Friday, June 20, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Puck Speaking to Me


When it comes to characters who speak to me, I think I prefer the faeries in Midsummer Night's Dream to the mortals, perhaps because, as Gil pointed out in his last post, the spirit world provokes "our thoughts about the relation of illusion to reality, without which the play would be not much more than a 'realistic' romantic comedy." And we've got plenty of those. So I gave some thought to the faerie folk and offer my cursory quick-jotted but not quick-witted thoughts.

On Puck: I don’t love Puck. Perhaps my impression has been infected by Mickey Rooney’s hyperactive performance in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film (with Victor Jory and Olivia de Havilland). It was a grimacing week around the Findlay home when the girls watched Midsummer (as 10-year-old Kaia prepared for her role as Puck last year) and then spent a number of dinnertimes hooting Rooney's manic Woody Woodpecker laugh. Further, Puck's impish humor – twitting lovers in the forest – seems a bit juvenile. Liking Puck is like snickering at the antics of the class clown, even as his actions irritate you. Gil neatly divides Puck into three shapes, and it is the second, the servant/slave of Oberon "who is instrumental in the romantic revolutions of both mortals and the Fairy Queen" that most appeals to me because it's in that role that he is the most fun.

I wish Puck's language were on a par with his spirit, but Shakespeare as seen fit to give him relatively unplayful language. (Why is that?) Instead he is limited to two- to four-line rejoinders, workman-like exposition or descriptive passages, and inglorious tetrameter. With the exception of his closing speeches (which I find a bit out of character), the most eloquent he gets is:

"My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For night's swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora's harbinger,
At whose approach, ghosts wand'ring here and there
Troop home to churchyards. Damned spirits all,
That in crossways and floods have burial,
Already to their wormy beds are gone.
For fear lest day should look their shames upon,
They willfully themselves exile from light
And must for aye consort with black-browed night." (3.2.399-409)

Puck's speeches rarely offer compelling insight, but here in six lines he gives a chilling vision of the agony of the damned, a vision that explores the inner lives of ghosts whose existence seems radically different from the spirits that populate the play. What is this doing here? Are Oberon and Titania limited to the same "black-browed night" as ghosts? The first line – "this must be done with haste" – suggests so, but does that imply that Oberon and Titania, like the ghosts, are damned? Hmmm. Leave it to Shakespeare to find the dark underbelly of a romantic subplot. He is the David Lynch of his time.

Shakespeare has a lot of characters running around Midsummer Night's Dream, and perhaps that is why a character as rich in potential as Puck comes off a bit slight. There are moments when I think he might have been a clown who focuses the play around him, like Feste in Twelfth Night, or a linguistic imp except he's not give to verbal flights of wit (where's your stychomithia now, Robin?).

So I like Puck, but I don't love him. If I pardon him, will he mend?

Mini-trivia note: In the Reinhardt Midsummer film I mentioned above, Mustardseed is played by Billy Barty. I grew up watching Billy Barty, one of Hollywood's famous "little people," playing Sigmund in Sid and Marty Krofft's early '70s saturday morning confection, Sigmund and the Sea-Monsters. In a remarkable moment of casting, the same year he played Mustardseed, he played a baby in Bride of Frankenstein. Barty was 11 years old.


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