Four nights will quickly dream away the time.” And it ends with the famous speech from the fairy Puck:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

Everything we have just been watching has been a dream, we are told. And just as dream logic can be weird and discontinuous, we should put aside any criticisms we might have about the plot of the play we have just seen. It’s a nice tactic. But of course, the theatre is a space of dreams and the imagination, and this revel is Shakespeare’s tribute to the medium that he worked in. There are echoes of this in The Tempest, and in Hamlet, where the title character discourses on the nature of theatre.

The talk of dreaming runs throughout the entire play. The word ‘dream’ is used 16 times in all. Lysander comments on the nature of choice, which is “Swift as a shadow, short as any dream.” Hermia responds that patience is “As due to love as thoughts and dreams and sighs.” Oberon talks of crushing the magic juice into the lovers’ eyes, so that “When they next wake, all this derision / Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision.” And when Bottom awakes after having his head transformed into that of an ass and falling in love with the fairy queen Titania, he gives this wonderful, funny and poignant discourse on dreams:

I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was — there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was, — and
methought I had, — but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of
this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream,
because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the
latter end of a play, before the duke:
peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall
sing it at her death.
Edwin Landseer — Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom

Theseus also gives a wonderful speech on the nature of the 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!

The description of the poet is a lovely description of Shakespeare’s own craft, bodying forth “the form of things unknown” and giving shape to “airy nothing.” And of course, there’s not much difference between a poet and a lunatic in this regard.

There’s a dark heart beating at the centre of this play, though. The wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta is celebrated, but the latter is the spoils of war, captured by Theseus in battle. And right at the beginning of the play we are introduced to Egeus, the father of Hermia, who is refusing to marry the man he wants her to. And if she doesn’t do as he says, he is quite prepared to kill her:

As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

So we have a collection of powerful men getting together to dictate the fate of women. Just as well that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore…

Donald Trump Signs Anti-Abortion Executive Order — Surrounded By Men

We also see marital discord in the fairy world in the play, as Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies, bicker over the fate of a mortal boy they’ve got their hands on and that both want. Oberon is outraged at the loss of his patriarchal power and undertakes a humiliating act of revenge on Titania, using magic to get her to fall in love with the aforementioned transformed Bottom.

Hermia and Lysander do what lovers do when their parents don’t approve and take off into the nearby woods, only it turns out that Lysander isn’t quite the outdoor type he claimed to be, admitting “I have forgot our way.”

But Demetrius, the man Hermia’s father wanted for her, and Helena, Hermia’s friend who is in love with Demetrius even though he scorns her, also follow them into the woods and shenanigans ensue. Oberon gets involved and tries to fix the situation with the aid of Puck, only to mess things up initially, making Lysander fall in love with Helena instead. For some reason, falling in love with Helena makes him immediately despise his former love Hermia. There are lots of insults thrown around, including over height (Helena is tall, Hermia short) and complexion, leading to the odd racist comment like “Away, you Ethiope”. There are threats to scratch each other’s eyes out and plenty of opportunities for physical comedy.

Meanwhile, a group of “mechanicals,” or artisans, has also come to the woods to rehearse a play that they hope will be chosen to be performed at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. They are inept and clueless actors who feel the need to make literal every little aspect of the story. There’s a wall that separates the lovers in the play, so they will therefore need to have one of the actors play the wall. And so on. They also get all their words mixed up, which is always good for a laugh. Then Bottom gets the head of an ass and they all run away.

Oberon’s reconciliation with Titania (but only after he has got what he wanted from her), is the cue for the resolution of all the difficulties. So Lysander’s enchantment is rescinded so he can return to his true love of Hermia, but interestingly, Demetrius is left under an enchantment so that he can also pair off, with Helena. So it’s not quite a return to the “normal” order of things.

All that remains is for the mechanicals to perform their play at the wedding and for evryone to mock them before the newly married couples all head off to bed (to dream what?). The play, “Pyramus and Thisbe,” with its tale of forbidden lovers who end up killing themselves, bears a strong plot resemblance to what we assume was the previous play Shakespeare had written, Romeo and Juliet. So it seems that Shakespeare was more than willing to send himself up as part of this farce and wasn’t too precious about his own work.

Pierre-Claude Gautherot: Pyramus and Thisbe, 1799

The BBC version of the play first screened on television in December 1981 as part of the fourth series of the plays. It had some star power with Helen Mirren as Titania and Robert Lindsay as Lysander. Mirren had previously starred in the 1968 film of the play as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company crew. In that version (which also featured Ian Richardson, Judi Dench — wearing nothing but body paint — and Ian Holm) she played Hermia.

To be honest, that 1968 film, with its hippy, slightly psychedelic vibe, looks a lot more fun than the 1981 BBC version. I guess it’s the difference between Swinging London and Thatcherism. I mean, which looks better to you?

Swinging London, Carnaby Street, circa 1966
London Markets, 1980s — Brick Lane

Okay, so that’s an exaggeration, but the BBC film didn’t strike me as especially magical, even if the acting was mostly fine and there were a few other familiar faces, like Geoffrey Palmer as Quince.

The play was first filmed in 1935, with Mickey Rooney as Puck. The acting looks a little ropey in that one, but check out the special effects:

When I’ve taught this play previously, I’ve shown the 1999 film directed by Michael Hoffman. It updates the action to 19th century Tuscany and features bicycles and the like. It’s appropriately dreamy and makes good use of Kevin Kline as Bottom, amplifying his role somewhat. It also features Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, Stanley Tucci, Christian Bale, Calista Flockheart and Dominic West (so yeah, pretty good cast).

The BBC also included it as one of their four reimagined and modernised episodes of ShakespeaRe-told, starring Imelda Staunton, Bill Paterson and Johnny Vegas. It’s not as good as the Taming of the Shrew episode, but it’s still pretty good.

Misogyny aside, I’m all for this play. The intersecting threads of three groups of characters: the lovers, the fairies and the mechanicals are fun to follow as they get all mixed up, because, as we learn, “the course of true love never did run smooth”. There are classic gags and beautiful speeches. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and “lord, what fools these mortals be.”