William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the, if not the, most produced classical productions of all time, and it’s easy to see why. The escapist nature of play parallels our current lust for space adventures and superhero melodramas. Why watch a tyrant take over the kingdom when you can watch a fairy foil fools?
Midsummer, enchanting Hedgerow Theatre now from May 25 to June 11, taps into something ethereal in our subconscious, something eerily similar to the very art of creating a story.
Like a fairy, stories float around our heads popping up in everyday life and vanishing just as quickly. They have always been a link to the mystical aurora we feel around us, but can never quite capture.
Part of being human is to give meaning to the meaningless, to name the unnamed.
We live by metaphors. The stories we tell ourselves about life and the lessons we learn from it become our reality.
Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Midsummer centers around a the marriage: Theseus, the Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, the former queen of the Amazons. In a parallel plot line, Oberon, king of the fairies, and Titania, his queen, have come to the forest outside Athens.
Amongst the central marriage plot is a love quadrant that Ray Cooney would be proud of and a group of six amateur actors (the mechanicals) that read like something Luigi Pirandello would claim. These mortals are manipulated by the fairies who inhabit the forest and one wild ride ensues as Puck’s Love Potion Number 9 is used and misused again and again.
We have the classic clown, Nick Bottom the Weaver, performing in a play within a play, asking: what is real? He begs the audience to remember that they are watching a play, going so far as to ask Peter Quince to write a prologue explaining that Pyramus is not really dead, but is merely an actor, named Bottom. Then after his journey, Bottom believes in the power of art to transform as he cannot find the words to express his “dream.” He is moved, rather, to ask Quince to write a ballad, believing verse can capture what prose cannot.
Yet what is the stuff that dreams are made on? Like many great creators, Shakespeare used multiple sources to create this fantasy, remixing his was to an original story. Although Midsummer is one of the few Shakespeare originals, as Shakespeare borrowed many of his plots from histories and preexisting stories, the story is a remix of many different myths, legends, and stories. Much in the way George Lucas took many different sources to create Star Wars, it appears Shakespeare allowed the stories of his time to simmer in a melting pot and cook.
From the first, we are introduced to the Greek and Roman mythologies, being transported to a different time and place through reference. There are characters alluded to in the play such as Hercules (1.2, 4.1, 5.1), Diana (1.1; 1.1); as Phoebe (4.1), Cupid (1.1, 1.1, 2.1, 3.2, 3.2, 4.1), Venus (1.1, 3.2, 3.2) and Robin Goodfellow Puck who is sometimes called the “Hobgoblin.”
Puck usher’s in the world of Faerie, which is something Susanna Clarke explores in detail in her book “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” creating a world similar to something Tolkien would write, “between the age of Faerie and the dominion of men.”
Puck is a clever and mischievous elf and personifies the trickster or the wise knave, similar to Loki or Anansi. In the play, Shakespeare introduces Puck as the “shrewd and knavish sprite” and “that merry wanderer of the night,” a jester to Oberon, the fairy king.
Oberon, king of the fairies, stems from French legend, and Titania, the fairy queen, was invented by Shakespeare in allusion to Ovid’s Metamorphosis (also, the Fairy Queen was a title given to Queen Elizabeth).
Also present in the play are allusions to Ovid’s, Metamorphoses, the source of the characters Pyramus and Thisbe. Chaucer’s, The Knight’s Tale: Hippolyta and Theseus are characters in this tale. Likewise, Lysander and Demetrius’s quest for Helena echoes Palamon and Arcite’s fight over Emily in The Knight’s Tale.
Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans and “Life of Theseus” informs Shakespeare’s portrayal of this character of Theseus, and Apuleius’s Golden Ass could potentially be Bottom’s transformation into a human with the head of a donkey.
Furthermore, the play borrows language from the play such as Corinthians 1: 2-9 where Bottom’s language in is a parody of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians. Once again, we have the Bard blending myths and legends, combing language from different times to build a different world.
Midsummer, like a dream, is an allusion to what exists and has existed, with a player’s touch. What Elizabethan Englishmen lived in every day they suddenly saw on stage, as the Bard blends everyday life with the feeling of wonder. It takes a master’s pen to bring together all these escapist elements of awe and to create the dream we all wish to touch again and again.