[Updating of my old Midsummer note for the 2015-16 Free For All production]
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 it is like pinning a fluttering butterfly against the wall. The play’s effect is musical as much as dramatic, its register lyric, its form elegant and dancelike.
Structurally speaking, Midsummer’s two halves mirror each other, like a palindrome. We begin in the Athenian court, with Theseus sorting the competing claims of four young lovers as he prepares to wed Hippolyta. We next meet the “rude mechanicals,” Athenian working-men rehearsing a play for Theseus’ nuptials. Thirdly, we enter the forest, a fairyland 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 wedding rites, transformed unfathomably from their first reference into the mechanicals’ play, “Pyramus and Thisbe.”
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 everyday (the Mechanicals’ rehearsal room) to the natural world (the magical forest). This last, “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 has proven impossible for directors to illustrate completely. It is Shakespeare’s own ingenious adaptation of the empty Elizabethan stage, a world 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, 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 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, “scraped clean and used again.” The Romans wrote on wax tablets (palimpsests), which were 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, palimpsestic structures were used in religious dramas depicting spiritual journeys, such as the stations of the cross, the pilgrim’s progress, or a saint’s life. On the one hand, it is exceedingly odd that Shakespeare should adapt this structure for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a secular play that functions mostly as a comedy. But it’s precisely this palindromic stripping-away that 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 “lyric period” between 1592 and 1596, an extraordinarily stretch in which he also wrote Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, and epic poems such as “The Rape of Lucrece” and “Venus and Adonis.” He had begun, most likely, the sequence of sonnets addressed to “the beautiful youth.” Collectively, these works are unlike anything that had been seen or read in English literature. Written in some of the most beautiful verse in the English language, they unite such disparate strands as Ovidian mythology, medieval tradition, and psychologically modern portraits of individuals adrift in an unknowable world. They are a young writer’s works, teeming with the spirit of invention, and they are almost postmodern in their virtuosic conflation of high and low source material.
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. Doubling as Philostrate at the end of the action, Puck serves as Theseus’ Master of Revels, an Elizabethan functionary who reviews the Mechanicals’ play and approves it for Theseus. Titania and Hippolyta, the Fairy and Amazon Queens, respectively, evoke both Venus and Diana, yoking the hedonistic goddess of love to the virginal goddess of the moon. Similarly, Bottom, an Athenian weaver, wears the ass-head of a medieval mummer in the world of the forest. After performing the role of the Romeo-like Pyramus 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.
Bottom’s most profound echo, 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, the lowly weaver is the one who comes closest to remembering the mystic fairy world. He speaks haltingly, and in his confused senses Shakespeare translates nonsense into the sublime, evoking uncannily the experience of 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!”
This is Shakespeare’s gloss on Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. “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 this 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.” I believe that Shakespeare encountered this last phrase in the Tyndale New Testament of 1526. The most popular book in Elizabethan England, the Tyndale translates “the deep things of God” as “the bottom of God’s secrets.” And so, in Bottom’s vision, the theatrical dream evokes the bottomless apprehension of the divine itself. It is little wonder the effect of this play is so hard to describe. It is about, and makes one feel, nothing less than indescribable sensations.