Written in the Winter of 2012 for Ethan McSweeny’s Dream at the Shakespeare Theatre. Indebted to Jan Kott and “The Bottom Translation,” but there are worse fates than to be Kott’s amanuensis. -DL
There’s a famous proverbial saying about music criticism, that it’s like “dancing about architecture.” The same challenge applies to anyone writing about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Trying to describe the effect of the play is like pinning a fluttering butterfly against the wall, perhaps because the play’s effect is a musical one, so lyrical is its language and so elegant its form.
Structurally speaking, Midsummer’s two halves mirror each other. The play is a palindrome. We begin in the Athenian court, with Theseus preparing his wedding to Hippolyta and dealing with the competing claims of the four young lovers. We next meet the “rude mechanicals,” Athenian working-men rehearsing a play for Theseus’s nuptials. Thirdly, we enter the forest, a fairyland which comprises the middle of the play and into which the lovers and mechanicals stumble. Coming out of the forest, the play proceeds in reverse order: we see a short scene with the mechanicals and end back at the Athenian court with the promised nuptial celebrations, unfathomably transformed (in the shape of the mechanicals’ play, “Pyramus and Thisbe”) from their first reference in the play.
Shakespeare thus telescopes us into and out of the dreamlike world of the forest, mediating from the most formal level of civilization (Theseus’ court) to the world of the everyday (the Mechanicals’ rehearsal room) to the natural world (the magical forest). This “green world” is the theatre in its purest form: it hosts a series of magical metamorphoses and is described in such hyperbolic language that it is impossible to illustrate completely. It is Shakespeare’s ingenious adaptation of the empty Elizabethan stage, a world that is limited only by the imaginations of the playwright, his company, and his audience. Which is to say, limitless.
“The best in this kind are but shadows,” Theseus says to Hippolyta toward the end of the play, referring specifically to the mechanicals’ play, and more generally to the theatre itself, “and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.” “It must be your imagination then,” Hippolyta replies, “and not theirs.” In other words, the theatre relies always upon the imaginations of its creators and spectators, rather than the finery of its stage dressing, to cast its magic spell.
Another name for this kind of layered structure is the palimpsest. The word comes from the Latin palimpsestus, which means “scraped clean and used again.” The Romans wrote on wax tablets, called palimpsests, which could be erased, or “scraped clean,” and written over. On Latin lesson books, old meanings, like the natural order undergirding society, or the imagination lying beneath the conscious mind, were often visible in ghostly echoes. In the medieval era, layered structures with palindromic or palimpsestic forms were often used for religious dramas depicting spiritual journeys, such as the stations of the cross, a pilgrim’s progress, or a saint’s life. On the one hand, it is exceedingly odd that Shakespeare should adapt such a structure for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a secular play that functions primarily as a comedy. But this palindromic stripping-away helps to explain the play’s curiously intense power, and Shakespeare’s palimpsestic method of overwriting his source materials provides harmony to the dissonances of its world.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written during Shakespeare’s so-called “lyric period” between 1592 and 1596, an extraordinarily fecund time in which he also wrote Richard II and Romeo and Juliet, as well as the epic verse poems The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis. He also had begun, most likely, his sequence of sonnets addressed to “the beautiful youth.” These works, written in some of the most beautiful verse in the English language, are unlike anything that came before in English literature. They draw almost equally on classical Greek and Roman mythology, the popular tradition of medieval English folklore, and a psychologically modern sense of individual characters in an unknowable world. They are a young writer’s works, teeming with the spirit of invention, and they are surprisingly contemporary in their mixture of sources, their conflation of high and low, theatrical and quotidian.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, Puck is identified with Robin Goodfellow, a mischievous spirit from popular folklore, but he also functions within the play as Cupid, the classical archer who curses mortals with irrational love. In doubling as Philostrate, Puck is also the Master of Revels, an Elizabethan functionary who reviews the mechanicals’ play and approves it for Theseus. Titania and Hippolyta, the Fairy and Amazon Queens, alternately evoke both Venus and Diana, oxymoronically combining the virginal moon goddess and the hedonistic goddess of love, especially when played by the same actress. Bottom, one of the mechanicals, is an Athenian weaver, yet in the world of the forest he wears the ass-head of a mummer at a medieval festival. After performing the Romeo-like Pyramus in a play before the Duke, he leads the company in a bergomask, a dance associated with the Harlequin of the commedia dell’ arte, who like Bottom is also a rustic fool.
But Bottom’s most profound echo, and the moment when Shakespeare’s palimpsestic method comes closest to its medieval sense of a spiritual journey, is when he wakes up in the forest and tries to remember the details of his dream. Of all the mortals in the play, Bottom the weaver is the one who comes closest to remembering his experience in the fairy world. He speaks haltingly, and in the confusion of his senses Shakespeare translates nonsense into the sublime, evoking with uncanny accuracy the experience of a dream: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was!”
Bottom’s speech is Shakespeare’s gloss on a divine homily, St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, in which he describes man’s vision of God. “The eye hath not seen, the ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” Paul concludes his sermon by trying to describe the limits of the spiritual experience, but he finds only depths. “The Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.” This last phrase, “the deep things of God,” was translated in various ways during the Elizabethan era. The one Shakespeare knew, I believe, is in the Tyndale New Testament of 1526, the most popular book in England before the creation of the 1611 King James Bible: “the bottom of God’s secrets.” And so, in Bottom’s vision, God meets donkey. It is just one mark of Shakespeare’s genius that this, the most magical of his comedies, is also one in which the carnal and the divine are overlaid. To quote Titania, they are “undistinguishable.”