Ah, friends, it’s time to be off with the fairies. As I mentioned before, I first read A Midsummer Night’s Dream on my own in retaliation to the fact that my friends’ English classes were reading the play but mine wasn’t. (In fact, we weren’t reading any Shakespeare.) In hindsight, I kind of question the judgment of the Powers-That-Be; this is a rather complex play. Yes, fairies and comedy and such, but it has four intertwining plot lines. This was a bunch of 13-year-olds’ first introduction to Shakespeare; you think they’d start them off with something a bit more fun, like The Taming of the Shrew.
…But now I’m a bit confused. Maybe they did start off with The Taming of the Shrew and that was the first play I read; maybe I moved onto A Midsummer Night’s Dream myself. Which would explain matters; I tend to go for things without considering self-doubts over my abilities. (*cough read a Shakespeare play every week and blog about it cough*)
So, rather than consider the New York public school system’s wacky syllabus decisions, let’s instead think about my own wacky choices for leisure activities. I am, after all, the person who decided to run a half-marathon with only ten months of training even though I’d never been a runner (and I now have the shiny medal to prove it), or who decided to read Moby Dick in 5th grade (which I didn’t succeed at until I had to read the novel in 12th grade; I am not always successful in my crazy endeavors).
And now, on to the play!
Theseus (Duke of Athens) and Hippolyta (Queen of the Amazons), who are to be married in four days under the light of the moon. While the two are discussing their coming nuptuals and what they’ll do to kill the time Egeus, father of Hermia, enters to speak with Theseus. Egeus has a bit of an issue: he wants his daughter to wed Demetrius but she’s in love with Lysander. Demetrius, for his part, was apparently in love with Helena first before he saw Hermia, and Helena is still in love with him. Egeus asks for Theseus’s backing on his decision: either Hermia will marry Demetrius or Egeus will kill Hermia, as is his right by Athenian law. Theseus points out that there’s a third option: Hermia takes a vow to become a virgin nun at the temple of Diana.
Lysander and Hermia decide to run away together to elope and they let Helena in on their plan. Helena decides to tell Demetrius, to somehow win his love? I don’t know, she’s reveling in her victimness here, but that’s her plan regardless.
Next we come upon a band of players who plan to put on a play for the Duke’s wedding: Peter Quince, Nick Bottom, Francis Flute, Robin Starveling, Tom Snout, and Snug. The play they’ll put on is “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe”, and Bottom acts overbearing and insists that he should play every part. Quince somehow makes Bottom content with his role as Pyramus and the players agree to meet the next night.
Then the plot thickens. We meet Oberon, the king of the fairies, and Titania, the queen of the fairies (and Puck, who serves Oberon). Oberon and Titania are currently fighting because Titania has taken in a young Indian boy and refuses to give him to Oberon for his own use. Oberon decides to get his revenge by having Puck bring him a flower which can make a person fall desperately in love with the next living creature they see. Oberon plans to anoint Titania’s eyes while she’s sleeping and get her to give him the Indian boy before he removes the spell.
As Oberon plots this Demetrius and Helena happen upon the glade, arguing. Helena continues to profess her love and Demetrius continues to express his dislike of Helena. Oberon decides he likes Helena’s feisty attitude and tells Puck to use the same flower to make Demetrius fall madly in love with Helena to the point that she’ll flee him. One problem: Oberon only tells Puck to anoint the eyes of the man wearing Athenian garb. You can see how this one will play out.
As Titania lies down to sleep Oberon steals upon her and puts the potion on her eyes. Hermia and Lysander then enter the scene, apparently lost. The two decide to rest and pick up their travels in daylight. Hermia asks Lysander to sleep a bit away from her for modesty’s sake and he agrees. Puck then happens upon them and thinks he’s found the Athenian Oberon ordered him to bespell. He even takes the distance between Hermia and Lysander to mean that Lysander didn’t want to be near Hermia. Puck puts the potion on his eyes.
Demetrius and Helena then enter the scene. Helena is still pursuing Demetrius and Demetrius is still trying to escape her and find Lysander so he can kill him. He leaves Helena alone and Helena chances upon the sleeping Lysander. Helena wakes Lysander to check if Demetrius has already killed him and she ends up being the first living creature Lysander sees. Lysander falls madly in love with her but Helena thinks he’s just playing a cruel joke on her. She leaves and Lysander follows, leaving Hermia to wake alone and confused.
Bottom and the players begin to practice their play near to where Titania is sleeping. Puck is nearby as well and decides to make some mischief. He gives Bottom the head of a donkey while he is removed from the other players. Everyone runs away in fright when they see him but Bottom has no clue what’s gone on. Titania then wakes and sees Bottom; she falls desperately in love with him.
Puck tells Oberon of what’s happened with Titania and Bottom and Oberon is delighted. He’s not so delighted when he sees Demetrius following Hermia and confessing his love for her while she spurns him. It comes out that Puck ensorcelled the wrong Athenian male (Lysander). Oberon waits until Demetrius is sleep to put the love potion on his eyes. Helena and Lysander then join the fray. Helena still thinks that Lysander is pursuing her for a lark and is even more enraged when Demetrius wakes and sees her, falling madly in love with her. When Hermia joins the group Helena is convinced that the other three Athenians are all in on the cruel joke.
Hermia, for her part, can’t understand why Lysander is suddenly spurning her. She assumes that Helena somehow seduced him away from her, possibly with her height, and she attacks Helena and the two men hold her back. Lysander and Demetrius then decide to fight a duel over who loves Helena more and leave. Helena and Hermia, both convinced of the other’s cruelty, exit separately.
While Puck has enjoyed the show immensely (this is his element) Oberon is not happy at all. He instructs Puck to make certain that the band of Athenians get lost and never meet up with one another. Once they’re all asleep he instructs Puck to put a certain herb (which Oberon gives him) on Lysander’s eyes to counteract the love spell. Oberon, for his part, goes to find Titania to try to get her to give him the Indian boy he covets.
And so it happens: the Athenian’s fall asleep in the glade and Puck removes the spell from Lysander. Oberon goes to Titania and gets the Indian boy from her. Then, Oberon removes the spell from Titania while she sleeps. When Titania wakes she’s disgusted by the sleeping Bottom. Oberon has Puck reinstate Bottom’s rightful human head and the fairies all go away, happy as pixies.
The next morning Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus happen upon the glade with the sleeping couples while hunting. Theseus has his hunters wake them with their horns (which seems a bit unnecessary to me) and the sleeping lovers are startled awake. They have vague memories of why they entered the wood (Lysander and Hermia to leave Athens and elope, and Demetrius to find Lysander and Hermia with Helena following) but they can’t fully recall the rest of the night. Egeus is enraged and asks for the law to come down on Lysander’s head. Demetrius puts a stop to this by professing his love for Helena, thus freeing Hermia from any engagement her father wants to force on her. Theseus decides to go over Egeus’s head and states that the two couples (Lysander & Hermia and Demetrius & Helena) will be married in the temple that night with him and Hippolyta.
Bottom then wakes up and assumes everything from the night before had also been a dream. Meanwhile, his fellow players are all worried at Bottom’s absence; without him there is no play, for no one can play Pyramus but Bottom. While they’re lamenting, however, Bottom arrives and everyone cheers. Bottom has other news: the three Athenian couples have married and have arrived at their wedding meal, and the players are to perform their play. They do and the play, which resembles Romeo and Juliet in many ways, is so awful it’s entertaining.
When the play is done the couples retire to their beds. Oberon, Titania, Puck, and the other fairies come into the scene to bless the house and the people in it. Then Puck asks forgiveness for any offenses given and states that, like the events of the prior night to the characters, this too might be remembered as just a dream.
Love is, perhaps, the central theme of this play; specifically love and the obstacles in love’s way. Each of the story’s threads have love at the center of their story: the love of Theseus and Hippolyta and the backstory of how they went from warring enemies to a married union (their backstory is one Elizabethans would have known, and Shakespeare uses a romanticized medieval version in his play); the unbalanced love of Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius, and Helena; the lover’s quarrel between Oberon and Titania; and the play-within-a-play of Pyramus and Thisbe. There’s also the plot line of the rude mechanicals and their attempts to put together and rehearse their play, but I don’t really see how love is at the heart of that story; instead, I see it as a comic device.
It’s important to know that love was very important to the Elizabethans. Love was the glue of the universe, the order of society, and the coherence of nature. It was the force that powered and sustained the movement of the heavens. To the Elizabethans, God was love. Love was both the greatest and most profound thing that could happen to you and made you act like a fool. So, it makes sense that love played such a large role in each story of the play. And did you notice the profusion of rhyming couplets throughout the play? Remember that this happens whenever desire has overcome the speaker.
There are also a number of (metaphorical) mirrors throughout this play. The play-within-a-play mirrored the actions of the young Athenians: two lovers, constrained and impeded by their fathers, run away into the woods to be together and their situation is confused by coincidences (the lion and the bloody mantle). There’s also the fairy court mirroring the Athenian court.
(Note: I won’t touch Shakespeare’s representation of fairies, and how it fed into the “small/cutsie/playful” stereotype that seems to dominate literature from Shakespeare’s time on. J. R. R. Tolkien, of course, knew the true origins of the fairy stories [like the Tuatha Dé Danann] and didn’t like this portrayal at all; his “fairies” are all as large as men and heroic.)
Theseus and the Athenian court represent order while Oberon and the fairy court represent a type of chaos. It’s a chaos in the same way that a meadow with flowers is chaotic compared to a well-kept garden; the meadow isn’t completely out of control, but there’s a natural order that’s outside the realm of human control.
To continue this mirroring, Theseus appears only during the day and outside of the forest while Oberon appears at night and within the forest. The only time this changes is at the end of the play, which is a culmination and a resolution; things are back in order and the two courts are in balance once more. It’s during the untidy, unbalanced bits that both Theseus and Oberon stick to their contrasting spheres. Picking up on this, sometimes the same actors who play Theseus and Hippolyta also play Oberon and Titania.
Dreams, of course, are mentioned throughout the play, and they mainly occur within the forest. Remember what I said about forests in Shakespearean plays when I wrote about The Two Gentlemen of Verona: it’s a wild place, a place where social status loses meaning. People are judged for who they are rather than what rank they hold in the forest. In the forest the desires and hostilities of the characters are given free range. There’s also the interesting fact that the word “wood” could take on a double meaning for Elizabethans, meaning both “forest” and “mad/crazy”.
There’s also a theory that the play within a play represents Jesus (Pyramus) and the Church (Thisbe), with Jesus dying for the church and the Wall representing the barrier between heaven and earth. This gets a bit more interesting when one realizes that the names Puck and Robin Goodfellow were names given to the devil, and that Puck interrupts the play’s rehearsal and attempts to transform the person playing Pyramus.