Saturday, November 2, 2013

Shakespeare Study: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (revisited)

I hadn’t yet finished my three and a half years of Shakespeare study when I decided that I would be revisiting key plays. Basically, what I decided is that whenever I acquired more Shakespeare DVDs, I would re-read the play or plays in question. I have purchased several more versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so that is the first of the plays that I returned to.  I read it in May of 2010 during the first year of my study. That, however, was not my first time reading it. In fact, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first Shakespeare play I ever read, freshman year of high school (that year I also read The Merchant Of Venice - actually, maybe Merchant was the first, and Dream the second). And I read it at least two other times before May of 2010. In May of 2010, here is what I read and saw:

A Midsummer Night's Dream (I read the Yale Shakespeare; this play was edited by Willard Higley Durham)
Related Books:
- Readings On A Midsummer Night's Dream  edited by Stephen P. Thompson
- Bottom's Dream  by John Updike
- Our Moonlight Revels: A Midsummer Night's Dream In The Theatre  by Gary Jay Williams
Film Versions:
- A Midsummer Night's Dream  (1981) with Helen Mirren, Geoffrey Palmer, Phil Daniels; directed by Elijah Moshinsky 
- A Midsummer Night's Dream  (1999) with Christian Bale, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Kline, Calista Flockhart; directed by Michael Hoffman

This was before I started my Shakespeare blog, so I didn’t take any notes on my reading or on the film versions.

This time, I read the Folger Library version, which was edited by Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar. It was published in 1958.

Related Books:

- A Midsummer Night’s Dream  by F. Murray Abraham  -  This book is a volume in the Actors On Shakespeare series. Actor F. Murray Abraham recounts the experience and some of the insights from his performance as Bottom. He writes not only of his own character, but thoughts on the entire play. For example: “Does it not occur to Demetrius that it might be best to quit the field, or is it his nature only to pursue? As we find out later, he has similarly pursued Hermia’s friend Helena, the woman who now loves and pursues him, and he has rejected her. Is Demetrius a repressed, latent homosexual, in love with Lysander and hoping to punish him by denying Hermia to him? Or is he simply a bored, spoilt rich kid in a male-dominated society with laws and customs that favor him and his whimsical nature?” (page 15). Regarding Bottom’s wish to play basically all the parts, Abraham writes: “When Bottom performs the role of the young maiden, he must not play a silly party game; it must be sincere. This performance should be in the great tradition of British pantomime, where cross-dressing is fun and camp but also truthful. In other words, he must be very good at what he does, even when he’s ridiculous – especially when he’s ridiculous: ‘Let me play the lion too. I will roar, that I will do any man’s heart good to hear me…’ and when he does it, he really has to ROAR” (page 21). He then adds: “One of the keys to portraying the Mechanicals is sincerity and the actors playing them must not be condescending to these characters. We look to them for equilibrium; it would be easy to play them as individuals and by so doing overlook their cohesive and vital nature as a group of actors working collectively in a repertory company, and one of the great strengths of our production was unity” (page 22). Regarding Bottom’s dream, Abraham writes: “So I’m alone on stage – abandoned – at a pivotal moment in the play. Bottom thinks it was a dream and is inspired to use it for his upcoming performance in the Interlude, anxious to meet again with his fellow dramatists. This quiet moment before the big finale is a fine piece of theatrical engineering by Shakespeare; he creates it in order to let us take a breath, and also to separate ourselves from the Fairy World – the stillness allows us to settle back. Bottom is uncharacteristically reflective at the beginning of the short speech that concludes the scene, but by the end of it he should be completely awake and propelling the play back to reality, carrying the audience with him” (pages 45-46). About the play as a whole, he writes, “The comedy has a dark undercurrent, a persistent reminder that love is not easy, it must be won, and once won, cared for” (page 84). Published in 2005.

- William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream adapted by Dan Conner; illustrated by Rod Espinosa  -  This is a volume in the Graphic Shakespeare series. The book is only forty-eight pages, including pages about the play, about Shakespeare, and a glossary. So it contains not much more than an outline of the play. It begins with a short description of each character, given by Puck, with an indication that he will act as a guide through this adaptation (though he really doesn’t do so). Hippolyta seems content in the first scene, holding Theseus’ hand. There’s not a hint of queenliness or fierceness. In the drawings of Hermia and Helena, Helena appears the shorter. So Lysander’s line when he calls Hermia a “dwarf” makes no sense. Oberon is depicted shirtless and muscular. The changeling boy is mentioned at the beginning, but not later when Oberon breaks Titania’s spell. Titania’s “enamored of an ass” is for some reason changed to “enamored of a donkey,” which of course completely ruins the joke. The Interlude is shown on only two pages, and the wall is done with a parted curtain hanging on a frame, which is not at all what is in the play. The deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe are cut completely, which is lame. Published in 2009.

- A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Graphic Novel  by William Shakespeare; adapted by John McDonald; artwork by Jason Cardy and Kat Nicholson  -  Three versions of this book were released – an original text version, a plain text version, and a quick text version. I read the original text version. That just means that it uses Shakespeare’s text rather than some ridiculous updated modern version. Certain words in each line are in bold print, presumably those which the adapter wishes to stress. For example: “ILL MET BY MOONLIGHT, PROUD TITANIA” (page 30). This Hippolyta seems very much in love with Theseus. Titania and the fairies are small creatures. Oberon, likewise, is surrounded by a train of small creatures – his dark and more mischievous-looking. Often what is described in Shakespeare’s text is also show here. For example, when Oberon tells Puck about Cupid’s arrow, we see in three panels the white flower turn purple. In this adaptation, Helena trips over a root, and lands next to the sleeping Lysander. We see Puck blow magic dust on Bottom, and the panel where he comes dancing in with the ass head is great. (See photo.) When Titania tells Bottom that he will remain with her, she uses magic to command vines to grab him. Titania’s fairies are all female, though Bottom still calls them “Gentleman” and “Master.” The Interlude is shown partly as the Mechanicals perform it, and partly as they envision themselves in it. For example, in certain panels there is a real wall separating Pyramus and Thisbe. And in some panels, Thisbe is clearly truly a woman, and the lion is a real lion. The death scenes are not extended, and the great humor of them is lost. At the end of the book, there are a few pages on Shakespeare, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the play, and the making of the book. In the section on the play itself, it is written, “The amateur production of this tale in Act V Scene I [pp 113-126] could be the Bard poking fun at a poor adaptation of the work, made by Arthur Golding in 1567” (page 137). This book was published in 2011.

- A Midsummer Night’s Dream  by Joseph Sobran  -  This is a volume in the Shakespeare Explained series, aimed at children. It includes short overviews and analyses of each scene of the play. Sobran writes: “The four lovers are hard to tell apart. Hermia? Helena? Which is which? The close similarity of their names is a clue that Shakespeare is playing with our memories, trying to confuse us a little. Given his matchless genius for creating vivid characters, the effect here must be deliberate: four major characters are made indistinct – like figures in a dream” (pages 50-51).  Sobran also writes: “Throughout the play Shakespeare reminds us of the problematic nature of love. Does it begin in the eyes or the mind? Is it above reason or below it? Wise or fickle? There is no single answer to all these questions, except that love is basic and irresistible, the joy and essence of life” (page 51). Sobran writes: “Part of Bottom’s charm is that he is completely immune to romantic love. In this respect he is the opposite of all the infatuated characters around him” (p.59). This book was published in 2009.

- A Midsummer Night’s Scream  by Jill Churchill  -  Apart from its title, this mystery novel has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare’s play. A large part of the story takes place in a theatre, but that’s really the only connection. The title certainly is promising and thus misleading, and the book itself is really not well written. In fact, I basically hated it. It’s one in a series of Jane Jeffry mysteries, and two other titles have Shakespeare references: Mulch Ado About Nothing and Merchant Of Menace. If those titles aren’t irritating enough, check out these, also from that same series: A Groom With A View, Fear Of Frying, War And Peas, Silence Of The Hams and A Farewell To Yarns. Terrible. She's seems like a woman who has read the covers of many books, but never an actual book. This book was published in 2004.

- A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Wendy Greenhill  -  This book is a volume from The Shakespeare Library, and is aimed at children. Author Wendy Greenhill is the Head of Education for Royal Shakespeare Company. Greenhill writes: “The charm that Titania’s fairies cast over the wood is associated with beauty and pleasure. They sing a lullaby to rock Titania to sleep and to ward off danger. The female fairies are close to nature, and they work in harmony with it. Fairies working in harmony with nature is a very attractive idea, but, as usual with this play, what seems secure becomes disturbing. TITANIA’s fairies fail to keep her out of danger. Their lullaby is useless against her main enemy, OBERON” (pages 17-18). It seems very misleading to call Oberon Titania’s “enemy.” Greenhill continues: “The difference between Oberon and Titania is made clear when she expresses her concern that their quarrel has disturbed the balance of the seasons. She wants them to create harmony not disruption” (page 18). Regarding the fifth act, Greenhill writes: “The special occasion of a royal wedding brings together the Duke and some of his least important subjects, a group of workmen. This seems, at first, a satisfying event, but the response that PETER QUINCE and his actors earn for their performance is disappointing. The lovers laugh at their efforts, so the gulf between the Court and working men is not properly bridged. Actors have a choice about how they say the lines. For example, Hippolyta’s line, ‘This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard,’ can be said in a sneering or an affectionate way” (page 29). This book was published in 2000.

- William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream  edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom  -  This is a volume in the Bloom’s ReViews series, and includes critical views on the play by many writers, arranged chronologically by first publication dates. Elline Lipkin provides a thematic and structural analysis. Lipkin writes: “Another important conflict is between love and reason, with the heart almost always overruling the mind. The comedy of the play results from the powerful, and often blinding, effects that love has on the characters’ thoughts and actions” (page 12). Later in that same analysis, Lipkin writes: “Shakespeare employs images of eyes and eyesight throughout the play; making continual reference to different characters’ vision – that they see things differently and that they are often not sure of what they see – he suggests, among other things, that love deprives a person of clear sight and clear thought” (pages 12-13). Lipkin also writes, “…as the play progresses, it becomes clear that the woods – a place of magic and possibility – serve as a foil to the rational order of the Athenian court” (page 13). Lipkin writes, “Employing a device he uses in many of his plays, he has the characters at the Athenian court speak in verse and the craftsmen speak in prose, emphasizing the contrast between the ‘high’ and the ‘low’ elements of the play’s comedy” (page 14). Then, regarding the interlude, Lipkin writes, “In an interesting reversal, the craftsmen now speak in verse and the members of the court in prose” (page 23).
G.K. Chesterton, in a piece from 1904, writes, “But A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a psychological study, not of a solitary man, but of a spirit that unites mankind” (page 34).
Harold C. Goddard writes in The Meaning of Shakespeare (1951): “The moment when Bottom awakens from this dream is the supreme moment of the play. There is nothing more wonderful in the poet’s early works and few things more wonderful in any of them. For what Shakespeare has caught here in perfection is the original miracle of the Imagination, the awakening of spiritual life in the animal man” (page 41).
Stephen Fender writes, in 1968: “…even places stand for something, are labels. Athens, established in literary tradition as the legendary seat of reason (in Boccaccio’s Teseida and ‘The Knight’s Tale’) is here almost a byword for rational order. The wilderness outside Athens is called a ‘wood’ and not a forest, as is the corresponding locale in As You Like It, because it must also be a label for ‘mad’, and in case we miss the point, Demetrius is made to pun on ‘wood’ (for ‘mad’ and ‘forest’) and ‘wooed’; ‘And here am I, and wood within this wood…’” (page 54).
J. Walter Herbert writes: “I observed that mischievous Robin perpetrates mischief on Bottom and his friends simply because he notices an opportunity. Bottom does nothing to deserve translation. The lovers do nothing to earn help” (page 68).
Northrop Frye writes: “The Quince company discover from an almanac that there will be moonshine on the night that they will be performing, but apparently there is not enough, and so they introduce a character called Moonshine. His appearance touches off a very curious reprise of the opening dialogue. Hippolyta says ‘I am aweary of this moon: would he would change!’, and Theseus answers that he seems to be on the wane, ‘but yet, in courtesy…we must stay the time.’ It’s as though this ghastly play contains in miniature, and caricature, the themes of separation, postponement, and confusions of reality and fantasy that have organized the play surrounding it” (page 77).
David Wiles writes, “Bottom’s failure to stay awake is conceived as the ultimate form of inappropriate behaviour in a nuptial context” (page 85). Regarding the changeling, Wiles writes, “The boy sought by Oberon parallels the male heir which all bridegrooms seek from their brides” (page 85). Wiles also writes: “Aristocratic marriages were undertaken in order that a family line could be continued. Brides were under enormous psychological pressure to yield up a male child. The pressure which Oberon places upon a reluctant Titania echoes that urgent social demand. The entire central action of the play is a dreamlike (or nightmare) evocation of a wedding night” (pages 85-86). Wiles writes, “As in the dream, so in reality a hunting song was often used to awaken the newly-weds” (page 86).
This book was published in 2000.

- The Great Night  by Chris Adrian  -  This novel is a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a park in San Francisco. The book opens with a passage from Act III Scene i of the play, Titania’s lines to Bottom: “And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;/I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,/And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,/And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep;/And I will purge thy mortal grossness so/That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.” Titania, Oberon and Puck feature prominently in this novel. A lot of the story focuses on the idea of the changeling boys, and what happens to them when the fairies are finished with them. Oberon has disappeared after Titania told him, in her grief caused by the death of a boy, that she doesn’t love him and never did. About Puck, Chris Adrian writes, “What you saw depended on how you were feeling; he was often the image of one’s worst fear or most troubling anxiety” (page 14). Puck is enslaved to Titania and Oberon, but Titania in her grief frees him. There are five people in the park preparing a musical (much like the Mechanicals do in the play) – “far away from curious ears and prying eyes” (page 41). Of the five, Huff is like the Bottom character. A noise scares the others off, but “Huff stayed where he was, more angry than afraid” (page 45). And later Huff gives orders to the fairies, and calls them “Gentlemen” (page 171). There are also some references to other Shakespeare plays. For example, the line “A wallow by any other name” (page 116) is obviously a reference to Romeo And Juliet. And later the group of players sings a song with the line, “Murder most foul; murder most fancy” (page 259), which of course is a reference to the Ghost’s famous line in Hamlet. This book was published in 2011.

- Understanding A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Student Casebook To Issues, Sources, And Historical Documents  by Faith Nostbakken  -  This is a volume in The Greenwood Press’s Literature In Context series. It offers an analysis of the play, with some historical documents to help back up certain points. The last section of the book, “Contemporary Applications,” is largely pointless, with author Faith Nostbakken trying to relate the play to romantic comedies, situation comedies, stand-up comedy and teen dating. In the early chapter, “Dramatic Analysis,” Nostbakken writes: “The diversity of the fairies’ speech from blank verse to couplets to short rhymes to songs indicates their adaptability as supernatural beings. They are not limited, as the other characters are, by class, mortal distress, and social stature” (page 8). Later in that same chapter, Nostbakken writes, “Oberon and Titania’s quarrel also includes unconventional triangles because the source of the couple’s conflict is primarily a changeling child rather than another lover, although both the fairy king and queen accuse each other of love ties with Theseus and Hippolyta in double triangles almost as confusing as the overlapping triangles of the young lovers” (page 14).
In the chapter on gender relations, Nostbakken writes: “Shakespeare was clearly aware of Theseus’s mixed reputation, making references to his deserted women in Oberon’s accusation of Hippolyta: ‘Didst not thou lead him [Theseus] through the glimmering night/From Perigenia, who he ravished?/And make him with fair Aegles break his faith,/With Ariadne and Antiopa?’ (2.1.77-80). These references would have reminded Shakespeare’s audiences of Theseus’s qualified heroism and thus raise questions about an otherwise straightforward contrast between the ‘mature’ love of Theseus and Hippolyta and the ‘immature’ love or rash infatuation between the young lovers. Shakespeare would seem to suggest that such a contrast between reason and rashness is more ironic than it is simple or straightforward” (page 32).
In the chapter titled “Social Distinctions: Royalty, Gentry, and the Common People,” Nostbakken writes: “The lower ranks found ways to express their resentment, criticism, and dissent, especially in hard times. The higher ranks felt vulnerable from those climbing the social ladder and those acting out their frustration with force. In the midst of this, Shakespeare writes a comedy about love rather than a political play about power and authority. He shows the kinder face of society, the good intentions of the craftsmen and the tolerant if mocking response of the gentry. But he does acknowledge the disorder in the natural world, the floods and unsettled seasons that historically led to bad harvests and food riots. And he does suggest that relations between the ruler and the ruled are not unquestionably harmonious as the ‘rude mechanicals’ reach a unanimous response about the outcome if their roaring lion proves to be too frightening for noble women in their audience. Their distressed perception, ‘That would hang us, every mother’s son’ (1.2.78), may seem exaggerated but indicates serious consequences for common people engaging in inappropriate public behavior” (page 54).
In the chapter titled “Popular Culture: Holidays, Court Entertainments, And Play-Acting,” Nostbakken writes: “It might be easy to think that Shakespeare had his days and dates mixed up when he called his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream but makes reference to May Day in the drama itself. In fact, however, ‘maying’ – as the celebrations of May Day were called – was not limited to May Day alone. Records indicate that maying occurred at various times throughout the late spring season, including Midsummer’s Eve (Barber 119-20). The dancing, the trips into the woods, the garlands and music, the emphasis on love and matchmaking were all part of the general celebration of springtime and new life. Shakespeare was not necessarily linking his play to a specific festival but rather conjuring up the spirit of love and license and green world adventures associated with two popular holidays in his time, with Midsummer’s Eve having more direct references to the supernatural world and May Day having more emphasis on fertility and youth” (page 72).
And in the chapter titled “Imagination and Beliefs: Dreams, Fairies, and Transformation,” Nostbakken writes: “Equally significantly, he makes the fairies far more kind and benevolent to human beings than the sinister nature of their counterparts in English folklore. Titania does not steal a child but looks after a changeling boy out of love and loyalty to his dead mother. The fairies still have power to do harm and Puck certainly is mischievous at heart, but Titania and Oberon come to bless, not harm, the wedding couple of Athens, and Oberon attempts to set right the love sickness of the young Athenian people. Though Puck enjoys the confusion he causes in mistaking Lysander for Demetrius, the deed is accidental rather than intentional, and Shakespeare makes it appear more humorous than dangerous” (pages 102-103).
This book was published in 2003.

- A Midsummer Night’s Dream For Kids  by Lois Burdett  -  This book is a retelling of the play in rhyming couplets, accompanied by children’s drawings of the characters. There are also short bits of text written by children, giving their perspective on the action of the play. Oddly, Lois Burdett left in the children’s spelling mistakes – such as “eggzosted” (page 28) and “confewshun” (page 44). While that might seem cute to some people, you have to keep in mind that this book is aimed at children, and so shouldn’t contain any spelling errors. One of the children included “Acting Tips by Nick Bottom,” the final tip being “Don’t forget to come” (page 17), which made me laugh. Even though the book is aimed at children, Lois Burdett correctly left in the “ass” joke: “Nick Bottom looked puzzled, ‘Why did they flee?/This is to make an ass of me!’” (page 40). Though Lois mentions the changeling boy near the beginning, she omits the information that Oberon has succeeded in getting the boy from Titania later on. In this version, it is Theseus who says, “Tis the silliest stuff I can recall,” whereas in the play it is Hippolyta who says “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.” The oddest thing, however, is that this book doesn’t include any of Puck’s final speech. This book was published in 1997.

I will be posting A Midsummer Night's Dream film reviews in separate blog entries.

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