Once Upon a Time · Personal Great Books · Reading · The Classics Club

Completed: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Cover: A Midsummer Night's Dream A Midsummer Night’s Dream
William Shakespeare
(c. 1594-1595, England)
Bantam Books, 1988
David Bevington, Ed.

Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Puck, 3.2.114-115

My overwhelming impression of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, having finished it just in time for the start of summer (it’s taken me a bit extra time to write about), was that it is absolutely delightful! I don’t think I’ve ever thought that word, “delightful,” in connection with the works of Shakespeare before–there are plays I’ve enjoyed, adaptations I’ve revisited many times, but none I’ve experienced before this have provided for me quite the wonderful impression of magic and fairy tale that this one brings.

No doubt this is largely due to the plot thread involving Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairies. They are feuding, and in spite, Oberon decides to use a potion to cause Titania to fall in love with the first creature she sees–no matter what it may be. But he also decides to play Cupid for two pairs of young Athenians–Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius–that their loves woes  may be solved (at play’s start, both young men are in love with Hermia, though she loves Lysander and Helena loves Demetrius). Of course it doesn’t quite go to plan when his mischievous accomplice, Puck, applies the potion to the wrong young man. On the other hand, Oberon couldn’t be happier with the results with Titania–the first creature she should see on waking may be a man, but a fool of a man, Nick Bottom, whom Puck has only too appropriately just provided with an ass’s head.

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

[Helena, 1.1.232-239]

Interwoven with all this are the threads of the marriage of King Theseus of Athens with Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and the theatrical production that a small group of local laborers–Bottom among them–wishes to put on as part of the wedding celebrations. The wedding story serves primarily as a framing device for the rest of the action–it is with this background that the young Athenians flee (or chase) into the forest, and it is later at the wedding celebrations that the “tedious brief scene of young Pyramus/And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth” (5.1.56-57) is performed by our hapless players. I do feel in part that these last scenes, all of Act 5, feel out of place compared to the magic of the middle section. But on the other hand, as I watched the 1999 adaptation some days later (Michael Hoffman, dir.), this was the portion of the play that was most laugh out loud funny; the full effect of the haplessness of the amateur players is best seen rather than read. That does seem to be often the case with Shakespeare – I read the play, understand it, but finish feeling I still want more. At least with A Midsummer Night’s Dream it was not just a production that I wanted to see–but to experience more of the magic and delight that the forest provided. Thank goodness, there are always plenty of bookish solutions to that problem!

I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream as one of my Classics Club titles and for Shakespeare 400.

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4 thoughts on “Completed: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

  1. I never really liked this play until I taught it. I used it with a 7th grade class because the book room had 60 copies of it, enough for two classes. We had so much fun with it, acting it all out, that I’ve been a fan ever since. I watched all the film/video versions to find scenes to show my students and have seen many stage productions of it since. It’s almost always a good time at the very least. And it does have some wonderful poetry, too.

    1. Reading this with students, and acting it out, sounds like fun! I’d love to see a stage production sometime–I’ve only seen the one film version so far

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