Einstein in Fairyland and Horton Hears a Who

May 4, 2010 at 11:41 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Analysis and Discussion, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

Thanks to reader Tue for commenting about Shakespeare’s vision of understanding the Truth through science. I want to mention a couple of things I’ve been thinking about.

Four Days
The play opens with Theseus telling Hippolyta it will be four days until their wedding day.

Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon

Theseus tells Hermia she has until his wedding day to decide whether she will marry Demetrius, die, or become a nun.

Take time to pause; and, by the next new moon–
The sealing-day betwixt my love and me,
For everlasting bond of fellowship–
Upon that day either prepare to die
For disobedience to your father’s will,
Or else to wed Demetrius, as he would;
Or on Diana’s altar to protest
For aye austerity and single life.

Then, all the play’s action in the forest occurs (the Midsummer Night’s Dream). It seems to take up a single night. On the morning of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, the hunting party finds the four young lovers asleep in the forest.

But speak, Egeus; is not this the day
That Hermia should give answer of her choice?

So, somehow, four days (and four, or maybe even five nights) have past.

And yet, I can only account for two nights, not four. In the opening scene, Lysander tells Hermia to meet her in the forest the following night.

                                          If thou lovest me then,
Steal forth thy father’s house to-morrow night;
And in the wood, a league without the town,
Where I did meet thee once with Helena,
To do observance to a morn of May,
There will I stay for thee.

It’s really a minor detail when you watch the play, but I keep thinking about it. Were the kids wandering around in the woods for two days and two nights (or more)? The forest and fairyland seem like a different world, so maybe time works differently there.

I keep thinking of Einstein; it’s as if the Athenian lovers enter some kind of space/time continuum… like a wormhole.

Unseen Forces
Because Dr. Seuss is never far from my thoughts, I find myself thinking about Horton the Elephant while reading and watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Horton faintly hears a tiny voice coming from a speck of dust on a flower, and realizes that there is a whole planet with a town called Whoville with lots of Whos living on that speck. The Whos’ reality is shaped in part by the unseen influence of things in Horton’s world. So, when the flower holding the dust speck containing the Whos is stolen by an evil eagle and dropped into a field of identical flowers, the Whos suffer cataclysmic damage to the infrastructure on their world. Says the mayor of Whoville:

“We’ve really had trouble! Much more than our share.
When that black-bottomed birdie let go and we dropped,
We landed so hard that our clocks have all stopped.
Our tea pots are broken. Our rocking-chairs are smashed.
And our bicycle tires all blew up when we crashed.
So, Horton, Please!” pleaded that voice of the Mayor’s,
“Will you stick by us Whos while we’re making repairs?”

I see a parallel to the influence of fairyland on the mortal world in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Arguments between Titania and Oberon cause natural disasters in the mortal world. Titania describes the mayhem that their fighting causes:

These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

Beyond that, Oberon and Puck choose to influence individual mortals directly via the love juice and pranks like turning Bottom into an ass. Dr. Seuss’s Whos are somehow aware of the source of the unseen force that causes mayhem in their world; they realize there is a world beyond and encompassing their own. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the force (the fairies) are invisible and mortals are unaware that their reality is shaped and changed by the actions of fairies.

This also seems Einsteinian to me (not that I know much about Einstein’s theories)… like layers of an onion with each containing a different world—separate, yet interrelated. I also think of this when I read the introduction in my Pelican Shakespeare edition. It says:

Shakespeare’s comic assault on the proud and their smug conceptions of order and truth contributes to his larger challenge to conventional notions of ontology—to our sense, in other words, of who we are and what constitutes reality. If Puck’s proud narration of the havoc he creates in the mortal world—causing spills, knocking old ladies off stools—troubles our sense of causality and human control, his own mistake in anointing the wrong Athenian’s eyes might provoke further speculation. Perhaps yet another unseen agent causes Puck to err for the amusement of a higher god?

And then like my onion analogy, it goes on to say:

Shakespeare’s manipulation of perspective takes its most revelatory form in the arrangement of the play-within-the play. During the performance of “Pyramus and Thisby,” we may imagine the stage and the theater and the world as a series of concentric circles. At the very center are Bottom and Flute, playing tragic lovers. They are watched by actors playing the courtly lovers, characters whose experience might have paralleled that of the doomed Pyramus and Thisby but who fail to notice the similarity. They, in turn, are watched by the theater audience, spectators who laugh smugly at the smugness of the onstage audience. This set of symmetries implies that we may be mistaken in thinking of ourselves as the final audience. Isn’t it possible that we, too, are performing for unseen spectators, that our delight in the foolishness of what we see may itself be a brand of folly, and that the world we take to be real may be nothing more than a stage set for a divine audience?

Hmm, something to ponder there! 

A Dream Through a Jungian Lens
I’m glad I took the time to re-read the introduction (by Russ McDonald from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). It is fascinating. There is much discussion of the psychological “dream” aspects of the play. McDonald says:

At the risk of oversimplifying a symbolic relation explored with great subtlety, we may say that the fairy kingdom is to the natural world as the unconscious is to the conscious mind, or the imaginative to the logical faculty. This correspondence is thematically crucial, the relation to which all the other parallels and contrasts between the human and the fairy world contribute.

I am far from understanding, but there is much to think about here… physics, philosophy, psychology, oh my! And I was okay before with just the silliness of the situations and beauty of the words and images.

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  1. Tue Sorensen said,

    🙂 That’s exactly what Shakespeare does to the readers! Makes us apprehend and appreciate the infinity of wonderful things that there are to think deeply about!

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      You could have said “I told you so!” Ha. I still don’t get what you were talking about, the rational vs emotional symbolism, but that’s okay. Thinking about the psych lens is really interesting to me… the fairyland is the subconscious. It’s a little overwhelming to think about actually!

  2. Tue Sorensen said,

    I don’t know if you are looking for more explanation (from me), but I’ll try a little bit: Art is about illuminating the human condition, i.e. leading us towards self-understanding. What makes up the mind is reason and emotion. So all stories can (and often do) treat reason and emotion in a way that illuminates how they work in us, and therefore guide us towards increasing self-knowledge. I see it everywhere, both in Shakespeare and elsewhere, but Shakespeare is the one who understands the whole thing far better than anyone else, so his stories are much more detailed and pregnant with knowledge of human nature! But we need a close and detailed analysis in order to talk more meaningfully about it. If you want to enjoy it in a more immediate way, without too much exposition from me (and I admit I do tend to ramble on), naturally that is your right and prerogative. 🙂

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      Feel free to ramble! I will read it. I might not get it, but ramble on enough, and maybe it will sink in!

  3. Tue Sorensen said,

    🙂 Fine! A little bit more, then: I believe Shakespeare (as well as many other writers and artists) sees history as a journey from one state of harmony to another. So stories often start with a state of no conflict (= harmony), to which a conflict is then introduced, boding “some strange eruption to our state”, as Horatio puts it in Hamlet (“state” there obviously punning on both senses of the word). In tragedies this conflict remains unsolved despite heartfelt and sometimes panicky attempts to resolve it. But in comedies (which include the modern type of story where there is almost always a happy ending), a state of harmony is once again achieved. But it is the result of an arduous journey, and one of the simplest ways of illustrating this is to say that the journey is a progressive and conflicted interaction between our passions and our reason. The purpose of the journey is to discipline our passions under the aegis of reason, so we can be in control of ourselves. This is a 100% good thing, because only when they are under rational control can the natural passions be lived out in confidence, without causing all the terrible conflicts so often associated with them. Tnanks to art and science (themselves abstract forms of emotion and reason), humanity is becoming ever wiser about ourselves, and will eventually end up in a new state of harmony, where emotion and reason (beauty and truth) have been united. It is this state of being that Shakespeare is looking forward to, and that I see him leading us towards.

    The process can be divided into stages, where reason and emotion interact in specific ways for each stage. First there is Fatal Love, prevalent in Antiquity, where reason doesn’t like to associate too much with emotion, because emotion is considered dangerously uncontrollable. This, among other things, results in misogynist attitudes. Second, there is Courtly Love, prevalent in the middle ages and forward, where chastity, courting, chivalry, romance, lovers “destined for each other”, and suitors doting on (sometimes unattainable) mistresses are in focus. The most finely distilled and formalized forms of reason and emotion have begun desiring a union, though this union is often more spiritual (a uniting of pure souls) than real. Third and last, there is Beauty, where the full range of reason and emotion are mutually disposed to becoming one. The distinction is very obvious in the play you are about to read, Much Ado About Nothing, where Claudio and Hero are obvious courtly lovers, while Benedick and Beatrice are just a thin crackling facade away from being perfect beauty lovers, who also do end up getting together by the end. Shakespeare is illustrating the mindsets of the people belonging to these rational/emotional developmental stages up through history, and showing us in symbolical terms how these things will probably happen when enough people advance from the Courtly Love level (where most people still are now) to the Beauty level.

    Having said this, of course you should (and, I trust, will) read the play in your own way, and not necessarily through the interpretive prism I’m suggesting. But I do hope to inspire a couple of thoughts in you when reading it! 🙂

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      It’s like the Gospel of Saint William or how to reach nirvana in three easy steps! I’m not making fun… I’m just sayin’. Keep posting about this stuff; I’ll keep reading it.

      Have your heard of Helen Fisher? She studies the science of love. Maybe it would interest you? She has some popular books out: http://www.helenfisher.com/

      Adding… I saw this in the paper this morning…. about revelatory poetry: http://parade.com/poetry

  4. Tue Sorensen said,

    🙂 Yes, I realize it sounds a bit corny when simplified, but there’s a lot of complex backstory to it. (And the steps are not exactly easy…) Also, the state of harmony that is the end goal is not any kind of static condition, but a condition where we can start new directions of development because the old conflicts based on lack of understanding are finally behind us… I know it sounds somewhat New Age hippie/cosmic-like, and that’s not entirely a coincidence; I do believe the hippie movement had a lot of Beauty elements, and some very progressive ideas.

    Yes, I know all about Helen Fisher. She’s deeply embedded in the Courtly Love mindset, like most people today (and like evolutionary psychologists in general, with whom Fisher has much in common). People like that are trying to explain human nature according to how people think and feel *today*, while I will claim that Shakespeare understands that the way we think and feel at any given time is part of a long, gradual process of cultural evolution which still has quite a course to run before we reach self-understanding. And the brilliant thing about Shakespeare’s works is that he appeals to all three stages at the same time, through clever structure and double-meanings. So whichever mindset you’re part of, you can find something in Shakespeare that speaks to you – and drives you onward in a constructive direction.

    It’s funny you should link to Dickinson, as she is one of the poets who understands Shakespeare’s project best. As she says:

    “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant
    Success in circuit lies.
    The truth must dazzle gradually,
    Or every man be blind.”

    When people approach what I call the Beauty stage, they naturally become much more interested in poetry. That is also why there will come a time in the not-too-distant future, when classic poetry (incl. Shakespeare) will become far more popular than it is now. Another way to explain the reason for this is, again, to note how beauty/art follows truth/science, and vice versa. An age with a lot of popular entertainment will extend into an age with a lot of popular science – as I see happening now – and it will undoubtedly intensify in both areas in the coming decades. Fortunately, human civilization is a very dynamic place!

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