Theatre, Comedy and Dreams
A Midsummer Nights Dream could be described as self-reflexive, in that it openly displays that it is only a play and not presenting a picture of real life. Nevertheless, the audience is asked to suspend disbelief, to trust that the stage can be a palace in one scene and a wood in the next. Our powers of imagination are not always matched by those of the amateur actors in "Pyramus and Thisbe", the play within the play, who are hilariously over-aware of the unrealistic imitation necessary when playing - for instance - a door. The audience, however, is happy to believe that Oberon is invisible and that Cobweb is tiny enough to take on a bee in a fight. In this sense, it is apparent that we behave somewhat like the lovers do when they have had the magic juice put on their eyes. We see what we are told to see although Shakespeare refers repeatedly to the trick, like a postmodern conjurer. Quince points to the stage and says, This green plot shall be our stage (III.1.3) and we find ourselves thinking of the stage alternately as a stage and then a green plot while all the time knowing it is only a stage in a playhouse.
The efforts of Peter Quince and his company of craftsmen show the audience the difficulty in putting on any play. The performance of Pyramus and Thisbe is hampered by talentless actors and a preoccupied audience, and yet Hippolyta admits that she is moved by Bottoms expression of tragedy: Beshrew my heart, but I pity the man (V.1.282). She is seeing beyond the actual failure of the actors and the play itself to feel pathos for the man metaphorically behind the mask. A Midsummer Nights Dream precipitates a sort of waking dreaming in the audience - they accept what is literally before their eyes as well as the world of the fantastic that necessarily dwells in the imagination and is only provoked by the playwright.
The audience of A Midsummer Night's Dream is willing participants in a kind of nocturnal madness. It
is a dream, as the title suggests, and not reality that Shakespeare wishes to portray. Only this acceptance
of the inevitable insanity of the dream (an ass head on a man, totally inappropriate romances, the spirit
world meeting the real, the potion itself) hides the subversion Shakespeare intends. Certainly we are
left with the happy ending we demand but the reconciliation and marriages are no more sensible or
believable than the loves inspired by the magic potion. Everything in the play is based upon conflict.
The four lovers fight from the outset: first the objections of parents, then their true love in the design of
the potion, then each other. The vital clue occurs in the first scene when Theseus reminds us of how he
ended up with Hippolyta: "Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword, / And won thy love, doing thee injuries;/
But I will wed thee in another key, / With pomp, with triumph and with revelling". The play is in both
'keys': the violent and the celebratory and therein is the subversion that precedes the vulgar suffering of
Malvolio in Twelfth Night that is neither funny nor horrific because it chooses to be both and leave us
confused and uncomfortable. Shakespeare therefore enforces the confusion of the dream and its refusal
to side with either good or evil.
A Midsummer Nights Dream is a comedy. It is a play that concerns lovers whose attempts to marry are blocked by older relatives. However, through various plot devices that are of great entertainment to the audience, they succeed and marry after all. It could easily be asserted that this emphasis on plot makes the portrayal of love seem false and unconvincing. In A Midsummer Nights Dream Shakespeare forestalls these accusations by making the irrationality of love the centre of the play.
We are given a glimpse of the tragic love found in Romeo and Juliet, through the relationship of Hermia and Lysander. But the emphasis that should typically be on the young lovers is tempered by Helenas soliloquy at the end of Act I, Scene 1. Love is portrayed not as all encompassing, but merely as subjective and changeable. Worse for anyone attempting to see the play as a pure comedy is the sexual danger in the love portrayed by Shakespeare. Crucial to this is Hermia's dream of the snake: "Lysander, look how I do quake with fear: / Methought a serpent eat my heart away, / And you sat smiling" that introduces the theme of the fear of the phallus, Satan, and fornication. It reminds us of the darker side of romance. As ever in the play sleep is not safe but the route to a skewed and frightening truth. The intervention of the fairies in Acts II and III speeds up the process of falling in love and serves to make the emotion a
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