I continue my reading through the Western Canon with Shakespeare’s A Midsummers Night’s Dream. A magical romantic comedy about two pairs of lovers lost in an enchanted fairy forest filled with strange characters that cross each others path.
I’ve always had an attraction to stories that featured Fairies, of the old European variety. The mythological Titania, Oberon, and Puck, all-powerful and living in enchanted forest kingdoms. Jack Vance’s recently read and well loved Lyonesse features dark Fey creatures living in parallel worlds akin to Avalon and other Arthurian myth. Neil Gaiman’s best stuff is when he focuses on Fey worlds like in Stardust or his best work in Sandman: Dream Country where Dream has Shakespeare write and perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Oberon and Titania. Also, in my opinion, and I’m going to get some crap from the hardcore OSR fans that read this blog, I think that one of the best tabletop RPGs ever written was White Wolf’s Changeling: The Dreaming, an amazing game that unfortunately I rarely ever got to play.
The idea of magical alternate worlds filled with creatures like puck where humans get lost and enchanted as always been one of my favorite themes in Fantasy, so I figured that I would go to the play that is the modern foundation for so much of the stuff I enjoy.
Summary: In Theseus’ palace in Athens Duke Theseus (the mythological founder of Athens who slew the minotaur) and Hippolyta (queen of the Amazons who Theseus just defeated in battle) are discussing their upcoming wedding. They are interrupted by an older man Egeus along with his daughter Hermia and two young men named Demetrius and Lysander.
Egeus came to Duke Theseus to petition invocation of Athenian law. He demands his daughter Hermia be wed to Demetrius but she loves Lysander and wants to marry him instead. Athenian law states that if a daughter disobeys her father he has the right to kill her and she is disobeying him by refusing to marry Demetrius. Theseus listens to all arguments, specifically the one made by Lysander who states that Demetrius already has a lover, Helena, a woman who loves him but which he has taken advantage of. After a bit of deliberation, Theseus rules that by the day of his wedding Hermia must either marry Demetrius, accept death, or become a vestal virgin nun exiled to the mountains.
After Theseus dismisses them, Lysander and Hermia are left alone and they agree to run away together through the forest where they can get married and not be under Athenian law. Helena comes along and whines about Demetrius not loving her back so Hermia tells her about their plan to run away and get married but to keep it secret.
Left alone Helena decides to tell Demetrius about Lysander and Hermia’s plan to elope, hoping that she would win his favor.
Commentary: The play starts off with a complicated double love triangle and one potentially deadly harsh situation. Hermia and Lysander are planning to escape into the woods to get married against her father’s wishes and on the pain of death due to the harsh Athenian law. M, meanwhile Helena is in love with Demetrius, who wants to marry Hermia, so she sells them out in order to become closer to him. The whole plot is framed by the upcoming wedding of the mythical Theseus to Hippolyta.
Of course, whenever you have lovers that shouldn’t be together my mind jumps to Romeo and Juliet, but here you actually have three couples and a complicated layer of attraction. I’m curious to see how this plays out.
Summary: A bunch of Athenian workers gather for a meeting to put on a play for Duke Theseus’ wedding. Quince hands out the roles and the principal actor Nick Bottom hams up the lines requesting more and more parts. The play that they will perform is “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe”.
After they assign parts they agree to meet at midnight outside Athens in the forest so
they can rehearse undisturbed.
Commentary: This is a great scene which introduces the best character, Bottom. It’s a comedic scene that needs to be read aloud or seen because it’s a complete gag set. I can imagine a bunch of Elizabetheans Londoners laughing at this scene in the smoky Globe Theater a few hundred years ago.
Thematically the choice of play that they decided to rehearse shadows scene 1 and also has a bit of meta-commentary allusion to Shakespeare’s own career. Pyramus and Thisbe is an ancient story first found in Ovid that is the inspiration for Romeo and Juilette about two lovers that end up committing suicide due to a tragic misunderstanding. So, is this foreshadowing? Will Hermia and Lysander share the same fate as Pyramus and Thisbe, Romeo and Juliette?
Then, of course, the drama intensifies with the decision to go into the forest at night, the same forest that our characters from the last scene are heading into.