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Shakespeare Series (1): A Midsummer’s Night Dream

midsummerThis series responses to requests of readers who ask me to share my two cent on Shakespearean plays. Hope you find it helpful.

Even though in most of his comedies the entertainments are punctured by sarcastic comments and comic relief, Shakespeare, who has demonstrated keen devices of opposites, from long dignified prose to comic verse, strives not to repeat himself. Shakespeare seems to have enjoyed playing variation on a theme, dwelling on an idea (further developing an idea) hinted at in other parts of a play or in another play. A Midsummer Night’s Dream embodies both. The play sets in Athens, in the midst of summer, which is associated traditionally (and surreptitiously) to magic. Immediately the opening act sets the romantic plot and whimsical air in motion by presenting the conflict between the young lovers and their elders.

The interesting thing is that it seems A Midsummer Night’s Dream could be a swinger: the situation as it stands could validly issue in either tragedy (similar circumstances in Romeo and Juliet, in which families thwarted what meant-to-be love) or comedy. Shakespeare quickly resolves the dilemma and provides light to the darkness of the situation. He nudges the story to a direction in which the style does not involve the audience too snuggly in the lovers’ emotions. The love entanglement engenders enough body and reference to larger concepts to be viewed as image of some universal human experience: one so true-to-life that it inevitably and in no time provokes sympathy. The lovers’ lines are not completely out of place in a romantic comedy because the lines are generalized: because soon after the crisis Lysander brings forward a plan by which he and Hermia may get out of their difficult situation. Hermia will neither be forced to marry Demetrius or perpetrate defiance of the pre-arranged marriage that surely promises prosecution. So the hints of pathos and possibility of tragedy echo Romeo and Juliet.

One of the recurring themes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as in Twelfth Night, and in Love Labour’s Lost, concerns the irrationality of love. In Twelfth Night, the gender disguise causes the confusion of love and identity of twins, and magic adopts the same course in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the King of Fairy decides to squeeze love juice onto Demetrius whom he has mistaken for Lysander. The idea of the tension between what people ought reasonably to feel and what in fact they do feel further gravitates to make a lasting impression. What is meant to make Demetrius requite the hapless Helena’s passion takes an unexpectedly convoluted turn to anoint Lysander’s eyes and he feels madly in love with Helena. Ironically he attributes this novel affection to his reason, which a mechanical later brings up in a sarcastic manner the antithesis between love and reason, whereas we know that the change has been effected by Puck’s juice.

Variation of a theme that is hinted at in other parts of play is no more quintessential than the seemingly irrelevant speech that demonstrates poetic merit. The exquisite speech on irrational weather bears significance that is otherwise easily dismissed as mere decoration. So much Titania might have alluded to the inclement weather, the passionate tirade provides the ground for the idea that quarrel between the young lovers causes confusion in the seasons. For in the height of Helena’s agony, she speaks about the danger of disaster and malevolent forces of nature and the caprice and irrationality of love. An atmosphere of a spell of illusion persists throughout the play, redolent of a recurrent notion of a dislocation between the senses, and between the senses and the brain. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, shrouded by comic confusions, sheds light on lovers’ failure to reason and to keep pace with their emotions.

5 Responses

  1. It’s a good thing spells, love philters and juices to annoint the eyes and alter feelings don’t actually exist; but the results in real life, I agree, are just as irrational as these devices show in high relief. And in the end they turn out to love someone else. This is one of my favorite plays, as is 12th Night. I’ve never seen nor read Love’s Labours Lost.

    I’m so delighted you are touching on Shakespeare. Hope you share more of your thoughts on the Bard’s canon. Maybe Hamlet and Ophelia are next, or Miranda and Ferdinand?

  2. I’ve been using this play with my 7th graders for years. Ask them if they know of anyone who ever had a crush on someone who didn’t have a crush on them and they’re basically hooked.

    There’s also the issue of the Duke of Athens upcoming marriage that frames the play. He’ll be marrying an Amazon he defeated in battle. Add to this the fact that the spell cast on Demetrius is never removed. He ends up marrying a woman he had fallen out of love with at the start of the play.

  3. This is one that I’ve never read. Whenever I hear about it, I am reminded of The Dead Poet’s Society. The little bits and pieces of that play contained within the movie are all I’ve seen. After reading your wonderful post, I’m thinking there’s probably a lot I’ve missed in The Deat Poet’s Society because I haven’t read the play. Great series, Matthew!

  4. […] Shakespeare Series (1): A Midsummer’s Night Dream […]

  5. […] Reading: Shakespeare Series (1): A Midsummer’s Night Dream Shakespeare Series (2): Twelfth […]

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