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a midsummer night's dream

23 august 2015

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a perfectly-crafted play that reaches the most exquisite levels of the English language. There is very little one can say about it, though that's not going to stop me from generating my usual coupla hundred words here.

Dream is reminiscent of other Shakespeare plays – so reminiscent at times that it seems he was often trying to write, or match, this essential play. It's full of fairies that harass foolish mortals, a theme that Shakespeare burlesqued in The Merry Wives of Windsor and had Mercutio wax poetic about in Romeo and Juliet. Like R & J, it's a take on the Pyramus-and-Thisbe theme, though a deliberately terrible one. It's got an all-powerful magician who arranges everything by means of a puckish henchman, like The Tempest. It's got two pairs of star-crossed lovers rearranging themselves across the corners of a romantic square (well, except the queer diagonals …) like Two Gentlemen of Verona. In fact it's got four pairs, which aligns it with the lesser-known (and darker) Love's Labour's Lost.

But though it recalls (or anticipates) those other plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream is simply better. It features the mirrorings, doublings, delusions, and disguises that Shakespeare loved, and deploys them simply and energetically. Theseus and Hippolyta are the baseline characters. They are fixing to get married, and they have no serious conflicts. They do have a backstory ("I wooed thee with my sword, and won thy love doing thee injuries") that some directors have exploited to frame the entire play within a context of non-consent. But they seem to be getting along now and want the same thing. Theseus and Hippolyta's happiness may end up being momentany as a sound, but that eventuality isn't within the play at hand.

Meanwhile, every other relationship in the play really has gone to hell. Hermia loves Lysander, Demetrius loves Hermia, Helena loves Demetrius, and Lysander loves Hermia, which sounds OK except that her father objects, which means that she has to marry Demetrius, get her to a nunnery, or die the death. That's an exceedingly silly set of circumstances, and Shakespeare knows it. The characters are hard to tell apart on the page – at least the two guys and the two girls, whose names are even similar – and this interchangeability becomes the mainspring for the body of the play, where the men switch affections between the women and switch back again. It's fast-paced, absurd, and gives a director the chance to create endless varieties of hilarious business. The dialogue is almost inane enough to be funny if played straight, and no cast plays it straight.

The affections of the young humans switch because things are mixed up in the fairy realm. Titania and Oberon, rulers of that kingdom, have fallen out over the affections of a changeling boy. Their conflict brings disorder to the natural world, and indirectly to the lives and loves of humans.

That's all, except for the best of Shakespeare's plays within plays, which gives a chance for comic relief from the comedy and, by introducing Bottom and putting him in the way of being transformed into an ass, shows us what fools immortals be.

The thing that Shakespeare never forgets in A Midsummer Night's Dream, though he forgets it even in great poetic plays like The Tempest and Hamlet, is that drama never works without setting characters at cross purposes. It can be as simple as some offstage falling-out or as goofy as a romantic triangle or square (or other polygon), but as long as characters are at odds, you have a fighting chance to engage the audience. (It's a principle, needless to say, that extends to opera and prose fiction and film and TV.)

And while he was executing the wacky design of MND, Shakespeare's language was at its very height: clean, clear, direct, and gorgeously crystalline. I'll spare you the Arnoldian exercise of simply quoting all the great lines; you may already know a lot of them. But in the poetry of this play, which is all in the service of its plot, there is a tremendous sense of the sadness of mortality that can only be kept at bay by art and midsummer and ecstasy. And by love, though of course one of the play's lovers observes that that rarely runs smooth for long: "So quick bright things come to confusion." There, I got one of the greatest lines in anyway.

Peter Holland's 1994 edition for Oxford is as clean and clear as Shakespeare's text. Though Dream exists in both Quarto and Folio versions, its textual history is as pellucid as its language: the Folio draws from the Quartos, and Holland, for one, sees no need to complicate the picture. At last a literary work that at least apparently gets to us 400 years later as its author intended – though of course one of its author's intents is to show us that things can never be taken at face value.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. 1600. Edited by Peter Holland. 1994. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.