Tuesday, July 1

A Midsummer's Night Dream

Wow, I really enjoyed Othello, which was surprising. I knew I'd like it, of course--duh--but more in the "I can't wait to brag about having read this" way, not in the "Holy shit, I'm really enjoying this" way.

So for the comedy this time out I thought I'd do A Midsummer Night's Dream because, you know, it's midsummer. But then I remembered that the Elizabethans believed you had weird dreams on midsummer's night (June 21), and that the title of the play is a reference to that, not to when the play takes place. But, eh, I already bought a copy of the book.

This is the thread where I'll be posting notes as I read the play. Here's the permanent address of this post:


As before, you can either bookmark it or subscribe to the post's RSS feed. If you'd like to read along and join the discussion, you'll find the reading schedule I'll be following in the first comment of this thread, as well as links to the text. We start Thursday.

WAIT! Even if you don't follow along with the book or the notes, don't miss this astounding edition of Midsummer, illustrated by Arthur Rackham.


Johnny said...

It was pretty tough to do an act a day for Othello, but I'm going to try to keep it up for this one, too. We'll see what happens.

Thursday - Act One
Friday - Act Two
Saturday - Act Three
Sunday - Act Four
Monday - Act Five

And here are the links to online versions of the play:
Project Gutenberg
Sparknotes, featuring a side-by-side modern English translation.

Johnny said...

Oh, how fun...the play begins with the Duke wishing four days would pass already so he could marry his betrothed (and everything that implies), then a father comes in with his daughter and has some lighthearted banter about how he wants her to marry this one guy but she wants to marry another. So, in the middle of this frothy first scene, the Duke tells her that she has to marry this guy, or she's gonna be executed. Ha ha! Wacky!


Nice comeback here. Hermia has just found out that she has to leave Lysander or face death. Lysander, for some reason, gets all Stephen Glass on her and asks what's wrong:

LYSANDER: How now, my love? Why is your cheek so pale? [Why do] the roses there do fade so fast?

[Probably] for want of rain, which I could well [give] them from the tempest of my eyes...



I love how the toga'd Athenian laborers are all actually cockney oafs:

"Hello, hello! What's all this then?"

"Well, it's Pyramus And Thisby, innit?"

Johnny said...

Okay, this play is CRAZY. You probably have an idea of what A Midsummer Night's Dream is about, right? Little fairies, kooky misunderstanding between young lovers in the woods, a dude with a donkey head...? WRONG. Check it:

-The play begins with Theseus ready to marry Hippolyta, whom he captured in combat and is essentially his slave. Oh, and PS: Hippolyta had her breast burnt off in childhood.

-If Hermia doesn't want to marry Demetrius, she'll be executed.

-In the past, we're told, Theseus raped a rival's daughter then left her stranded on an island. Classy.

-So Demetrius is still in love with Hermia. When he finds out she's going to elope with Lysander, he follows them to the woods to *KILL* Lysander and, uh, "marry" Hermia. Helena, who's in love with him, follows him and tells him he can "use her like a dog":

I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love,
And yet a place of high respect with me,—
Than to be used as you use your dog?

Is it weird that I have a boner? Anyway, what's Demetrius' response to this? He tells her that "I am sick when I do look on thee." Nice! Helena gets in a good comeback, though: "And I am sick when I look not on you."

-So THEN Demetrius threatens to rape Helena, and when that doesn't work, he tells her he's gonna run away and let her get devoured by wild animals. AND THEN HE DOES!

-This act is also when we first meet the fairies. The cute little adorable fairies...ha ha. In fact, what Shakespeare calls "fairies," we would call "goblins" with their careless cruelty.

-And not just Puck, either. Oberon wants to give his wife Titania a love potion so she'll fall in love with a forest creature. The editions I've consulted (yes, more than one) all coyly say that this is to "embarrass" her, when the truth is that Oberon's idea of revenge is to MAKE HIS WIFE FUCK A BEAR. "And with the juice of this I'll streak her eyes, and make her full of hateful fantasies." Jesus, dude!

-(And that's just the literal facts of the potion. I'm not even going to get into the fact that love potion stories are essentially rape fantasies.)

-Oh, and then, Lysander--having also been given a love potion--ALSO abandons a woman in the woods to die!

-In conclusion: this play is CRAZY.


In scene two, Lysander tries the old "I just want to sleep beside you" routine. Wow, it really IS the oldest trick in the book.

Johnny said...

Oh, and I forgot one of the best parts! The reason Oberon and Titania are arguing is that Titania has abducted a young Indian boy that Oberon wants!

Johnny said...

The fairy names in this play are great, of course. Aside from the famous Robin Goodfellow, there's also Peasblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed.

Too bad the fairies are PSYCHOTIC. In Susanna Clarke's (truly excellent) Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell, the fairies--based explicitly on Midsummer's fairies--are described in a way that describes perfectly their role here: "Men have a lot of reason but little magic, while fairies have a lot of magic but little reason."

In the following excerpt, Titania has been bewitched to fall in love with Nick Bottom, and she instructs her fairies to watch over him as he naps:

"The honey-bags steal from the humblebees,
And for night tapers crop their waxen thighs,
And light them at the fiery glow-worm's eyes,
To have my love to bed, and to arise:
And pluck the wings from painted butterflies,
To fan the moon-beams from his sleeping eyes;"

Let's see: steal the honey from some bees, pull their legs off and stick them in a glow-worm's eyes until they burst into flames, then tear the wings off of butterflies. Gotcha.


My edition says that the Elizabethans believed that sighing robbed the heart of blood, as seen here:

Helena of Athens look thou find:
All fancy-sick she is, and pale of cheer,
With sighs of love, that costs the fresh blood dear.

Watch out, emo kids


Whoa, catfight! Helena and Hermia throw down in this scene. Helena calls the dark-haired and petite Hermia an "Ethiope"--burn!--and tells her she's short. Hermia responds:

"How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes."

Then they both take off their earrings!


I'm going to get this laminated and put in on my gym's Stairmaster:

"My legs can keep no pace with my desires."

Johnny said...

Attention Tom Waits fans: in this Act, Bottom calls for music, specifically instruments he calls "the tongs and bones." Here's more information about them:



Hippolyta begins an anecdote with "I was with Hercules and Cadmus once..."

Come on, nobody likes a name-dropper.


Also in this Act, Egeus discovers his daughter asleep on the ground in the middle of the woods with another girl and two guys. Awkwaaaaard.

Johnny said...

This short Act is almost entirely taken up with the "rude mechanicals" and their play. What's interesting, though, is that the group doesn't want to watch it, but Theseus argues convincingly that it will be, to use a more common phrase, "so bad it's good."

I know that I overuse the phrase "surprisingly modern" in these write-ups, but I was really intrigued to see this concept put forth in an Elizabethan play.

But what really blew me away is that the meat of Theseus' argument isn't just that they can riff on the terrible play--although the Act contains a surprising amount of MST3K-style commentary during the action of the performance--but that the actor's intentions will shine through the clumsiness of their show. In a sense, he's not just describing irony, but is actually describing CAMP.


The play they perform is The Most Lamentable Comedy And Most Cruel Death Of Pyramus And Thisby, which in a few years would be the basis for Romeo And Juliet (not to mention The Fantasticks!). It really resonates with me that Shakespeare used the play for mockery in this work, then took the same source material and made one of the greatest plays of all time out of it.


This is beautiful...here Shakespeare calls a clock striking twelve "the iron tongue of midnight.

Yep, that Shakespeare sure was a good writer!


I really enjoyed this play. It was pleasingly minor...everything was resolved by end of act III, and the rest of the play was a slow comfortable coda.

Next: King John, which is apparently a Shakespeare play.