Few Shakespearean productions have run the gamut of critical deconstruction as has A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Over the years it has been interpreted as a light-hearted, fluffy frolic, a somber meditation on sexual politics, and an examination of latent violence, even bestiality. At its heart, however, it is a mature, complex play about the nature of love, marriage, and, most of all, the imagination. As an artist Shakespeare was obviously interested in the power of the imagination; as an artist in a romantic age, he virtually worshipped it.
The journey into the forest in this play is a journey into the depths of the imagination where all things are possible, where our deepest emotions are unleashed, where identities dissolve, strange shapes and creatures abound, and where love, the greatest emotion, is painful, confusing, and wondrous. The play begins in the stringent court of Athens, where Theseus holds his captive bride Hippolyta and Aegeus seeks to bridle his feisty daughter Hermia who is threatened with death if she refuses the man of her father’s choice. This is the Court where women are subservient to the whims of men and feminine destiny is in thrall to a masculine world order. For such a punctilious culture to survive it needs modulation into a new key, it must expand its simplistic rhythms to include more complex harmonies. The straitlaced world of experience must embrace the greater reality of the imagination—the feminine, chaotic, and creative world of the forest—and move, as all comedy does, towards a new culture, one that is liberal and all-embracing. This is Shakespeare’s earliest experiment with the redeeming power of the green world, a theme he would often revisit, particularly in the comedies and romances.
To escape the fate of Theseus’ dictum on her marriage, Hermia seeks refuge in the woods. We feel the power of nature almost instantly. As the two lovers plan their forestal retreat, their language changes—a Shakespearean device that signals a dramatic shift in the action. Rhyming couplets replace blank verse as the magic of the green world starts to transform even their urban setting. The dream has begun. This forest is a fluid milieu, crammed with lovers’ tiffs, sexual play (more on Titania’s part than on Bottom’s; it is significant that he seems more interested in being chummy with the Queen’s minions than in responding to her advances), and impending storms. Nature is alive and in full flux as the fairies share names with common insects and flowers; the first time we hear them—Mustardseed, Peaseblossom, Moth, Cobweb—we are treated to a glorious list of richly textured nature: apricocks and dewberries, purple grapes and green figs, mulberries, honey-bags, waxen thighs and fiery glow-worm’s eyes. This is the world of love and fantasy. Here lovers conduct amorous rehearsals and in the same spot blue-collar tradesmen practice the art of make-belief.
Within nature’s depths the problems of the court, though not forgotten, are given imaginative play. Who is in love with whom? Who belongs to whom? Does Lysander really love Hermia? Or does he harbor a deep-seated desire for Helena? Does Demetrius want Hermia or Helena? Is Helena feeling sorry for herself because no-one loves her (be careful what you wish for!)? Are Lysander and Demetrius really that different from each other? Who are we and what do we really want? In the mysterious woods inhibitions are shed, identities interchange, desire isn’t just a game of courtship; it becomes a passionate pursuit. Love is transient, like a dream, yet it is the foundation of permanent relationships. In these realms tradition and convention are reversed, women chase men, and a common weaver can become the paramour of the Fairy Queen.
In the forest the tradesmen (rude mechanicals seems an unfair term for such vibrant creatures) meet to put on a play. They begin indifferently enough, except for the irresistible Bottom whose imagination knows no limits as he bounces between every character in their little drama. In his desire to play all the parts he demonstrates a boundless sense of fantasy and, although clownish, his unabashed creative playfulness is rewarded by Shakespeare who allows him to penetrate the furthest depths of his imagination and enter the realms of Oberon and Titania. Bottom’s profession, weaving, contains magical associations so it is no accident that he finds himself tangled in the skeins of Puck’s web as he spins into the heart of fairyland. He is the only character who straddles both worlds of experience and fantasy. When he returns he can find no words to describe his adventure, resorting to a botched (of course, being who he is) biblical reference (“the eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen…”) to explain the bottomlessness of his vision. When the laughter has died, we can see that he has been to the deepest regions of a spiritual experience (where Bottom’s words end, St. Paul continues: “the spirit searches all things, yea the deep things of God”). Such an imaginative journey is profoundly religious.
The other tradesmen seem terrified of performing their play, but led by Bottom and exhorted by Peter Quince they feel the liberating power of their art. They learn that fancy can lift them out of their mundane lives into a magical world; how else could lowly craftsmen command the attention of the Duke and his nobles? Although their production is ridiculous and their imagination unmatched by their skill, once they overcome their initial stage fright they hurl themselves into the play with the zest and energy of true amateurs, ones who love their art. The blasé Athenian court, with its caustic remarks about the play, appears dull and bland by contrast. One is left to wonder whether they learned anything from their sojourn in the woods.
The end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, like the beginning, is set in Theseus’ court. But where the court was once a place to lay down an unfair law and threaten Hermia with death, now it hosts a farcical play. Has the spirit of the green world modulated the strict cadences of Theseus’ palace? He certainly appears kinder and more generous than at the beginning as he sits through the festivities with an amused tolerance. At the end of the evening the fairies enter the court and as they wander through the castle they bring a woodsy flavor, replete with the magic and turbulence they always carry, into the heart of this urban center. But their invasion has a beneficent goal, for Oberon promises to bless this palace with “sweet peace.” The physical presence of the mystical, imaginative world finally imbues Theseus’ city with the grace, charm, and tolerance that were missing at the beginning.