Date of First Performance: 1595-1596 (?)
Synopsis: One of the most beloved works of Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a frothy confection of a play that interweaves three distinct storylines, and entangles many lovers within its plot. Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is set to marry his beloved – Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. A group of amateur actors prepare themselves to regale the royal couple with an astonishingly bad theatrical performance.
Egeus, a subject of Theseus, pleads with him to compel his daughter, Hermia to marry the suitor of his choice – Demetrius. Though Theseus counsels Hermia to abide by her father’s wishes, Hermia and her lover – Lysander - decide to elope, and rather unwisely, reveal their plans to Helena, Hermia’s best friend. Helena, who is herself languishing in unrequited love for Demetrius, spills the beans to the latter for reasons that make little sense. Subsequently, this love quadrangle finds itself in the woods where the Fairy Queen and King have their own feud to settle. The King, Oberon, is pestering the Queen to hand over her little human charge. His motives can only strike the modern reader as sinister. When she refuses, he decides to extract spiteful magical revenge by having her become helplessly infatuated with the first fool that she sets eyes on.
As chance would have it, the man to fit the bill is Nick Bottom, a malapropism-prone amateur actor. Meanwhile, Oberon also takes it upon himself to run interference for the Athenian lovers; except his plans go awry. With a little more magic, the complications are cleared up – either everybody gets what they wanted, or they end up liking what they get.
That’s some speech!
The course of true love never did run smooth…
(Act I. Sc. I)
Hermia and Lysander bemoan their situation, but console each other that it is the universal lot of lovers.
“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
(Act III. Sc. II)
The wrong man’s eyes have been anointed with the love potion, and mischief-loving Puck anticipates the ensuing mayhem.
While we’re on the subject…
“This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.” (Hippolyta)
“The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.” (Theseus)
(Act V. Sc. I)
Hippolyta’s criticism of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ echoes 17th. Century diarist, Samuel Pepys’ opinion of AMND: “the most insipid, ridiculous play that ever I saw”
I’m guessing that the Bard knew that he had written fluff this time around, and in Theseus’ words, craves the audience’s indulgence.
The play might seem lightweight in comparison with some of his other works, but there are very respectable reasons for its endurance. Consider the juxtaposition of contrasts – the gracious, mature relationship of Theseus and Hippolyta versus the bickering Fairy King and Queen, or the love-addled younger couples. The restrained elegance and order of Athens’s law-abiding society is a stark contradiction to the unruly chaos of the enchanted forest. While the lovers may speak in hyperbole, the speech of the fairy-folk is pure poetry.
“Cupid is a knavish lad
Thus to make poor females mad.”
(Act III. Sc. II)
Lysander and Demetrius, under the influence of the potion, display a dizzying change from ardent swain to despicable swine. Shakespeare, like Puck, seems to sympathize with Hermia and Helena, the bewildered objects of their transitory affections and loutish behavior.
“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.”
(Act V. Sc. I)
Love is inspired insanity.
“I have had a most rare vision…” (Bottom)
(Act IV. Sc. I)
Zhuangzi said it in lovelier words:
I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.
Bottom, the befuddled weaver, may not have had the eloquence of the Chinese philosopher, but he probably would have understood what he meant. This much we can say about Bottom in comparison to many of the other characters in the play – at least he didn’t make a complete ass of himself.
AMND was the bard’s follow-up act to Romeo and Juliet. He might have continued the theme of star-crossed lovers, but gave it a happy ending.