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
I.1.1-3

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.
I.1.83-90

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?
IV.1.131-135

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.
I.1.163-168

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.
(II.1.81-117)

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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A Dream Come True

May 2, 2010 at 8:05 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

I almost didn’t bother with Max Reinhardt’s 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I figured it would be dated and old-fashioned, not worth my time. Wow, I was wrong. I loved it. 

What’s to love? It’s visually stunning. There’s beautiful music (Mendelssohn) and fantastic ballet. Fairyland is wonderful—dazzling, sparkling, fantastic (in the sense of a fantasy!). The special effects (remember, this is 1935!) are amazing—the fairies fly and glide and dance and everything is magical and weird (in a good way). Oberon (Victor Jory) is definitely a king, not menacing, but with authority. Titania (played by Anita Louise) is all sweetness and light in the manner of Glinda the Good Witch, and it works well here. Mickey Rooney’s Puck took some getting used to, but grew on me. He’s strange—very mischievous and naughty and given to loud cackling.

James Cagney does a great Bottom. I still like Paul Rogers’ Bottom from the 1968 version better, but Cagney really brings out the fool in this foolish character. He’s fun to watch, and all the mechanicals are funny. I especially enjoyed Joe E. Brown’s performance of Thisby. Hysterical.

What’s not to love? They cut some of the speeches, yet the movie still ends up almost 2.5 hours long. It didn’t drag, but that’s a bit long for me. Aside from the length, I would recommend this version for kids to watch. It’s beautiful and magical and there’s nothing too adult in it. That said, my kids weren’t particularly interested.

I don’t like their fussy costumes, but I otherwise enjoy the Athenian lovers. This is Olivia de Havilland’s screen debut (as Hermia). She is fine in the role, as are all the young lovers. I read most critics agreed that Dick Powell was miscast as Lysander, that he didn’t want the role and didn’t understand his lines. Still, I like his performance! He brings good humor and teenage smart-alecky eye-rolling to the role, which I find amusing. I think he gives Lysander some personality.

This beautiful film won Oscars for Best Cinematography (a write in!) and Best Editing. I think it’s well worth watching.

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The Course of True Love

May 1, 2010 at 10:28 am (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Analysis and Discussion, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

The course of true love never did run smooth.
(I.1.134)

This is one of the more famous lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lysander says this to Hermia as they bemoan their own problems and discuss various ways that love can go wrong. They hatch a plan to elope and when Helena wanders by, they tell her of their plan to meet in the woods and run away together where Athenian law can’t follow them.

Poor Helena. She is lovesick for Demetrius. She says, “The more I love, the more he hateth me” (I.1.199). She cannot wrap her mind around the switch in his affections to Hermia. Helena says:

As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured every where:
For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,
He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.
(I.1.240-245)

It’s at this moment that Helena thinks to tell Demetrius that Hermia and Lysander plan to run away to the woods. She then will follow him and throw herself at his feet in her desperation to win back his affection.

I’ve been thinking about Helena’s motivation here. This has been weighing on me since I watched Picture This. In screenplay writer and director John Fisk’s video about adapting a Shakespearean play he explains his reasoning for veering from a strictly Shakespearean storyline. One of his reasons has to do with what he sees as Helena’s selfish motives. He feels she deserves different consequences than Shakespeare provides (her apparently happily-ever-after marriage to the apparently permanently love-juice-influenced Demetrius). Fisk points out that true love cannot come from a place of selfish interests. Because Demetrius is drugged, Fisk says, it’s not true love. Picture This provides a different ending for this couple than Shakespeare.

John Fisk commented on my blog about this: “I know ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a comedy however when watching the play or a movie version of it I’m always struck by how Helena treats her friend Hermia. In writing screenplays, the theory goes that, it is really important to look at the choices which your characters make. This really defines the character. In other words the character is the choices that they make.”

I appreciate his point and I really appreciate him stopping by this blog and sharing his thoughts with us. I can see how he could interpret Helena’s actions as selfish. In the video, Fisk says one of the main questions for him in writing the screenplay was: “Can love that comes from a dark and selfish place lead to a true love of total selflessness?”

It’s a great question. I totally get what he did in the film Picture This and it makes a whole lot of sense if you’re coming from the viewpoint that Helena is selfish. I have thought about Helena’s motivation each time I’ve viewed a film adaptation or read the text since hearing this idea; I still don’t interpret her actions the same way as Fisk. (If he returns to read this, I hope he understands that I’m using his opinion as a point to ponder; he’s entitled to his viewpoint!).

I have a lot of empathy for Helena. She loved Demetrius with all her heart and he returned her love (this is prior to the play’s action, but it’s referred to by Lysander and Theseus in the opening scene).

LYSANDER
Demetrius, I’ll avouch it to his head,
Made love to Nedar’s daughter, Helena,
And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes,
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,
Upon this spotted and inconstant man.

THESEUS
I must confess that I have heard so much,
And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof;
But, being over-full of self-affairs,
My mind did lose it.
(I.1.106-114)

We are not given an explanation for Demetrius’s switch from Helena to Hermia. All we know is that he has Egeus’s permission to marry Hermia. It’s not particularly clear to me that he loves Hermia. Maybe the betrothal was a business transaction between Demetrius and Egeus. Who knows? Hermia would have nothing to do with him; she loves Lysander. The strongest language Demetrius uses toward Hermia is:

O, why rebuke you him that loves you so?
Lay breath so bitter on your bitter foe.
(III.2.43-44)

It’s not that convincing to me. Still, why drop Helena if he loved her. Who knows?

Back to Helena’s motivation. She is a little conniving in her decision to tell Demetrius that Hermia and Lysander will be in the woods. However, her intention is not to hurt Hermia. She already knows Hermia has no feelings for Demetrius and is, in fact, eloping with Lysander and planning to leave Athens forever. If she did nothing, Hermia would be out of the picture and Helena could try her luck getting Demetrius back.

It seems to me that she’s just lovesick and not thinking clearly. She knows Demetrius will follow Hermia into the woods. She sees this as an opportunity for herself to follow Demetrius and throw herself at him. She is Desperate with a capital D. Who can blame her? She has loved Demetrius and has no idea why his love turned away. She thinks she can somehow win it back. She doesn’t seem selfish to me so much as confused and desperate. I don’t think she means any harm to anyone.

Hermia goes through a similar out-of-body experience when Lysander is under the spell of the love juice and claims to hate her. She can’t believe her ears:

You speak not as you think. It cannot be.
(III.2.191)

And then as Lysander continues, Hermia thinks he is joking. When she realizes it’s not a joke, she’s just confused:

Hate me! wherefore? O me! what news, my love!
Am not I Hermia? are not you Lysander?
I am as fair now as I was erewhile.
Since night you loved me; yet since night you left me.
Why, then you left me–O, the gods forbid!–
In earnest, shall I say?
(III.2.271-277)

At this point, Hermia reacts with anger toward Helena, assuming that Helena must have done something to cause Lysander’s eyes to wander.

To me, Helena’s quiet jealousy of Hermia and desperate offers to Demetrius are normal reactions, as are Hermia’s confusion and anger. Both women are behaving as you might expect under confusing circumstances where a once trusted and professed love is suddenly gone.

Selfish? Deserving consequences? I don’t see it that way. Sad and confused and desperately trying to make sense of altered reality… yes.

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Seeing Green

April 29, 2010 at 10:37 am (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

Peter Hall’s 1968 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream features the Royal Shakespeare Company including many actors who went on to great things like Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Diana Rigg.

I had a schizophrenic experience with this film. I watched half one night and half the next. The first half I found nearly unwatchable. The second half, I loved. It was so strange that I forced myself to re-watch the first half. I still hated it.

Let’s start with the problems. It feels very 1960s mod with the girls in their minis and eyeliner and the boys with their moptops. There are odd camera angles, frenetic editing and bad special effects. The fairies run in large groups, reminding me of Planet of the Apes (also released in 1968—maybe it was the style). The wandering around in the woods with a moving camera reminds me of Blair Witch Project. None of this is good. I just could not get a read on this movie.

My biggest problem: I really dislike the fairies—I mean, extreme distaste for these fairies. All the fairies are painted green. Their green skin makes their red lips and white teeth stick out in an odd way. It’s a bit overdone for me. Puck (Ian Holm) is an annoying green menace with a strange tongue tic. I dislike him very much throughout the movie. I also dislike Oberon (Ian Richardson). He looks very 1960s sci-fi/alien to me and his makeup is more metallic green than the others. It’s off-putting. I don’t even like Judi Dench as Titania, although her costume (or lack thereof) is eye catching!

So what changes midway through this film? All I can tell you is I resumed play on the second day just before the one-hour mark (it’s a two-hour movie) while I was heating up dinner in the kitchen. At this point in the film, the Athenian lovers are starting to quarrel in the forest. I wasn’t paying much attention at first, but a few minutes into it, I realized I really liked what they were doing.

The whole feel of the movie changed for me. The mechanicals came out to rehearse and I realized I really enjoyed them, as well. So, I continued watching through the end with rapt attention. I can say the second half is really enjoyable. The four lovers and the mechanicals are wonderful—maybe the best versions I’ve seen in the films I’ve watched. For me, Paul Rogers really nails the character of Bottom. I loved his performance.

This version of Pyramus and Thisby is also, I think, the best version I’ve seen. Watching it, I got the feeling it was exactly what Shakespeare intended… rustic and silly and unselfconscious.

So, I feel very mixed on this film. The fairies are the worst. The young lovers and the mechanicals, the best. What does that make the film as a whole? I’m not sure. I wonder if I’d watched it all in a single sitting what my reaction would have been. As it is, I’m glad I saw it. Your mileage may vary.

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Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch Cherry Bomb!

April 28, 2010 at 2:53 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Analysis and Discussion, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , , )

I went to see the movie The Runaways about Joan Jett’s first band last weekend, and I can’t get this song Cherry Bomb out of my head. It may seem like a stretch to find something Shakespearean to say about Cherry Bomb or The Runaways, but I can’t get it out of my mind. So, here’s what I’ve been thinking about.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a very funny play. It’s silly, there are fairies, there’s magic, the four teenagers are great sport to watch, and the ending is happy. But as I pointed out in my post about Titania, there’s darker stuff here, as well.

It boils down to this: misogyny. As Picture This director John Fisk points out in his video about adapting a Shakespearean play, “The world in which Shakespeare lived was a world of misogyny.” Women were made subordinate to men.

This is so true when you start picking through A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hippolyta is tamed. Titania is tamed. Hermia is her father Egeus’s property and he can do with her as he wants! Theseus advises Hermia:

To you your father should be as a god;
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.
(I.1.47-51)

This is the law of Athens and Theseus says Hermia will be put to death or forced to become a nun if she doesn’t subordinate herself to her father’s wishes.

So what does all this have to do with Cherry Bomb? The Runaways were an all-female band trying to break into the mostly-male rock and roll world. Manager Kim Fowley cherry picked Cherie Currie at age 15 for lead singer of the fledgling band due to her blonde bombshell looks. She inspired the song Cherry Bomb because that’s what she represented—jailbait.

It’s a catchy tune, but the situation these girls were in was exploitive and misogynist. The band members start out just wanting to play rock n’ roll. During rehearsals, Currie wants to do slower songs and isn’t comfortable with the graphic lyrics or the gyrations. But they all do what Fowley tells them they have to do to get noticed. In an odd way, the girls in The Runaways are tamed in the same way that we see Hippolyta and Titania tamed. They do what they have to do to get by in a male-dominated world.

I see other themes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in The Runaways… defiant youth, impulsive youth, the chaos of youthful love. So, as blog reader Chris pointed out, yes, it all comes back to Shakespeare. 400 years later, the universal themes and issues in his plays are all around us still.

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Proud Titania

April 26, 2010 at 7:38 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Analysis and Discussion, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

I love the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I love the magic, the beauty, the naughtiness of Puck, the haughtiness of Titania. There are some things that really baffle me, though.

Titania. She starts out so wonderful. She’s angry with Oberon. She has presence. She’s nobody’s fool and she’s not going to let Oberon push her around. She calls a spade a spade. She is angry with Oberon’s philandering (II.1.64-73).

When she talks about the impact of their quarreling, she speaks with such eloquence. She could have just said, “Our fighting is causing mayhem in the mortal world.” That’s how my small mind translates her beautiful words. What images!

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. 
(II.1.82-117)

And then she continues with the beautiful, heartfelt explanation of why she cannot give the mortal boy to Oberon. Here’s my simplistic version: “I loved his mother and want to take care of him in her memory.” Here are the words Shakespeare put on Titania’s tongue:

Set your heart at rest:
The fairy land buys not the child of me.
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip’d by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following,—her womb then rich with my young squire,—
Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
To fetch me trifles, and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.
(II.1.121-137)

Luscious, isn’t it? The words and images are so beautiful. They speak to the character and strength of this fairy queen. I’m in awe of her!

And then it’s all downhill for Titania. It’s depressing. Oberon puts the love juice on her, she falls for the ass-headed ass, Bottom, she dotes on him. It’s embarrassing. She gives Oberon the mortal child with no fight. Then Oberon gives her the antidote to the love juice, she sees in horror that something awful happened to make her love an ass. And that’s that. The last we hear of her is this:

Come, my lord, and in our flight
Tell me how it came this night
That I sleeping here was found
With these mortals on the ground.
(IV.1.98-101)

That’s it? No wrath from the proud Titania? What a letdown.

I understand there is some connection to how it goes between Theseus and Hippolyta. The notes in my edition point out that Theseus/Hippolyta and Oberon/Titania are parallel couples and often played on the stage by the same actors since they never appear on stage together.

I had to think this through a bit, because the connection is not obvious to me. For me, Hippolyta is almost a nonentity. She’s hardly present in the play. I only know she’s queen of the Amazons because it says so in the list of characters. I only know that Theseus captured her in war because it says so in the note… and Theseus says “I wooed thee with my sword” (I.1.16). She is a non-presence in the play.

And then I thought… maybe this is the point. This is how she parallels Titania. Hippolyta was the queen of the Amazons. She must have been a proud and powerful woman. Theseus subdued her and now he will marry her. She has nothing to say in the matter. She is tamed.

And so it goes with Titania. We just catch up with her a little earlier in the process. We see her at the height of her strength, we witness the war with Oberon, we see her downfall. She is tamed.

Both Hippolyta and Titania follow this path, but we only see it happen in the play with Titania. It is a sad turn of events for me. Of course I appreciate the comedy of Bottom in her love nest. But, she’s a drugged zombie.

I have to agree with John Fisk, screenplay writer and director of Picture This. Oberon deserved different consequences for his cavalier treatment of Titania. Watch John Fisk’s excellent video about adapting a Shakespearean play for more on his viewpoint about Oberon’s misogyny.

I will let it go at that. Titania’s character seems to have so much to offer us and then the payback is just comedy at her expense. I want more!

P.S. Oh my goodness, 2000 hits on my blog! Thanks for reading! Please keep commenting… your comments give me ideas to write about.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Abridged

April 25, 2010 at 10:23 am (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Plot Summaries, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , )

Here is a summary of the plot for anyone who would like some context. I hope it will entice you to read the play; Shakespeare’s words and imagery are beautiful. This play is also very, very funny. I think the language is straightforward (not so many puns), making it easy to read. It moves along briskly and is quite short. Give it a spin!

If anyone sees any errors, let me know so I can fix them—this is just based on my casual reading of the text, so I could easily have things out of order or get the details wrong.

Without further ado, here’s… A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Prologue
Taking a pointer from the mechanicals (explained in a minute), I feel the need for a prologue here so that you don’t get too lost in the convolutions of this convoluted story. The overall gist is this: 4 teenagers are bickering. The fairy king and queen are bickering. The fairies intervene magically with the teenagers with some hilarious results. The fairy king messes with the fairy queen with some hilarious results. There’s a very silly play within the play. There’s a happy ending!

Setting the Scene
A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place in ancient Athens. Theseus, the Duke of Athens, has just won a war against the Amazons and he is set to marry Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. The play opens with Theseus telling Hippolyta how excited he is about their upcoming wedding and that he plans to make it a big celebration.

They are interrupted by Egeus who comes in to ask Theseus to help settle a problem. Theseus has promised his daughter Hermia in marriage to Demetrius. However, Hermia is in love with Lysander and wants to marry him instead. There is some smart-mouthing back and forth between Lysander and Demetrius. Lysander points out that Demetrius was recently in love with Helena and Theseus admits he had heard this rumor.

Egeus claims it is his right to do with Hermia as he wants and he wants her to marry Demetrius. Theseus agrees that this is the law and he tells Hermia she must do as her father says and marry Demetrius. If she doesn’t marry Demetrius, she must either die or become a nun. He gives her 4 days (until his wedding) to make her choice.

Lysander and Hermia are left by themselves and Lysander hatches a plan to elope with Hermia to his aunt’s house outside of Athens, where Athenian law can’t follow them. Hermia agrees to meet him in the woods outside Athens so they can run away together.

Helena joins them and she’s in a very bad mood. She is lovesick for Demetrius and extremely jealous of him now loving Hermia, her lifelong friend. Hermia tells Helena of her plan to elope with Lysander. Helena decides she will tell Demetrius about this plan so that he will follow Hermia into the woods, and Helena can then follow him into the woods.

The Rude Mechanicals
A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a “play within the play” called Pyramus and Thisby (P&T). P&T is planned by a group of working men who Puck (we’ll get to him in a minute) refers to as “rude mechanicals,” meaning unsophisticated men who work with their hands. Puck also calls them “hempen homespuns,” referring to their simple clothes. In other words, these are bumpkins. Just about everything they say is ridiculous. P&T is ridiculous.

The mechanicals are: Peter Quince (a carpenter), Nick Bottom (a weaver), Francis Flute (a bellows mender), Tom Snout (a tinker), and Robin Starveling (a tailor). Bottom is the most ridiculous of these silly characters; he’s the quintessential silly ass.

These men are excited about the upcoming wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta and create a play that they hope to perform at the wedding reception. They meet quickly and Peter Quince gives out the parts. Bottom gets the lead role (Pyramus) and also wants to play most of the other parts. Quince quashes that idea and asks the men to learn their lines and meet him in the woods outside Athens so they can rehearse the play in privacy.

Fairyland
Fairyland is another dimension that mortals are usually unaware of. However, happenings in fairyland can affect mortals. Oberon and Titania (king and queen of the fairies) are quarrelling and their quarrels lead to all kinds of disruptions and natural disasters in the mortal world.

The cause of the current quarrel is a disagreement over a mortal boy who Titania adopted. Titania befriended his mother and when the mother died, Titania vowed to take care of the boy in memory of the mother. Oberon wants the boy to use as a servant. Titania refuses to give up the child and leaves abruptly.

Love Juice
Oberon is very angry and decides to play a trick on Titania. He knows of a flower whose juice serves as a love potion when sprinkled on the eyes (the next person/thing seen is the object of infatuation) and he tells his fairy jester Puck (also called Robin Goodfellow) to go find this flower and bring it to him so he can use it on Titania. He wants her to fall in love with something vile (he also knows the antidote herb to take away the spell, so this is meant to be temporary, just as a joke).

At this point, the fairy world collides with the mortal world. Helena has followed Demetrius into the woods (as he went looking in anger for the eloping Hermia and Lysander). Helena humiliates herself in her desperate attempt to get Demetrius to love her again. He ignores her and goes searching for Hermia. Oberon (invisible to the mortals) sees this and feeling sorry for Helena, decides to help her out by putting a little love juice on Demetrius’s eyes.

Puck comes back with the “love-in-idleness” flower and Oberon squeezes the juice on the sleeping Titania’s eyes. He tells Puck to go find Demetrius and do the same to him (Oberon tells Puck to look for the boy with Athenian clothes).

Puck’s Crucial Error
They’ve been wandering in the woods for a while, and it’s getting late so Lysander tries to cozy up to Hermia for the night. Hermia, being a good girl, fends him off and tells him to go find somewhere further off to sleep. Puck wanders up and seeing Lysander’s Athenian clothes, assumes he’s the one Oberon meant for the love juice. Puck sprinkles some on Lysander.

Helena and Demetrius are still running around in the woods. Demetrius is very rude to Helena and finally runs off and leaves her behind. Helena is still beside herself about Demetrius and jealous of his love for Hermia. And then… Helena stumbles on Lysander and can’t tell if he’s alive or dead, so she shakes him. Lysander wakes, sees Helena, and falls immediately in love with her due to the love juice that Puck mistakenly put on him.

Helena is confused by Lysander’s advances and assumes he’s pulling her leg. She leaves and he follows her. Hermia then wakes up from a bad dream to find herself alone in the woods. She goes off to find Lysander.

Picture all four kids wandering around in the woods all night. They’re tired. They’re confused. They’re running on hormones and love juice.

The Mechanicals Rehearse
The mechanicals meet in the woods to rehearse P&T and there is much silliness over the need for a prologue to explain to “the ladies” in their potential audience that there is no need to be upset because Bottom, who is playing Pyramus, is really Bottom the weaver, and he’s not really killing himself. And also that the lion is not really a lion and there’s no need to be afraid. Etc.

Puck sees this silliness playing out right under the sleeping Titania and while watching them he gets an idea. He sees Bottom acting like an ass (get it? Bottom?) and so when Bottom exits the “stage” for a moment during the rehearsal, Puck magically puts a donkey head on him. Bottom becomes a real ass and doesn’t realize it! He returns to the rehearsal on cue and scares all the other mechanicals. They run through the woods to get away from the monster.

Bottom decides they are trying to make an ass of him. He won’t fall for it, so he stays right there and sings a song. His song wakes the sleeping Titania, who immediately falls in love with the silly ass. Puck goes back to Oberon to report the success of the trick!

Sports Fans
Oberon asks Puck if he put the love juice on the Athenian and Puck reports that he did. However, Demetrius and Hermia wander by in the woods and it’s soon clear that Puck put the love juice on the wrong Athenian (Lysander). Oberon is angry and tells Puck to find Lysander. In the meantime, Oberon puts love juice on Demetrius. Then, Puck returns with Helena and Lysander. Puck asks Oberon if they can watch how things play out with the teenagers. “Lord, what fools these mortals be.” So, Oberon and Puck sit back to watch the sport (they are always invisible to the mortals).

Demetrius wakes up, sees Helena and falls in love. So now, both Lysander and Demetrius are crazy, head-over-heels, ready-to-die-for-her in love with Helena. She ain’t buying it. She thinks both boys are making fun of her. What’s worse, she believes Hermia, her friend, is in on the joke. She thinks they are all just being mean, mean, mean.

So, the girls argue because Helena can’t believe Hermia would be so mean. And Hermia has no idea what’s going on. She sees Lysander suddenly acting like he’s in love with Helena, so she assumes Helena came onto him and is a backstabber. Meanwhile the boys are arguing about which of them loves Helena better.

It’s been a long night and things degenerate quickly. They start ganging up on Hermia and making fun of her for being dark-haired and small (but shrewish!).  There’s much name-calling and general meanness. Demetrius and Lysander are ready to duel.

At this point, Oberon has seen enough. He wonders if Puck caused all this mayhem on purpose. Puck professes innocence, but admits he’s enjoying the outcome. He likes watching all the arguing and fighting. Oberon tells Puck to lead the boys around in the woods so that they get confused and don’t harm each other. Lysander and Demetrius chase Puck’s voice around in the dark and eventually they give up and fall asleep. The girls wander around in the woods and eventually fall asleep in the same general area. Puck squeezes the antidote herb on Lysander’s eyes so he’ll love Hermia again when he wakes up.

Titania and Oberon Reconcile
When we last saw proud Titania, beautiful queen of the fairies, she was enamored of an ass. She continues doting on the ass-headed and ridiculous Bottom, having her fairy servants bring him treats and scratch his back, etc. He is a silly ass throughout, making idiotic comments and acting like a clown. 

Oberon finally feels the joke has gone far enough. While under the influence of the love juice, Titania has given up the mortal boy who began their quarrel. So Oberon has what he wanted to begin with, and he feels like he’s gotten Titania back. Oberon gives the antidote to Titania. She awakens from a dream that she was enamored of an ass! He tells her to look down and see her love. The gross ass-headed Bottom makes her sick now. Oberon tells Puck to take the ass head off Bottom and that Bottom will remember the night as if it were a dream.

Awakenings
Morning finally comes and Theseus and Hippolyta mark the beginning of their wedding day with a hunt in the woods. Egeus is with them. They come upon the four teenagers all sleeping peacefully together. They blow the hunting horns to wake the kids up. Lysander stands up half awake and half asleep and unable to account for how they are all there together. He remembers going to the woods to elope with Hermia.

This angers Egeus that they were going against his wishes. Demetrius, also in a dreamy state, points out that it’s fine with him, because he no longer loves Hermia and doesn’t want to marry her. He loves Helena again with all his heart and wants only her.

Theseus accepts all this without blinking and tells the teenagers to follow him back to Athens and they will all get married when he marries Hippolyta later in the day. The adults ride off to Athens to prepare for the weddings.

The four teenagers are still a bit groggy and not even sure what just happened. They finally get it together and realize that Theseus told them to go to Athens to get married. They return to Athens.

Bottom wakes up from his dream and doesn’t know what to make of his memories of being doted on by the queen of the fairies and waited on by her fairy servants. He decides he will tell Peter Quince to write a song called “Bottom’s Dream” that he can perform at Theseus’s wedding. He goes back to Athens.

Pyramus and Thisby
And finally we come to the play within the play. The three Athenian couples have been married and are ready to be entertained at the party afterward. Theseus asks for a list of choices and one choice intrigues him:

A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisby; very tragical mirth.”

Tedious and brief? Tragical and merry? He needs to see this.

So, the mechanicals begin their play with the prologue to explain that what the audience is about to see is not real and no one should get upset about it and Bottom isn’t really Pyramus and Snug isn’t really a lion.

The members of the wedding party (Theseus & Hippolyta, Lysander & Hermia, Demetrius & Helena) are all in high spirits and they joke and make witty comments to each other throughout P&T. They are very amused by the whole thing.

The plot of P&T is very silly. The lovers Pyramus and Thisby are separated by a wall (played literally by Snout) and have to talk to each other through a hole in the wall (which Snout makes with his fingers). They agree to meet each other at a nearby tomb (Ninus’s tomb, which everyone mispronounces as Ninny’s tomb). The scene changes to the moonlit tomb (the moon played by Robin Starveling with a lantern). Thisby gets there first, is frightened away by a lion (played by Snug), and drops her scarf. The lion picks up the scarf and shreds it. Pyramus gets there, sees the shredded scarf, thinks Thisby has been eaten by the lion, and melodramatically stabs himself. Thisby comes back, sees the dead Pyramus, and stabs herself.

And farewell, friends.
Thus Thisby ends.
Adieu, adieu, adieu.

There is no way to get the full idea of how silly this is from reading it, so if you have a few minutes, watch this video of Pyramus and Thisby performed by The Beatles! Paul McCartney is Pyramus, John Lennon is Thisby, Ringo Starr is the lion, and George Harrison plays moonshine. Enjoy!

Fairy Time
As P&T comes mercifully to an end, Theseus sees that it is nearly midnight and almost fairy time so he wishes everyone a good night and they head off to bed. Oberon comes out and instructs the fairies to bless all the newly-married couples and bring them happiness and healthy children. Puck ends the play on the stage by himself asking the audience forgiveness if the play has offended anyone, wishing everyone a goodnight, and asking for their applause.

So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

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Fluffisimo

April 23, 2010 at 10:19 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

Get Over It is a teenybopper flick, but it’s a good one—funny and cute and a little bit sweet. Granted, it’s fluffisimo, but it’s way more watchable than the opera. Berke (Ben Foster) is dumped by his girlfriend Allison (Melissa Sagemiller). In an effort to win her back, he tries out for their high school’s spring musical, “A Midsummer Night’s Rockin’ Eve.” Okay, yes, please laugh now. At his audition, Berke sings the Big Red chewing gum ditty. It’s fine, go ahead and laugh!

In the meantime, Allison has taken up with Striker (Shane West) who has a fake accent and made a pop music video called Love S.C.U.D. They play Hermia and Demetrius in the musical. Berke’s buddy Felix’s kid sister Kelly (Kirsten Dunst) plays Helena. Due to deus ex machina (not due to his Big Red singing debut!), Berke gets to play Lysander.

So, we have the Shakespearean love quadrangle. Not that this is really about sticking strictly to Shakespeare’s story line. As the musical begins:

Did ya ever read a Shakespeare play
And never understand a word they say?
Well, tonight we’re gonna make things clear
‘Cause Shakespeare’s dead, but  we’re all here!

Shakespeare is all around in this film, though. Berke has a tendency to daydream himself into fairyland and the forest. His daydreams are pretty funny and we get to see Lysander and Demetrius sword fight!

I really like some of the minor characters. Martin Short is very funny as the play’s egotistical, bungling, Bottomesque director, Dr. Forrest Oates. Swoosie Kurtz and Ed Begley Jr are good as Berke’s overly-permissive parents (who happen to have a sex therapy show on TV). And I always love Mila Kunis, who plays Kelly’s friend and a member of the chorus in the musical.

Hey, they even fit a Dr. Seuss reference in for me. Striker gets angry when Berke ad libs his lines during the musical and he decides to ad lib some of his own:

I do not like it in a moat.
I do not like it in a boat.
I do not like it in a car.

Okay, not exactly Green Eggs and Ham, but it still had me laughing! It was a good way to celebrate the birthday of the Bard!

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Worthy of Magritte

April 20, 2010 at 11:14 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

Surreal. That describes Adrian Noble’s 1996 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company. This was originally staged in Stratford-upon-Avon and the film version retains much of the theatrical feel of the original.

This film is a little off-putting, but that is what surrealism is all about, right? The entire film is a little boy’s dream. He (played by Osheen Jones) is shown throughout the film, watching, but unseen by the other actors. He lends another level of dreaminess to the proceedings.

The film is a little off-putting and surreal in many other ways. It’s artsy and strange. The colors are bright and garish. Costumes are odd. Sets are… yes, very strange. This is all quite definitely a dream, and not always a good one.

Puck is not a sweet imp, at all. He is creepy and dark. Bottom is not just a silly ass… he is a bit gross. The fairies Cobweb, Peaseblossom and Mustardseed, who I usually see cast as children or pretty girls, are old and kind of clownish (scary clowns, not funny clowns). Some of them play double roles as Mechanicals.

The Pelican Shakespeare edition that I am reading notes that actors often pull double duty in the Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania roles, since they are parallel couples who never appear on stage together. This was true in the performance I attended last weekend. Royal Shakespeare Company actors Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan each take on the two roles in this film version. On stage, I think it’s easier for the audience to be fooled by different costumes and the distance from seat to stage (my eyes aren’t that great anyway!). But on film, you notice immediately that they are the same actors, transformed. I think it adds to the surreal feel of the film.

Much of the film takes place in the minimalistic “forest” set. It’s an empty stage with lightbulbs hanging down, oddly placed doors that appear and disappear, and strange colors. Titania sleeps in an upside-down umbrella. It is very artsy, but it works. I thought it was interesting.

Unlike the rest of the film, this version of Pyramus and Thisby is quite silly and slapstick and my kids enjoyed it. Which reminds me, there is a sex scene with Titania and Bottom that seems completely unnecessary and gross to me. Be aware of that if you have kids watching this. Also, be aware the whole movie is a bit darker than most productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream… younger children might find it scary.

I would not say I loved this film, but I thought it was interesting and worth watching. It moves along quickly (just over 1.5 hours), and it’s never boring. It definitely gives an unusual, darker, spin to the comedy—a different way to look at things.

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Saturday Night Live!

April 18, 2010 at 12:03 am (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

I finally got out to see a real live performance! I’m so excited. I live in Montgomery County, Maryland near Washington DC, and although there are wonderful Shakespearean performances happening around me all the time, I am not able to get out to see them! Hope springs eternal, and I continue to keep my eye out for opportunities. I’ve been reading blogger Maryland Shakespeare who gets out a lot more than I do; he lets me know about all the great shows I’m missing!

Anyhow, I do get out once in a while, and because I like cheap and convenient theater, I am a longtime subscriber to Montgomery Playhouse, a local community theater group that performs just about in my backyard. And imagine the karma happening here when the last performance of the season, Catch Me if You Can, was dropped and A Midsummer Night’s Dream was scheduled instead! (I wasn’t actually blogging yet or thinking about blogging yet when they made that announcement, but still, it worked out well for me. And the timing is perfect since I’m taking so long with each play and I’m still in the middle of my meandering thoughts on A Midsummer Night’s Dream!)

So, how was it? Wonderful! I loved it. Really, they did a great job. They set the scene in a modern high school. Some male parts are played by women (Egeus is Hermia’s mother rather than father, for example) but other than that, they stay true to the text.

This is low-budget community theater, but all the players do well, the set is nice, the costumes appropriate. There were a few garbled and hurried lines, but I am pretty darn familiar with the play at this point, so it didn’t bother me a bit. For the most part, they are stellar—delivery clear and they do a great job getting the meaning across.

The actors involved in the love quadrangle include three local college kids and one high schooler—they do just fine. I enjoyed seeing them deteriorate through the night—clothing in increasing disarray, bruises and cuts showing up, school uniforms falling apart.

The fairies are well done. Titania is sexy and voluptuous while Oberon is quite sophisticated and I loved his slightly affected British accent. Puck is very funny. I really enjoyed Puck and Oberon munching on popcorn while they watch the “sport” play out with the Athenians.

This is community theater, after all, so it’s fun to see someone I know in real life up on the stage. The director of my son’s preschool plays Peter Quince (just “Quince” in this version). She does a great job, as I’ve seen her do in previous plays. All the mechanicals are very funny. I enjoyed their silly posturing and they do a fine job with Pyramus and Thisbe.

I loved the whole production and it was so much fun to see a live performance. If you live in the DC area, try to get out to see the show. It’s at the Rosborough Center in Gaithersburg through May 2… nice cushy seats and affordable prices. Support local theater!

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