A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act I
Shakespeare’s language lives in the mouth, not the ears or eyes. It needs to be tasted, and one of the advantages of living alone is that I can pace up and down my flat’s lengthy corridor reading tricky lines out loud, or just playing with the inflections of favourites:
I wasted time and now doth time waste me.
I WASTED time and NOW doth time waste me.
I wasted TIME and now doth TIME waste ME.
And so on, like the celebrity skit in the BBC’s Shakespeare400 celebration. You get the picture.
If it needs to be tasted, it also needs, I suppose, to be CHEWED. That’s what we often do in the classroom …
But before we head over to C5 (my room), a digression. It IS related to the Dream, I promise you …
Perhaps one of Shakespeare’s greatest skills is his ability to capture the ‘ordinary man’.
That can be the vulnerable human being at the kernel of the Monarchy: the recurring ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown‘ trope, which fascinates me and that I have touched on here and here. I’ll definitely be looking at it throughout the second tetralogy that kicks off with Richard II. It suggests a well-developed sense of empathy in Shakespeare, and has to be a large part of what has made his major roles so complex and compelling.
But it can also be – and is in almost every play – the ‘little people’.
Unlike, say, Robert Greene, Shakespeare didn’t forget where he had come from (or indeed, who his main paymasters were). The lower down the social scale you go, the humbler the character, the more affectionate the portrait, I think. They can be cheeky, ‘rude’ in both senses of the word, uneducated, and they often carry the comedy. They are never really venal, though. One of the things I most appreciate about these characters is their fundamental honesty. As Germaine Greer says, having just assessed the Dromios from The Comedy of Errors:
the next great natural must be ’sweet bully Bottom’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. All these characters are garrulous, eager to explain and incapable of dissembling, unaware or unconcerned about the impression they are making.1
So, in looking at the Dream‘s opening Act, digression over, I want to reverse the scenes. Mostly because in re-reading the play, this time as a teacher, I found myself transported to the classroom, and in the role of frustrated ‘director’, Peter Quince.
‘So, who wants to be Duke Theseus?’
Ralph Richardson reflects on the play that:
Every single part in it is a joy to play, and an actor, in his desire to play all of them, might well echo the similar sentiments of Bully Bottom.2
However, what’s facing me is a mixed-ability, mixed-gender group of approximately 30 teenagers, variously hormonal and intensely aware of their peers. You’d expect a Ferris Bueller3 scenario, like the one above. With classes who don’t yet know me, this is indeed what often happens, or I will get the occasional reluctant but willing volunteer, like the person who makes the first tentative bid at an auction. I ‘cast’ the roles gender-blind, but this has to sink in. The usual response, especially with new classes, is Francis Flute‘s:
‘Nay, faith, let me not play a woman: I have a beard coming’ (I.ii.43-44) 7
But I think it helps that I have no shame whatsoever in class, and being quite content to make a fool of myself and brazen it out tends to encourage the same in others. One or more lads nearly always ends up asking for a female part. Lots of others are like Starveling or Snout, taking parts assigned with variable degrees of good humour. One of the best experiences is finding the Snugs in the class. When I read him say:
Have you the lion’s part written? Pray you, if it be, give it me, for I am slow of study. (I.ii.62-63)
I think affectionately of all the students I’ve taught who simply need a little confidence when it comes to the subject, a metaphorical arm round their shoulder telling them they can do this. As I wrote when discussing ‘dumbing down Shakespeare‘, a lot of my job is facilitating attitudinal change when it comes to the plays.
And, of course, there is a Bottom – or two. They are seldom the most skilled readers, but what they lack there (“John? John! Is Benedick asking a question there? Right, well can I hear that question mark please?“) they always make up for with enthusiasm, humour, and honesty. The aim is to get them to start tasting Shakespeare, after all, not just relying on me telling them it’s full of vitamins and minerals, and if they have to chew it a little, so be it …
The rest is almost always fun is a balancing act. Firstly, there is the flattery and encouragement:
‘You can play no part but Pyramus: for Pyramus is a sweet-faced man; a proper man as one shall see in a summer’s day; a most lovely, gentlemen-like man: therefore you must needs play Pyramus’ (I.ii.79-82)
Then, of course, there is the matter of selecting appropriate props. When I was at Primary school, a wooden ruler was what my teacher hit me with for perceived misdemeanours. Mine now functions as staff, sword, wand, and a dozen other tools. As does my board rubber, which back in the day was often used for throwing at daydreamers …
Finally, brilliantly, we reach the stage where I have to tell myself to step back – to avoid being like Dr Frasier Crane in the magical episode from season 4 of his eponymous show – fans will remember ‘Ham Radio’, where his constant interference ruins KACL’s special celebratory performance of ‘Nightmare Inn‘. I’ve included a link to the script at the end of this piece.4 This is where I just sit back and enjoy the show, think that maybe the job isn’t so bad after all, and if anyone important is passing the classroom and wonders what the hell is going on, “We’re chewing Shakespeare!”.
– – –
So much for scene ii, and – hopefully – proof that I don’t actually have a problem with all the Comedies. On a more sombre note, scene i felt different to me on this reading, too. Regular readers will know that one of my stock quotations comes from Jonathan Bate:
‘Good comedy is tragedy narrowly averted’5
And James H Kavanagh tells us:
Though framed as a comic romance, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a profoundly threatening and threatened aspect; it is a play formed around questions of desire and obedience, representation and class-power, and it is haunted throughout by the threat of death.6
The play’s opening does, of course, set this up wonderfully. Back at university I remember focussing on Hermia‘s dilemma and ‘choices’, and thinking – in some ways I still am – about how her plight mirrors so many of Shakespeare’s other women: Juliet (of course), Isabella, and in perhaps subtler ways, Ophelia, Cordelia, Desdemona, and Miranda. This still interests me, but running out of self-imposed word-count, as ever, what really gave me pause was Helena‘s story.
‘Demetrius, I’ll avouch it to his head,
Made love to Nedar’s daughter, Helena,
And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes,
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,
Upon this spotted and inconstant man.’ (I.i.106-110)
Brooks, and others, tend to focus on the wrongness inherent in terms like ‘dotes’ and ‘idolatry’. There is something to be said for this, inasmuch as Helena’s love is unhealthily obsessive, but there is a danger of overlooking the fact that Demetrius ‘made love’ to her, and ‘won her soul’, both active verbs indicating that he has acted reprehensibly, confirming her accusation”
‘For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,
He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.’ (I.i.241-245)
The result is that Helena opens the play confused, despondent and self-loathing. Following this train of thought led me to an insight that helped me better understand the main thing that – oddly, I know, in a play full of Fairy folk – resisted my willing suspension of disbelief – her decision to betray the eloping lovers. It’s taken several readings, performances, critical readings and basic life experiences to work out that despair leads Helena to a monumental act of self-harm:
‘herein mean I to enrich my pain,
To have his sight thither and back again.’ (I.ii.250-251)
The scene ends with my biggest concern being for the potentially tragic end for her … a bitter taste, offset by the sweetness of scene ii.
1 Germaine Greer, Shakespeare (Past Masters series), (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1986)
2 Ralph Richardson, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, in Introductions to Shakespeare (ed. Charles Ede), (Folio Society: London, 1977)
3 Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, dir. John Hughes, 1986
4 KACL: The Frasier Archives
5 Jonathan Bate, ‘Shakespeare’s Ovid‘, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: The Arthur Golding Translation, 1567 (ed. JF Nims), (Paul Dry Books: Philadelphia, 2000)
6 James H Kavanagh, ‘Shakespeare in Ideology’, in Alternative Shakespeares (ed. John Drakasis), (Methuen Drama: London, 1985)
7 William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Arden Second Edition), ed. Harold F. Brooks, (Methuen Drama; London, 2007)