Summary: Everyone is back in Athens and freshly married. Theseus dismisses the stories from the night as the fanciful fantasies of lovers and poets. They all sit back and watch the play put on by Bottom and his crew. The play is so bad that they spend the whole time laughing at it but still end up having a good time. Everyone retires for the night and Puck shows up to speak to the audience, letting us know that we can pretend the whole play was just a dream.
Commentary: There’s some good stuff in this scene, specifically when you look at the layers of fantasy, play, actors, and even the 4th wall being broken at the very end. The whole play works well if you picture yourself as a voyeur taking part in the Midsummer Night’s celebration, kind of an onlooker in the same way Oberon and Puck watch everything unfold.
I like Puck’s final speech that closes off the play:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was really fun. I watched the 1999 movie with Kevin Klein as Bottom and thought it was great. The final act really needs to be seen, because text alone does not do it justice.
Obviously, all plays are much better seen than read, but I think that this rule applies a lot more to comedies. Macbeth reads just fine, watching a movie helps but it’s not necessary. In the case of Midsummer Night’s Dream, I actually enjoyed the movie more than reading the text.
Summary: The scene starts off with Titania dotting on Bottom. He’s relaxing in her faerie bed requesting all sorts of crazy stuff from the fairies charged with his enjoyment. After a bit of music, they all fall asleep and Oberon and Puck who were watching the whole scene hidden decide to fix the spell and disenchant Titania.
Oberon wakes Titania up and dismisses the spell. Of course, she is repulsed by the donkey-headed bottom. Puck fixes the spell and takes the donkey head away. Oberon and Titania makeup, and decide to put all the humans in the forest to sleep and make them think that the events of the night were nothing but a dream. They walk away hand in hand as the sun rises.
Duke Theseus and his crew are out hunting when the hounds come across the four sleeping lovers. The trumpets wake them up and they are startled by the Duke and his soon to be wife. Hermia’s father is with them and he insists that the Duke punish her for obviously trying to run away with Lysander but Demetrius interrupts and explains that he now loves Helena and that the whole thing was a big misunderstanding. Theseus decides that they should all get married at the same time and invites everybody to the temple.
Once everyone is gone Bottom wakes up, no longer a donkey. He makes a self-speech about his awesome night and heads off towards Athens.
Commentary: This scene is pretty preposterous but this play is, after all, a comedy. Titania is all like “sure Oberon, you enchanted me in me in my sleep making me have sex with a donkey-headed peasant, but I’m not mad.” Then the equally super tidy Duke Theseus going against Athenian law and inviting everybody to get married, yay weddings for everyone!
Summary: The band of actors is back in town moaping because Bottom is gone. Even worse their play is chosen as the one but nobody else can play the main part. Right when everything looks bad Bottom rolls up and tells them to prepare for the play.
Commentary: This is a transition scene, a buildup to the finale.
Summary: The band of Athenian workers meet up in the forest and begin rehearsing their play. Robin Goodfellow wanders in on them invisible and uses his magic to turn Bottom into a donkey-headed beast. When he comes around to read his lines the other actors freak out and run away. Thinking that they are playing a prank on him he begins to sing a song inadvertently waking up the sleeping Titania. When she wakes up the love spell takes effect and she falls in love with the donkey-headed Bottom, ordering her fairies to take him up to her sleeping bower.
Commentary: Another fun scene with the actors. Lots of good jokes, puns, and double meanings, and of course the sitcom level comedy of the Queen of the Faries falling in love with a donkey-headed Bottom.
Puck, when he runs into the actors, exclaims, “What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here.” Hempen homespuns is a pretty good insult for simple peasants.
I love the transmutation aspect. A donkey-headed fast-talking rogue like Bottom is hilarious. Even better, the most beautiful queen of all faeries falls in lust with him and takes him up to her love nest.
Reading the play I sorta think that Bottom is a Shakespeare self-insert. He’s making fun of himself and the profession of acting and of course, the sophisticated women that fall in love with them. I think he’s saying that actors are asses.
Summary: Puck returns to Oberon and tells him about Titania falling in love with the Donkey-headed bottom when Demetrius and Hermia walk up arguing about Lysander. Hermia thinks that Demetrius hurt Lysander but in reality, he is off chasing Helena due to the love spell. Puck and Oberon realize that they enchanted the wrong Athenian and Oberon tells puck to enchant Demetrius and make him fall in love with Helena.
Meanwhile, Helena being chased by Lysander wonder in. As soon as Demetrius sees her he falls in love due to the new spell put on him by Oberon. Now both of them are in love with Helena and she freaks out thinking that they are messing with her. Helena and Hermia argue, insult each other, and even get into some eye scratching and slapping. Meanwhile, the two men are both exceptionally mean to Hermia while professing undying love to Helena. After a while, they begin chasing each other in the forest meaning to fight.
Oberon and Puck decide to fix the situation so Puck uses his magic to confuse everybody and put them to sleep. Once asleep he removes the love spell from Lysander so he will go back loving Hermia.
Commentary: This is a big scene, lots of back and forth insults, professions of love, a catfight, and all sorts of hijinks. Some good insults are thrown about “get gone you dwarf. You minimus of hindering knotgrass made, you bead, you acorn-” Good stuff.
One thing that got my attention is the fact that when Puck removes the love spell he only removes it from Lysander, not Demetrius. Hmmmm….
Summary: In the dark forest outside Athens the mischevious fairy Puck, aka Robin Goodfellow discusses the quarrel between the King and Queen of Fairyland over an Indian changeling with another fairy. Suddenly both parties, Oberon and Titania arrive in the forest with their retinues. They square off and jealously accuse each other of wanting to break up Theseus and Hippolyta’s weddings, both of them former lovers respectively. Their main argument is about a young boy Titania brought with her from India. Oberon wants him to be his attendant but she doesn’t want to give him up. After arguing a bit Titania takes off with her fairies.
Oberon summons Puck and tells him about a magical flower, its nectar if put on the eyelids of a sleeper will cause that person to fall in love with the first thing they see when waked. His plan is to have Puck fetch the flower so he can put the nectar on Titania’s eyes making her fall in love with the first ugly beastly creature that she sees. Puck takes off to find the flower.
Demetrius enters the grove chased by Helena. She is professing her love for him and he keeps on telling her off. All he wants to do is find Hermia so he could bring her back. Oberon watches the whole scene hidden from sight and he feels bad Helena.
After the two leave Puck returns with the magic flower. Oberon takes some of it and orders Puck to find the Athenian and make him fall in love with the woman he is mistreating. He means Demetrius and Helena.
Commentary: In act 2 we start off right away in the magical and mythological world by meeting the famous Puck along with the King and Queen, Oberon and Titania. Like most portrayals of the Fey, they are powerful and prone to quarrels and irrational behavior for spite or just chaos. The whole Indian boy side plot is kind of weird and really just an exotic sounding pretext to cause the argument between the two.
What we have here, of course, is the comedic setup. Whenever a love potion is involved the reader knows something is going to go wrong, it’s a trope that was most likely cemented by this play(off the top of my head I think the older play/poem Tristan and Isolde has a love potion but no comedy). The last modern version I remember is the episode of Rick and Morty called Rick Potion No. 9 involving a love potion plot that goes really really wrong.
Summary: In another part of the forest Titania is sung to sleep by her fairies who watch over her. Oberon sneaks up and squeezes the magic flower juice onto her eyelids casting the love spell that will make her fall in love with the first thing she sees.
Meanwhile, Hermia and Lysander are lost in the forest and decide to sleep for a bit. Lysander tries to sleep next to Hermia but she chides him and they end up sleeping apart when Puck finds them. Seeing Lysander away from Hermia he assumes that he is the Athenian Oberon wants enchanted so he squeezes the magic flower juice on his eyes before disappearing.
Demetrius runs through with Helena chasing him still professing her love. She finally gives up in despair and stops to catch her breath when she notices Lysander sleeping on the ground. Worried about him she wakes shakes him and he awakens with the spell taking hold of him he instantly falls in love with her. He begins to profess his love for her but she gets mad thinking that he is mocking her so she runs away with him chasing her.
Finally, Hermia wakes up and finds herself alone in the forest.
Commentary: So magic potions make everything a mess, Puck messed up and now the wrong guy is in love with Helena and poor Hermia is left alone in the woods to fend for herself. I like that initially Helena is the desperate creep chasing Demetrius but ends up being creeply chased by a melodramatic Lysander professing his undying love.
NOTE: While looking for Oberon and Titania art I came across the above artist Arthur Rackham whos illustrations I immediately recognized. He was a famous early 20th-century British illustrator who did lots of fantastic work. Check his stuff out, I’m sure it will be familiar.
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.