So, this is my first post under the Shakespeare Project, and this one is all about the first Act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Shakespeare Project is all about me reading Shakespeare’s plays, one act at a time and posting about them. My plans and the intro are here.
A warning though, unlike my posts/reviews in general, these are not going to be ‘spoiler-free’–I thought I’d mention this at the start in case this bothers anyone.
First Quarto Printing (1600)
Image source: By William Shakespeare, Richard Bradock and Thomas Fisher (printers) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is of course, one of Shakespeare’s comedies, written in 1595/96, and I chose to start my journey into Shakespeare with this one because it is one of my favourites, being light-hearted, comic, and with elements of magic, fairies, and mischievous sprites. (In a sense it fits with this months theme too but this isn’t really why I picked it).
The play opens in Athens in the palace of the Duke, Theseus (yes, the one who killed the Minotaur, but that part isn’t important here), where preparations are on for his wedding to Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. Theseus wishes for all Athens to celebrate, telling Philostrate, Master of Revels, to go
Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments
Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth
But amidst these plans, in walk a group of Athenians seeking Theseus’ intervention in their problems. One Egeus appears with his daughter Hermia, Lysander, and Demitrius bringing a complaint against Hermia, who is going against his wishes. He wants Hermia to marry Demetrius but she is in love with Lysander and will marry only him. Egeus accuses Lysander of bewitching his daughter’s heart and seeks to exercise ‘the ancient privilege of Athens’, to ‘dispose of’ his daughter as he deems fit.
Egeus with Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius before Theseus (Alfred Fredericks, 1874)
Image source: By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Theseus, of course, wants to hear Hermia’s side of the story as well. Hermia admits her love for Lysander, and refuses to fall in with her father’s wishes despite being well aware of the consequences. Under the ancient Athenian law, she must either forfeit her life or enter the cloister for her ‘disobedience’. But Hermia is prepared to do accept this fate. Thesus, however, gives her time till the “next new moon”, his own wedding day, to think it over.
Meanwhile Demetrius tries again to pursue his suit and Lysander his own, the latter claiming better right for being the beloved of Hermia, but Egeus won’t relent. When Theseus has left the room, with Egeus and Demetrius in tow, Lysander proposes a plan. He and Helena must elope to the house of his aunt who lives “seven leagues” from Athens and beyond the clutches of Athenian law, and there it is that they will marry. Hermia is of course willing and promises to meet Lysander the following night in the woods outside of Athens from where they will proceed to his aunt’s house.
Hermia and Lysander by John Simmons (1870)
Image source: By Sotheby’s, New York, 04 May 2012, lot 72, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36770974
They, however, confess their plan to Hermia’s friend Helena, and it is by this person whom the trust that they are betrayed. Helena, who is thought as ‘fair’ as Hermia in Athens, is in love with Demetrius who returned her affections till he set eyes on Hermia, and left Helena heartbroken. Despite this, Helena is still is all set to tell him of Hermia and Lysander’s plan.
Lysander, Helena, and Hermia (I think) (Alfred Fredericks, 1874)
Image source: By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile the second scene of this act takes us to very different quarters. In the home of Quince the carpenter, have gathered Bottom the weaver, Snug the joiner, Flute the bellows-mender, Snout the tinker, and Starveling the tailor, who are setting out to prepare an entertainment for Theseus’ wedding. They plan to stage a play of Pyramus and Thisby and here they are gathered to distribute the parts. Bottom is as enthusiastic about acting as Theseus about the wedding and is prepared to play all the parts, be it Pyramus (which he is actually given), Thisby, or even the Lion. But of course, only one part is given to each, and the players too plan to meet in the woods outside the city to rehearse their play the following night, by moonlight, so that they can rehearse in peace and their devices are not known by other Athenians.
So it is that these first couple of scenes set the stage for what is to come, all that plays out in the woods outside of Athens. We are introduced to three parallel story lines, that of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, that of the lovers’–Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius, and Helena, and that of the Athenians preparing for their performance of Pyramus and Thisby. All three are of course all firmly within the human realm. We are yet to enter the world of magic and the fairie, and the mischief that it brings.
Writing about this play in the twenty-first century, of course, one can’t but comment on the first scene and the ancient Athenian law, under which a child, a daughter is nothing more than her father’s property, to be ‘disposed’ of as he wishes, her own as a human being of no consideration. But what one can also see is Hermia herself, strong enough to voice her own opinions in that situation, to not only oppose her father’s wishes when they are against her own, but also able to do this before the Duke–probably not the easiest thing to do in the time and circumstances. So I see strength, courage, and firmness of resolve (though one could also probably see this as obstinacy). What is less clear in the situation is Egeus’ reasons behind his preference for Demetrius–for as Lysander points out there is nothing that makes him less worthy (‘My fortunes every way as fairly ranked‘).
Helena is in some ways, also puzzles one, yet not really so. She is clearly hurt and upset and heart-broken, for it is not that her love for Demetrius was unrequited–he wooed her and won her heart only to break it. But her grudge typically is not against Demetrius who she continues to love but Hermia, whose beauty she blames for stealing Demetrius away from her. So it is her, her playfellow, who must pay the price and not the inconstant Demetrius, even though she herself has done nothing to encourage him. She wishes to look better in his eyes, and there is probably also some thought of revenge behind her acting as she does.
And then there is Nick Bottom. The impression one has of him in general (from memory that is) is of one of this bunch of amusing amateur actors, a tad silly, who is unwittingly involved in the fairies’ quarrel and is made a bit of fool of. But here in this scene, we do see a different side of him, of an amateur actor who is really enthusiastic about his acting. He is assigned to play the role of Pyramus ‘for Pyramus is a sweet-faced man’ but is keen to also take on the parts of Thisby and the Lion, to show off his skills and move his audience (‘That will ask some tears in the true performing of it: If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes‘; ‘Let me play the Lion too: I will roar, that I will do any man’s heart good to hear me‘). Quince, who is in charge doesn’t agree and insists that he play Pyramus alone, but I thought it interesting to see a different side of Bottom.
Of the themes of the play, it is love of course that is at the centre, that between Theseus and Hippolyta, who look forward to their wedding, Lysander and Hermia, which hasn’t received the consent of Egeus, Helena’s for Demetrius which seems to have become one-sided as is Demetrius’ own affection for Hermia. The play is, of course, the source of the famous quote, ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’. But what I couldn’t help wondering was how much negativity and conflict is associated with ‘love’ in this play as well. Theseus and Hippolyta love each other but the start apparently was in battle (‘I woo’d thee with my sword‘–I hope I’m interpreting that correctly), Lysander and Hermia’s love has caused ill-will with her father, Demetrius with his ‘new’ love breaks Helena’s heart, and Helena’s love for Demetrius has led her to betray her friend.
Another thing that stood out to me in this act was how much the moon is talked of. Theseus, when expressing his inability to wait the four days that remain foe his own nuptials remarks,
four days bring in another moon:
but, O, methinks, how slow This moon wanes!
She lingers my desires like to a step-dame, or a dowager
The amateur actors plan to con their parts by the next day and meet by ‘moonlight’, but it is Lysander who refers to her the most poetically in what I though were some of the most beautiful lines in this segment.
Tomorrow night, when Phoebe doth behold Her silver visage in the watery glass
Decking with liquid and pearl the bladed grass,
(Incidentally, this also got me to finally clear up my doubts about the name Phoebe, since I thought it should mean sun (like Phoebus Apollo) but it does mean moon as a a by-name to Artemis/Diana.)
Those were the few thoughts that came to mind reading these scenes. Now of course, with our major players headed to the woods, one must see what unfolds there when the fairies enter the scene. That post (Act II) should be up the week after next!