A Midsummer’s Night Dream
is perhaps Shakespeare’s best known and most well loved comedy. It is one of Shakespeare’s most readable plays, and most people seem to love it because of its use of language and wonder. Like in many of the other plays, a reader can see the use of doubling, for instance Theseus and Hippolyta with Oberon and Titania. Also present are Shakespeare’s low characters and the standard confusion and inversion of roles.
As much as I love Dream
, and I love Dream
, it always leaves a funny after taste.
It’s true that Shakespeare’s comedies are always a dance step away from his tragedies. It’s also true that dark comedy the like of Monty Python
is very funny.
That’s not the after taste.
I don’t mind the fairy plot. Yes, Oberon is mean to his wife, but if we look the issue from Shakespeare’s time, Titania is suborning the rule of her king (not her husband, but her king), and even, maybe, has been emasculating the boy. Neither fairy King or Queen seems like the faithful type, and neither one seems to care over much. Their fight isn’t about sexual loyalty, but the right to the boy, almost like two parents battling over whether little Johnny should grow up or not. It also doesn’t seem likely, despite what some modern films suggest, that Bottom and Titania did anything more than just sleep (as in snoring). And who doesn’t love Puck?
What really bugs me is the Greek men, the Greek noblemen
King Leonides they are not.Exhibit A
– King Theseus. Here is a man who wooed his wife by force of arms, by defeating her battle, by taking her (and if you know Greek myth, you know how the story ends). Here is a man who has abandoned, as Oberon tells us, other women. Here is a man who thinks nothing of threatening Hermia with death on the eve of his wedding. And how come his bride to be is so quiet?Exhibit B
– Demetrius. Here is a man who woos one woman, wins her love, and then throws her over for her best friend. When Hermia, rightly, wants nothing to do with him, Demetrius wins, how is unclear, the permission of her father. Demetrius doesn’t care what Hermia wants; it is what he wants that matters. He stands by and lets the woman he claims to love be threatened with death. Like Theseus, he seems to see women as things to be taken.Exhibit C
– Egeus. I really don’t need to go into detail, do I? Why exactly is Demetrius better? What difference between Lysander and Demetrius exists seems to point solely in the favor Lysander. Why is Egeus pushing for a different match? Is he selling his daughter?Exhibit D
– Lysander. Okay, nothing much is wrong with Lysander. When he abandons Hermia, it really isn’t his fault. He is, however, somewhat mean to the players in the last act of the play.
In addition, there is the question of the love juice. Does Demetrius really deserve Helena? Do they deserve each other because she places friendship below love? Does Demetrius really love her? It seems like Helena is getting a bad end of the deal.
Hermia was more right than she knew when she said, “By all the vows that ever men have broke/(In number more than ever women spoke)” (I.i.178-179).
Then there is the treatment of the players. The heckling that Theseus, Demetrius, and Lysander do of the plays seems very much like Knight of the Burning Pestle
and I find it unclear if Shakespeare is commenting on talkative theatre goers, amateur players, or bad actors. Interesting, you can read the last act as Hippolyta and the players versus Theseus and the guys. The men, at least to modern eyes, look bad, but Hippolyta looks regal and understanding. What is going on there? Some class comment, or something that no longer works because we have lost the meaning? Is it a continuation of the battle of the sexes that dominates sections of the play?
It’s something you almost forget because of the presence of the fairies, in particular Puck, at the end of the play.
Despite the disquiet, the play works because it is so right, so real. When Helena betrays her friendship in a desperate gamble to win love, we can see it. It is something that might happen. When Helena attacks Hermia, in part because of Helena’s own betrayal of the friendship, it works because it happens. Like most Shakespeare’s plays, one feels pity for the women of the play. Helena and her love. Hermia and her trials. It is why there is that aftertaste.
I don’t know what themes Shakespeare was trying to address here. Status quo and the right of man might be suggested by the fairy plot, yet Shakespeare is so sympathetic to Hermia. Is he saying sometimes it is okay to disobey and sometimes not? Is he commenting on love and family? Saying that sometimes you have to let your children go? (Considering the match his youngest daughter would make, one wonders). Is there a class struggle going on?
I don’t know. I always think Shakespeare wrote with one eye on his pocket book, wallet, and man purse. That’s why Dream
succeeds. Shakespeare, like Walt Disney, James Cameron and Peter Jackson, knows how to appeal to the human sense of wonder.Older Review
It is pretty much understood by most people that what seperates Shakespeare's comedies from his tragedies is that his comedies end happyily. Much Ado About Nothing
is basically like Othello
. Romeo and Juliet
bears a passing resmembance to Dream
. And Dream
, well just about everyone likes Dream
Because the tragedies retell or use the same plot threads that appear in the comedies, the comedies are more than just simply funny. They raise questions. There is a sense of disquiet at the very end of Twelfth Night
. There is a sense of disquiet even in Dream
When I was in graduate school, my Shakespeare professor was a huge fan of the use of doubling. Pay attention, he always told us, to when characters do not appear on stage. Looking at Dream
one wonders if the two royal couples were meant to be played by the same actors. One wonders why both Thesus and Oberon are seen in marraiges that have, at least to our modern sensabilites, a sense of disquiet. Why make your wife fall in in love with someone else? Is the boy that important? Why is Hippolyta so quiet during some of the scenes? Does it have anything to do with Thesus wooing her with his sword and doing her injuries?
Of course, the play has at it's central core love and the use of power. This is most obvious in the case of Oberon, whose authority is challenged by his wife's refusal to hand over the lad, a lad we never see. This is seen early on in the play by Hermina's refusal to marry who her father wants her to. Her rejection is tempered by the fact that there does not seem much difference between Demetrius and Lysander, outside of the fact that Demetrius has achieved the father's blessing and seems a little cruel too both Hermina and Helena. Cruel to Helena in his words, cruel to Hermina in his suit after she has made it clear she does not want him. Of all the women in the play, Hermina is the only woman who really challenges the authority and wins. She refuses to marry Demetrius when it could mean her nun hood or death. She is rewarded, at the end, by marriage to Lysander. Hippolytla, it seems, challenged Thesus, at least in terms of physcial contest, and lost. Titiania loses her contest. Hermina is the only one spared, if that is the right word, and that is though the agency of another being, another male, so the power structure holds. Though an agency of another king. The play consistently circles around this idea of the power to command love. Is Dememtrius really in love with Helena at the end or will he awake from the dream one day, as the viewers of the play leave the play?
While the comedies might lack the serious and thought provoking ideas expressed in Hamlet
or King Lear
, they still echo with questions. Dream
seems to subvert at the same time it calls for status quo.