Theatre Magic

Midsummer Nights DreamWith its royals and lovers and fairies (oh my!), Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has long been a favorite comedy for thespians and theatregoers alike. The obvious contrasts among the Athenian royalty, woodland sprites, and common laborers and the fusion of song, dance, and lyrical language—“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,/Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows” (Act I, Scene 1)—make viewing the play a feast for both eyes and ears.

Shakespeare scholars date the play’s writing anywhere from 1590 to 1596, with most settling at the latter end of that time frame because of references to a wedding poem written by Edmund Spenser and published in 1595.

Several theories surround the creation of the play: Some believe Midsummer was written to celebrate a noble wedding; others conjecture that Shakespeare penned it to honor Queen Elizabeth I. (“Fair Vestal, thronèd by the West,” [Act II, Scene 1] refers to a beautiful virgin seated on a throne in the Western Hemisphere—who could that be?) But, alas, history can neither confirm nor deny this speculation

The form of Midsummer is in many ways similar to a masque, a pastime enjoyed among the aristocracy of Shakespeare’s time. Indeed, the play affords opportunity for elaborate costumes and sets as well as dramatic spectacle throughout the court and the forest.

But the play is more than frivolous revelry. We laugh at the characters’ folly yet relate in ways that transcend the humor. At the play’s beginning Lysander sighs, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Truer words were never spoken, say we, the audience. Add to that the imbalance in the four lovers’ attractions—she loves him, he loves another, then both love one . . ., and it’s a rough ride to say the least.

The pixie world fares no better as Oberon and Titania spar over the changeling boy. These lovers’ quarrels and the decidedly incongruent pairing of ethereal Titania with ass-headed Nick Bottom all display romantic situations out of joint. Shakespeare explores the tangled mess with an air of fond amusement and good-natured rib-poking. And we connect with the Bard because we see in these absurd dilemmas our own love foibles.

A second audience connection is in the function of magic in the play. Puck’s ineptly applied charm in the form of a floral potion causes heartbreak and chaos—and a lot of hilarity—but also finally restores balance to the young lovers. The mischievous fairy’s vocal antics and head transplant trick intensify the enchanted quality of the play. Our sympathies are aroused as we see our own longing for an easy remedy for love’s trials: If only, we think, there really were an elixir of love. . . .

Finally, where would the play be without the dream of the title? Seven of the main characters use the word dream to describe the adventure’s otherworldly goings-on. The lovers view dreams as a natural effect of love, a “customary cross” (Act I, Scene 1) to be borne. Hapless Bottom utters it six times in one brief, bewildered (and bewildering!) speech. It is here that Shakespeare borrows, with egregious misspeaks, from the King James Bible, as Bottom blunders, “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” (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:9).

Shakespeare captures in this dreamworld the aberrant passage of time, inexplicable happenings, strange sensations, and outlandish memories so common in the most ordinary of reveries. We, too, have dreamed and in our dreams seen things “past the wit of man to say” (Act IV, Scene 1).

In the end it may be superfluous for Puck to entice the audience to join in the dreamy midsummer madness:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this (and all is mended)
That you have but slumbered here,
While these Visions did appear.

In Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare pulls out all the theatrical stops. He deftly uses entertainment to evoke emotion, understanding, and reflection—and therein lies pure theatre magic.

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