A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

ARE YOU SURE THAT WE ARE AWAKE?

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Fairies relaxing in the grass from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles Lamb

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a short play, but it took me such a long time to get through it. Not because I found it difficult or boring, but because I (a) tore three ligaments in my ankle and am sporting a very Richard III-esque limp, and (b) I had to tend to the endless responsibilities that come with being a graduate student. In any case, I finished it last night, and I am here to talk about it.

The last time I came into contact with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was 2012. I was sitting in an open-air theatre in Regent’s Park in London, and this particular production was set in a trailer park. I was horrified, of course, because I like my Shakespeare pure. But that wasn’t what forced me into an overpriced cab two acts in.  It was something else entirely: rain clouds took over the sky, and the production was cancelled for fear that the actors would slip and hurt themselves. I was left looking like a drenched rat, and I had a cold for the rest of that week. So that is what I associate with this play: rain, a trailer park, and the most awful costumes.

But I’ve come to find A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be very whimsical and lovely. Parts of it are very genuinely funny, though the opening is a bit concerning:

EGEUS
[…] – And, my gracious duke,
Be it so she will not here before your Grace
Consent to marry with Demetrius,
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens:
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.

Hermia, headstrong and lovely girl that she is, is outright refusing to marry Demetrius. She is in love with Lysander – and rightfully so. But her father is having none of this: either she’ll marry Demetrius, or she’ll be put to death. Charming.

Theseus agrees with this ultimatum, and they leave Hermia and Lysander to it. As funny as this play is, it really does open on a bittersweet note as Hermia and Lysander lament their situation:

LYSANDER
Or, if there ever were a sympathy in choice,
War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,
Making it momentany as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and Earth,
And, ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up.
So quick bright things come to confusion.

Ah, Lysander. I actually like him quite a lot, and he reminds me of Romeo in a lot of ways. He’s such a hopeless romantic, despite knowing that being in love comes with an infinite number of obstacles. He loves Hermia with his entire soul, and so he proposes that they run away together.

Then, Helena shows up. I got the impression that Helena is a bit of a silly girl, but what really stood out to be was the fact that her self-esteem is as non-existent as it gets. She thinks very highly of Hermia, but not highly of herself at all. And, for whatever reason, she thinks highly of Demetrius. Hermia is fed up with Demetrius’ advances:

HERMIA
I give him curses, yet he gives me love.

HELENA
O, that my prayers could such affection move!

HERMIA
The more I hate, the more he follows me.

HELENA
The more I love, the more he hateth me.

HERMIA
His folly, Helena, is no fault of mine.

I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell you how much I dislike Demetrius. Helena is a bit silly, yes, but he did pursue her before hopping aboard the S.S. Hermia. How else is Helena supposed to react? She feels abandoned and heartbroken. She loves Hermia, but she can’t help but resent her. So who can blame Helena for telling Demetrius about Hermia’s plan to elope with Lysander? I don’t think her decision to do so means she harbors any genuine ill feelings toward Hermia – she’s just desperate, and absolutely lovesick.

We finally move to the fairy-ridden woods of Athens, where Oberon is obsessed with getting his hands on Titania’s changeling boy. He asks Robin Goodfellow, known as Puck in popular culture, to fetch a flower that will make Titania fall in love with a beast so that he may snatch the changeling from right under her nose. One wonders why Oberon is so obsessed with having this boy for his own, but it is never really addressed. Robin leaves, but Oberon is distracted by Demetrius and Helena, who have now come to the wood in search of Hermia and Lysander. Oberon notices Demetrius’ attitude toward Helena, as well as her unwavering love.

DEMETRIUS
Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?
Or rather do I note in plainest truth
Tell you I do not, nor I cannot love you?

HELENA
And even for that do I love you the more.
I am your spaniel, and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel: spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave
(Unworthy as I am) to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love
(And yet a place of high respect with me)
Than to be usèd as you use your dog?

Helena, girl. Demetrius’ terrible abuse does not deter her. What sweet nothings did he whisper in her ear for her to find herself so deeply in love? I felt the indescribable urge to fight Demetrius throughout this play – I may be 5’0″ and under a hundred pounds, but I’m sure the force of my hatred could take him out. But I digress.

Oberon feels for Helena (don’t we all?) and he tells the returned Robin to use some of the flower’s juice on Demetrius so that he may love Helena back. He isn’t specific enough, however, because the flower’s juice ends up on Lysander’s sleeping eyes.

So when Helena wakes him up…

LYSANDER
And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake.
Transparent Helena! Nature shows art,
That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart.
Where is Demetrius? O, how fit a word
Is that vile name to perish on my sword!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream undoubtedly gave the concept of a love square its place in popular culture. It’s a tale that we all know – and a lot of us know it from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even if a lot of people haven’t read or seen the play.

Helena is flabbergasted. Lysander is pursuing Helena with fiery passion in his soul. Hermia is sleeping, unaware. Demetrius is annoying me personally. And a fool named Bottom is talking about putting on a play with his silly friends.

Bottom and company mean to put on a production of Pyramus and Thisbe, to be performed at Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. Each man in this particular troupe is more brainless than the next. I, as you all know, detest clownish characters. To be specific, I detest the clowns that speak in riddles and make witty observations about other characters. Clowns like Bottom? I can stand clowns like Bottom. I especially stand Bottom because he seems to have a very laid-back and friendly nature. But give me King Lear‘s Fool, or As You Like It‘s Touchstone, and I will lose my temper a few pages in. But that’s neither here nor there.

Before we know it, Bottom’s head becomes that of an ass, and Titania is head-over-heels for him. Oberon’s silly plan has come to fruition.

Seeing as how a terrible mistake has been made, Oberon has Robin use the flower on Demetrius for real this time. But now both men are in love with Helena (and we can no longer tell the difference between them with all their flowery language – commentary on lovesick young people, perhaps?), Hermia is feeling rather abandoned, and Helena thinks all of this is a mean trick.

HELENA
O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent
To set against me for your merriment.

Oh, Helena. I felt rather bad for her. I expected her to be pleased with this turn of events, but instead she felt deeply betrayed. It is as if she can’t envision anybody chasing after her with such fervor.

More importantly, this is a disaster. Oberon has Robin remedy the situation by luring the foursome deep into the wood, where they fall asleep. Robin fixes his mistake by applying an antidote to the sleeping Lysander’s eyes, and Oberon decides to pull Titania out of her senseless infatuation as well. Essentially, everything is set right, and Helena finally has Demetrius’ love.

Hermia’s father is prepared to have a meltdown, but is basically told to shut up by Theseus. And so, our four lovers marry one another. Their wedding day ends on the most ridiculous note possible: Bottom and company’s terrible production of Pyramus and Thisbe.

This act in particular was absolutely hysterical. I loved the fact that somebody was playing a literal wall, as well as the fact that the lantern was the moon, and the player holding the lantern was the man on the moon (prompting the question: “Shouldn’t he be in the lantern then?”)

When the newly married couples are offered an epilogue, they quickly decide against it. They retire to their bedchambers, and their unions are blessed by the fairy king and queen.

I recently purchased a copy of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Upon reading the chapter about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was notified that most productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream boil the play down to sexual violence and bestiality. For shame! What a terrible thing to do to this play, which at its core is innocent and whimsical. Bottom, as Bloom points out, shows no sexual interest in Titania. We are given no indication that they engage in any sexual acts at all. I think it would benefit everybody if we just take A Midsummer Night’s Dream for what it is. Too often do we have productions try to add in some kind of shock value to pull audiences in. But this play can get by on its own merit, I think. And to think that I might have been subjected to this if it hadn’t rained on me that fateful day in Regent’s Park.

One final question remains: whose dream is this? Is it Bottom’s? Hermia and Lysander’s? Helena and Demetrius’? Perhaps it is ours, as Robin asks us to consider it as one. Maybe it is everybody’s dream – in any case, it’s such a shame to wake up from it.

I will be reading King John next. I have no idea who he is or what he’s going to get up to, so I’m looking forward to it! If you don’t see me around these parts in the next two weeks, feel free to assume that school has sucked all life out of me.