A New Form of Comedy
By the time Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1595/96 He was a thoroughly established young playwright who had already written or co-written 11 successful plays, including Romeo and Juliet, his “greatest hit” to date both in popularity and—at least arguably—quality, the year before. He was also, by that time, an acclaimed actor and a stakeholder in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the most prestigious acting troupe in London.
This security of his artistic and professional reputation perhaps explains Shakespeare’s odd and creative turn in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Before Midsummer, Shakespeare’s comedies, while successful, had been relatively straightforward affairs dealing with classic comedic tropes of mistaken identities (Comedy of Errors), misogyny (Taming of the Shrew) and love at first sight (Love’s Labour’s Lost, Two Gentlemen of Verona). A Midsummer Night’s Dream represents a stylistic sea change, a growth spurt, as it were, bridging the gap between the earlier funny but sophomoric comedies to his later, vastly more mature, output (Merchant of Venice, As You Like it, Twelfth Night, etc.).
In Midsummer, there are no easy solutions, no black and white, no good guys or bad guys. In Midsummer, love is not a thing to be won, but is rather a thing to be lost, to fight for, and to regain. As Lysander says to Hermia after she has been told she cannot marry him,
Ah me, for aught that I could ever read
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth
Lysander and Hermia go on to conclude that ‘true love’ is their cross to bear, and they resolve to bear it with good will and fight to be together. Thus begins the journey into the woods.
Meanwhile, the second pair of lovers face an even more convoluted path. Demetrius has betrothed himself to Helena before the events of the play but has reneged on those vows to pursue Hermia. He is aided in that pursuit by Hermia’s father, Egeus (Egeus is the embodiment of misogyny in Midsummer but, unlike in Shrew, his character is treated as an antagonist, not a hero). Helena, meanwhile, pursues Demetrius aggressively despite his protestations that he does not love her. What are we to make of this? Is Demetrius an evil young man with no redeeming qualities? If so, why does he not simply kill Helena later in the woods as he threatens? Is Helena just a pathetic and manic stalker, following a man with no interest in her? Or are there shades of grey, depths of relationships previously unexplored, truths that can only be revealed through supernatural tests of love and hardship in the woods?
I choose to believe that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream precisely in order to explore these shades of grey. The characters he writes of in Midsummer are real people, with real feelings and depth of thought never before seen in his comedies.They are characters whose understanding of their own feelings and the true meaning of love grow and evolve throughout the course of the play.
The Fairy World
But what of the device Shakespeare chooses to lead these lovers along unknown paths? What of the woods? What of the fairies? If Shakespeare seeks to show us every-day truths about ourselves through the lovers why use such supernatural plot devices?
I believe the answer lies in an understanding of the significance of the fairy world in Elizabethan England of four hundred years ago. Today, if you meet someone over the age of twelve who truly believes in fairies you nod and smile politely while discreetly checking for the nearest exit. In today’s world, the idea of wandering into the woods at night and meeting fairies is fantastical bordering on the absurd. Not so in Shakespeare’s day.
The people of late 1500’s England were a mostly illiterate bunch with a true and utter belief in the supernatural. While much of this belief was centered around the Church, old superstitions died hard, and science as we know it today was nascent. When a door was opened in one part of the house and another door slammed, there was no explanation for that. When sleep was disturbed by the nocturnal screams of various insects or animals, there was no explanation for that. Or rather, there was one.
Fairies, far from being fantastical, were seen as the only logical explanation for such otherwise inexplicable phenomenon, for everything from a slamming door to chain lightning. Indeed, the first fairy describes Puck by naming many of these superstitions, asking if he is indeed the fairy
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Puck confirms that the fairies are indeed responsible for this and more. Later we find that Oberon and Titania, the two most powerful of the fairies are responsible for the weather and the seasons, phenomena that the people of this age, most of whom did not know the earth was round let alone tilted on an axis, had no other explanation for.
That this fairy world was also able to affect humans, for better or worse, when they ventured into the fairies’ realm (the night and the woods) was a logical extension of the Elizabethan worldview, one that would have rung all too true for Shakespeare’s audiences.
It is, of course, much harder for audiences of today to accept this worldview, but I believe it is essential for understanding the underlying truths of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was not interested in creating a fantasia. I wanted the fairy world to be real. For this reason I sought out a setting that was closer to our world, a place that we still accept as holding both magic and ‘civilization,’ just as Athens and the Woods did in Shakespeare’s day.
That is how I came to look to 1930’s New Orleans as my inspiration: A time close enough to ours to latch on to, but one where magic (voodoo) lives side by side with ‘civilization’ as we recognize it (the city itself). Here was a place that was a salad bowl of cultures and beliefs long before that was the norm in urban centers, a place where you could step out in your white tie and tails, yet you were always one street away from the swamp and Baron Samedi or Mamon Brigitte watching you from the edge of your view.
New Orleans is a mental bridge for modern audiences. We cannot put ourselves in the shoes of Shakespeare’s groundlings, but New Orleans of yesteryear is just close enough to our own experience that we can grasp it, can sense what it might have been like to know that magic existed, to fear it and wonder at it, perhaps even to be it. It is a place where this story and this audience can meet together and dream.
Come Dream with us.