Harley Granville Barker, a director, Shakespeare scholar and clever redhead, wrote: “Let us humbly own how hard it is not to write nonsense about art.” He wrote this in his preface to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a kind of nonsense that becomes art. In no particular order, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is love, sex, wooing, (spoiler alert!) wedding, upsetting one’s parents, taking the occasional woman by storm (or at least by conquest), magic, moonlight, misunderstanding, transformation, and all the domains that there adjacent lie.
We love this play, we produce this play, we come see this play because of the rich and multi-faceted ways in which it shows us how ridiculous we are and how essential love is. Through the four social strata of the play (aristocracy, gentry, laborers, and immortals), we discover a sense of wonder, a sense of play, the fragile relationship between order and chaos, the danger inherent in passions suppressed or denied. Through the very structure of his language — from rhymed couplets to blank verse to intense shared verse lines and back again — Shakespeare shows us relationships fraying and fracturing, recovering and healing.
Many of us have made impulsively bad decisions in pursuit of love; we can probably all remember foolishness once upon a summer night. Helena’s fairly clear-eyed, for instance, about the rose-colored glasses she wears for Demetrius: “Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transform to form and dignity,” but Helena wants Demetrius back so intensely that she is willing to risk her best friend’s life on one last chance at love. Titania loves Oberon, but she’s not about to give him that Indian boy; petulant Oberon is quite prepared to force her hand by whatever magical means necessary.
Dreams can be wonderful stuff, but they often careen out of control. Moonlight can be romantic, but it casts shadows. Both can skew our perceptions in alarming ways, firing our imaginations to suspect the worst, the sexiest, the cruelest, the most frightening. The line between a dream and a nightmare can be thin and full of fissures. Is it a nightmare because it ends badly or wakes you with a start? Does it remain a dream because it has a happy ending? When or how does it cross over from one to the other? A happily moonlit playground and a dark, scary forest can be bordered by the same trees.
Dreams and nightmares are both difficult to recall in sharp detail upon waking, drifting ephemerally away as one struggles to remember. Like snowflakes and productions of Midsummer, no two are quite alike. The four Athenian lovers and Titania come to a new understanding through their experiences in the forest; they find their way to a new or restored love, even as they strive to recall the details. Bottom seems happily unaware of his transformation, but his company’s performance of Pyramus & Thisbe casts into relief all of the heated emotions of the forest journey. For all of the strife, upset, and discord, no one has died; no one grieves. The “ story of the night told over /… grows to something of great constancy.”
The churlish Samuel Pepys saw a production of this play in 1662, and observed in his diary: “To the King’s Theatre where we saw Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” The play is ridiculous, but we hope it is delightfully so, and filled with the rich complexity, wonder, and joy of new love discovered and old love savored.
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