Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Who But ...?

To absent friends,

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is indeed a wonderful play. Ernst has asked which characters “speak” most clearly to us at this moment. Let me take “this moment” literally and thus choose to choose Hippolyta, though my other choices would be Helena and Puck. For Hippolyta, who has thirty-five lines, perhaps I’m just continuing my whimsical attraction to minor characters. I’ve told my students I would try out for Rosaline in Romeo and Juliet to introduce the fact of boy actors in women’s roles, but then I’d confess the real reason is there are so few lines (none) to memorize. Once I was asked by an examining committee who was the “hero” of Hamlet, and I blurted out Voltemand, imagining it was a question like “who is buried in Grant’s tomb,” then I had to give a rationale for my choice. Well, if Branagh can cast Gerard Depardieu as Renaldo…

Ah, Hippolyta, bride-to-be of Theseus. Theseus opens with

Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in
Another mood; but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires,
Like to a stepdame, or a dowager,
Long withering out a young man’s revenue. (I.i.1-6)

Promising coda, no? There is the plot: “the nuptial hour,” which animates all four couples in the narrative which follows. It introduces “the moon,” which will be a major player until it is manifest by a physical appearance, resembling Starvling, during the performance of “Pyramus and Thisby.” And Theseus confesses his sexual tension, premarital desire, which animates so much of the following action. Ernst explores the speeches, rich in dark, dignified sounds and lovely drawn out metaphors. But I would like to isolate Hippolyta alone here:

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities. (I.1.7-11)

Note the difference in Theseus’s simile (like to a stepdame withering out a young man’s revenue) and Hippolyta’s metaphor (days and nights personified, immersed, and the moon likened to an image of a bow drawn afresh). How no-nonsense, how material Theseus’s image is, a young man calculating the sheckles diminishing in his inheritance because his widowed mother insists on living a few more days, whereas Chipolata’s images are rich in nature, in imagination, and introduce the gap between “real” time and lovers’ time. She trumps Theseus’s “lingers” with her “steep” and “dream away.”

Theseus instructs his Master of Revels, Philostrate, to design entertainments, then explains to

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 reveling. (I.i.16-19)

Already, I suspect a predatory lover here. “I won thee doing thee injuries”—the queen of the Amazons, similar to Achilles’s Briesies, is merely a trophy won in battle. Notice there is no response, though Hippolyta remains present as the Duke turns his attention to business, Egeus’s petition that Theseus enforce the law of Athens, that daughter Hernia be put to death if she refuses to marry her father’s choice (a bit creepy in that we recently had the trial of Warren Jeffs, the high authority of the Fundamental schism of the Mormon church, for commanding the bedding of fourteen-year-old girls to his religious followers). Despite a courageous appeal by Hermia, Theseus hides behind the law:

For you, fair Hermia, look you arm yourself
To fit your fancies to your father’s will;
Or else the law of Athens yields you up
(Which by no means we may extenuate)
To death, or to a vow of single life. (I.i 117-121)

(Anticipate how much this immutable law will be so easily eroded by lovers’ time and the alternate universe of the imagination.) After Theseus rules, as he passes this sentence of death on young Hermia—another of those absolute grim laws which so many comedies open with, The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, for instance—he turns from the business and says “Come, my Hippolyta; what cheer, my love?” Stage this? After Theseus (“my love”?!?) has ruled Hermia merely a chattel to her father and has deemed betrothal to a man she despises, how do we see Hippolyta react? Surely the common sense Hippolyta doesn’t like this disposition of the young woman at all. Can we visualize her visible disgust? Indeed Theseus must ask “what cheer.”

Then, into the woods we go, elopement, pursuit, the night, the moon, the shadows, the faeries, delusions and illusions. At dawn, the sleeping lovers, all, except Demetrius, restored to natural affection, wake to the sound of hounds and hunting horns. Enter Theseus and Hippolyta (remember her?). Theseus tries to impress her, loosing his hounds up to the mountain top for “musical confusion/ Of hounds and echo in conjunction” but, as in the opening images, Hippolyta tops him:

I was with Hercules and Cadmus once [among the immortals],
When in a wood of Crete they bay’d the bear
With hounds of Sparta….
… I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder. (IV. i.112-114, 117-118)

Theseus blathers about the superiority of his dogs, trying to impress the Queen of the Amazons, but Hugh Richmond tells us to be skeptical of a warrior who marries his enemy and trains his hunting dogs so they are unfit for tracking. The dogs do discover the lovers, sleeping, after the mistakes of the night, and they tell their stories and, over Egeus’s insistence on that immutable Athenian law, Theseus acknowledges natural law (though he will have one more rejection of love and imagination) and heralds that “nuptial hour.” “Three and three,/ We’ll hold a feast in great solemnity./ Come, Hippolyta,” (IV.i.184-186).

I would direct Hippolyta as open-mouthed with astonishment and soon she remarks “’Tis strange, my Theseus, [what] these lovers speak of,” which provokes the Duke’s dismissal of lunatics, lovers, and poets, “of imagination all compact.” Theseus is regularly quoted out of context as a description of Shakespeare’s notions about poetry, dreams, romantic love, and other lunacies, but as my Hippolyta has demonstrated Theseus is the figure who is deficient in these qualities. Hippolyta is shrewder and less defensive than Theseus:

But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds tranfigur’s so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable. (V.i.23-27)

Something has happened to the lovers, whatever their stories, a creative transformation into a higher consciousness (as opposed to downward metamorphoses we read about in Ovid).

After this, the rude mechanicals perform “Pyramus and Thisbe,” and Hippolyta, again, is judicious: “I love not to see wretchedness o’ercharged,/ And duty in his service perishing.” As the travesty unfolds, she may seem to be among the snobbish derision the aristocrats heap on the guildsmen, but, to me, the most interesting line is her “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.” Does she mean “Pyramus and Thisbe” itself and its romantic glop or the performance or possibly the jeering by Theseus and Demetrius, though that is not yet as vicious as it will soon be. But when Theseus plays critic and says “The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend it,” Hippolyta again clarifies imagination: “It must be your imagination then, and not theirs.”

Theseus, who has scorned antic fables and fairy toys, lunatics, lovers, and poets, finally is himself transformed and acknowledges “’tis almost fairy time,” And so to bed, Hippolyta inevitably with him. But I have seen Hippolyta double cast with Titania, and I have judged her superior to the pompous (see I.i.19) bureaucrat Theseus, superior in reason, nature, and the imagination. If there were a sixth act, can one imagine Theseus with ass’s ears?

Notes to Ernst’s other starters:

1. (cont.) Ernst, in September, invited us to choose a character “speaking” to us at this moment in the world. I hope I haven’t merely deconstructed Hippolyta, and I hope Ernst still remembers why he nominated Theseus back then so we can rassle. If not, I may try also to account for my connection to Helena (starting with a wonderful B. Iden Payne production in which Helena had a lisp and doomed me to refer to “Dimetweus” in front of my students) and of Puck (starting with me being cast as Puck, chosen over Richard Chamberlain in open audition). But that for another time. I notice Ernst’s first character is Bottom. Tempting. Cindy—can you make an argument for why Bottom is the only mortal in the play to see the faeries. That’s you, isn’t it, or did I hear it from our friend and colleague Dick Henze?

2. Great parallel between the openings of Richard II and Midsummer Night's Dream.

4. Bottom. Henry Myers has a little piece on Romeo and Bottom

5. Fairyland. I like the way Oberon gets hooked on the richness of describing nature.

6. Double casting in production. And there is a gaudy, but unexceptional film directed by Michael Hoffman with a memorable melancholy, contemplative Kevin Kline as Bottom. Calista Flockhart’s bare breast pale in comparison to those of Judi Dench as Titania in Peter Hall’s version.


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