I finally understand why A Midsummer Night’s Dream has always been one of my least favorite of Shakespeare’s plays.
It isn’t the play at all – it’s the execution. Yes, it is listed as a comedy, and yes, many parts of it are quite hilarious – especially the play within a play, because who doesn’t find Bottom’s antics both endearing and hilarious? Who doesn’t love purposefully dramatic overacting (Lord knows un-purposeful overacting is excruciatingly painful, but that’s a whole other story) and sex jokes? But there’s more to it than that. That’s the beauty of Shakespeare – his plays are never just comedies or just tragedies. He was the master of mixing genres even in an era where at the end of the play he still had to make sure everyone was either dead or married to be able to perform them at all.
But just because on the surface it seems like a fun and funny romantic comedy doesn’t mean that’s all there is to it. This story gets performed by so many high schools and community theatres who just gloss over all the political commentary – yes, political commentary in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shocking, I know, but it’s there.
Don’t believe me? Think back. Look at Hermia – here is a woman about to be forced into an arranged marriage. She and Lysander are in love, but because of the law of her day, she must marry Demetrius, her mother’s choice, or become a nun or be executed. It is only through Theseus’ whim on his wedding day that she is able to be with Lysander. Theseus could overturn her mother’s will, but he could have just as easily chosen to kill Hermia – he didn’t even have to give her time to think about her choice at the beginning of the play. He could have executed her on sight for daring to disobey her mother’s wishes or for speaking back to him, for that matter.
Still don’t believe me? Think back to the first conversation between Oberon and Titania. One of Titania’s most loyal disciples died, leaving a son. To honor her memory, Titania chose to take the boy and raise him herself. Oberon was so jealous he couldn’t stand the thought of any of Titania’s love or devotion being directed on anyone but himself, and let alone a mortal, who would be hardly worth a glance or moment’s thought of any kind. But she wouldn’t bow to his will. So he decided to force her to. He put her under a spell, hoping she would fall in love with the most hideous, despicable creature in the forest – or better yet a vicious and dangerous one – so that he could laugh at her expense and then steal the child away while she was incapacitated by his magic. Even the faerie Queen can’t control her own destiny.
Or what about Puck? There’s a sinister undertone to the faeries in the play. They toy with mortals’ lives for fun and sport. Puck would have left Bottom with an ass’ face if Oberon hadn’t commanded him to reverse the magic. And what of Demetrius and Helena? Demetrius doesn’t love Helena – he is under a spell. Sure, they are happily married now, and Helena thinks she has her heart’s desire, but it is all pretend – all a game Oberon decided (again, on a whim) to play. Will the spell wear off and leave the two of them to spend the rest of their days in misery? Or will Demetrius spend his whole life under this love spell, married to a woman he actually despises, but whom he now thinks he adores? Which is worse?
Or what of the players? Bottom’s lines are telling when he argues for writing a prologue to the play, however comical his logic seems. In Shakespeare’s time, it wouldn’t have been too far off for the Duke (or King) to kill (or at least severely punish) the actors if the women in the audience were scared too badly or he just didn’t like the play for whatever reason. Are these scenes over the top? Yes, of course. But there is an underlying reality which points to the precariousness of being in the theatrical profession, both then and now. There is always the danger of serious repercussions from those in power if they don’t like or agree with what you say.
Look to the news if you think the censoring of art doesn’t happen anymore. And again, in Midsummer it is only Theseus’ good mood and resulting kind whim which allows him to laugh at the bad acting and spare the players rather than having them fall to a more sinister and tragic ending. Bottom rightly guesses that a prologue (or epilogue) is a way of hedging bets when your play might be offensive to those in power.
Which begs the question: Why would Shakespeare need one? Why does Puck need to say, “If we shadows have offended/Think but this and all is mended/That you have but slumbered here/While these visions did appear.” Who would this play have offended? Perhaps the King or Queen sitting in the audience who noticed an underlying theme in the plot — that those in power often become tyrannical, overbearing, sadistic, assholes on power trips who can and will toy with you and destroy or save your life on their whim?
I don’t believe that theatre (or art) is ever “just entertainment.” Good comedy has threads of substance if you know where to look, and this play is no exception. But too often, the more serious message gets glossed over. All the jokes and opportunities for physical comedy are there; take them, please. I love to laugh and enjoy a funny show. But there should also be that moment where it hits you that there is something serious at stake here. Just because things ended well this time, doesn’t mean they always will. Because someone is pulling the strings, and we might be able to leave the forest at midnight before the faeries come out, but is Theseus ultimately any better than Oberon? I leave that for you to decide.