Shakespearing #14 by David Foley
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
An actor friend tells me A Midsummer Night’s Dream is his favorite Shakespeare. That makes sense. The play is a kind of ur-text for the imaginative possibilities of theatre. In it, Shakespeare pushes forward the discoveries he was making about new ways of activating theatrical space.
Its first scenes set up three worlds: the Athenian court, the rude mechanicals, and the fairies. That done, the worlds can begin to collide, most satisfyingly in Act III, Scene ii, when the confusion among the lovers is at its height. But if collision were all, we’d be back at Comedy of Errors. It’s the interleaving of the worlds that feels new. Much of the play takes place in a single space, and the fluid use of that space is pushed to a new level. It’s really this fluidity that those first three scenes set in motion. While Titania sleeps, Lysander and Hermia enter. While the lovers sleep, Titania and Bottom enter. Not only does this create an interestingly unresolvable thematic reinforcement—who’s dreaming whom?—it builds a multi-dimensional theatrical space. I could say this is surprisingly modern, except that Shakespeare is not intuiting a later theatrical world; he’s inventing it. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, “He is what we know.” And when I say “we,” I mean theatre folk.
And lest you miss the point that Midsummer is in some way about the imaginative joys of theatre, we have the rude mechanicals. Yes, of course, anyone can find them funny, but maybe you need to have been involved in the making of theatre to appreciate their special comic horror, or to be moved by Theseus’s clemency towards them: “For never anything can be amiss/When simpleness and duty tender it.” “Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity,” he later calls it, reminding us that any act of making, however inept, is an act of love.
Maybe theatre, like the play, is a dream of love. Love in the play is of course a dream of madness. You could chalk up Shakespeare’s continual reversion to this theme as an Elizabethan trope, but he returns to it so repeatedly, from so many angles, and with such human particularity that it begins to seem like a personal obsession. The Pyramus and Thisbe stuff gleefully trashes the tragic ending of his great love story, while the play itself sets the swiftness of Romeo and Juliet’s passion in the light of satire. As Bottom says, “Reason and love keep little company together nowadays.” Except they do. People are always reasoning about love, as Hermia and Lysander do in their “course of true love” dialogue, and as Demetrius does when he finds his affections suddenly changed: “The will of man is by his reason sway’d,/And reason says you are the worthier maid.” The result is that reason itself is called into question. Reason, like, love is subject to the chops and changes of the imagination.
Why is all this charming and not cynical? To say that Shakespeare’s human tenderness enfolds the madness begs the question. Of what does that human tenderness consist? Theseus provides the clue: “the poet’s pen… gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” This sounds like not just a principle of art but a rule for living: to give our imaginings “a local habitation,” to anchor them in what Blake called the “minute particular.” Puck, the airiest creature in the play, is also master of the minute particular, whether it’s the “gossip’s bowl” or the “wretch that lies in woe” of his final scene. Shakespeare’s moonlit imaginative dream paradoxically anchors us in the real.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.