A Midsummer Night’s Dream programme note
 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream programme note

Amanda Piesse

On Shrove Tuesday, 20th February 1599, Shakespeare’s men travelled from London to Richmond Palace to perform a revival of their 1595 play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, before Elizabeth I. It was a fitting entertainment for a Shrove Tuesday, a brief interval of suspended time, misrule and metamorphosis, before the onset of sober, sacrificial Lent. On this occasion, the actor playing Puck had a new epilogue to recite at the end of the play. It drew attention to time’s simultaneous repeating and progressing, hinting at a correlation between the ageless Fairy Queen who governs the seasons and the now 65-year-old Elizabeth, perhaps to reassure her that ‘summer still did tend upon her state’;

As the dial hand tells o’er
The same hours it had before,
Still beginning in the ending,
Circular account lending,
So, most mighty Queen, we pray,
Like the dial, day by day,
You may lead the seasons on,
Making new where old are gone.

At the time that he was writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare was composing some of the sonnets and writing Romeo and Juliet too. Perceptions of time (measured most particularly by observing the passing of seasons and of hours, counting off the nights and by the waxing and waning of the moon), preoccupation with love and loss, with duty and friendship, and with the structures and soundscapes by which to convey such themes, permeate each of these works. In the sonnets, the succession of the seasons repeatedly configures the passing of time.

Like the sonnets, A Midsummer Night’s Dream holds loss of precious friends and the woe of cancelled love up for close comparison; like the sonnets, the play uses a carefully controlled structure to explore its themes before finding resolution in a firmly closed ending. Titania’s faithfulness to her Indian votaress, for whose sake she rears up the Indian boy, puts other relations with the mortal world and with Oberon himself into the shadows and Oberon’s response is to wrest both amity and allegiance back to himself by deceit and degradation. Already in despair at Demetrius’ duplicity, Helena must also endure the loss of her childhood friend Hermia twice over, first as Hermia elopes with Lysander, and again as Puck’s misadministerings set them at unmaidenly odds in the woods beyond the citadel.

Repeated language and double entendres replicate the relationships between the plots too. In 1960, Gaston Bachelard wrote, in his Poetics of Reverie,
I am a dreamer of words, of written words. I think I am reading; a word stops me. I leave the page. The syllables of the word begin to move around. Stressed accents begin to invert. The words abandon their meaning …[and ] take on other meanings, as if they had the right to be young. And the words wander away, looking in the nooks and crannies of vocabulary for new company …

Just as the four groups of characters and the three locations repeatedly encroach on each others’ territories and functions during the play, so particular words resonate and repeat. Despite being besotted with Bottom within the bower, Titania notices the moon’s ‘watery eye.. lamenting some enforced chastity’, recalling Theseus’ judgement on Hermia and preparing us to shift paradigms to the world of the nobles, even though we stay within the wood. In that same next scene, Hermia’s ‘I understand not what you mean by this’ is met with Helena’s ‘Ay, do! Persever, counterfeit sad looks …’, where we read ‘Ay, do!’ and understand it to be a sardonic response, but we hear, and understand simultaneously, ‘I do’, the assertion of a different way of seeing things. In constructing theme, scenic structure, nuance of character, Shakespeare uses soundscape as well as landscape and dreamscape. In this most metatheatrical of plays, we’re asked to be aware of innumerable perspectives on what we see, what we hear, and how the conjunction of both is more than the sum of its parts.

Amanda Piesse is an Associate Professor in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin.

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