If you are interested in details of productions of Shakespeare’s plays on the London stage from 1 January 1890 through 31 December 1959, check out http://www.jpwearing.wordpress.com. A series of calendars provides what plays were performed, where, and by whom. Bibliographies of reviews, commentaries, and other useful information is also provided.
Sir Peter Hall has just directed Judi Dench as Titania in a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The review in The Stage points out the acting styles of some performers echo early acting styles (e.g. those of Edmund Kean and Henry Irving in the nineteenth century). Click here for the review.
For other aspects of Midsummer check out The Shakespeare Diaries.
If the title of A Midsummer Night’s Dream carries very English connotations, the opening scene presents the audience with something entirely different–ancient, mythological Greece. Theseus is the Duke of Athens, something in and of itself to conjure with. Ere there “dukes” in ancient Greece? And why use this setting rather than England? In ancient Greek legend, Theseus was, of course, famous for slaying the Minotaur as well as fighting the Amazons. Chaucer also used Theseus (as Duke of Athens) in The Knight’s Tale, in which he also married Hippolyta. Hippolyta is obviously Queen of the Amazons, and at least in Shakespeare’s version of the tale, about to be married to Theseus. So what indeed might Shakespeare be doing here employing these characters switched from Greece to the English stage. The clue perhaps lies in the words myth and tale–both are fictions, although some might lend some degree of credibility to myths. Midsummer is also a fiction, a theatrical fiction, and hence these internal references become meta-fictional, and meta-theatrical as well. There is indeed an atmosphere of total unreality presented here, and yet the audience doesn’t walk out. Rather it is instantly charmed by the whole notion, this complete fantasy. Moreover, the key ingredient is making all this work is the use and power of the imagination, on both the part of Shakespeare and the audience. This will be a major theme of the play.Further, Theseus’ opening line also establishes another major theme in using “nuptial,” and therefore marriage, wedding. Weddings more frequently are the result of two people meeting and falling in love. And, one might well ask, is “love.” It is, naturally, a feeling of varying intensity, and I leave it to the reader to conjure up what he or she might mean by the word. Usually, people know when they are “in love” (as opposed to, say, in lust), but quite what love is far more difficult to pin down, and often people describe other attributes that go along with the concept. So what we now have is a more or less indefinable universal feeling that men and women pursue with more than a degree of avidity being another major theme in a play which is a fiction about fictions. All as slippery as quick silver running through one’s hands.
Yet, in addition to all the above, this sub-scene ends with a touch of bawdy innuendo. Theseus declares “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries.” The sword lends itself easily to the innuendo, and Freudian interpreters might make even more of the two lines. Nevertheless, Theseus ends on an elevated, more honourable note, promising to wed her “in another key.”
Check out The Shakespeare Diaires.
It’s perhaps worth recalling that Shakespeare, in using “Midsummer,” was using a very well-known and enduring concept not confined to just the Elizabethan period. Indeed, a crucial event in Thomas Hardy’s 1887 novel, The Woodlanders, revolves around Midsummer eve, and the event alters the direction of the life of the heroine significantly:
“It was not Grace [heroine] who had passed, however, but several of the ordinary village girls in a group; some steadily walking, some in a mood of wild gaiety. He [Fitzpiers, the villain] quietly asked his landlady, who was also in the garden, what these girls were intending, and she informed him that it being old Midsummer eve they were about to attempt some spell of enchantment which would afford them a glimpse of their future partners for life.” (The Woodlanders, chapter XX).
The setting here is night-time and the bevy of girls go off into a wood. The major difference with the events in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that the plot concerns a triangular relationship (two men, one woman) rather than two sets of lovers. (However, in Hardy there is also a fourth woman (Suke) who plays a significant role.) Of course, it could well be Hardy was simply toying with aspects of Shakespeare rather than drawing upon local customs still practiced in southern England (his fictional Wessex) in the mid to late nineteenth century. Whatever the case may be, it’s worth reading at least this section of The Woodlanders, if only to see how events transpire.
Check out The Shakespeare Diaires.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s quite a title to conjure with, particularly given the various elements these four words suggest.
1. It’s “A” not “The.” A quibble perhaps, but if Shakespeare had used “The” he would have introduced a definite sense, something fixed. “A” leaves matters open, suggests that there are more possibilities than encompassed in this particular play.
2. “Midsummer.” Literally, of course, this would be 24 June, if Midsummer day is meant. The summer solstice occurs around 21-22 June. However, a quick check of “midsummer” in the Oxford English Dictionary will reveal that the word (in various forms) is associated with madness or foolishness. The heat of summer was also thought to bring on rabies (and hence madness) in dogs, while the midsummer moon could have a similar effect on humans in bringing about lunacy. Notable, too, is Shakespeare’s own use of the phrase in the later Twelfth Night: “this is very midsummer madness.” Clearly the word suggests weird and wonderful possibilities might ensue in the play.
3. “Night” or nighttime can be the time when all may not be as it might seem. A noise in a dark house is much more likely to set a person’s mind whirling than exactly the same noise during the daylight hours. Similarly, shapes can take on imaginative forms in a gloomy light, but are clearly a definite object in daytime.
4. “Dream.” Even with all the illogicalities that occur while we are having a dream, the dream itself seems real enough while we experience it. Yet it is probably safe to say that we generally cannot remember most of the dreams we have. They serve a purpose but slip through our hands, so to speak, and cannot be held.
All these above possibilities, and some others, will figure significantly in the play.
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While Shakespeare found hints for the play in various diverse sources, the play itself is generally of his own devising. He may have written it as an entertainment for a wedding (although in The Shakespeare Diaries he comes to loath the idea that his work can be trotted out for such occasions). Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) composed some incidental music for the play, including the world-famous Wedding March (which also figures in the 1935 movie starring Mickey Rooney and James Cagney–now there’s something to conjure with).