A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a wonderful play. And Shakespeare, who might be said to have reached some sort of “maturity” with this play—especially as far as plotting goes—is a dramatist to be reckoned with. Here, his interweaving of three character types (tradesmen, aristocrats, and fairies) and his supplying attitudes for, and comments on, each, makes his mastery total.
We have all taught, and probably seen, the play many times, so it is a bit hard to provide tools and/or ideas to use in dealing with it. But I am already behind, so here goes:
1. In terms of “speaking” to me now, at this moment in this world, I would choose the following three characters in the following order, as my favorites: (a) Bottom; (b) Theseus, and (c) Helena. Which characters would YOU choose, and in which order? And why? And are there other ways of ranking them?
2. Notice the similarities between the beginning of Midsummer Night's Dream and Richard II. Both begin with a challenge, a kind of trial; and both are introduced by speeches rich in dark, dignified sounds. Notice also the lovely drawn-out metaphors in lines I.i.1-19, and the use of “Lingered” as a transitive verb. I would assign a line to each student, and ask him or her to find all the images, assonance, consonance, and other verbal tricks in that line (and in its pointing to other, nearby lines). What sorts of things are established in the first 127 lines of the scene? In terms of setting up the play’s larger shape and issues, the relationship between future seriousness and frivolity, etc.?
3. In the later part of the first scene (128 ff.), we are given many of the earmarks of a “pastoral romance.” How would you (or someone else) define the term, and in what ways does the play accord with your definition. Again, look at the language: our old friend stichomythia, the similes and metaphors. At such an early point, can one see any differences between Hermia and Helena (the tall, blond one—Shakespeare sometimes used taller, blonder female characters as a flattering references to the [tall, blond] Queen Elizabeth)?
4. In I.ii, we meet the tradesmen, or “mechanicals,” as they are sometimes called (we get the fairies in the next scene). For a country fellow, Shakespeare doesn’t choose to know very much about the moon—as the only moon that would appear during the last three days before the new moon would be a tiny sliver—shortly before dawn (despite Lysander’sand Quince’s intention to make use of it at an earlier point in the night. Bottom, all eagerness and willingness to plunge in, dominates the scene, but also serves as a foil for the other tradesmen, each of whose character is somewhat individuated here. Can one name the types? How would you describe Bottom’s character and its singular appeal?
5. In II.i.1-187, we spend an extended time in the fairy world and meet the principal characters there. Notice the Fairy’s rhymed tetrameter, Puck’s rhymed pentameter and Oberon and Titania’s more dignified blank verse. Oberon and Titania, of course, parallel Theseus and Hippolyta. To what effect? Sure, Oberon is a male chauvinist pig. At the same time, he has a lot going for him as a member of the whole cast. Such as? And, having thought about this, what do Puck and Titania add? And, finally,what does the whole fairy realm introduced here add?
6. So what carries over to us after the play is certainly (a) the magical world it embodies, (b) the unforgettable characters, including minor characters such as Aegeus and Snout, (c) the songs and the various pieces of almost pure poetry, and the folk-pure, archetypal structure of its plot and its characters’ careers – for starters. Then, finally, come the larger thematic questions: What does the play have to say or suggest about (a) the uses of the Imagination, (b) rulers and forms of government, (c) love, (d) marriage, (e) parents and children, (f) the unconventional, and (g) different classes and their relationships with one another – this too, only for starters. You may now plunge in.
Productions: For me, a Regent’s Park version of the play I saw years ago remains a delight. There were probably 10-15 fairies who rushed and tumbled across the set-in-the-woods scene during the earlier parts of the play. By its end, however, it had grown dark and all one could see of the fairies were tiny lights moving in and out of the trees. I remember finding that charming. A massive stump served as the mainstage. There is also an older production (BBC?) from which I have shown the final act to my classes. I used it because I loved its Bottom character. Someone out there will have to tell me which production it is. The one otherwise distinguishing thing I can remember is that Philostrate was played by a black man. Gilbert? Randall?
Book Note: The Postman
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