Dear Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:
Thus ends the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by . . . .
By what? Not “by this son of York.” That doesn’t work in our context. In my opinion, this past winter (and spring) of our personaland national discontent hasn’t been made glorious summer even by this son of Obama. Besides, my opening line is just a dumb paraphrase anyway. Richard III begins –
Now is the winter of our discontent,
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
So let me start again.
Thus ends the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by . . . by . . .
By glorious summer!
Oh, how I have always loved summer. Ten weeks of glorious summer cure ten gloomy sentiments, is my motto. And most of us seem to have some gloomy sentiments to cure after this past autumn, winter, and spring. I’ve lived through the Vietnam Era, Watergate, Nixon’s Checkers Speech, several gas crises, a half dozen serious recessions, the pure national nightmare of nine-eleven, five major wars and dozens of minor ones, one absolute shithole of a year numbered 1968, seasons of drought and seasons of flood, several worldwide flu pandemics (including the ’57 and ’68 Asian flu wherein I caught each of them), Apollo 1, shuttle Challenger, shuttle Columbia, Monica, Jimmy Carter, and Miley Cyrus, but I’ve never seen Americans this confused about themselves and their nation and their future as I have this year. And the worst, I feel absolutely certain, still lies ahead. We need . . . something.
So I’m not going to drag my club foot and heavy hump through Richard III here, but, rather, join in a pagan dance in the moonlight to celebrate the everloving aspirations out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Most scholars believe that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written (as a dramatic epithalamium for the marriage of some aristocratic couple, and most probably performed with Queen Elizabeth in attendance) around 1595, when Shakespeare was 31 years old, about five years into his ongoing shift from mediocre actor to preeminent playwright.
It was written about the same time that he wrote Romeo and Juliet and even a casual reader of Shakespeare can see similarities and continued themes between the tragedy and this comedy. Even the bumps on the bumps line up, as it were, as if a child is “discovering” the continental drift theory by cutting out and connecting the profiles of western Africa and eastern South America. The maturing writer (and Shakespeare did come into his own with these two plays, finally moving out from under the shadow of Christopher Marlowe and other more-famous playwrights of the era here, perhaps finding the courage to be his own man after his popular “hit” of Titus Andronicus, a Marlowe-derivative parodic splatterfest) said what he had to say about love only after revolving the crystal (in what would become a trademark Shakespearean manner) of the story and each character and theme to reveal all facets. Some scholars have called A Midsummer Night’s Dream a case of Romeo and Juliet being turned inside out: the themes and metaphors of star-crossed lovers the same, the outcomes wildly different.
Indeed, even the first time I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream so long ago, unguided by any teacher or secondary critical reading, I immediately understood that Shakespeare had shown the courage to parody his own writing in Romeo and Juliet through the terrible, pathetic play-within-the-play embedded deep near the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the artisan “rude mechanicals” truly Mystery Science Theater 3000-awful presentation of “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby.”
Thus Thisby, here played by Francis Flute the bellows mender (despite the fact that Flute is trying to grow a beard and doesn’t want to play a woman), finds her lover Pyramus dead:
Asleep, my love?
What, dead my dove?
O Pyramus, arise!
Speak, speak. Quite dumb?
Dead, dead? A tomb
Must cover thy sweet eyes.
These lily lips,
This cherry nose,
These yellow cowslip cheeks,
Are gone, are gone.
Lovers, make moan.
His eyes were green as leeks.
O Sisters Three,
Come, come to me,
With hands as pale as milk;
Lay them in gore,
Since you have shore
With shears his thread of silk.
Tongue, not a word.
Come, trusty sword,
Come, blade, my breast imbrue!
And farewell, friends.
Thus Thisby ends.
Adieu, adieu, adieu.
Now please note that this miserable doggerel is set like rancid and colorblind raisins in a play wherein Shakespeare is having the Athenian court express itself with pentameter couplets co-existing smoothly with reasonable blank verse measures, the fairies and their songs calling up “jiggling pairs and triplets of rhyming tetrameter,” and this thump-a-broken-drum-with-a-thighbone parody of Senecan “Ay, me!” exclamatory bilge in Pyramus and Thisby’s tale, cumulating (I think) in the funniest piece of deliberately bad verse ever given to us by Shakespeare or anyone else:
But stay: O spite!
But mark, poor knight,
What dreadful dole is here?
Eyes, do you see?
How can it be?
O dainty duck, O dear!
But even in a comedy so broad that it can accommodate an O dainty duck, O dear!, Shakespeare frustrates our expectations. Comedies must end with marriage (after many confusions and false starts, mistaken identities and alarums), but A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with the problematic marriage – between the aging rogue and warrior-hero Theseus, Duke of Athens, and the younger Amazon Queen Hippolyta – already agreed to, the manifold problems between this unlikeliest of couples already worked out and the marriage-date imminent.
Here are the characters for A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Theseus, Duke of Athens
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, betrothed to Theseus
Philostrate, Master of the Revels to Theseus (wait! Did ancient Athens have a “Master of the Revels” to oversee all theatrical productions and content? Of course not. But Shakespeare, as always, does not care. He wrote for his age and his age’s contemporary audience and he trusted in their intelligence not to allow such minor “errors” – or the clocks ticking and city bells ringing in his tales set in ancient Rome, or pages of books being turned and cannon being fired also in ancient Rome, or the not-so-minor anachronism of these totally Elizabethan English artisans such as Bottom suddenly found in “ancient Athens” – to derail his tale.)
Egeus, father of Hermia
Hermia, daughter of Egeus, in love with Lysander
Lysander, loved by Hermia
Demetrius, suitor to Hermia
Helena, in love with Demetrius
Peter Quince, a carpenter
Nick Bottom, a weaver
Francis Flute, a bellows-mender
Tom Snout, a tinker
Snug, a joiner
Robin Starveling, a tailor
Well, so far so good – and if Shakespeare had stopped with this cast, A Midsummer Night’s Dream would have resembled his previous plays, set in the (or at least “a”) real world and politely following the rules of whichever genre of tragedy or comedy he was writing in. But here the young Shakespeare added a truly revolutionary and totally transforming layer of characters to the tale:
Oberon, King of the Fairies
Titania, Queen of the Fairies
Robin Goodfellow, a puck
Peaseblossom, a fairy
Cobweb, a fairy
Moth, a fairy
Mustardseed, a fairy
And with this introduction of an overhanging* (* see trapeze note in essay below) supernatural element to this multilayered look at love as a disease of the senses and at the endless war between the sexes, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – already composed of so many disparate and seemingly irreconcilable elements – reached the critical mass it needed for the theatrical nuclear fission it’s produced now for four centuries and more.
I didn’t believe in fairies as a kid, not even the tooth fairy, but I did believe in Robin Hood.
Part of my love of summer is the love of the green wood, the wild wood, woods as both place of refuge and source of mystery, and this love goes back to some of my earliest memories. As does my love of Robin Hood. There was a definitive TV show about Robin during my childhood – “The Adventures of Robin Hood” starring Richard Greene, who for me would always be the definitive Robin Hood, and brought to us by Brylecreme (“A little dab’ll do ya”.) But “The Adventures of Robin Hood” didn’t appear on American TV until 1955 and I’d been introduced to Robin, Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlett and all the others long before that.
When I was about four I came down with something serious. My mother, on her deathbed in 1967, talked about my bout with rheumatic fever, so it might have been that but I’m not sure. Whatever it was, it was the first time I ever remembered being in the hospital and then, recovering at home, certainly the first time I ever saw my parents and other adults looking at me as if I might not be with them that much longer. I do remember that after the worst of whatever I had was over, I still had no appetite – I simply couldn’t and wouldn’t eat for days, then for weeks. But then my older brother brought me a Mickey Mouse comic book where Mickey was Robin Hood (Goofy as Little John? Sounds odd, but must’ve been) and – having taught myself to read for just such moments – I adored that oversized comic. To this day, I can see (and could draw, if asked) the way Mickey’s rubbery black little legs disappeared into those soft baked-potato brown Robin-Hood “shoes.” But what saved me was a feast the Mickey-Robin and his Merry Men had in the forest. Everybody seemed to be eating a drumstick (I could draw the drumstick for you as well) and suddenly my appetite returned in full – I wanted a Mickey-Mouse/Robin-Hood drumstick!
I also know that before the TV series started when I was seven, I’d already read Robin Hood in book form . . . and the best of all Robin Hood books, the one with the original N.C. Wyeth illustrations which simply may be the best illustrations for any book ever (with the possible exception of the first book I ever read – Treasure Island, also with the N.C. Wyeth illustrations.)
So by the time I was in kindergarten, my heart belonged not only to summer but to the green wood, to Sherwood Forest wherever I could find it. And the closest Sherwood Forest in Peoria, Illinois, of the early 1950’s was the wonderful Glen Oak Park, hundreds of wooded acres in the north part of town not far from War Memorial Drive. The upper regions of the park held a zoo, baseball diamonds, a little lake with swans, picnic areas – all the usual park things set under towering oaks – but the steep hillsides and undeveloped lower regions of the park were, except for one war memorial and one grassy sward with what I now know to be a gazebo, pure forest. Sherwood Forest!
My mother used to pick me up after my morning of half-day kindergarten, my toddler little brother Wayne in the front seat (no backseats or carseats for wee ones then) of the ’48 Buick Roadmaster, and we’d head straight for Glen Oak Park to have a picnic. I remember Mom allowing me to choose the spot for our picnic lunch and, eschewing all the comfortable picnic pavilions and picnic tables higher up, I’d choose the steepest hill in the thickest woods of the wildest, most poison-ivy infested part of Glen Oak Park. I fondly recall Mom sending me hurtling down the hill through the woods chasing the runaway peanut-butter jar while she chased after the rolling jelly jar. Baby Wayne was probably doing his best to stay on the blanket that had been pitched in the minuscule clearing on a 72-degree angle.
To this day, whenever I travel – usually alone – on a road trip from Colorado back through the Midwest to see the places I lived as a kid, I’ll always make a point of visiting Glen Oak Park. Others may see a rundown urban park, its steep hills still overgrown with almost impenetrable woods, but I see Sherwood Forest. (And I also then have a sudden urge to go buy some Brylcreme.)
Scholar Russ McDonald from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro has pointed out that “Theater companies that find themselves in financial trouble often announce a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a way to repair their sagging fortunes.”
It’s true that few playgoers can resist being amused by this most seemingly harmless and joyful of Shakespeare’s 39 plays. As McDonald goes on – “A play in which inept amateurs perform a bad play is nearly indestructible . . .” (The bad play here is, of course, “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pryamus and Thisby,” an actual Ovid tale, acted out before Theseus, Hippolyta, and their guests by the rude mechanicals near the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)
Most of Shakespeare’s plays go in and out of vogue over the centuries (depending upon the tastes and prevalent neuroses of each age’s culture), but A Midsummer Night’s Dream has held its own on the stage across all these centuries and vagaries of taste. London dandy and diarist Samuel Pepys saw the play in the 1660’s and called it – “the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.”
Maybe so, but the play remained popular through the Restoration and all of the 18th Century. By the Victorian and early 20th Century periods, directors were amping up the spectacle, giving Titinia legions of cute little fairies swathed in tule, hiring entire orchestras to play Mendelssohn’s incidental music (op. 61 – composed, I believe, when Mendelssohn was 13 years old), and dressing the stage with real trees, real grass, as much moonlight as they could pour onto it, and live bunnies.
In 1970, Peter Brook – almost always interesting, if also frequently maddening, in his stagings – took his cue from Titania’s speech in the play about drama depending upon the imaginative cooperation and collaboration with the audience and threw out all the trees and plants and moonlight and grass and bunnies, staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a bare stage with a blank white background, the actors wearing tie-dyed t-shirts (ah, 1970!), and fairies Oberon and Puck overseeing the mortals from a pair of trapezes.
By 1992, the forest was back on stage, but the 1992 production by Canadian director Robert Lepage gave us an enchanted wood so muddy, murky, dismal, and gloomy that the management had to hand out waterproof slickers to everyone seated in the first three rows. A (relatively) recent film adaptation starring Kevin Klein was set in the seersucker jacket, straw boater, bicycle-for-two days and the last live production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I saw – at the University of Colorado Boulder’s annual summer Shakespeare Festival – had the Duke of Athens, his bride-to-be, the mechanicals and fairies all declaiming while wearing jeans and ducks-ass haircuts on the men (O dainty duck!) and poodle skirts on the women, including the Queen of the Fairies. Most of the action took place in a 50’s malt shop.
Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream survive all these insults to logic and good taste.
What they have more trouble surviving are the constant, trendy shifts in academic “understanding” of Shakespeare and his works. Recently with A Midsummer Night’s Dream the directorial focus has been on the feminist statements in the play (?) and on the obvious bestiality element.
This former tic, the feminist “statements,” is interesting because Theseus, Duke of Athens, is – not to put too fine a point on it – a serious dick.
We are reminded by A.D. Nuttall (among others) that, plucked from Greek mythology, Theseus is the same “brutal womanizer” whom we encounter as Thésée in Racine’s black tragedy Phédre. Rather than hide this connection, Shakespeare draws quiet attention to it in his smiling, comedic reference to Theseus’s rape of Perigenia (II.i.78) and draws more attention to the Duke’s persona as a sexual bully in the first lines he has Theseus say to his Amazon-bride – “Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword” and goes on “And won thy love doing thee injuries.” Instead of balancing this with some statement of repentance or newfound sensitivity (another character in this play, Bottom, may be the most sensitive, likeable, and well-balanced of all Shakespeare’s male characters), Theseus brags and blusters on – “But I will wed thee in another key,/ With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.”
So the unrepentant rapist and woman-beater can’t not continue with his strutting and self-preening, even after he’s bent the formerly free Amazon Queen to his will and bed. As Nuttall has noted – “He (Theseus) is characterized from the beginning as owning a sort of insensitivity that is perhaps peculiar to males.” Which is exactly what I said above – Theseus, Duke of Athens, is a serious dick.
This never-labored deep background for Theseus serves Shakespeare and the play well, since the playwright makes the Duke of Athens not only a not-very-bright literalist, but also perhaps the strongest enemy of the imagination to be found anywhere in the Shakespearean canon. Theseus’s speech on imagination – and about the shallowness of love and the idiocy of creative, poetic, “artistic” types – has been anthologized so frequently that even many people who’ve never read or seen the play performed, know the quote and – as with Polonius’s garbled old-man maunderings in Hamlet – make the mistake of thinking it represents Shakespeare’s thinking on the topic:
I may never believe
These antic fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy it is a bush suppos’d a bear!
This last couplet has some special resonance for my daughter Jane and me. When she was still a kid and we’d recently bought our Windwalker property and cabin and I talked her into going for a night-time walk, perhaps whispering to her Caliban’s lovely lines from The Tempest –
Be not afeard. The isle (mountain) is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
But at any rate we were walking down our mile-long access gravel road and Jane, looking up at the mostly bare-save-for-grasses hillside above us pointed to a dark blur of a bush above us and said, “What’s that?”
“Probably a bear,” I said.
Pointing to a smaller bush in the starlight, she whispered, “What’s that smaller thing?”
“Probably the bear’s cub,” I said. “The mother bear is especially dangerous when they’re with their cubs.”
Good move, Dad. I caught up to her before she made it back to the cabin at 80 m.p.h., but that particular night-walk was over. (But we’ve loved those bushes – in daylight -- ever since.)
Meanwhile, we have Theseus’s total devaluation of imagination (which was the common view of the imagination as a negative thing even up to Shakespeare’s day) – all failures of reason common to the madman, the lover, and the poet. Compare Theseus’s take on the universe (that of the industrialist, the engineer, and the local politician) with John Keats speaking for the entire Romantic movement two centuries later –
“The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth.”
Adam’s dream, as we shall see, is Bottom’s Dream in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – direct contact, via an inspired dream, with the transcendent and ineffable – but the Romantics are not so much as a gleam in poets’ eyes in Shakespeare’s day (although Shakespeare encompasses all of the Romantics, as he encompasses everything else that was or is yet to come). Theseus, the literalist, down-to-earth, woman-beating (in every sense) Duke of Athens speaks for many.
Now the bestiality . . . .
This is a problem in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Shakespeare knew it. Recently on my forum I challenged a teacher who was having his elementary students act out Shakespeare by saying “You know that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is really about bestiality, don’t you. Are you going to teach that?” It was rhetorical. I’d hoped for opposition – a general rising up of refutation – but there was none. And there’s been very little resistance within the dirty-minded academic and directorial community in recent decades either.
Shakespeare countered the very real problem of bestiality in his play with an ancient technique called apotrope. We’ll get to that in a little bit.
Meanwhile, there’s the bestiality issue itself. It’s a sensitive one. Bottom the weaver is turned into an ass, after all (relax, “ass” just meant “donkey” in Shakespeare’s day, so all your clever (sic) puns are come to naught) and although all we see of the transformation is his head changed to an ass’s head, we can guess that other . . . ah . . . parts have taken on a donkey’s size. This would explain why Titania, Queen of the Fairies, is so eager not only to fall in love with the transformed-to-an-ass Bottom but to drag him off to bed.
(Fairy queens are nothing if not eager for a new experience after so many millennia of life.)
Academics and local Shakespeare-troupe directors love this stuff. They eat it up with a spoon. In the speech called Bottom’s Dream – more on that later since that’s the heart of the heart of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and perhaps the heart of Shakespeare’s thinking on one of the most important issues known to our species – Bottom, now transformed back to a mere man, says, “Methought I was – and methought I had – but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had.”
For centuries, directors have urged their actor playing Bottom to gesture vaguely around his head and ears when he says, “ . . . and me thought I had . . . .” but in our recent, more enlightened times, the directors urge, and actors love, to include Bottom’s crotch in the gesturing. In a Royal Shakespeare Company staging not so long ago (as Shakespearean performances are reckoned), the fairies carrying the transformed Bottom off to Titania’s bed are not the children that Shakespeare probably used for the fairies Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed, but large, strong men, and as they carry Bottom on their shoulders, one of these men thrusts a hairy forearm and clenched fist up between Bottom’s splayed legs (to drive home the point, one assumes, to the duller of the modern groundlings.)
As I say, Shakespeare knew of this potential for serious raunchiness. (And the Bard was rarely adverse to a little enjoyable raunch.) But this crossed a line, even then.
Even the casual observer will note that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a clash not only of history and nonsense, but a clash of disparate mythologies as well. Theseus and Hippolyta belong to Greek myth. Peter Quince and Nick Bottom and the other “rude mechanicals” – local artisans – come from contemporary Elizabethan village life. Puck comes from deep-buried English pagan myth – the Hobgoblin, the devil, the fairy in charge of mischief in the hearth and doorway and the home – and the fairies are from Celtic myth. (Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, is also given the powers of Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon.) It’s a hopeless melange.
But Shakespeare cribbed the story from his primary source (outside of the Histories) for such things, the Ovid he’d studied in grammar school. (Which was the only formal schooling he’d had.) I believe it was that old Bardolator, Harold Bloom, that said something to the effect that “Arriving at original stories and plots was the only literary gift the gods denied Shakespeare.” The handicap did not slow Shakespeare down much. He lifted stories from many sources and twisted them, turned them inside out, inverted them, and always made them his own; but it was Ovid and the myths from which Ovid himself borrowed that Shakespeare loved the most when he chose to move deepest into the imaginary.
But even here, bestiality raised its ugly animal head. If we follow the story of Theseus back just a short way, we find Pasiphae, Theseus’s blushing bride-to-be, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons’ mother. This story is the grossest of Greek myths (and many are gross, trust me.)
Pasiphae, it turns out, was a mortal who had a real thing for Zeus. She especially was obsessed with “knowing” Zeus when he came down to Earth in one of his favorite forms – that of a giant bull. And not just a giant bull, but a giant bull so insatiably horny, as the crude and vulgar say in my neck of the woods, “he would fuck a woodpile in the off chance there might be a snake in it.”
Perhaps using this ancient aphorism as her guide, Pasiphae turned to the ugly, vulcan-forger-technician god Hephaestus (who, with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, as his bride, had his own Viagra-related problems) and Hephaestus made for her a lovely wooden cow. This wooden cow, with Pasiphae concealed in it in a tactical position, fooled the ever-randy Zeus-in-Bull-Form and the Zeus-Bull eagerly mounted the Trojan Cow. Pasiphae had directed Hephaestus on how to construct the wooden cow with a leather-covered opening beneath the tail, between the sexy wooden-cow buttocks, and it’s to this opening that Pasiphae pressed her naked, splayed buttocks and . . .
Hey, I warned you that this was the grossest of all gross Greek myths. Don’t blame me for filling in your inadequate education. (I’m known as the Grouch and Grinch for opposing the idea of little elementary school kids acting out bowdlerized bits of Shakespeare, shouting words and phrases they can’t possibly understand even the literal meanings of – much less know the necessary Elizabethan historical, cultural, and literary contexts to – but school districts lap that stuff up. When I ask why they don’t make the kids, often underchieving special-ed or ESL kids who understand almost no English, much less Shakespearean English, learn Chaucer or Milton or Beowulf or even Homer, the immediate response is always, “Are you nuts? They wouldn’t understand Chaucer (or Milton, or etc. . . ”)
I guarantee that these teachers and principals and happy parents don’t understand Shakespeare. They don’t understand the beginnings of understanding Shakespeare. But they understand that families and communities and the school board love it when kids who couldn’t diagram the simplest English sentence if their lives depended on it dress up in cute homemade “Shakespearean costumes” and clack their wooden swords and shout their memorized, totally-not-understood Shakespearean phrases.
But I digress.
Even Ovid shrank from telling the Pasiphae story full-tilt and explicitly (Metamorphoses, viii. 132) but Pasiphae sired not only Hippolyta, the Amazon, but also the monster, the Minotaur, part bull-beast, part-man, to live at the center of the Cretan Labyrinth. More rape. More bestiality.
Luckily, Shakespeare draws not only on Ovid and ancient myth, but on the more current “novel” The Golden Ass of Apuleius. This still includes bestiality, but it lightens the dark side appreciably.
There is also powerful evidence that William Shakespeare, while knowing that the groundlings would nudge each other and roll in the straw laughing at every hint of the fairy queen having sex with an animal, gave them just enough hint to allow them their laugh, but otherwise worked very hard to defuse the underlying (and ugly) bestiality themes. When creamy soft Titania (she’s described as voluptuous) is ready to bed the at-least-partially transformed to an ass weaver named Bottom, we hear lines about “female ivy” encircling the “barky fingers of the elm” and the groundlings get their laugh when Bottom, who has no mirror or calm water in which to see his own transformation, says, “I am marvail’s hairy about the face.”
But the face is where Shakespeare restricts the transformation and the ass’s head is quite clearly a prop and treated as a prop. More importantly to the defusing of the potentially dirty parts of this play, Bottom is the most likeable, affable, well-balanced, and innocent character in the entire repertoire of Shakespearean characters.
Harold Bloom has noted that if Bottom were to awaken to find himself the giant cockroach from Kafka’s tale, he’d take that in stride as easily he did his short (but rich) time as an ass. Nothing ruins Bottom’s childlike equanimity.
And it’s this childlike innocence of Bottom’s that rescues A Midsummer Night’s Dream – as Shakespeare crafted it – from the dirty-minded raunch of both the ancient myths and from today’s dirty-minded “creative” directors. As A.B. Nuttall says in Shakespeare: The Thinker – “Our laughter at the innocence of Bottom is partly relief, as a fleeting Apuleian anxiety about beast mating with woman is successfully dispelled.”
The formal rhetorical act of dispelling such raunch or unwanted thematic pollution is called apotrope – literally a “turning away” – and in this case it is a turning away not just of gross sexual talk (which Shakespeare often indulged in with his audiences) but of evil.
As voluptous Titania writhes against Bottom, enchanted as she is by Oberon and Puck’s truly evil application of magical juice on the eyelids that caused her, when she awoke, to fall madly and passionately in love with the first thing she sees, Bottom is politely making friends with Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed – almost certainly played then by children, as they have been in centuries since – and enjoying being fed bottles (bundles) of hay and having his hairy ears and neck scratched. Innocent Bottom’s eye-crossing, sighing passion is, Shakespeare clearly shows us, a result of getting his ears scratched, not from getting boinked by the spell-blinded Queen of the Fairies.
Note to beginning writers: apotrope – turning away – works. It’s why movie audiences in the 40’s understood quite well what happened after the romantic couple kissed and the screen faded to black and didn’t require seeing Tom Cruise’s tongue – literally ten-feet long on the giant Cineplex screen – probing like an alien’s ovipositor into Kelly McGillis’s gaping, lipsticked maw in Top Gun. Please, God . . . or gods (except for Zeus) . . . give us grownups back some apotrope in our books and movies and TV.
(It’s interesting that Harold Bloom, who usually fights such trendy and misprisioned directorial trivializings of Shakespeare to the last hyperbolic syllable, splutters a bit but summarizes his weariness at the “bestiality fad” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by quoting Empson on another trendy revisionist, Kott – “I take my stand beside the other old buffers here. Kott is ridiculously indifferent to the Letter of the play and labours to befoul its spirit.”)
There’s a lot of that befouling of the spirit going around. Thus, welcome back glorious summer which ends the winter of our discontent.
In the summer before I entered third grade, my dad was transferred to Des Moines. I still hadn’t discovered Shakespeare by this point, but I’d read even more versions of Robin Hood and – that first lovely autumn we were in Des Moines – read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and instantly saw Tom’s and my shared love of Robin Hood. (I also saw that Tom Sawyer and the 8-year-old me had something else in common: that is, it was always Tom – and it seemed to be always me – who was giving his pack of boy pals the “story” behind whatever it was they were going to play. Pirates, cowboys and Indians, soldiers, space adventures, time travel – my little brother and friends didn’t seem to mind that I was always providing the backstory to our adventure, the imaginative parameters (as it were), and even names for us all. I immediately recognized this kindred bossiness + creativity in Tom Sawyer and wonder to this day if Tom, like me, grew up to be a writer so he wouldn’t have to stop making up things.)
More importantly, our house on University Avenue just down the street from Drake University (and only two houses away from a large Drake fraternity building) had a hilly backyard that ran down to the edge of a true enchanted forest.
All of the east-west streets to the south of our avenue were cul de sacs, ending in barriers and woods descending into a steep gully. The wooded gully fed into a large forest preserve a few blocks further south and that forest preserve ran for miles and miles into the country. But the forty-three acres of woods (I still remember the precise acreage since it had an almost talismanic importance to me when I was 8) immediately behind our home belonged to an old woman, Mrs. Brenner, and decades before, she had turned it into a veritable fairyland of meadows filled with specially planted flowers, tiny arched bridges over re-routed streams, little ponds, obvious paths and secret paths, groves and copses of trees alien to America (much less to Des Moines, Iowa), and everywhere subtle little benches and bowers and pausing places. Even the fallen logs and treetrunks were there for a reason. It was a minded woods, the first of my experience, but never formal, never overly-constructed, never oppressive as so many formal gardens are. It was a wildwood of some ancient, antedeluvian Iowa before Theseus-literal pioneers had felled all the trees and plowed the prairies into farmfields.
The kids nearby went into Mrs. Brenner’s woods, but always stealthily, guiltily, and looking over their shoulders while waiting for her to pounce. Word was that she kept two huge Rottweilers to kill kids who violated the No Trespassing signs posted everywhere at the borders of her enchanted forest. All the older kids assured my little brother and me that Mrs. Brenner was a witch and even the quickest, most nervous glimpses of her home set deep in her 43-acres of tended wildwood – a Hobbity (before I knew what that word meant) habitation of aged-gray cedar shingles, low sagging roofs limned with mosses, tiny arched doorways, many-paned windows with glass warped by gravity and years – confirmed the witch diagnosis. A trespassing kid could easily imagine the oven warmed up and waiting for him.
The older people on our new block told my parents that Mrs. Brenner had once, in the early 1940’s or perhaps before the War, opened her 43-acre gardens and forest and glades to the public several times a year, including a Christmas walking tour, the winter beauty of which I could only imagine that first autumn I was there and creeping guiltily into her woods with the other kids, but then something had happened: her husband had died, or no, she had never married but a fiancée had been killed in the Second World War (or perhaps in Korea), or perhaps some uninvited visitor had desecrated her forest world by carving initials into a living tree . . . .
Something had caused her post those KEEP OUT NO TRESPASSING signs for decades and made her buy those slathering Rottweilers and train them to eat kids.
By the time the leaves were turning color, I did something very unusual for a person as shy as I am. On one of those leaves-ablaze Saturdays in 1956, my third-grade me walked deep into Mrs. Brenner’s enchanted woods, knocked at the little aged-and-curved-wood Hobbit door of her elfen home, and – when no one answered (but neither had any killer Rottweilers torn my throat out) – I sat down on a log outside and waited for her to return. When she did, dressed in what I later would learn was her gardening outfit of long green canvas duster, broad-brimmed straw hat tied in place with a red kerchief, and strangely delicate gray gloves (she was carrying a trowel, which I immediately assumed was used for digging the heart out of small boys before shoving their corpses into her ovens) it was immediately obvious that she was – 1) ancient and wrinkled beyond all imagining (probably around 61, my age the day I write this) and 2) a witch.
I don’t remember if I stammered and stuttered, but I do remember what I tried to tell her as she stood there frowning at me: how deeply and totally I loved her tamed wildwood, how very much I wanted and needed to walk there, and how I wouldn’t do it without her permission – to this day I dislike trespassers on my own magical properties – but oh, how very much I hoped she’d give me permission to trespass.
Mrs. Brenner did better than that. She gave me a guided tour of her magical realm, one that took all that Saturday morning and much of the afternoon. I didn’t remember the flowers’ and trees’ names for a minute, of course – she shared both their common names and their magical Latin incantantorial names – but I remember with absolute clarity the details of how that beautiful woods-within-a-city had been the central project of her life for more than forty years (a period of time then beyond my ken.)
And then, when the tour was over (there were hundreds of things – special plantings, birds’ nests, hummingbird feeders and nests, magical groves, hidden niches, tunnels in overarching ivy, hidden benches and tables, secret paths, miniature bridges, stepping stones, a field of flowers with no obvious access through thorn thickets, a hidden waterfall – that I would never have found on my own) she gave me permission to enter her woods when I wished, as long as I did no harm to it, and even to bring my little brother and up to two friends (never more than two) as long as they also promised to respect the place. I would be responsible for protecting her greenwood.
And so Mrs. Brenner’s Woods became A Midsummer Night’s Dream heart of the heart of my world during my one magical year living in Des Moines.
One school-day morning, my mother woke me at dawn; Mrs. Brenner had called (who knew that even a good witch could own and know how to use a telephone!?) and there was a deer come in from the country through the forest preserve, following the paths in Mrs. Brenner’s Woods, headed north toward my home and the city, and Mrs. Brenner thought I might want to see it. I had missed the deer jumping our high wire fence in the back (my mother had seen it even while on the phone with Mrs. Brenner), but the animal had cut its leg or belly in the jump and, waking my neighbor pal Steve, we tracked the tiny blotches of blood through backyards for half a mile along the edge of Mrs. Brenner’s woods, over the split-rail fence behind the big fraternity house down the street, and finally out onto University Avenue. It was hours until it was time to go to school – this was probably in October – but boy did I have something for Show and Tell that morning.
(The next morning’s newspaper – Mom said she hadn’t been sure she should show me – told of the deer giving Des Moines police a merry chase until, surrounded by cars west of the university, it had tried to jump a patrol car, had broken its leg, and had to be “put down.” I’ve hated that stupid euphemism ever since. So quick bright things come to confusion.)
In May of the following year, Mrs. Brenner suggested that I might bring my third-grade class to tour the woods. My teacher, Mrs. Howe, knew all about Mrs. Brenner’s Woods – and how it had been closed to the public for so many decades – and she let me lead the class in the five-block walk to my home and the backyard and through the little gate into an enchanted forest. Mrs. Brenner had briefed me again on the high points of her realm, and this time I did remember the names of some of the flowers and exotic plants and trees (including rare orchids) that I was showing my teacher and class. The much-loved-by-me witch joined us only at the end of our long tour, and then only for a few seconds to speak softly to Mrs. Howe. My mother had lemonade and cookies ready for everyone when we came out of the woods – blinking, as if emerging from a dream – before we started the long walk back to school.
We moved again that summer (we seemed always to be leaving places and starting over when summer came) but not before Midsummer Night’s Eve came. I did not know Shakespeare yet but, loving astronomy and geology that year in Des Moines to the point that I first started using a public library to feed my obsessions, I did know about the summer solstice, that anciently sacred and deeply magical tilting-point of the world back from longer days to shorter, from shorter and shorter nights to longer, and it was about on Midsummer’s Night that I did one of the most daring things to date in my nine years or so of life – sneaking out of bed and the house alone incredibly late one summer night in June (I knew we were moving soon) and wandering alone through Mrs. Brenner’s 43-acres in the light of the full Iowa moon.
Here the rest of beastly Caliban’s lovely speech to the newcomers came into effect so that when I read The Tempest years later, it immediately evoked the memory of that night of walking the hidden but permitted paths of Mrs. Brenner’s brightly moonlit Woods –
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about thine ears, and sometime voices
That if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
And I’ve never been afraid of any forest at night since.
Have you ever wondered why this play is titled A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Most audience members leave the play thinking that the events of the tale take place on or around Midsummer’s Eve, which was celebrated on the night of June 23-24 in Olde England, but the play itself tells us that this isn’t the case. When Theseus, out hunting with his bride-to-be Hippolyta, finds the lovers who’ve fled to the forest rather than submit to the Duke’s will, he makes the immediate assumption that his subjects are all there to cut “scented boughs” for the “rite of May” celebration in his city.
For years I’d just accepted Dr. Johnson’s logical (in a Thesean way) deduction that the “rite of May” was the pagan May Day, and thus the events of the play must take place April 29 - May 1. It certainly connects to the libidinous and sensual subtext of the play; the May Pole was a phallus, of course, and children throughout the Middle Ages and beyond attached ribbons to it and danced around it to celebrate their own future fertility. But my chosen mentor (and unapologetic Bardolator) Harold Bloom led me to scholar C. L. Barber who pointed out that young people in Shakespeare’s day (including 18-year-old Will and 27-year-old spinster Anne Hathaway?) “went Maying” in the forest whenever they wanted to. The “scented boughs” were usually put to more immediate and practical use in the forest than the house decorations they’d eventually become.
Why then, if the events take place in May or any other vaguley related late spring or early summer day, did Shakespeare choose A Midsummer Night’s Dream as his title?
One of the mildly shocking (or at least pleasantly disturbing) things we learn about Shakespeare when we spend some time trying to understand his work is that the Bard’s titles often seem almost chosen at random – i.e. any one of a dozen other titles would work as well or better. But A Midsummer Night’s Dream is carefully chosen for a reason and the themes of the tale are transmitted both consciously and subconsciously, as befit all great titles, through the title alone.
Theseus prides himself on his male faculty of reason, deriding imagination, as do all the other human males in the play (save for wonderful Bottom), but Midsummer’s Eve (the night of June 23) was celebrated in medieval England and Ireland and Sweden and elsewhere as the epicenter of madness, of enchantment, and of witchcraft powerful enough “to invade and transform the world.” Most of medieval life was maintenance of order – via prayer, via hard work, via duty, via marriage, via social and familial hierarchy and obedience – but Midsummer Night’s Eve, rather than a late-autumn Walpurgis Nacht or Halloween or other post-harvest festival, was considered the short night when the power of invisible supernatural forces, including witches, demons, fairies, gnomes, and mischievous sprites, was at its strongest. On that night these supernatural beings roamed abroad while playing more pranks than usual on human beings and their homes and livestock. (Puck, Oberon’s chief assistant and chief hobgoblin of this play, can turn himself into anything but especially enjoys turning himself into a three-legged stool only to disappear when an old lady with brittle bones tries to sit on him.)
The forest, in Elizabethan terms, was always a place of transformation – in real life it was usually a place of robbery – but the Midsummer’s Eve supernatural suspension of all rules happily infected regular folk. Especially young regular folk, who put the shortest night of the year and all that seeking out of scented boughs to lustful purposes. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia and her lover Lysander flee to the wooods to escape the Duke’s harsh ruling – Hermia must marry her father’s choice of Demetrius or enter a nunnery for life or be executed. (Interesting, to me at least, that Theseus sets Hermia’s day of execution, if she makes the wrong decision, on his wedding day. Not a sentimental fellow, this Theseus.) But Demetrius is chased into the woods by Helena, who is the only lover in the play whose love (for Demetrius) remains constant, even though Demetrius has repeatedly told her that he loves Hermia and that being loved by Helena makes him want to throw up.
Embarrassed upon being followed into the enchanted forest, especially after he has warned Helena that it is a dangerous place of sexual license to the point of violence, Demetrius tells the pursuing woman that he is “wood within this wood.” As with most such odd but seemingly throwaway Shakespearean lines, this can be deconstructed a variety of ways. “Wood” is derived from the Old English word wod which means “mad” or “lunatic.” It’s true that Demetrius has been driven nuts by Helena’s affections as she has “wooed” him into and within the wood. But scholars such as Marjorie Garber point out that to be wood within the wood is also a way of admitting that Demetrius – and everyone else who’s entered the enchanted realm – are becoming as transformative and changeable as the wod-wood itself.
Thus the geographical setting – this one-night-enchanted wood near Athens – becomes synonymous with the elements and themes Shakespeare wants to continue scrutinizing from Romeo and Juliet: inconstancy, love as a disorder of the senses, the power of imaginative night over logical day, illusion and dreams, disguises, and the illusory power (to the point of self-destruction) of self-dramatization. (And perhaps of theatrical dramatization as well.)
Many scholars speak of three worlds colliding in that wood of collied night, but I’ve always seen four: the mythical-historical tale of the bullying but much-loved (in a way very similar to that of Queen Elizabeth I) King Theseus and his conquered Queen of the Amazons bride Hippolyta; the other end of the male-logic-reigns spectrum of the rude mechanicals Peter Quince, Nick Bottom, Flute, Snout, and Snug; the four star-crossed lovers (whom Shakespeare cares so little about, as individual characters, that he makes them all but interchangeable from the beginning) – Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius; and the invisible but omnipresent fairies. It is in the fairy world where the “natural world” is suffering from a battle-for-power-between-the-sexes of King of the Fairies Oberon and Queen of the Fairies Titania, while Robin Goodfellow/Puck is the true actor (in every sense of the word) and their menials are the gentle, childlike Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed.
That’s a lot of worlds to collide. And while we’ve mentioned earlier that Shakespeare was no great shakes at devising plots, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of only three out of his thirty-nine plays (the other two being The Tempest and Love’s Labour’s Lost) that is not based on some primary source. These other two plays are basically plotless, but we know that Shakespeare took some pride in his plotting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream – this complex collision of four worlds – and it was his masterpiece up to that time (and in some ways none of his later work surpassed it.)
But I think that even the best scholars are wrong when they say that there was no “primary source” for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The more times I read both plays, the more times I see that Shakespeare’s true source was his own Romeo and Juliet, written no more than two years earlier and possibly immediately before A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (And possibly even after, which would explain Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech.) .
In both plays there are fathers who want to choose their daughter’s husband – old Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In both cases we have powerful male authority figures who attempt to order their worlds through force and logic: the Prince in Romeo and Juliet, the Duke of Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In both plays, the young women refuse to be told whom they must marry, defying not only their father’s right to decide such things but the very public order of their cities, and in both plays the girl-women plan to run away with their lovers. In both plays, the young women are threatened with the life of a nun: Friar Laurence tells Juliet that he will “dispose” of her among “a sisterhood of holy nuns” and Theseus demands that Hermia imagine wearing “the livery of a nun./ . . . Chanting faint hymns to the cold and fruitless moon.”
(One must wonder what the ultimate nunnish virgin of the era, Queen Elizabeth, thought of lines such as these – not to mention the theme of the play of needed heirs being lost to women who cannot or will not reproduce -- as she sat in the audience as A Midsummer Night’s Dream was presented at the wedding she’d attended, but we can return to that thought later.)
Both plays contain and extend the same images and tropes – the nightengale singing at evening, the lark at dawn, the freedom of licentious night versus the duties of daylight, the lovers Senecan and clichéd cries of “Ay, me!” (Juliet sighs this from her balcony and Mercutio makes fun of it most effectively in Romeo and Juliet and Lysander cries it as well in A Midsummer Night’s Dream ) and even the use of lightning as a central metaphor.
If anyone ever challenges you to summarize the doomed love of the young couple (and of logic) in Romeo and Juliet, feel free to borrow Lysander’s use of the lightning image in A Midsummer Night’s Dream –
Or, if there were a sympathy in choice,
War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,
Making it momentary as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And, ‘ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”,
The jaws of darkness do devour it up.
So quick bright things come to confusion.
This is one of my favorite quotations from all of Shakespeare and I believe it describes not only the inevitable arc of our loves, but also the truth of the Imagination as revealed by lightning flashes of inspiration. And sadly, it probably summarizes the arc of our full lives as well, not to mention the feebleness of our perception and understanding during those short years, in which, when we have some real encounter with the transcendental – as per Bottom’s Dream -- ‘ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”, The jaws of darkness do devour it up.
After Des Moines and the revelation of Mrs. Brenner’s Woods, my father was transferred again and we spent some lost time in Chicago – brief, but long enough to reinforce my lifelong dislike of large cities – then were told by the Corporation that we must move to Dallas. For the one and only time, the whole family rebelled, my father left the company that was transferring him to Texas, and we returned instead to this place and that in central Illinois, before finally coming to light (in every sense of the word) for several years in the my mother’s birthplace, the tiny town of Brimfield (which I’ve portrayed as Elm Haven in several novels).
Brimfield (POP. 650 SPEED ELECTRICALLY TIMED) had its in-town overarching great elms and some fine old oaks and, along with a few hitching posts leaning here and there, a racial memory of the chestnut trees that once formed a forest so thick in America that the proverbial squirrel could proverbially gambol from branch to branch from Boston to St. Louis without ever touching the ground, but the town itself was surrounded by flat fields of view-obscuring corn and listless low rows of beans.
But two miles or so out of town to the east along a gravel road, no travel time at all with our old fat-wheeled bikes, was the Lone Tree Tavern and then the steep hills that were literal death to drunk drivers and then Calvary Cemetery and Art’s and Anne’s farmhouse and beyond and behind some miles of woods and the Billy Goat Mountains abandoned gravel quary and Stone Creek with the crawdads that bit our toes and Corpse Creek where the dead German Shepherd lay soggily decomposing at the bottom with the white line of gravel coming out of his mouth and Camp Three hidden deep in the willows in the woods and then, even deeper in the woods, as deep as anyone could go, there was Gypsy Lane, its origins lost to legend and myth but its magic still very real.
There were good friends in this little town, other guys whose friendship echoes through a lifetime, and our bikes, and the Bike Patrol, and Mike’s chickenhouse for a clubhouse, and – by age eleven – glorious freedom.
My 1991 novel Summer of Night was about that time, and about one summer of that time – 1960, when all the world of kiddom was either eleven or twelve years old – and about the secrets and silences of childhood then. But mostly it was about that freedom of a bunch of kids in summer to jump on their bikes early in the morning and, all but ignoring their moms’ shouted cries of “Be home by dark!” (what is ‘dark’ anway, when there are such wonderful moonrises and starlit nights?), take off for the long day, out to the world, out to the woods. And there were three full glorious summers in Brimfield for my little brother and me. Three summers in which we didn’t have to pack up everything and move yet again – not until the fourth summer, after 7th grade, where we did have to leave everything and everyone behind again . . . including childhood.
So in the first lines of Chapter Three of Summer of Night I explain this wonder of glorious summer to the reader –
“Few events in a human being’s life – at least a male human being’s life – are as free, as exuberant, as infinitely expansive and filled with potential as the first day of summer when one is an eleven-year-old boy. The summer lies ahead like a great banquet and the days are filled with rich, slow time in which to enjoy each course.”
There are, out there right now, 768,241 PhD dissertations knuckling their humpbacked way toward dusty shelves, in every one of which hopeful little bardscholars unpack their brains on the ineluctable conclusion that Shakespeare, in his work, was always fighting to find a balance between his love of London and his love of the deep greenwood. Stratford was perched not far from the forest primeval, y’know; Arden Wood, used as a stand-in for the Ardennes Forest in As You Like It, the third leg of the pastoral magical-wood stool to go with The Tempest and our very own A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, wouldn’t you know it, Shakespeare’s mother was named – tada! – Mary Arden. The call of the magical night-wood was loud in the Bard’s very blood. We know that Shakespeare always planned to return to Stratford and the quiet, pastoral life once he’d made enough money to buy his gentleman status and escape London. Yes, yes, the call of the dimwood was loud, even amongst the din and street noises of busy London life. So say 768,241 PhD dissertations.
And 768,241 PhD dissertations are probably dumbchuckle wrong.
The deep wood had a bad rap through all of the Middle Ages (and before), representing as it did lawlessness and disorder and banditry and the reign of the Devil and malevolent spirits in the form of what New Yorker Woody Allen has called “mere mindless vegetable matter”, and all through those Middle Ages human-tended gardens were small, formal, rigidly designed, and emotionally constipated little things; statements of human order ascendant over the frightening chaos of Nature.
It took another writer whom I respect, John Fowles, in his essay “The Tree” to give a different perspective on Shakespeare’s presumed love of the Robin Hood myth of easy life in the green wood:
“As in much else, the Robin Hood myth, or the part of it that suggests life under the greenwood tree can be pleasant, runs profoundly counter to the general feeling and spirit of the Middle Ages; and even in the Robin Hood corpus, the happy greenwood side is much more an element of the Elizabethan and later ballads and accounts than the earlier ones. It is probably no coincidence that the end of the first great wave of common-land enclosure and the rise of the Puritan ethos both took place in Elizabethan times. The first hints of a rebellious and irreligious swing from nature-fearing to nature-liking took place then. The pastoral settings and themes of some of Shakespeare’s plays – the depiction of not totally unrewarding exiles from the safe garden of civilization in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, The Tempest and the rest – are not examples of the foresight of genius, but skilful pandering to a growing vogue. Yet little of this is reflected in actual seventeenth-century ways of life – and least of all in its gardens, which remained in general quite as formal as medieval ones. Nature still remained a potential dissolver of decency, a notion that the endless chain of new discoveries about the ways of more primitive man – the nearer nature, the nearer Caliban – did nothing to dispel. It remained essentially an immense green cloak for Satan; for the commission of crime and sin, for doubters of religious and public order; above all for impious doubters of man himself, as God’s chosen steward and bailiff over the rest of creation.”
Shakespeare as an opportunist pandering to a switch in public perceptions? OK. It works with what I know of the man and artist.
The only existing fragment of play script we have in Shakespeare’s own hand was part of a collaboration he did on a play about Sir Thomas More. The section that Shakespeare had chosen to write was a scene – later suppressed by the authorities – where More faces down a mob of insurrectionists. The man from Stratford, however much he trusted the greenwood of the imagination, always, in the end, aligned himself with the forces of order and authority. It seems there might be more Theseus than Puck in Shakespeare. If he had ever written a direct take on Robin Hood, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d chosen the Sheriff of Nottingham as his hero.
My novel Summer of Night was my first attempt to enter the forest thicket of themes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Along with the freedom of the greenwood for my kid characters came their brush with the dark side of the supernatural, with the imminent threat of their own adulthood, and with their first confrontations with mortality. But I left all the love stuff out.
The supernatural core of Shakespeare’s play about midsummer madness is Robin Goodfellow, or Puck.
In a real sense, Puck and Bottom are the two central and deep characters of the play; all the rest are simply there to serve a purpose. More than merely acting the mischievous household hobgoblin, Puck is a frightening supernatural force and the intermediary – right up to the odd epilogue – of being both audience himself in the sense of constant spectator and the intemediary between the world of the play and the play-within-the-play and the actual audience. Puck serves as Oberon’s main man – whooshing around the world as fast as the Flash (“I’ll put a girdle round about the earth/In forty minutes” [2.I.175-178]) to get the flowers named “love in idleness” to provide the love-enchantment, for instance – but also as the King of the Fairies’ jester or Fool.
Shakespeare always invests much wisdom in his Fools, and Puck is no exception. It’s Puck who, holding mortals in deep contempt throughout the play, offers perhaps the most quoted line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream –
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
But it’s the archgoblin’s own blunders that drive the story. Ordered by Oberon to change Demetrius’s love and passion from Hermia to Helena (whom fickle Demetrius had loved once anyway), Puck finds Lysander and Hermia sleeping apart in the forest, mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, and puts his magic lotion on the wrong man’s eyelids. (To Puck, all mere mortals look alike. Besides, why would two lovers be lying apart in the night? It turns out that Lysander had been eager enough to have Hermia bed down with him – “One turf shall serve as pillow for us both,/One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth” – but the maiden Hermia had beseeched him to “Lie further off, in human(e?) modesty” and so when Puck finds them sleeping apart he assumes that Lysander is Demetrius – “Pretty soul! She durst not lie/ Near this lack-love, this kill-courtesy.”)
In a play that’s all about transformation, Robin Goodfellow aka Puck is the most transformative character we find in the forest. When he decides to drive the other rude mechanicals (not the transformed Bottom) out of the wood, Puck cries –
Sometimes a horse I’ll be, sometimes a hound,
A hog, a headless bear, sometimes a fire,
And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn,
Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn.
This is a formidable and frightening spirit, much more powerful than your everyday household sprite. Puck’s mischief can inspire terror. (It’s interesting that director Max Reinhardt chose a young Mickey Rooney to play Puck in the 1935 film version. I’ve always thought there was something scary and evil about young Andy Hardy.)
Shakespeare works hard to make the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream relatively harmless, even reducing some in size. The fairies of the Bard’s predecessors and contemporaries – such as Chaucer and Edmund Spenser in his epic poem The Faerie Queen with its powerful allegory about Queen Elizabeth – tended to be full-sized and warlike, an alternate race living alongside men but usually invisible, rather like the elves and hobbits in Tolkien’s tale told 400 years later.
Medieval men and women feared fairies, much as they feared all the supernatual ghosts and witches and goblins and sprites of the deep wood and midnight. There’s an odd moment in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Puck is warning Oberon that the night is waning and that when day breaks “ghosts, wand’ring here and there/ Troop home in churchyards” [III.ii. 382-383] – much as Hamlet’s father’s ghost, briefly escaping the Purgatory that Queen Elizabeth and the new Church of England had decreed did not exist, has to flee the daybreak – but Oberon, as if Puck knows not his or his master’s own nature, reassures his lieutenant that “we are spirits of another sort” [III.ii.389] – spirits of transformation perhaps. Spirits of imagination. Perhaps spirits of Shakespeare-the-newborn-magus’s newfound and exponentially growing powers.
Still, Puck is a frightening force, more demigod elemental than mere fairy.
The generations of darkwood-haunted Englishmen before Shakespeare’s day did their best to gentle such capricious spirits with soft language, calling fairies “the good folk” and the Puck-force “Robin Goodfellow,” but Robert Kirk, writing in the 17th Century, explained that people used such terms because they “use to blesse all they fear harme of.”
My own amateur-come-lately feeling is that Puck is even more transformative than we first imagine. My guess is that the very presence of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a direct consequence of Mercutio’s incredible Queen Mab Speech in Romeo and Juliet.
Mercutio, a victim of his own slashing razor-sharp wit and intelligence and imagination, loses himself completely in his self-maddened telling of Queen Mab and her tiny fairy coachmen who haunt our dreams and incite our darkest imaginings and stir us to illogical and self-destructive love. Actually, Mercutio’s speech is a satire on the themes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which suggests – contrary to most other clues – that the comedy came first and then the tragedy. (This possibility satisfies something in me, the writer. I can imagine Shakespeare crafting the multiple-level happy endings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, watching the audience depart laughing, as they still do today, but thinking – I didn’t really explore and convey the serious consequences of blind romantic love as a disease of the senses. Thus Romeo and Juliet next to sober the audiences and to complete the poet’s exploration of the subject – for a while.)
Either way, Mercutio was, I believe, a sketch for the character of Hamlet himself and Mercutio’s brilliant wit and self-scathing cynicism so threatened to dominate Romeo and Juliet that Shakespeare killed him off early so that Romeo’s much-smarter and infinitely more cynical friend did not totally take over the play. So either the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream shifted from the comedy-first to the tragedy of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet, or the fairy-essence of Queen Mab’s invasion of the imagination to distort the senses of lovers crossed over into A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Either way, the transmigration was, if you’ll pardon the term, magical.
And perhaps more importantly, I’m convinced that the already transformative Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is poised, at least in Shakespeare’s imagination, to transform into something even more powerful and frightening. Just as Mercutio was an early version of Hamlet, so, I believe, was Puck an early sketch for Ariel in The Tempest.
(We writers never really let our best characters go, you know. We continue gnawing at them like a dog with a bone throughout our working lives.)
So where Puck is still a fairy-hobgoblin, Ariel is pure elemental: a spirit controlling earth, air, fire, and water. Robin Goodfellow, even on Peter Brooks’s trapeze, appears to us in human form, however fairy-invisible to the other players on the stage. But when we first encounter Ariel in The Tempest, the elemental is in the form of St. Elmo’s fire, flashing through the rigging of the seemingly doomed ship at sea. He is an alien being of pure electrical energy. As A.D. Nuttall has written –
“When we watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream we know what Puck is at once. He is a tricksy spite, the familiar Robin Goodfellow of folklore. Ariel is obviously in certain respects Puck rewritten, but a fundamental change has taken place. We do not know what he is.”
Oberon controls Puck and the human magus Prospero has enslaved Ariel and holds him in check, but where Puck will only do more mundane mischief were he to escape Oberon’s control, we get the full sense that Ariel – if angered and freed from Prospero’s tight management – might well rain nuclear fire down on us mere mortals.
I’ve often thought that Ariel was born at Trinity Site in 1945. He travels in time as easily as Puck travels through space. And where is Prospero when we need him now?
In my daughter Jane’s sophomore year at Hamilton College in the town of Clinton in central New York, she played Thisby in a student production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As has been the case with so many productions of this play over the centuries, the troupe decided to stage it in an actual forest. The woods at Hamilton are formally called The Root Glen, named after the family of botanist Oren Root, and although only a little more than 7 steep and heavily wooded acres in size, the Glen is one of the more interesting arboretum-slash-outdoor-botanic gardens in the United States.
Oren Root and his wife bought a little house (called the Homestead) and started planting trees, shrubs and flowers in the sheep pasture there around their house in 1850. Root was a collector and a dabbler in mineralogy and horticulture, and at the time he started planting and pruning the 3 acres where Jane’s group staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream 152 years later, the ravine had been a dump (carcasses of horses a specialty) used by Hamilton students to go off and practice commencement oratory (by shouting from both sides of the ravine.) Root’s friend was Asa Gray, a professor of natural history at Harvard, and over the decades Gray sent Root specimens of interesting plants from the around the United States, but especially from the American West.
Oren had a special planting bed near the stream, not far from where Jane-Thisby had to run off “stage” between her scenes, that he called the Gray Bed because it featured the special plants sent to him by Asa Gray. Gray, who was largely responsible for introducing Charles Darwin’s theory into the United States, began exchanging plants with naturalist John Torrey as early as 1830. Torry to Gray to Oren Root was a combo second only to Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance that developed, at Harvard, the most valuable herbarium in the United States, while many of the same plants are still there in the Root Glen’s garden.
Jane had an indirect connection to the Glen even when she was a toddler in her car seat, since two prominent 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado south of I-70 as one drives west into the Rockies – invariably called the Grays and Torreys since both are usually climbed in one outing – were named after the famous botanists. (I believe that Mr. Torrey came out to climb, or at least see, his mountain when he was 86 years old and Mr. Gray climbed his.)
Meanwhile, Hamilton College’s Root Glen, even when it’s not the host for a moonlight production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a great young comedienne in Thisby’s role, is a true enchanted woods with 65 species of trees. Here’s a self-guided walking tour if you’d like to drive to central New York to take it -
Even funnier, to me, than the actual pathetic (and much-mocked) performance of the tale of Pyramus and Thisby is the first discussion in Scene II of Peter Quince’s play among the mechanicals who are to play it.
The seven artisans (none of whom have a damned thing to do with ancient Athens and everything to do with the Elizabethan world outside the gates of the Globe Theater) – Quince the Carpenter, Snug the Joiner, Bottom the Weaver, Flute the Bellows Mender, Snout the Tinker, Starveling the Tailor (all of whose names are based on stereotypes of the day, such as tailors being skinny) – constitute the flip-side of the coin of Theseus’ resistance to imagination. And it turns out that the mechanicals’, although all thrilled at the prospect of performing their little homewritten play before the Duke, are as equally suspicious about the power and place of imagination in real people’s lives.
First, though, there is the truly timeless humor of Bottom volunteering to play almost every part that Quince is assigning; he begs to play both lovers, Pyramus and Thisby, and the roaring lion as well.
Bottom: Let me play the lion too. I will roar that I will do any man’t heart good to hear me. I will roar, that I will make the Duke say, “Let him roar again, let him roar again.”
Quince and the other mechanicals agree that Bottom would roar until the ladies in the audience would shriek and then the Duke would hang them all.
Bottom: I grant you, friends, if you should fright the ladies out of their wits, they would have no more discretion but to hang us: but I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove; I will roar you and ‘twere any nightingale.
Any of us who’ve ever served on a committee, much less been involved with amateur theater, know Nick Bottom the Weaver – the over-enthusiastic type ready, willing, and eager to assume all roles and responsibilities, to do it all to the point of making everyone else in the project or production superfluous to the extreme. And when the mechanicals meet again in Act III – sneaking out of the city to rehearse in the enchanted wood, of course – the unimaginative little troupe is still worrying at the idea that the audience will be too frightened by the lion or by the sword play or into thinking that the suicides of Pyramus and Thisby might be real. In each case Quince must write a prologue informing the audience that the lion is not real, that the swords are mere sticks, and that no one really dies during this most lamentable comedy.
But then they have to deal with the twin problems of moonlight and the wall. Since the script says that Pyramus and Thisby are met in moonlight, one of them must play Moonshine, carrying a bush of thorns and a lantern (since legend has it that the man in the moon had been placed up there for gathering firewood for Sunday.) And then, of course, there’s supposed to be a wall with a chink in it through which Pyramus and Thisby can speak, and the group worries again about straining the audience’s imagination in the summoning up of a wall.
Bottom: Some man or other must present Wall; and let him have some plaster, or some loam, or some roughcast about him to signify Wall; and let him hold his fingers thus, and through that cranny shall Pyramus and Thisby whisper.
Do you see this, Fellow Reader? The loamed and somewhat plastered and generally roughcast wall holding two fingers apart to provide the chink through which the lovers must whisper? While Moonshine stands nearby with his lantern and bush of thorns, just in case there’s no real moonlight shining through the Duke’s casement that night? (They had checked the calendar and know the Duke’s wedding will be on a night of the full moon, but such things as open casements cannot be trusted to.)
When all the business in the forest between the lovers and fairies and Bottom with his ass’s head is resolved and the play is actually chosen by Duke Theseus and Hippolyta for performance, it’s even worse than we could have imagined.
Thisby (through the spread-fingered chink in Wall): As Shafalus to Procrus, I to you.
Pyramus: O kiss me through the hole of this vile wall!
Thisby: I kiss the wall’s hole, not your lips at all.
And through all this, Duke Theseus and his royal guests are playing Joel (or Mike) and the ‘bots (ala MST3K), shouting cruel comments to each other and the players. (Hippolyta’s comments are far less vicious than the Duke’s and we see the inevitable marriage abyss opening between them even before the rest of their wedding night can speed the process.) When Lion comes on and spends most of his speech explaining that he is not a lion at all, but merely Snug the joiner – here, can you not see my face sticking out of the costume? –
For, if I should as lion come in strife
Into this place, ‘twere pity on my life.
Theseus: A very gentle beast, and of a good conscience.
Demetrius: The very best at a beast, my lord, that e’er I saw.
Lysander: This lion is a very fox for his valor.
Theseus: True; and a goose for his discretion.
And so on. So by the time poor Moonshine comes on stage with his bundle of twigs and lantern – or “lanthorn” as Moonshine says, since many lanterns in those days were made of horn – the heckling comes even faster and more cruel, shouts from the Duke and others suggesting that the actor needs horns since he is obviously cuckolded. Even Hippolyta gets into the crueller mood and shouts, “I am weary of this moon. Would he would change.”
Whichever of the literal-minded artisans is playing Moonshine (to be honest, I’ve lost track at this point, knowing only that it’s not Pyramus-Bottom or Flute-Thisby or Snug-Lion), he – and all our other striving-to-please mechanicals friends are flummoxed to the point that befuddled Moonshine steps out of character to address the royal box –
Moonshine: All that I have to say is to tell you that the lanthorn is the moon; I, the man I’ the moon; this thorn bush, my thorn bush; and this dog, my dog.
This is all very funny. But in the cruelty of the gentry baiting the actors here to the point where Moonshine has to say “ and this dog, my dog”, we may be reminded the Rose Theater where this play appeared, and the Globe after it, were set between bear-baiting pits – where happy customers paid to set dogs snarling and ripping at live bears – and bull-baiting pits. It was all one – the bull-baiting, the bear-baiting, and a new play by Shagsper perhaps taken in between these other two amusements.
(And while you fourth-graders are gathered ‘round me here to learn more about bear-baiting – the bears slapped out the brains and snapped the bones of many dogs before they themselves were brought down in blood and gore, you understand, thus the fun and source of amusement – you should also know that next to the Rose (and later the Globe) Theater and the bear-baiting pits and the bull-baiting pits and the great open ditch full of human and animal excrement, there was Mr. Henslowe’s brothel . . . yes, the same Mr. Henslowe who paid Shakespeare to write these plays and who produced the theatrical events . . . and that Mr. Henslowe’s brothel specialized in All Virgins (both sexes), All the Time! You there, fourth-grade sweetie, what’s your name? Jennifer? How old are you, Jennifer? Nine? That’s a little young, even for Shakespeare’s employer, but by age eleven you could be be earning your keep in his brothel. And for years after that, once you learn how to use the hidden bladder with pig’s blood in it.)
Where were we here?
Oh, yes – cruel laughter at someone else’s expense ala Duke Theseus, the interchangeable male suitors Lysander and Demetrius, and even Hippolyta.
Well, if it makes you kiddies feel any better – please knock off the weeping, Jennifer – all comedy in theater up until Shakespeare was predicated on the audience joining with other characters to parody and insult some character within the play. It was William Shakespeare who invented the odd idea of audiences (and other characters) laughing with someone on stage rather than invariably at him or her. The ratio of cruel laughter to shared laughter is still about ten to one, more so actually in recent decades of enhanced film cruelty, but at least Shakespeare showed us that laughter without a sacrificial human target with whom to ridicule and administer pain can be done.
Shakespeare’s return to bear-baiting in his plays, even after he’d shown us how it can be avoided with the reward of true comedy at no person’s expense, kept showing up in his later comedies – some of which, such as All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure were already rancid and mean-spirited for plot and thematic reasons (and for personal reasons still known only to Shakespeare) – but real malice invades even the most harmless of his harmless pastoral comedies, Twelfth Night.
There, as in many of his best characters and plays (Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet in Hamlet) there is a character who simply doesn’t belong in the play – Malvolio – only in Twelfth Night, this wayward character isn’t there because he’s too large for the piece of fairly conventional theater wrapped around him, as Mercutio and Hamlet and Cleopatra and Falstaff and Shylock and others are, but so that he can be the butt of some of the worst sadism William Shakespeare ever unleashed on a single character. (And this includes the cartoon splatterfest aimed at all the characters, but especially poor Lavinia, in that out-Marlowe-ing send-up of all things Marlowe called Titus Andronicus.)
As his name suggests (in a play where most characters names – Viola, Olivia, Orsino, all in the pastoral fantasyland of Illyria – are deliberate variations on similar sounds to the point of becoming mere syllable-shufflings) Malvolio holds and harbors and shows ill-will toward everyone. But he is no villain: no murderous Iago or vile-bastard Edmund. Malvolia harms no one (although this so-called comedy ends with him shaking his fist and promising to get revenge on “the whole pack of you,” thus showing how they’d behaved toward him as wolves do with a helpless calf.) Malvolio’s fault is simply that he’s a kill-joy and grump in a play about pastoral festivals, fun disguises, and love. A bureaucrat in yet another Shakespearean frolic about midsummer night’s madness.
And Malvolio’s sin, for which he received some of the worst punishment in all of Shakespeare, was being gulled into believing that a woman above his station was in love with him. To this day, “the yellow cross-gartering” and fixed, zombie smile he was tricked into holding, are universal symbols of some self-serious jerk forced to play the fool for our amusement.
And, yes, even four hundred years later we’re in on the little joke that Malvolio is a stand-in for another playwright, Ben Jonson, who criticized Shakespeare (during Shakespeare’s lifetime) for his “little Latin” and inadequate education and sloppy writing. W.H. Auden called Twelfth Night a Christian comedy of charity, but called the play-within-the-play here (there is almost always one with Shakespeare) Malvolio Gulled and described this wretched piece of sadism as Roman-Jonsonian, with the Romans’ sense of knee-slapping comedy as vicious verbal malice and direct physical injury times ten.
But the humiliation, ridiculing, imprisonment, and continued mockery of Malvolio in a play where any real malice should be foreign is, I think, a sign of something strange going on within Shakespeare himself.
In the later sonnets, Shakespeare admits to having done something that has fouled his reputation, perhaps besmirched his honor. While New Historicists tussle to isolate some public or private act, there are the few of us who find this confessed “sin” in the warp and weave of his writing.
A few of the best commentators on Shakespeare across the centuries have suggested that it was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that William Shakespeare fully realized that his own poetry, especially the poetry imbedded in his plays, was a form of magic. No scholar I, still I would be so presumptuous as to point to the very lines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Shakespeare realized that he was a working magus, capable of casting spells over other human beings and having those spells work across time and space.
I submit that these specific lines below from A Midsummer Night’s Dream are where Shakespeare first realized that his writer’s craft had become a real magician’s ability to control men’s minds, to raise and use the dead, and to defy mortality itself:
Oberon: Thou rememb’rest
Since once I sat upon a promontory
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their sphere
To hear the sea maid’s music?
Puck: I remember.
Thus, while it has become less fashionable in recent years and decades to see The Tempest as a poet-magus’s own farewell to the theater, I think we have to revisit that thought and see the deeper, hidden dimension to it that reveals not just Shakespeare, the writer’s, farewell, but his sense of having sinned.
A.D. Nutall has written of this hidden thing in The Tempest (and in Shakespeare/Prospero at the end of that play):
“A Faustian smell still hangs about the figure of the magician. We have seen throughout the play Prospero appears to be haunted by a consciousness of some sin that is never explained to us, the audience. The strangest thing of all, to one interested in the strength of early modern dramatic convention, is the intrusion into Prospero’s Epilogue of a plea that the audience should pray for him. Prospero explains how he feels his powers draining out of him and adds, “My ending is despair/Unless I be reliev’d by prayer” (Epilogue, 15-16) It is almost embarrassing. Remember Puck’s Epilogue at the end of AMidsummer Night’s Dream, which so elegantly reassured the audience and, most important, told them when to applaud. As Prospero comes forward to speak our hands, perhaps, are already raised, prepared for clapping, but then, as he speaks of prayer, some will bring their hands together, not with a plosive sound but softly, in anxious assent to his bizarre request.”
If William Shakespeare had written The Tempest as, at least in part, his farewell to the theater, what sin is he confessing in Prospero’s last words and actions? What was the sin that seemed to haunt the Bard when he was still at the height of his dramaturgical and thaumaturgical powers?
At the end of The Tempest, yet another “pastoral” tale set in a fantasy world not so different than the forest outside of ahistorical Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we might, if we chose to do so, see the frightening elemental spirit Ariel as Shakespeare’s Muse. If Shakespeare, looking at his retirement, truly was pondering the surrender of his magical powers – and there is much evidence, as mentioned earlier, that Shakespeare had seen magic and poetry as “near-allied” since he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream – then it’s the use of those Prospero-powers themselves that he may be apologizing for, since – just as Prospero had done the Biblically prohibited unthinkable in raising the dead to power his necromancy – Shakespeare knows by this point that he has woven successful illusions within illusions, strong realities within realities within dreams within alternate realities for his audiences and future readers. Nutall goes on –
“ The book of magic was to be surrendered to the waters (“I’ll drown my book,”
[V.i.57]). If Ariel is in some sense Prospero’s genius and Prospero is in some sense
Shakespeare, after the strange constriction of moral efficacy in the grand eucatastrophe,
the poetic gift is at last freed, but not to heal or reconcile human conflict – to vanish from
our sight into the air, leaving “not a rack behind” (IV.i.156) . . . . But as we watch the
full, resolving act of forgiveness performed in The Tempest and see this withered in the
act of utterance, we can feel that comedy itself is dying. The sense of redemption so
strong in the other romances is replaced by a kind of vertigo.”
[A.D. Nutall, Shakespeare: The Thinker, p. 372]
The Tempest is perhaps the most benign of Shakespeare’s pastorals (despite the presence of the truly disturbing – to sensibilities not driven to madness by academic politics -- monster Caliban) and in this culminating play, divisions between reality and dream-fantasy are blurred in even more ways than in the everyone-sleeps-to-dream A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In every play in which Shakespeare embeds a play-within-the-play, including Hamlet, the play-within-the-play is aborted due to some arising contingency or the other (it is Claudius, faced with his own murderous deeds acted out by the players, fleeing that ends it early in Hamlet and Theseus’ and friends’ heckling in A Midsummer Night’s Dream ), but in The Tempest the elaborate betrothal masque being put on to celebrate Prospero’s daughter Miranda’s impending engagement to Ferdinand is interrupted when Prospero suddenly remembers the planned rebellion by Caliban and his surly human co-plotters.
Quite obviously disturbed by his own un-maguslike forgetfulness, Prospero waves away his many and colorful spirit-actors in the strangest of all premature endings in a Shakespearean play – “To a strange, hollow, and confused noise, they heavily vanish” [IV, i.138]. Nutall again, perhaps the most sensitively attuned critic to this deeper strangeness within strangeness (and Prospero’s despair at having almost forgotten), has described this sudden disappearance of the spirit-masque –
“ . . . the betrothal masque gurgles away like water down a plughole, or, more grandly, like astral matter down into a black hole.”
Mention of a black hole seems fitting here, since The Tempest is, by far, the most science-fictional of all of Shakespeare’s plays (and, as everyone knows, the inspiration for the 1956 SF film “Forbidden Planet.)
When the wimpy but ever-polite Ferdinand (just the kind of unsexed being that every domineering and over-protective father-magus wants for a son-in-law) politely asks Prospero if there’s a problem, Prospero’s answer begins as a sort of reassurance but soon swerves into the real sense of vertigo that Nutall suggests the play will later end with in Prospero’s off-putting Epilogue. Here Prospero’s first response to Ferdinand:
These our actors
(As I foretold you) were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like the insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
I agree with those critics across the centuries who believe that in this speech, set deep in a pastoral comedy, we find the full and terrible nihilism not even matched by the closing scenes of King Lear.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream celebrated layer upon layer of overlapping unreality, but in the end there was a dual ontology beneath the play-acting and dreaming. Reality, in the sense that if one kicks a stone it will hurt the toe if not the stone, still has some place in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What Prospero is explaining to his unimaginative future son-in-law in The Tempest is that everything we know and everything we think we are and do is no more than a dream. Imagine Prospero’s words accompanied by modern movie digital special effects in which some explosion of anti-matter unreality ignites, blooms, spreads, and engulfs the actors, the audience, the theater – “the great Globe itself” – and the world, erasing all substance beyond what we can imagine.
Prospero seems to be accusing himself of the ultimate sin of such hubris – praying for forgiveness for his hard-earned ability to summon the unreal at any time, for any purpose – and through him, perhaps, we can hear the Magus Shakespeare born on a dolphin’s back a decade or so earlier in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
This is profoundly non-Christian stuff. No, it is worse than non-Christian, it is a magus’s blend of post-Christian and anti-Christian revelation, as told through an elemental spirit with electricity for blood and thermonuclear fusion in its eyes. Prospero (and Will Shakespeare) absolutely promise us resurrection, but it is a true and terrifying form of resurrection that has nothing to do with Christian dreams of redemption and salvation and immortal life, or Christ’s far less poetic resurrection, or even of life in any form that we know it. This is the resurrection and view of eternity seen in one of Shakespeare’s most powerful poetic flights:
Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
(The Tempest, I.ii.397-402)
Last summer was the first summer for our Simmons Summer Cinema Series (Movies Under the Stars!) here at our new home. When we landscaped the place two years ago, we planned for movies in a certain backyard section – the yard dipping to a low point here, the boulders set high back there for extra stadium seating, the pergola connecting the back patio with this grassy section of the yard where the movies will be shown.
There’s a good DVD projector, a 12-foot-diagonal outdoor screen on a complicated metal frame, two great speakers on tall tripods, a modest number of wires to plug in, and plenty of staked-down guy ropes to secure the screen and its structure. We pop fresh popcorn – none of this microwave stuff – in the hour before the movie begins at dusk and fill about fifty striped “professional popcorn bags” that we bought by the thousand. The popcorn and lemonade (and hot coffee in carafes on cool nights) go on a wooden bench in the shadows of the pergola, but yellow bulbs strung through the branches and lathes of the pergola provide light there on even the darkest night. There are also candles lighted in eight or ten large glass lanterns. Neighbors and friends usually bring their own folding chairs and blankets to sit on or huddle in – some high school girls bring sleeping bags since June nights in Colorado can be chilly – and some of the guys bring their own beer.
This is no university film festival: we like to open the Summer Cinema Series with a Summer Blockbuster movie like “Jaws” or “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and as the summer nights get hotter, we may choose some hot-weather movie such as “Rear Window.”
We hold the movies on Saturday nights, starting at dusk.
When I was a kid in Brimfield, Illinois, the town had a Saturday night “Free Show” that was the center of weekly social life for everyone too young or too old to have a real social life. I have no idea who provided the projector, speakers, and fairly recent movies – one of them, 1957’a “Heaven Knows, Mr. Alison” with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, was on Turner Classic Movies last night – but someone did and the tiny bandstand park in downtown Brimfield (POP. 650 SPEED ELECTRICALLY TIMED) became the center of things with farm families parking their pickups and old DeSotos along the fringe of the park and us town kids and families sitting on blankets and park benches as the movie was projected onto a huge sheet on the side of the Parkside Café.
Regular readers of my work may have noticed that I used the Free Show as a sort of leitmotif in several of my novels, especially in Summer of Night, and . . . .
[Dan’s note: . . . and here is where things get weird. I knew before starting this essay on A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I would be quoting from a certain scene in Summer of Night where, while on his way to the Free Show, 11-yr-old Dale Stewart suddenly realizes that he’s going to die someday. This confrontation between the kids in that novel and their own mortality was part of the dark heart of the book and this particular scene – Dale alone, stunned into sitting on a grassy curb where he can hear sounds of the Free Show starting up at Bandstand Park just two blocks away, the boy realizing with no escape that he must and will die someday – was the heart of the heart of Summer of Night.
So, although never quite comfortable quoting from my own work, I went to the proper shelves where I keep my own books, grabbed the only paperback copy of Summer of Night that I own, flipped it open to page 61 and thereabouts where I knew the scene to be . . . .
And it wasn’t there. Lots of mentions of the Free Show and several scenes, such as on p.61, where Dale and his brother Lawrence are headed for the Free Show, but no confrontation-with-one’s-own-mortality scene. Since this was one of the most important scenes I’ve ever written, its absence made my scalp prickle.
After going through the entire paperback several times – a strange experience unto itself – I realized that there must have been some error in the translation from hardcover to paperback. I repeated the long hunting exercise with the Putnam hardcover of Summer of Night.
No Free Show/mortality scene.
Could it have been edited out in the revisions? Very unlikely. That battle between me and the Putnam editor (and publisher) has become legendary. I ended up making a desert and calling it peace. The publisher, possibly without reading the manuscript, had insisted on cutting almost 50% of the novel; I had kept 98% of everything they’d wanted to cut and then published the few scenes I’d removed, all dream scenes where various kids caught glimpses of their futures, in a chapbook titled BANISHED DREAMS.
So where was the important confronting-death-while-on-the-way-to-the-Free-Show-scene that I remembered so very well?
Just to make sure I wasn’t totally hallucinating, I asked my wife if she remembered the scene I was hunting for. She did – in great detail, including where Dale (or whichever character I had confront his mortality while on the way to the Free Show) tried to come to grips with the fact that he was going to die on one of the seven days of the week (and that the thought of dying on Wednesday, the day his favorite TV show, Man Into Space starring William Lundigan, was on, was just too much for him to bear.)
Reassured that I wasn’t totally nuts, I began looking in other sources where I’ve mentioned the Free Show. That leitmotif had shown up in my novel Phases of Gravity, where my little town of Brimfield was labeled as Glen Oak, Illinois, but my character there, Richard Baedecker, was older than I so his Free Show memories came from his kid-years during World War II. Obviously no Man Into Space TV shows memories there, but I checked anyway. Not there.
Where else had I used the fictional town of Elm Haven? Once in a story titled, cleverly, “Elm Haven,” in an anthology called Freak Show – my story done as a fundraising favor for the Horror Writers of America (as they were known then) and its president at the time, F. Paul Wilson, who’d given my first novel Song of Kali a great blurb when no one knew who I was – but that Elm-Haven story was set around 1990 and there was no Free Show kid-confronting-reality scene in it.
Where else? My 2000 novel A Winter Haunting in which the now 50-year-old Dale Lawrence goes back to his dead friend Duane’s farmhouse for a winter, that farmhouse just miles outside of Elm Haven. Could this scene have been a flashback to his childhood written years after I’d remembered its placement in Summer of Night?
Not there. I dug out other old stories, including the little-known “Death of the Centaur” which isn’t set in Elm Haven at all . . . anything that might have some reference to a Free Show. Not there. I checked other books of mine, such as the Hawaii-based novel Fires of Eden, which had any of my grown-up kid characters from Summer of Night in them. No mortality + Free Show scene anywhere. By this time, I’d spent the afternoon and evening reading old books and scenes of mine, most of which I haven’t opened or looked at since they were published, and I was beginning to wonder if I ever wrote about any topic other than small Illinois towns that had a Free Show in Bandstand Park on Saturday nights.
But the most crucial scene of all simply was not anywhere in print. About midnight last night, I was headed for the storage room where I keep all the multiple drafts of all my novels, tall box after box after box, and stopped myself. Whether the scene itself was in some earlier draft (which Karen must have read in manuscript) or had even been written as a vignette as far back as college (several scenes and short tales I wrote for my one and only fiction-writing course, when I was a junior at Wabash, had not only survived but found themselves transformed – after suffering only a slight sea change – into scenes in Phases of Gravity, Summer of Night, and my other early novels. Henry James had described a writer as “A person on whom nothing is lost.” I always paraphrase that as a professional writer is “someone who wastes nothing he’s ever written.”
Wherever that scene is on the page, I remember it word for word – even if it’s been more than 40 years since I wrote it – so I’ll recreate it below:]
. . . and here is the scene where the Free Show stands for something more than a free movie in the town park:
“Dale was running south along the slabby sidewalk that bordered the deep, wide yards along Broad Street. He was trying to get to the Free Show before it got totally dark and before the cartoons were over. Dale’s dad was still away on a weekend business trip and his mom had taken Lawrence down to the park in the ’48 Buick while Dale had still been with Mike and Kev and the guys in O’Rourke’s chickenhouse. Now he could hear the amplified crashes and bangs from the last Tom and Jerry cartoon and even see the glow from Bandstand Park two blocks ahead of him.
“Somewhere near the long rolling yard in front of Mrs. Double-butt’s tall Victorian house, Dale paused to catch his breath, leaning forward with his hands on his knees. He’d run too far and too hard for too long and now there were spots dancing in his vision. When he straightened up, panting, his hands on the aching small of his back now, he saw that the spots were still there – a myriad of black dots cutting the pale glow of the twilight sky glimpsed through the overarching elms into zigzag chords – and he realized that he was seeing bats flying, bats by the hundreds, bats just emerged from their caves and belfries and attics and abandoned houses to feed on the early-June banquet of flying insects.
“The sky still had some glow to it, but it was very dark here under the arching canopy of elm trees. Dale could feel the pressure of disturbed air against his heated cheeks as the bats dived, zagged, climbed, and zigged. Some were swooping just inches from his upraised face .
“And it was at precsiely this moment that Dale was struck by the thought – I AM GOING TO DIE SOMEDAY.
“ ‘Struck’ was the only word for this thought, since the impact of the revelation knocked the air out of him as certainly as if he’d been run down by Van Syke’s Rendering Truck. Unable to stand any longer, Dale staggered to the grassy curb and sat down heavily. The dots swimming in his vision now were thicker than the bats above and he put his elbows on his knees and his head lower than his raised knees in an effort to stay conscious.
“I’m going to die someday. I have to die. I will die. There’s no way to avoid it. It’s like having to go see Dr. Viskes for the physical and the painful shots before I can play basketball . . . I can put it off some, but sooner or later it’s going to happen.
“Dale Stewart felt joy and energy and the kid-joy of the Free Show flow out of him like the last cold water out of a bathtub. Two blocks south across Main Street, he could hear the crackling speakers playing movie music – the main feature was starting there in that darkness under the Bandstand Park elms and oaks – but Dale no longer cared.
“ How can the world be here without me in it? The thought was insupportable, but the fact of it was inescapable. It was all right that it had been that way before he was born, but the thought of the world going on without him after he was dead was . . . yes . . . insupportable.
“Which day of the week will it be? This unbidden thought made the vertigo and nausea and weakness flow through him again. He thought he might have to throw up, right here in the darkness in front of Mrs. Doubbet’s old house, right here next to this ancient black-iron hitching post left over from the old days when he, Dale Stewart, was as totally absent from the world as he would be again someday. But on which day of the week will I die? None of them seemed right for such a terrible thing. Saturday . . . no, not Saturday, never Saturday with its summer freedoms even in the depths of winter. That wouldn’t be fair. Tuesday? He would miss watching Lloyd Bridges in “Sea Hunt” with his brother Lawrence and it’s just not fair to die on the one night of the week when your mother let you stay up until ten. Wednesday – no, no, not fair. Dale’s favorite TV show of all time, “Men Into Space” starring William Lundigan, was on Wednesday nights and even the summer re-runs were worth being alive for.
“Dale shook his head. The nausea and weakness and blackness were still there, inside him, and he knew absolutely that now he knew that he had to die someday – the reality of it rather than just the words he’d nodded his head at as a kid – that this new knowledge would always be there inside him, a sort of terror-truth so thick and dark and irreversible that it lay deep in him as a kind of sickness from which he would never recover.
“But the dots in his vision now were just bats darting back and forth, some of them visible against the white tower of the First Presbyterian Church across the wide, crowned street running black as a river under the arching elms. Dale could hear laughter from Bandstand Park and the music was that silly kind where someone has fallen down or otherwise gotten hurt in a funny way.
“After a moment, Dale got to his feet – hanging on to the hitching post for a moment until he found his full balance – and then brushed grass and dirt off the seat of his jeans and started south again along the treacherous root-pitched and unskatable sandstone slabs of the sidewalk. But he walked, and did not run, all the rest of the way to the strangely but permanently diminished-in-joy-and-importance Saturday Free Show.”
It’s interesting how so many of us reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or in the audience for it, and for many acting in it or directing it, the true cause of all the enchantments in the forest – the swapping of loves and prospective lovers, the transformation of Bottom into an ass and of regal Titania into a fool for love – is so easily forgotten.
The cause of all this mischief and confusion is an argument between Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies respectively, over who should retain custody of a child.
It’s not even their child. It’s not even a fairy child. For all the topics that this old married couple has to fight about – such as Oberon’s many affairs with mortal women and others, including some conquests shared with the womanizer Theseus – it’s the custody of a child that’s kept Oberon and his Queen apart and thus caused terrible shifts in the world’s climate, failures of crops, and other disasters for humans. Oberon explains –“I do but beg a little changeling boy/ To be my henchman” – that is, a sort of page in the King of the Fairies royal court.
But why this mortal child? Because Titania refuses to yield him.
Set your heart at rest:
The fairy land buys not the child of me.
His mother was votress of my order;
And in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip’d by my side;
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking th’embarked traders on the flood:
When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following (her womb then rich with my young squire),
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch my trifles, and return again
As from a voyage rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy;
And for her sake I will not part with him.
The dark heart of that beautiful passage is – “But she, being mortal, . . .”
Someone across the centuries, I forget who, described the difference between Shakespeare’s tragedies and Shakespeare’s comedies as being that in the tragedies, death occurred onstage (and since the Rose and Globe and other theaters had no curtains, the bodies had to be physically hauled off in front of the audience, as per Hamlet’s “I’ll lug the guts into a neighbor room” after he kills Polonius), while in the comedies, the framing deaths occur offstage.
But why does Oberon want this one child who means so much to his queen? Current-era directors of Shakespearean plays have almost certainly arrived at pedophilia as an answer – certainly bestiality was no obstacle to their sensibilities – but in truth, as in so many marriage break-ups and acrimonious divisions of property, the true answer is almost certainly the simple fact that this boy means so much to Titania, therefore Oberon must have him. In lieu of holding real desire for someone we once loved, we gain a desire to possess whatever this other person most desires. (“Whaddya mean the Beatles’ White Album is yours!!?? You know I had it before we ever met!”)
But what interests me the most about this odd but pivotal little plot point (settled later by the simple offstage and unseen act of Titania complying and giving up the boy to Oberon, thus allowing the King of the Fairies to release all the enchanted from their enchantments), is that it’s one of the few signs of actual love in this madcap play which is theoretically about love. As many have pointed out to us (from William Hazlitt in the early 1800’s to Harold Bloom today), the young lovers – Hermia, Lysander, Denetrius, and Helena – are all but interchangeable and whom each ends up with in marriage is of almost no interest to us, the audience (nor, to a great extent, to themselves.) Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s love, just as with Oberon’s and Titania’s, has already been lost to suspicion and quarrel. The Duke loves power, not his people. Puck – who might well be played by the young actor who plays Mr. Spock in the new Star Trek movie -- is incapable of understanding love, much less of loving anything or anyone.
No, the only real love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Titania’s for her dead mortal votress, and then, that of a distraught Helena looking back at when, before they reached puberty and the age of matching up with males, she and her dear friend (now deadly rival) Hermia were like sisters or twins:
We, Hermia, like two artificial gods
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds
Had been incorporate. So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry: seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition,
Two lovely berries mouled on one stem.
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart . . .
There is real love here, as opposed to all the mating-ritual nonsense that fills the rest of the play, but it is the love of two girls not yet distinguished into (vying for men’s love) individuals by the terrible changling-disease of adolescence. Even their names had seemed twinned in those Arcadian, pre-sexual days.
But this lovely image – truly, along with Titania’s remembrance of her beloved votress, the two bits of real love-poetry in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – is shattered when Helena, now pursued by both love-enchanted suitors, calls Hermia (who had been the recipient of both men’s love just hours before) a “puppet.” Now we know that at this time, Shakespeare was writing for a troupe who had two actors who specialized in the young-women-in-love roles – one tall and fair, the other short and dark. Shakespeare builds this difference into the catfight that ensues with Hermia’s explosion to Helena:
Puppet? Why, so! Ay, that way goes the game.
Now I perceive that she hath made me compare
Between our statures; she hath urged her height,
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevailed with him ---
And are you grown so high in his esteem
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? Speak,
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.
(III. ii. 290-299)
“Thou painted maypole!” I love it. This reminds me of the some of the great soap operas, but especially that ultimate prime-time Joan Collins thing of some years back where the youngest actress, looking at Collins and two other older painted harpies, says, “All right. Which one of you bitches is my mother?”
We bought our cabin and mountain property, Windwalker, in 1995, and for some years after that we had big party up there celebrating Midsummer Night’s Eve. Somewhere around the 21st of June, we’d gather there with thirty or forty or fifty friends and there would be a wrangler heading up horseback rides down our valley and back, and some canoeing and taking the big paddleboat out on the big pond to the islands and back, and one warm summer the kids swimming (all in life vests) and leaping from boats and a wood raft into the deep water, and usually a treasure hunt around the entire 118-acre property of mountain and valley and goldmines, seeking out the rubberized corpse of Illinois Jones (Indy’s younger, stupider brother) and Illinois’ real treasure, and always people fishing around the ponds and up and down the meandering stream through the aspen woods, and youngsters Jeeping up and down the Jeep road, and some people just off hiking to check out wildflowers or just for the love of hiking, with Mount Meeker and Long’s Peak looming high just across the road to the northwest and the spires of Twin Sisters rising into serrated peaks above treeline to the northeast. And yet everyone flowing quickly back to the cabin and the cabin’s deck in early evening when the big dinner-bell triangle is rung.
At dusk or thereabouts, after the big barbecue (to which the wranglers were invited, of course, smelling heathily of horse now like so many of our guests), our daughter Jane in middle school then (and high school after) and her friends often entertained us on the cabin’s huge deck with a cello-quartet’s concert. Sometimes, when we were lucky, the full moon rose above the high foothills and low mountains to the east. Moonlight or no, we had twenty-some lanterns to light and plenty of room inside the cabin for fifty people to sit and eat and talk after dark or if it rained during the day and a huge fireplace with a fire going.
But the date for the Cabin Party wandered – as such things do – for the vagaries of our guests’ schedules (or our own) and due to summer vacations and other factors. The once Midsummer Night’s Eve Party moved across the full spectrum of summer, the last few years to late enough in August that it seemed almost an end-of-summer celebration. The last few years, mostly because we moved our main house and neighborhood down here on the flatlands, we haven’t had the cabin party at all.
I miss it.
I do believe that Shakespeare first became a full-fledged magus via his poetry in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and that the responsibility of such a power – the power to summon human minds and hearts out of nothingness through an exercise of sheer imaginative will, the power to evoke topless towers and invisible armies and kings long dead up from and out of the deep soil of racial memory, the power to create living, breathing, unequaled personages such as Falstaff and Hamlet and Mercutio and Cleopatra and Macbeth and Iago and Edmund and Juliet and Rosalind and Shylock and Nick Bottom – dream nothings who are more real than real people who have lived and died, more real than some people we’ve known and loved – all this power led to his sense of sin, of having used magic best left alone by mortal man, and to his drowning his book at about the same time Prospero drowned his.
But was Shakespeare – who encompasses and explains Freud in a way Freud can never explain or contain Shakespeare – just using the pre-existing pastoral formula when he gave us his enchanted pastoral otherworlds in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It and All’s Well That Ends Well and Twelfth Night and The Tempest – or was there something in the forest itself that calls out to the minds-within-the-minds of poets and playwrights and novelists?
John Fowles again, that writer whose thoughts and words and career so closely echoed the kind I would, if I must have any other than my own, think or say or have myself so:
“All through history trees have provided sanctuary and refuge for both the justly and unjustly persecuted and hunted. In the wood I know best there is a dell, among beeches, at the foot of a chalk cliff. Not a person a month goes there now, since it is well away from any path. But three centuries ago it was crowded every Sunday, for it is where the Independents came, from miles around along the border of Devon and Dorset, to hold their forbidden services. There are freedoms in the woods that our ancestors perhaps realized more fully than we do. I used this wood, and even this one particular dell, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, for scenes that it seemed to me, in a story of self-liberation, could have no other setting.
“This is the main reason I see trees, the wood, as the best analogue of prose fiction. All novels are also, in some way, exercises in attaining freedom – even when, at an extreme, they deny the possibility of its existence. Some such process of retreat from the normal world – however much the theme and surface is to be of the normal world – is inherent in any act of artistic creation, let alone that specific kind of writing that deals in imaginary situations and characters. And a part of that retreat must always be into a ‘wild’, or ordinarily repressed and socially hidden, self: into a place always a complexity beyond daily reality, never fully comprehensible or explicable, always more potential than realized; yet where no one will ever penetrate as far as we have. It is our passage, our mystery alone, however miserable the account that is brought out for the world to see or hear or read at second-hand.”
There is much mirth and mocking, as well as loads of merry-making and dreams of marriage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but is there any true revelation amidst all the poetry and enchantment and roles-changing and deliberately bad play-acting?
Of course there is. And it’s the true heart of the play. And it’s called Bottom’s Dream.
To appreciate Bottom’s Dream, we have to -- as Harold Bloom explains to us – appreciate Bottom. We can’t turn him into a porn star lead in a deliberately staged piece of pornography that includes bestiality and still claim to understand his dream and his reaction to his dream. No, we have to set aside our shallow cynicism and shallower modern sense of foul cleverness and return to something close to what Shakespeare may have meant when he created the weaver Nick Bottom. In other words, we have to see Bottom’s essential goodness, however silly or inarticulate at times, as well as his equanimity and constant sense of joy. Most of all, we have to see his innocence.
Rising out of his enforced and dark-enchanted sleep in the forest, the ass’s head no longer a part of his anatomy, this is what Bottom tells us of his dream (note that the rude mechanicals, honest artisans that they are, speak in plain prose in opposition to nobility’s and the fairies’ poetry):
When my cure comes, call me and I will answer. My next is ‘Most fair Pyramus’. Heigh-
ho! Peter Quince? Flute, the bellows-mender? Snout, the tinker? Starveling? God’s my
life! Stolen hence, and left me asleep? – I have had a most rare vision. I have had a
dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about
t’expound this dream. Methought I was – there is no man can tell me what. Methought I
was, and methought I had – but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what
methought I had. 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. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s
Dream,” because it hath no bottom, and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before
the Duke. Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.
Almost all of the myriads of analyses of Bottom’s Dream speech, comments written by scholars and lovers of literature over slow centuries, are interesting to me. And almost all, I think, or maybe all – are wrong.
The longer one thinks on Bottom’s Dream Speech, the more wonderful and mysterious it becomes. What is this dream that has changed his life? We simply don’t know. Our mistake, as audience members (and as smug, modern sorts), is to assume that Bottom’s Dream was what we read or saw enacted on the stage – the weaver’s head becoming that of an ass’s, the Fairy Queen Titania eager to bed him, the smaller fairies scratching his ears and feeding him bottles of hay.
Only that’s most certainly not the content of his dream. Bottom’s Dream is truly Bottom’s Vision and, as has been true of so many messiahs and prophets, he does not choose to – or is not capable of – sharing his Vision with us.
But it is certainly transcendent, and transforming, and has nothing to do with being given the head of an ass or being lusted over by a fairy queen. Nick Bottom the weaver has glimpsed something not only beyond his experience and understanding but beyond his ability to understand. His life and view of the universe will never be the same. In a playful play about silly and shallow transformations – a play where everyone’s a changeling for fifteen minutes or so – Bottom’s Dream has transformed the innocent artisan in a profound way.
Even the most illiterate of groundlings attending the play in Shakespeare’s day recognized Bottom’s garbling – if mere garbling it is – of St. Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians. Which Biblical version Shakespeare was working from and meant to evoke, we can not say for sure (and to choose the wrong Biblical version of such things in Shakespeare’s day meant slow hanging while you watched your executioner first cut off your private parts to hold them up to your gasping scrutiny but also having to watch your guts spilled out and held up for your own kicking, gasping, dying examination.)
Bottom, with his “the eye . . . hath not heard, the ear . . . hath not seen, [the] hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report” is covering the fields of psychology, linguistics, and psychology where such a confusion of senses, deliberate or not, is called synesthesia. In Shakespeare’s grammar-school days (discussed in the current Writing Well installment) such synesthesia was the deliberate use of metaphors in which terms from one kind of sense impression are used to describe another, as in “a loud color.”
But just as Saul became Paul through his transcendent encounter with the truly Ineffable, so Bottom – the most common of men except for the fact that he may be the Unfallen personified, the truly Adamic original unburdened by Original Sin – has had all his senses not only awakened but purposely scrambled in what Harold Bloom has called “a synesthetic unity.”
This is not, I am convinced, further nonsense or mockery or travesty from this mocking play or from Shakespeare or from his creation, Bottom. This truly is one innocent and receptive man’s sudden and total exposure to a cosmic understanding so devastatingly life-changing that Bottom’s Dream, whatever it was, truly has become Bottom’s Vision. This is the stuff that ontologies are built upon, not to mention entire religions.
St. Paul became his own scrivener but the best that word-challenged Bottom can do is to call for the only writer he knows, fellow artisan Peter Quince (he of the doggerel adaptation of “Pyramus and Thisby”), to write him, Bottom, a ballet.
Here the dual (or perhaps triple, perhaps more) wavefront ontologies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream collapse, like light through an interferometer forced to become either waves or particles but never both, into one REALITY larger than any partial-reality perceived by any other player in the tale, even world-spanning Puck or immortal Oberon.
Thesean reality – the Duke’s blind insistence that reality is restricted to experience and ordinary language, thus denying all reality to heightened love experience or lyric poetry or revelation – is completely overthrown here. In the mild-mannered comedy where Will Shakespeare literally became Prospero (and took on Prospero’s burdens and perhaps Prospero’s most mortal of sins), Nick Bottom the weaver becomes the Buddha and – not St. Paul, who remains a salesman of Another’s Dream – perhaps the Christ himself.
His first revelation to those not privileged to have their own Visions is – “It shall be call’d ‘Bottom’s Dream,’ because it hath no bottom.”
In the Geneva Bible, possibly Shakespeare’s choice for his summoning, I Corinthians 2:9 explains this transcendence thusly –
The things which eye hath not seen, neither ear hath heard, neither came into man’s heart, are, which God hath prepared for them that love him.
Harold Bloom, my prophet when it comes to such things Bardolic, explains the context of Shakespeare’s day (and Kit Marlowe’s day and Ben Jonson’s day and Thomas Kyd’s day) in which “Imagination” was always equated with “Fantasy,” which was a most suspect quality of the mind, attributed, as Theseus did, with madmen, lovers, and wild-eyed poets. Sir Francis Bacon had stated the ambiguity –
Neither is the Imagination simply and only a messenger, but is invested with or at least usurpeth no small authority in itself, besides the duty of the message.
Bloom draws our eye to the “usurpeth” in an age where the messenger’s job was to deliver the damned message and to keep his or its opinion to his or its self. Perhaps this is the difference some of us Ancients can make comparing TV news anchors circa 1957 with TV “news anchors” circa 2009. Now is the time when all too many messengers proclaim themselves the message.
In Bottom’s Dream, the truth of the imagination itself – driven home perhaps to the poet-playwright who first realized his full power in this play – is both the messenger and the message.
Bottom ends his Dream speech with – “Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.”
Whose death? Everyone – critics, directors, scholars, actors – seems to assume that Bottom means at Thisby’s death and that he shall sing it at the latter end of that pitiful play, as he says, “before the Duke,” but I don’t think it’s Thisby’s silly Senecan and overacted death he’s speaking of here. Whose then?
The playwright’s own Juliet’s death, perhaps – whether that play had already been written or was being born as Bottom sings of his Dream. Could it be that Romeo and Juliet, the tragic turning of this comedy-diamond’s facets, is Bottom’s Dream, revealed then to the poet-playwright as well as to the weaver?
We don’t know. We simply don’t have enough historical dating and details to know. And Shakespeare the man will never help us know. More than any other writer in history, Shakespeare lived up to Montaigne’s borrowed admonition from Epicurus – HIDE THY LIFE.
So perhaps it was the Bishop’s Bible that spoke in Shakespeare’s (and Bottom’s) memory upon awakening –
The eye hath not seene, and the eare hath not heard, neyther have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath purposed . . . .
Either way, every other character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sprite or mortal, nobility or rude mechanical, man or woman, has been spared disaster through the simple rhetorical device of apotrope – a “turning away” – usually from evil. As Oberon decrees:
Now, until the break of day,
Through this house each fairy stray,
To the best bride-bed will we,
Which by us shall blessèd be;
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate.
So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be;
And the blots of Nature’s hand
Shall not in their issue stand.
Never mole, harelip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despisèd in nativity,
Shall upon their children be.
This is the best then, that the King of the Fairies can do and wish upon the mortals dubiously celebrating their more-than-dubious marriages at the end of this play: no harelips, giant warts, or truly disfiguring birthmarks for your babies.
Thank you, Robin Goodfellow. And puck you too.
But Bottom, with his Dream, with his Vision still yet to be Sung (but not by Bottom, evidently, who has reverted to his simple self when we see him mere hours later in the mechanicals’ movingly pathetic play), has shared an infinitely more generous and powerful vision with us all, including the poet who found his mature voice and Prospero’s magic here.
As Henry James, one of Shakespeare’s more astute disciples, will say, “Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance.”
And what John Keats, Shakespeare’s impossibly and paradoxically later-born John the Baptist, explained to us about such great imaginative magic, but especially about Prospero’s/Shakespeare’s power at the zenith –
“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not.”
Thus ends our winter of discontent, my friends, made glorious summer by this son of Mary Arden and John the glover.
[Dan’s note: It was obviously an understatement when I said “I’m no scholar,” but I do want to acknowledge those scholars who allowed me to create this novice’s pastiche of their real insights and scholarly efforts. First to be thanked is William Hazlitt, one of the greatest essayists of all time (in my opinion), and his wonderful The Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, published in 1818. Also credit to Edward Dowden and his Shakespere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art, 1877. And to Enid Welsford for The Court Masque, 1927. To Henry Alonzo Meyers for “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: Tragedy and Comedy, 1956. A special thanks to poet and teacher extraordinaire Mark Van Doren for his succinct and always lyrical thoughts in Shakespeare, 1939.
Acknowledgment to John Russel Brown and his Shakespeare and His Comedies, 1957. To Frank Kermode and his chapter “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in his scholarly article “The Mature Comedies” in Stratford-upon-Avon Studies: 3, Early Shakespeare, 1961. And to Linda Bamber for “The Status of The Feminine in Shakespearean Comedy,” adapted from her own Comic Women, Tragic Men, 1982. To Sylvan Barnett for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on Stage and Screen , to K. M. Briggs for The Anatomy of Puck (1959) and to R.W. Dent for “Imagination on A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the 1964 edition of Shakespeare Quarterly.
An acknowledgment to Russ McDonald (University of North Carolina at Greensboro) for his “Introduction to A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Penguin Books, 1959, 1971. Also an acknowledgment to John Fowles for his essay “The Tree,” 1979.
For recent books with enlightening sections on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’d like to acknowledge Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All, Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: The Biography, and, most prominently, A. D. Nuttall’s Shakespeare: The Thinker.
These sources barely scratch the surface in terms of understanding A Midsummer Night’s Dream, much less as an effort in beginning to comprehend the near-infinite expanse and depth of William Shakespeare’s plays and poems – not to mention the elusive mind of the man himself – but they’re a wonderful and joyous beginning for someone as essentially unschooled in Shakespeare as this author.]
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