#HandwrittenShakespeare – ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

As a belated birthday present, I was taken to see an open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Newstead Abbey, Byron’s melodramatic yet fabulous Gothic ancestral pile in north Nottinghamshire. This play is one I am particularly familiar with, having first studied it at age 11, performed in it at 14 (Snout the Tinker for life), studied it again at undergraduate and postgraduate levels at university, and then having given a paper on it at a student conference.[1] An evening spent on a picnic mat with a bottle of plonk, watching the Chapterhouse Theatre Company performing such a lively interpretation of the play was gorgeous.

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Sitting in the audience of this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream reminded me of a number of things. Primarily, that The Mechanicals pretty much steal the show every single time with their farcical production of ‘The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe’, a nod to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was written and performed in the same year as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.[2] The Shakespeare geek in me just loves that these two plays sit alongside one another in the Shakespeare chronology: Romeo and Juliet is so elevated in our culture as the epitome of tragic romantic love, yet the next play that Shakespeare wrote effectively takes the piss out of it. It suggests that the tragic escalation of Romeo and Juliet should not be beyond comedy (there are many moments in the play that nod to the comic tradition of the carnival-esque) and that the meta-theatrical clap back in A Midsummer Night’s Dream should not be underestimated or under-acknowledged.

The performance also reminded me that for all the cultural grandeur of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the big names treading the boards in West End productions, some of the best Shakespeare performances I have seen have been the rabbly raucous ones; those productions that have been comprised of well-trained but little known actors, who truly capture the playfulness and humour of Shakespeare’s writing. It is often forgotten that Shakespeare plays were the 16th century’s chief forms of ‘low brow’ popular entertainment, and I love productions in the 21st century that are aware of this and attempt in some way to recapture that.[3]

Finally, I was reminded that alongside being funny and magical, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is full of moments that are steeped in poignancy, taking the play well beyond its cultural box of ‘fairy story cum romantic comedy’. One such moment came in the following lines delivered by Theseus, which I felt inclined to write out in full:

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It is important to acknowledge first the racism implied in ‘Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt’. This line suggests that people who are in love are so frantic in their minds, that they see beauty akin to that of famed, Classical beauteous woman Helen of Sparta/Troy in a face that is not to be thought of as beautiful. In a move that speaks volumes of the 16th century’s perception of non-white non-Europeans, Shakespeare opts to conflate ugliness with the facial characteristics of Egyptians; because as people of African heritage, they were not thought to conform to standards of Western beauty and physical perfection.[4] This is extremely problematic and as a result, and as much as I love Shakespeare and the rest of this quotation, we cannot let him off for explicit racism.

The specific line from Theseus’s little speech here that had me reaching for the Shakespeare Concordance after the play had finished was: ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact’. [5] I was interested in the intertextual presentation of these three groups of people. This is because they are described as almost amorphous in Theseus’s discussion of the power of their collective imagination.[6] Imagination, he suggests, throws up images and distorts perceptions of reality with ‘frantic’ visions of ‘devils’, amongst other things. This culminates in the longer description of the poet, whose pen turns ‘the forms of things unknown’ into ‘shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name’. This suggests that what the poet accomplishes is the giving of life to what could have remained intangible and unreal, effectively a nothing. The irony of this is that the poet, like the lunatic and the lover, seemingly has no choice or control over their imagination. It is imagination that ‘bodies’ forth the forms of things unknown, which suggests that whilst thoughts and images are ‘nothings’, they are brought into language and expression through a corporeal being or experience.[7] This suggests that the imagination is something different and, perhaps, more complex and ambiguous than reason and rationality (‘Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends’). It has the fluctuating, changeable nature of all bodies but also possesses the physical corporeality that grounds us all in life. As such, it is a powerful almost tangible thing that is fluid, changeable and very difficult to pin down.

Indeed, Shakespeare takes this further by emphasising in the last four lines how this powerful, bodily imagination can bring about both the greatest joy and greatest fear, what Theseus describes as the ‘tricks’ of strong imagination. A modern translation of ‘tricks’ would be that imagination is a manifestation of some kind of cognitive dissonance: it is so powerful that it effectively establishes a disjunction between what it perceives as real and what is actually real. When something joyous happens, imagination establishes something or someone in the mind that brings that unparalleled joy; out of fear, imagination would convince us that a mundane bush is a ferocious bear. As a result, we can see that imagination, in the way that it acts uncontrollably and almost independently of a rational self, can disorient and confuse.

Theseus’s example of the poet, lover and lunatic suggests that these three groups of people, as a collective, demonstrate this intense, two-pronged relationship with imagination. To have such an active imagination requires the mind to be performing at a certain level of creativity, which welcomes those who, inadvertently or otherwise, express themselves with words and love. Furthermore, an intense relationship with imagination might also feasibly be called an intense relationship with anxiety. T.S Eliot famously wrote that ‘anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity’, and I think this could serve as a reading of Theseus’s speech here. Eliot suggests that creativity is accompanied and perhaps even enabled by the presence of anxiety; that expressions of writing and love walk hand-in-hand with what the 16th century would use rudimentarily describe as ‘lunacy’ or ‘madness’. I would add, in Theseus’s vein, that having an active imagination can be read here to be the greatest blessing when it comprehends and brings forth in a tangible bodily way great joy and positivity. In an equal and opposite way, however, imagination can also be the greatest burden and responsibility, when fear distorts our conception of the world around us and ourselves. It is entirely possible to argue that anxiety is the manifestation of creativity (and active bodily imagination) gone awry.

[1] Just in case you’re interested, I used Jean Baudrillard to explore Lysander’s seduction of Hermia through the use of figurative language, brought the concept of Bottom’s ‘translation’ into an ass into discussion with Jacques Derrida’s ‘On ‘Relevant’ translation’ and used my conference paper ‘Wastelands’ to compare Titania’s description of the changed and damaged seasons through her conflict with Oberon with T.S. Eliot’s war torn landscapes in part one of his poem The Waste Land, ‘The Burial of the Dead’.

[2] The Beatles seemed to think so too. I love this very grainy footage of them performing ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxXkdYr5JYg

[3] As well as the Chapterhouse Theatre Company, I refer to Filter’s absolutely hilarious production of Twelfth Night that I saw at HOME in Manchester, where members of the audience were encouraged to sing, clap, dance about and some brought onto the stage to drink tequila and play catch. We were all then jointly chastised by Malvolio for gabbling ‘like tinkers’ and for having ‘no respect of place, persons, nor time’. This line seemed all the more pertinent because the fourth wall separating the actors and the action from the audience had been completely comically demolished.

[4] I would like to show some awareness here that still today, people from non-white BAME backgrounds struggle to have their beauty, alongside their stories, perspectives, talents and intelligence, respected as much as those of white people. Whilst many BAME men and women have blazed trails for black beauty in fashion, music and film, popular culture is still slowly catching onto the fact that beauty encompasses more than skinny able-bodied white men and women.

[5] The Shakespeare Concordance is an excellent reference point for finding recurring words throughout Shakespeare’s plays. I searched for ‘poet’ in the Concordance when trying to find this specific line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/concordance/

[6]Before I continue, I think it’s important to say that I haven’t written about Shakespeare in a long time and never, I think, outside of an academic setting. Historically, I have been quite reluctant to talk about Shakespeare beyond an analytical or theoretical perspective, because I am highly sceptical of the value of reader response criticism. I have realised quite recently, however, how much I have missed throwing myself into the poetry, tensions and conversations all taking place within and between Shakespeare’s texts. I am hoping that in this new ‘Handwritten Shakespeare’ series that I want to bring to the ‘Creative’ section of Harping On that I can explore a new casual and therapeutic way of approaching Shakespeare: handwriting a quote I find interesting and then unpacking very briefly what is going on.

[7]  Thus also pointing to the idea that ‘nothing’ is always potentially ‘something’.

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