Discussion of key themes
Some questions that could be asked while watching this production might include:
- Why is Hippolyta’s wedding dress shaped like a red garter?
- Why do the boy lovers kiss in the woods?
- Why is Puck played as a male throughout most of the play but is performed by a female actress?
- Why does Oberon have an accent?
- Why do Helena and Hermia look so similar?
Maybe the following discussion of key themes in the play will clarify some of your questions.
Elizabethan weddings were lavish affairs, with feasting, music and dancing. Many of the customs that have become routinely practiced in today's weddings actually derived from Elizabethan times. Exchanging vows and rings, the wedding cake, the garter, the bridal party procession, entertainment, dancing, party favours for guests and the bride wearing and carrying bouquets decorated with love knots, all have origins in that period of history.
The major difference with Elizabethan wedding customs to a modern day Western marriage is that the woman had very little, if any, choice in who her husband might be. Elizabethan women were subservient to men and were dependent on their male relatives to support them. Elizabethan women were raised to believe that they were inferior to men and that men knew better. Disobedience was seen as a crime against their religion. Marriages were frequently arranged so that both families involved would benefit. Marriages would be arranged to bring prestige or wealth to the family - a surprising fact is that young men were treated in a similar way as women! Many couples would meet for the very first time on their wedding day. Regardless of their social standing women and men were expected to marry. A lot of single women were thought to be witches by their neighbours.
Elizabethan weddings, on balance, were more of a business arrangement based on a prosaic view of strengthening social position rather than marrying for the modern view of being in love. Parents would often marry off their children to increase farm size. Elizabethan women were expected to bring a dowry of money, goods and property to the marriage. The dowry was also referred to as her marriage portion. After marriage Elizabethan women were expected to run the households and provide children. The law gave a husband full rights over his wife and she effectively became his property. It was common in the 16th century for a father to be the supreme head of the family and would lay down the law to his submissive wife, and their brood of children.
The Elizabethan weddings were huge festive celebrations and most of the town would attend. Bridesmaids helped the bride get ready at her house. The procession was noisy and usually incorporated musicians. The Bridal procession all stood through the service and anyone could attend the wedding if space was available. The special feast had to be carefully planned and elaborate dishes would be presented to the guests. One of the most important customs was for the groom to remove the bride’s garter. This would symbolise the bride giving up her chastity to the groom and furthermore becoming his property.
During this period, there was a major focus on love being consummated inside marriage. The final ritual blessing of the bride beds can be seen as the culmination of the elaborate festivities, including song, music, dancing, and plays that often accompanied the upper-class Elizabethan marriages. If Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream specifically to be played at a wedding ceremony, it would have been as in a hall of mirrors. The real life newlyweds whiling away the hours before bedtime by watching a play, in which they would see other newlyweds whiling away the hours before bedtime with a play.
The title of the play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, comes from the concept of midsummer madness. According to well-known Shakespeare professor Marjorie Garber (2005), it originates from folk culture in England (also in Ireland, Sweden and other parts of medieval Europe) that on midsummer’s eve, madness, enchantment and witchcraft would invade and transform the world. Summer solstice or midsummer's eve is the longest day of the year and the shortest night. The exact date and time of the summer solstice varies every year, occurring on or about 21 June when the sun enters zero degrees Cancer. This year the solstice occurred on 21 June at 12.45am EST.
The idea of midsummer’s eve is an old one; dating back to Agrarian festivals held when spring plowing and planting were over, and harvesting was a long way off. The holiday is primarily symbolic of new beginnings. During this period people were also keen to escape to the countryside because the plague was more prominent in the warmer seasons. The holiday was usually celebrated with summer games such as sports, performances, drinking and dancing. Witches, fairies and mischievous sprites were thought to play pranks on livestock and human beings.
This was one of the best times of the year to collect a variety of magical paraphernalia. The June full moon is called the Honey Moon because this is one of the most appropriate times to collect the bees' honey. June is named for Juno, goddess of weddings (among other things). The Honey Moon was typically the time for newlyweds to celebrate and drink mead as an aphrodisiac. Mead is brewed from the collected honey at this time (about ten days before the solstice) and drunk during the celebration.
Gender-play figures large in Shakespeare. This is perhaps unsurprising given the ban on actresses on the Elizabethan stage: the inversion of traditional male and female roles was almost a given within the notoriously racy confines of the playhouse. It is critical to understand that an audience of the English Renaissance were used to going to the theatre and seeing an all-male cast. Stephen Orgel (1996) explains that The appearance of women on stage was forbidden because it was felt that it would compromise their modesty. There are suggestions of Shakespeare’s actors throughout his plays performing their roles both realistically and extremely (drag), usually to investigate an idea or better portray a character. While gender within A Midsummer Nights Dream was written to encompass the culture of Renaissance England, the director of this year’s production has adjusted gender to make it pertinent to our current society.
This years production only uses four male actor and one of the characters is openly gay (Bottom). While there is no evidence to suggest that that a Renaissance audience would have read Bottom as gay, or in fact any of the gender roles that this years production explores, this represents the shifting of gender throughout the periods since this play was first performed. In the past Francis Flute has been a male character who is forced to play a female role within the craftsman’s play. For this production, Francis will be a female who doesn’t want to play the traditional romantic heroine role. The notion of gender throughout the play takes the characters on a journey to search for their personal identity. The lesson is that before making relationships work with others they must first understand and accept themselves.
Throughout the play, male characters struggle to understand the true nature of women. Titania, the Fairy Queen represents the iconic role model of qualities for women of the Elizabethan era. Therefore are you really surprised that Titania in this production holds some strong resemblances to Lady Gaga. Puck focuses on the uniqueness of women throughout the play, not being able to measure nor understand. It is also interesting to note that all of the women are mocked during the play for their true nature. This leads us back to Shakespeare’s investigation of the power struggle between the sexes.
Desires in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are intense, irrational and alarmingly mobile. This mobility, the speed with which desire can be detached from one object and attached to another, does not diminish the exigency of the passion. During a frantic forest scene, the two male lovers, Demetrius and Lysander, kiss because they both think they are kissing girls. Under a spell the eyes perception changes and the sex of the characters is no longer as relevant. The lovers are convinced that at every moment that their choices are irrefutably rational and irresistibly compelling. However there is no security in these choices and the play is repeatedly haunted by a fear of abandonment.
The fairies seem to embody the principle of we might call polytropic desire: that is, desire that can instantaneously fix itself on any object, including an ass-headed man, and that can with equal instantaneousness swerve away from that object and on to another.
Perception played a huge role in the England during the Renaissance and therefore its frequent use throughout the play is of critical importance. The word eye is used 66 times during the play by various characters; that’s about once every two minutes. When the word is used it can have various meanings (several not appropriate to be discussed in class).
People of Renaissance England had little idea of anatomy but believed that the spatially imagined body was perhaps the most common vehicle for the making of social and cosmic metaphors in early modern England. During the sixteenth century, the practice of ocular anatomy further intensified the traditional conflict between the eye’s material nature and its status as a metaphor:
An eye therefore is a member, round, whole and hard, as the ball of a foote, or as the scowred new bason full of cleare water, set in the well of the head to minister light to the whole body, by the influence of the visible spirits, sent from the fantasicall cell by a sinew that is called Nervus opticu, with the helpe of a greater light ministered from without
It 'ministers' external light to the body, hinting at the eyes traditional role as a privileged servant of the soul. The metaphor affirms the eye’s distinct status, mediating between world and spirit, flesh and soul. In these terms the eye is more subject than object.
In Galenic theory, the eye is both sovereign and implicitly male. It engenders the visible world by its projection of spiritual substance, the “pneuma” that flows out through the hollow optic nerve, exciting the surrounding air and translating it into the receptive body. Just as the eye could receive it was also believed that the eye could platonically release into the atmosphere. This is why people of the Renaissance period would not look anyone in the eye with a serious disease such as they plague; they believed that it could be transferred from the victims eyes into there own. Relating this back to A Midsummer Nights Dream, it is because of this notion of contagion that the love potion is put into the sleeping characters eyes. This was the most direct way to infect someone.
During the play you will notice that the fairies have their eyes covered by masks, this changes our perception while in this fairytale world. The fairy’s perception is easily changeable and it also represents that they creatures are looking at the world through a magical state. All of the fairies are also anonymous and by masking them it draws parallels to mask carnival; a popular festivity of this period.
To current society the word reverie means day dream, but in Shakespeare’s time the word had a lot more meanings and related connotations. As the self-conscious title suggests, the piece of theatre the audience came to view is in essence a dream. Shakespeare takes his characters and ultimately the audience into a dream state to explore what is not possible in reality. Change occurs when the characters make a geographical shift in the wood; perhaps the most appropriate place for a dream scope.
A favourite device for playwrights wanting to spin enchanting yarns was to fall asleep and dream his whole story- a device borrowed, of course, from French and Italian predecessors. It is interesting to see a young Shakespeare, in his turn, take up the same device…but with strange and beautiful complexities. Rather than dreaming himself, the explorative Shakespeare puts a new spin on the old-time dream-device, by lulling both his dramatis personae and audience, making them dream dreams and see visions.
Stephen Greenblatt in his introduction to A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests that the nature of a dream is closely linked to that of the theatre itself. This opens up the possibility of a metatheatrical play; a dream within a dream or a theatre within a theatre. Puck suggests as much when he proposes in the Epilogue that the audience imagine that they had all along been slumbering: the play they have seen has been a collective hallucination. This turns the play into a dream about watching a play about dreams. In this year’s production of the play, the director has worked hard to lull the audience into a dream state.
It is evident that throughout the dream, there is a convincing lifelikeness that is readily accepted in dreams, wherein the unexpected and impossible befall without a jar in the very midst of the logical and credible of what seems to be ordinary living and thinking. Those in the grip of a powerful imagination may be loosed from the moorings of reason and nature, and they may inhabit a world of wish fulfilment and its converse, nightmare. When Hippolita is describing the events of the lovers to Theseus she observes that their minds, have been transfigured together, and this shared transfiguration bears witness to something of great constancy … But howsever, stange and admirable. This theme of reverie sets up the whole structure for the play.
For his prologue and epilogue, Shakespeare introduces people and events that may be accepted as real. The play starts in a world of apparent order and reality with seeds of disorder at the heart of the situation. This world provides the outer framework of the play; and here time seems to go slowly.
Then he does a good job of lulling the audience into a fantasy world; an interior world of transformation in which things become further distorted (costumes, masks, disguises, acquiring ass-heads, play unaccustomed roles, higher or lower on the social scale). They are free to show their true identities through this fictional world; free of objective consciousness. Similarly to a dream; the fairy world is of instantaneous time in which Puck can circumnavigate the world in less than an hour; I’ll put a girdle around the earth … in 40 minutes.
Finally we are woken to the exterior world again- the world of so-called reality. Armed with new knowledge and better prepared to rejoin the ongoing world of social action.
The word wood derives from the old English word wod meaning ‘mad’ or ‘lunatic’. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the device of reverie or dream was brought about by the escape from the court or city to the 'green world’ of the forest. Throughout the play the wood functions as a mirror as well as a lens, reflecting true characteristics or feelings of characters from the exterior (real) world. For example, Bottom is transformed into an ass, even though he can’t see it. The lovers are another great example as they play out their true romantic destinies.
At the end of the play, Puck extends the idea of dreams to the audience members themselves, saying that, if they have been offended by the play, they should remember it as nothing more than a dream. This sense of illusion and gauzy fragility is crucial to the atmosphere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as it helps render the play a fantastical experience rather than a heavy drama.
A Midsummer Nights Dream is a play about a war between sexes. The course of true love never did run smooth, comments Lysander, articulating one of the play’s most important themes (Act I, Scene i). This can be seen in the relationships between Oberon and Titania as well as Theseus and Hippolita (these parts are often doubled in modern productions). It represents a clear power struggle between sexes. It presents what seems to be the leading question of the play; how do men gain satisfaction from a relationship but maintain power of their women at the same time?
To set the play into its historical perspective it is useful to recall that a Virgin Queen sat on the throne of England. Queen Elizabeth was an anomaly in a world in which most power inhered in men. Marjorie Garber (2004) explains that it is by religious precept and legal mandate that women took second place in social and political hierarchy and in the family dynamic as well. Early on in the play Theseus tries to maintain a steady relationship with his soon to be wife Hippolita, while telling Hermia to you your father should be as a god. Coming from the character who represents order, this comments on two types of disempowerment of women; inside marriage as well as singlehood.
It is amazing that:
- When a Shakespearean woman decides to go against the natural order and run away to marry for love she is punished. Look at the fate Juliet suffered for the same crime.
- The women lovers are interchangeable. The only difference mentioned is their height. This could be because their characters are supposed to represent more of an everywoman figure.
- The boys go so far as to split up the girl’s friendship in order to achieve power.
Though most of the conflict in the play stems from the troubles of romance, and though the play involves a number of romantic elements, it is not truly a love story; it distances the audience from the emotions of the characters in order to poke fun at the torments and afflictions that those in love suffer. The tone of the play is so lighthearted that the audience never doubts that things will end happily, and it is therefore free to enjoy the comedy without being caught up in the tension of an uncertain outcome.
Cupid's arrow and its magic
Cupid and his arrow are not visible to the other characters. The Arrow Astray sings throughout the play because she is capable of knowing what is truly in people’s hearts.
The love potion is made from the juice of a flower that was struck with one of Cupid’s misfired arrows; it is used by the fairies to wreak romantic havoc throughout Acts II, III, and IV. Because the meddling fairies are careless with the love potion, the situation of the young Athenian lovers becomes increasingly chaotic and confusing (Demetrius and Lysander are magically compelled to transfer their love from Hermia to Helena), and Titania is hilariously humiliated (she is magically compelled to fall deeply in love with the ass-headed Bottom). The love potion thus becomes a symbol of the unreasoning, fickle, erratic, and undeniably powerful nature of love, which can lead to inexplicable and bizarre behaviour and cannot be resisted.
To add dimension to the play, we must have the ability to understand what escaped both aristocrats and artisans: the world of fairies. But what are fairies? From which social milieu do they spring? It is tempting to reply that they are denizens of the country; that is, characters drawn from the semipagan folklore of rural England. This is in fact partially true. The fairies of Elizabethan popular belief were often threatening and dangerous, while those of A Midsummer Nights Dream are generally benevolent. The former steal human babies, perhaps to sacrifice them to the devil while the latter, even when fighting over the young Indian boy, do so to bestow love and favour upon him.
People of the Elizabethan era saw fairies as powerful, mythic creatures that they should fashion themselves in accord with. Because it was linked to the Pagan religion, fairies were considered quite seriously. It was a major focus for all people’s superstitions and a personification for the unknown. Reginald Scot, suggests that Robin Good fellow, the mischievous sprite also called Puck, was once feared by villagers. If you left out milk for him he would thank you by cleaning your house, but if you ignored him he would put a nasty curse on you or your family. The saying ‘off with the fairies’ sound familiar? It refers to someone who has lost touch with realtiy. This is also related to that age old ides that you shouldn’t get caught in fairyland.
This year’s production explores the same ideas of fairytale but in a context that is relatable to the audience. The world of celebrities is our modern day fairies. We fashion our live in accord to them; read about them, dress like them. Titania draws similar parallels to both Lady Gaga and Angelina Jolie.