Monday, March 24, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Shakespeare's Blues


I'm sitting in a plantation-era shack in Clarksdale, Mississippi, about a mile from the legendary crossroads where Robert Johnson is supposed to have died of strychnine poisoning in 1938. And perhaps a little further on down the road, near Dockery Plantation if you believe the legend, he sold his soul to the devil for the ability to become the greatest bluesman ever. So I am surrounded by vibrant symbols of poverty, power, poetry, and the supernatural, all elements of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. Johnson's scant history suggests he was the son of itinerant field workers, an agrarian life not too far from the shepherds or cowherds depicted in pastoral (except for the nasty and brutish part that tended to come with picking cotton). Johnson, however, turned out to be something of a poet, and the 24 recordings we have from his mere five days of recording sessions in 1936 and 1937 include such lyrics as:

"You better come on
in my kitchen,
baby, it's goin' to be rainin'
Winter time's comin'
hit's gon' be slow;
you can't make the winter, babe,
that's dry long so." ("Come On In My Kitchen")

This last line may refer to Fate, suggesting that since the woman can't do anything about the coming winter rains, she should just hang out with him in his kitchen. Oh, the rain it raineth every day!

Johnson also concluded a song, from his final recording session, this way:

"When the train, it left the station
with two lights on behind
When the train, it left the station
with two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues
and the red light was my mind
All my love's in vain" ("Love in Vain")

I'd say this would be a good song for Berowne in Love's Labor's Lost, only trains didn't exist yet and Johnson's a better poet than Berowne. My roundabout point here is that if the pastoral still existed, tragically dead Robert Johnson might be its American standard bearer, and that makes communing with his ghost, as I am this chilly moonlit night in northern Mississippi, appropriate for a discussion of pastoral in Midsummer Night's Dream.

In his opening remarks, Ernst pointed out Midsummer Night's Dream's "earmarks of a pastoral romance" and John qualified the reference, stating "the couples certainly escape the strictures of urban life to the freedom and magical, mischievous, but ultimately healing and benign, influence of the wild wood." I seem to be forever finding Shakespeare turning things on their head, but I do not see the playwright cozying up easily to this tradition; in fact I see some gentle mockery of it. But perhaps I misunderstand the genre, and you can set me straight with what I get wrong. My introduction to the pastoral came in college with John Milton's "Lycidas," a poem that reminds us of the Greek origins of the form and displays its key conventions while, if I remember, attacking church corruption. What I remember most about the form is the elevation of simple shepherds to idyllic literary geniuses. Yet in both Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, the simple country folk are the worst poets. Take Bottom's extemporaneous poesy:

"The raging rocks
And shivering shocks
Shall break the locks
Of prison gates;
And Phibbus' car
Shall shine from far
And make and mar
The foolish fates.
This was lofty!" (1.2.29-37)

Funny, but doggerel. (And as an interesting comparison, note that Shakespeare's jest anticipates Milton's "Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew / Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme" ("Lycidas" 10-11). I could further annotate the less-than-accomplished talents of the uncouth swains in both plays, but I don't want to belabor the point … with Orlando's tortured rhymes to Rosalind, or Quince's lumbering prologue to "Pyramis and Thisbe." Now, both these guys are outsiders, city-dwellers, not trained shepherd-poets, but I do think Shakesepare is making fun. City people commune with nature, and it turns them into fools.

This point is made again as Shakespeare takes on the convention, if I remember it right, that the simplicity of rural life makes it idyllic. Midsummer Night's Dream gives us anything but idyllic life. Four city folk enter the woods, and they are nearly driven insane. They become enamored of the wrong people, they fight with their friends, they become lost and disoriented, and even after all is set right they can't tell what reality is (Demetrius concludes: "Are you sure / That we are awake? It seems to me / That yet we sleep, we dream."). Even the representatives of Nature are not at peace in Nature – Titania and Oberon are at war, making each other's lives (and the lives of the poor mortals around them) very complicated indeed.

As an interesting side note, Jonathan Miller, in his 1981 BBC production of the play, really plays up an anti-pastoral take on the text. He first has the fairies persistently standing in pools of murky water, Puck consistently hauling his head out of said pools before he speaks his lines, and the lovers emphatically ending up rolling in muddy water at the ends of their various confrontations. It's a decidedly messy and humiliating set of depictions, and it's what first got me looking at and becoming skeptical about the attitude toward the pastoral in the play.

I'm not supporting it very well, but my contention here is that Shakespeare specifically mocks pastoral conventions (as I thought he was specifically mocking epic conventions in Taming of the Shrew). So what say you? What important conventions am I missing? What hommage to pastoral does the play support? Or do you agree that Shakespeare might be tweaking pastoral in that way that he seems happy to tweak all established forms as he remakes them?

Okay. Tomorrow I'm off to New Orleans, so I'll be out of touch for a few days. Look forward to your Midsummer thoughts when I get back. Or, in the words of Robert Johnson:

"When I leave this town I will bid you fare farewell.
When I leave this town I will bid you fare farewell.
And when I return again, you'll have a great long story to tell." ("From Four 'Til Late")


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