A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
All lovers are together, all is sorted out; conventionally Act IV should have been the end, since Titania is reconciled, not just humiliated. Sentimentalism is avoided, though — the unspoken tensions in the love triangles are not entirely reconciled because they are not remembered well. Nevertheless, what we get from here on out is “extra.”
Now the couples are married and Theseus and Hippolyta discuss the odd stories told by the youths. Theseus claims that
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
. . .
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Thus, “After Theseus has heard the lovers’ story he ascribes it all to mere imagination: not the creative imagination but imagination that plays tricks on us” (Wells 68). Hippolyta is not so sure that covers it, and she “breaks away from Theseus’s dogmatism” (Bloom 169):
But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigur’d so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable.
“Theseus allows himself to be governed by reason, whereas Hippolyta knows that illusion and the imagination have an even more important part to play in human affairs” (Wells 68).
Hippolyta tends to supplement Theseus’ perspective well. Now we have “To wear away this long age of three hours / Between our after-supper and bed-time” (V.i.33-34). “Theseus, like the historical Elizabeth I, is a benevolent monarch who goes on progresses among his people, generously responding to their sometimes amateur theatrical performances” (Garber 216). Philostrate, “Giving a paper,” supplies Theseus with the entertainment options, including first an Ovidian episode, “The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung / By an Athenian eunuch to a harp” (V.i.44-45) “We’ll none of that,” says Theseus, mercifully. He also passes on “The thrice three Muses mourning for the death / Of Learning, late deceas’d in beggary,” which Theseus declares “is some satire, keen and critical” (V.i.52-54). Instead of the other dismal selections, he chooses the “A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus / And his love Thisby; very tragical mirth” (V.i.56-57). “Merry and tragical? Tedious and brief? / That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow. / How shall we find the concord of this discord?” (V.i.58-60). Philostrate advises against the choice: “It is not for you. I have heard it over, / And it is nothing, nothing in the world” (V.i.77-78). But Theseus insists:
I will hear that play
For never any thing can be amiss,
When simpleness and duty tender it.
. . .
The kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing.
Our sport shall be to take what they mistake;
And what poor duty cannot do, noble respect
Takes it in might, not merit.
. . .
Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity
in least speak most, to my capacity.
(V.i.82-83, 89-92, 104-105)
The play-within-the-play is indeed a delightful agony, not just filling time while tensions are suspended and unresolved. Instead, it constitutes a spilling over of joy:
the tone of the piece is that of love-in-idleness, an activity for the sheer fun of it and for its own sake…. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is permeated with this spirit of doing things just for the love of doing them or for the love of the one for whom they are done…. (Goddard, I 78)
A severalfold awareness is operating, including an exaggerated depiction of those lovers’ sentimentality and pseudo-solemnity — they now contemplate as spectators. They were a play that the fairies had enjoyed; now they see one. The mechanicals
make valiant efforts to projects themselves into the minds, bodies, and even the building materials of the characters of classical legend that they are to represent in the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. Like the lovers under the influence of the love-juice, they cannot distinguish between illusion and reality; and they fear that their intended audience will share their inability. (Wells 66)
“Laughter of course there should be, but laughter shot through with a beauty and pathos close to tears” (Goddard, I 80).
First, Quince messes up his pauses and punctuation in the introduction. This is a textual joke usually left out of productions since it almost requires that we see the text.
If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think, we come not to offend,
But with good will. To show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then we come but in despite.
We do not come, as minding to content you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent you,
The actors are on hand; and, by their show,
You shall know all, that you are like to know.
“This fellow doth not stand upon points,” Theseus puns (V.i.118). He should have been reading it more like this:
If we offend, it is with our good will
That you should think we come not to offend.
But with good will, to show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning. Of our end,
Consider then we come. But in despite
We do not come. As minding to content you,
Our true intent is all for your delight.
We are not here that you should here repent you.
Hippolyta declares that “he hath play’d on this prologue like a child on a recorder — a sound, but not in government” (V.i.122-124). “Prologue” personified then tells the whole story ahead of time, with some hyperalliteration (V.i.146f). Wall personified introduces himself in a similarly stilted manner. Theseus has announced tolerant generosity and kindness towards the production, but he “is the first to comment critically upon what he sees; it seems that he is no more capable of living up to his ideals than the workmen are of realizing an ideal performance” (Wells 69). Demetrius joins in the heckling. The character Wall, who tries to rhyme “sinister” and “whisper” (V.i.163-164) [but then, Frank Sinatra insisted on “splendor” and “window”] is declared by Demetrius “the wittiest partition that ever I heard discourse, my lord” (V.i.167-168).
The would-be lovers in the play, Pyramus and Thisby, in a sort of parody of Romeo and Juliet, whisper through a chink in the wall separating their contending families. Unintentional goofiness is rampant: “O night, which ever art when day is not” (V.i.171); “I see a voice! Now will I to the chink, / To spy and I can hear my Thisby’s face” (V.i.192-193). And unintended bawdy puns also occur, with Pyramus cursing the Wall’s “stones” (V.i.181; cf. 190-191) and Thisby telling Pyramus, “I kiss the wall’s hole, not your lips at all” (V.i.201). They agree to meet at “Ninny’s tomb.” “Thus have I, Wall, my part discharged so; / And being done, thus Wall away doth go” (V.i.204-205).
Can we be blamed for looking over our shoulders, and wondering who is watching the play in which we are acting, while we watch, onstage, actors watching actors who play actors performing a part? An actor playing Theseus watches an actor playing Bottom play the part of Pyramus, and feels secure in his own comparative reality. (Garber 237)
An “outburst from Hippolyta … seems at odds with her earlier rebuke to Theseus for his lack of imagination” (Wells 69): “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard” (V.i.210). Theseus responds more charitably: “The best in this kind [actors] are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them” (V.i.211-212). “Appropriately, now that it is a question of art, Theseus turns out to be wiser than she, as she was wiser than he when it was a question of love” (Goddard, I 77). Comments from the characters on the play-within-the-play are not like the Love’s Labor’s Lost nastiness — all are in pretty good sport here. Still, Bottom may come off as more chivalric than the nobles.
A lion and a character representing Moonshine enter and awkwardly introduce themselves. Since the actor playing Moonshine holds a latern representing the moon and claims to be the man in the moon, Demetrius insists he (and his thorn-bush and his dog) should be inside the lantern (V.i.260f). The lion chases Thisby so that when Pyramus arrives and sees a beslobbered piece of garment he believes Thisby consumed. Instead of saying “devoured,” Bottom says, “lion vild hath here deflow’r’d my dear” (V.i.292). He kills himself — at some length. Thisby returns and offers a eulogy: “His eyes were green as leeks” (V.i.335)! She kills herself in grief. The production ends in a Bergomask dance when Theseus advises against an Epilogue:
No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse. Never excuse; for when the players are all dead, there need none to be blam’d. (V.i.355-357)
“Does the author mean that when the heart has been taken out of a man, when passion has been so shamed and punished that the lovers feel numb and dead, blame is merely supererogation?” (Ogburn and Ogburn 586).
Theseus continues: “Marry, if he that writ it had play’d Pyramus, and hang’d himself in Thisby’s garter, it would have been a fine tragedy” (V.i.357-360). [Doesn’t this indicate that he who wrote this play did play Pyramus/Bottom? What does the rest mean?]
Theseus declares the play “very notably discharg’d” (V.i.360-361) — “though there is no sign of the sixpence a day that Bottom’s colleagues had foreseen as his reward” (Wells 69). “A fortnight hold we this solemnity, / In nightly revels and new jollity” (V.i.369-370).
In any case, the ending of the play celebrates love, friendship, tolerance, understanding.
Art: the dream become conscious of itself, play grown to an adult state, love freed of its illusion and transferred to wider and higher than personal ends. Dream, play, love, art…. (Goddard, I 79)
All couples go off to bed. Puck invokes the night, and the King and Queen of the Fairies enter, calling for more song and dance. Oberon blesses the house, and the multiple wedding has served as a “civilizing event … with its hope of legitimate offspring and political succession” (Garber 218).
Finally, Puck offers an apology for the play, begging for applause; but like Tad Martin on All My Children, if you’re charming and brash enough, you can get away with this kind of thing. He includes a mention of “triple Hecate” (V.i.386) — “three common goddesses of the moon in the later myths: Phoebe, Diana (Artemis), and Hecate” (Asimov 50).
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumb’red 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, goodnight unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
We seem to catch glimpses of numerous kinds of relationships in the love spectrum. So what is Shakespeare’s point?
- Theseus / Hippolyta: there’s a supposed element of passion here, but they represent the mature, staid, sensible, and adult relationship, given to small-talk and a decided lack of “drama.”
- Hermia / Lysander: from the start, their relationship is forbidden and desperate, and so “star-crossed” and dramatic because of the threatened consequences. Egeus’ preference for Demetrius is as idiosyncratic as are the passions among lovers, sometimes just willful obstinence. Oberon’s drops do not make Lysander rude to Hermia.
- Demetrius / Hermia: the pairing is contrived and forced, and so supposedly wrong from the start; it’s a one-sided deal, but it has daddy’s vote.
- Helena / Demetrius: their relationship began before our play and seems sick and unhealthy now, with Helena asking to be treated like a dog; she’s a stalker, and whither The Rules?
- Lysander / Helena: the ugly duckling syndrome — Helena couldn’t get anyone interested before, now she’s in an “Everybody Wants to Be My Baby” period.
- Titania / Oberon: a frequently bickering couple, with underlying stability perhaps, whose quarrel does not annul their rapport, in which they seem more human than Theseus and Hippolyta; but chaos follows from this decentering.
- Titania / Bottom: a perverse false delusion; an infatuation quickly cured, and so “a phase”; for Bottom a once-in-a-lifetime ideal. Titania has more interest than Bottom. The pairing is bawdy perhaps, but not prurient.
- Pyramus / Thisbe: their story is tragical, but here it is perverted ideally though accidentally into good-natured humor.
- Puck is not matched up: the effect? a prankster, a loner, an observer, a commentator; he can be fun because he is unattached and largely unmotivated. He can’t really be called the “center” of the play: if he is meant to be, then all is arbitrary.
So what does the play say about love? That it’s just an arbitrary mess? We get numerous permutations and variations of love relationships: some ring true, some are worrisome, some are clearly silly. The least idiotic is the Theseus/Hippolyta relationship, but it’s a drag. Is there a final word on the subject? Who is most believable — Theseus? What does he say? That can’t be right about “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet”: would Shakespeare agree that poets are lunatics? And Theseus is talking about fantasy, not imagination. Imagination is the mental power to shape reality, a mode of perception. Hippolyta catches this distinction and supplements his perspective. Then Theseus agrees with her obliquely in calling for the play. Theseus’ hyperrationalism is then paralleled and parodied by the literalism of the artisans. The last word belongs to the fairies, whom Theseus assures us don’t exist.
What is the final perspective in A Midsummer Night’s Dream!?
Option 1) Love is the butt of a colossal joke here, made to look absurd, grotesque, and foolish. The poet, lover, and madman are akin. Imagination can make an ass desirable. As with Bottom and Titania, love makes an ass out of you. The transformation of Bottom is symbolic, applying also to Titania, and who else? All love is ironical here: Theseus and Hippolyta are deadened, rotely and tiredly playing out a supposed love but too old and settled to put any energy into it; Hippolyta, although apparently resigned, is a captive bride; Oberon and Titania are so used to mutual betrayal that their rift has nothing to do with passions but with the protocol of control over the changeling. Other young lovers seem silly, falling in and out of love arbitrarily, and having insufficient character for it to matter. The lovers are amenable to chemical therapy, just stick figures manipulated for fairy amusement. Thus romantic love is ridiculed by the circular madness of these four young mortals. “Pyramus and Thisby” is the most outrageous trivializing of tragic intense classical love, parodying supposedly timeless love as absurd. So all love is parodied. Perhaps….
Option 2) The irrationality of love is shown; and this doesn’t mean Shakespeare stands only for moderation and sobriety. He seems to encourage setting limits not just to passion, but also to the roles of common sense and reason in life.
Love is okay. Stand back (one is forced to here because of so many variations and perspectives) and look at characters or people as a whole. The point of view is vast from above. Panoramic imagery creates perspective and distance. Groups act in seeming isolation but always are really within a larger context whether they know it or not. Humans are being watched by fairies. “If the last act is in part a testing, it is also a celebration of the successful outcome of love and, more generally, of good fellowship, tolerance, and understanding” (Wells 69).
See the Act IV metaphor of sweet thunder, the music of hounds, musical discord, and single musical effect. All is reduced to a harmony when you have perspective. They are dogs of the hunt and death, but far off.
Variety is colorful but we get a larger total vision of unity at the end. Everyone gets along beyond the pairing up. More than final “good fellowship,” we end not just with a couple or even several couples, but with a community of lovers. So the mechanicals’ play is not so well executed; even the tragic love ends up entertaining and okay. And no one is excluded. Instead of secretive private courtly love, here we end with an open, honest, and healthy collection of loves, possibly even love of humanity, of people. No matter what, for a person, it’s particularized in a single individual, but this play taps into a larger universal love. The end synthesizes the previous mess and alchemically transforms it.
Indeed, A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a whole is prophetic, in one respect at least, as is no other of the earlier plays, of the course the poet’s genius was to take. There are few more fruitful ways of regarding his works than to think of them as an account of the warfare between Imagination and Chaos — or, if you will, between Imagination and the World — the story of the multifarious attempts of the divine faculty in man to ignore, to escape, to outwit, to surmount, to combat, to subdue, to forgive, to convert, to redeem, to transmute into its own substance, as the case may be, the powers of disorder that possess the world. (Goddard, I 80)