PTS 10/060: The Gods DO play dice …

Act III places us at the game table, jostling Shakespeare for a view of the goings-on in that VERY busy wood …

BH Discworld Gods
‘No smiting.  Not up here.  It is the rules.  You want fight, you get your humans fight his humans. [1]
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III: with apologies to Albert Einstein [2]

On reflection, it seems odd that as a child experiencing / undergoing / suffering a Catholic education, once a year, on our ‘Saint’s Day’ –  St Martin de Porres: 03 November – we were treated to a film in the school hall which was invariably a Ray Harryhausen epic.

Not that I want to complain.  I loved them, and still do.

They fostered an appetite for the ancient world – for Perseus, Theseus, Hercules, Jason … any number of  heroes and their associated monsters.  And, like the Book of Genesis, they’ve proved to be invaluable in teaching Literature.

Another thing I credit them for inspiring me with (rightly or wrongly) is that wonderful bird’s eye view of the world, and of Gods using humans as playing pieces in some vast cosmic game of chess.  It’s a motif Sir Terry Pratchett (GNU) memorably uses in Small Gods, and elsewhere in his Discworld novels.  In The Tempest, I see Prospero (with Ariel‘s assistance) acting in this fashion.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this is the feeling I get when I read Act III.

In Act III, Shakespeare makes me feel – uniquely, in the plays I’ve read – as if I am at his elbow at the playing board that is that pretty crowded ‘Wood outside Athens‘ as he pushes his players round – a wood, incidentally, that at times must have been as laughable as the action:

The productions [of the 1850s onwards] were models of historical accuracy and realism, for this was the order of the day. The British Museum was ransacked for designs to deck Theseus’ palace, and A Wood near Athens became the butt of all those who disliked their stage forests full of real rabbits, real bracken and real waterfalls. [3]

Act III begins with a temporary respite from our four young Athenian lovers, and we return to the Mechanicals.  At the playing table, Shakespeare excuses himself and disappears in a puff of smoke.  The next I see of him, he’s in the garb of Peter Quince.  Whilst I tend to veer sharply away from unilateral declarations of what Shakespeare thought or felt, the metatheatre in so many of his plays strongly implies a real excitement and interest in the stage.  Let’s not forget that this was still a relatively new art-form.  Scene I is a gorgeous, hyperbolic, vignette of the rehearsal process, as they begin to move The Most Lamentable Comedy, and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe from page to stage.  I’m sure Quince’s exasperated direction:

QUINCE: ‘Ninus’ tomb,’ man! Why, you must not speak that
yet; that you answer to Pyramus.  You speak all your
part at once, cues and all.

Pyramus enter! your cue is past; it is, ‘never tire.’ (III.i.93-96) [4]

Matches Shakespeare’s experience: even seasoned performers might struggle with his neologisms, and players who only had their parts, might easily miss cues.  The practical workings out are fascinating as well as funny.  It’s a process mirrored by Bernard Cornwall‘s novel, Fools and Mortals, [5] in which incidentally the Dream is the play in production.

I want to introduce an ‘alternative’, quasi-Marxist critical view of the ludicrous, amateur and endearingly honest prologue and other adjustments the Mechanicals decide upon.  First here’s James H Kavanagh:

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]

Of course we have the initial threat to Hermia, but in Act III, in just 27 lines, the word ‘fear‘ or it’s derivatives is used five times.  Look at this:

SNOUT: Will not the ladies be afeard of the lion?

STARVELING: I fear it, I promise you. (III.i.26-27)

My first reaction is to snigger at Starveling’s cowardice, following Harold F Brook‘s interpretation:

‘the artisans’ anxiety is part of a major joke: their fear of creating too much dramatic illusion, when it is obvious they will create far too little.’  [7]

And whilst that’s true, I also look at ‘throwaway’ comments such as:

‘my life for yours! […] it were a pity of my life’. (III.i.40-41)

Wondering if there is a dark underbelly to this fear: fear of their patron’s displeasure.  There IS a semantic tang of real fear in amongst the laughs – a faint metallic taste of blood.  I return to The Tempest at this stage, and its pleading Epilogue [8], and I think about the consequences of Shakespeare’s company losing their royal patronage.

Speaking of consequences, I love another idea of Kavanagh’s:

In the ensuing battle for phallic and political power, Oberon’s revenge gives us the sight of Titania chasing an ass, an all too apt image of a world in which, no longer ruled by the voice of the Father/King, one is all the more capriciously ruled by the power of one’s passions. [9]

Surely this is the embodiment of the fear of Egeus, Brabantio, Lord Capulet and every EMP father – that their daughter will avoid their direction and fall for an ass?

Moving away from our ‘hempen home-spuns’, and passing over the fairies for lack of self-imposed word-count, I’m not sure how laugh-out-loud funny I find the confusion of the lovers as we return to them.  It is fun, though – at least the increasingly spiteful verbal catfight between Helena and Hermia is, even as the two men escalate towards a duel and are then defeated by the Ariel-like ventriloquism of Puck.  That said, whilst I had a certain amount of sympathy for Helena in Act I, it evaporates here:

Is all the counsel that we two have shared,
The sisters’ vows, the hours that we have spent,
When we have chid the hasty-footed time
For parting us,—O, is it all forgot?
All school-days’ friendship, childhood innocence?  (III.ii.198-202)

Personally, I’d say those things were ‘forgot’ when she decided to betray Hermia and Lysander to Demetrius.  The best, perhaps, that can be said of her is that she at least confesses to having done so, but if she feels aggrieved at the end of the act, she ought to reflect that she is largely the architect of the whole messy situation, and no nearer her goal.

_ _ _


[1] Sir Terry Pratchett, Small Gods, (London:  Victor Gollancz Limited, 1992), p. 263

[2] Letter to Max Born (4 December 1926); The Born-Einstein Letters (translated by Irene Born) (Walker and Company, New York, 1971) in which Einstein states that God (literally ‘the Old One’) does not throw dice

[3] Ralph Richardson, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, in Introductions to Shakespeare (ed. Charles Ede), (London: Folio Society, 1977), p. 78

[4] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Arden Second Edition), ed. Harold F. Brooks, (London: Methuen Drama, 2007)

[5] James H Kavanagh, ‘Shakespeare in Ideology’, in Alternative Shakespeares (ed. John Drakasis), (London: Methuen Drama, 1985), p. 152

[6] Bernard Cornwell, Fools and Mortals, (London:  Harper Collins, 2017)

[7] Harold F Brooks, ‘Introduction’, in William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Arden Second Edition), ed. Harold F. Brooks, (London: Methuen Drama, 2007), p. xxxv

[8]. William Shakespeare, The Tempest (Arden Third Edition), ed. Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T Vaughan, (London:  Methuen Drama, 2011), p. from line 4 onwards, the Epilogue firmly surrenders all power to the audience.

[9] James H Kavanagh, ibid., P.153


Abel Guerrero, ‘The Gods DO Play Dice:  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III’, The Boar’s Head, East Cheap, [accessed Day Month Year].



Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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