This is the third of my posts on A Midsummer Nights Dream and indeed under my Shakespeare Project on this blog. Find out what the Shakespeare Project is all about here. Unlike the other posts on this blog, this and others under the Shakespeare Project are not spoiler-free. These posts are not reviews but brief summaries with a few thoughts. Act I and Act II are here and here. So read on, if you are familiar with the play or don’t mind spoilers, and do leave feedback on the post itself and/or on the play.
Cover of the 1908 Doubleday ed.
Source: Arthur Rackham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Act III sees the third set of our central players–the amateur actors from Athens–enter the woods to begin rehearsing Pyramus and Thisby (which story (from Ovid) incidentally inspired Romeo and Juliet). Scene I of this Act, which shows us their rehearsal, is as a consequence a source of much humour. The players first debate whether the sword with which the lovers ultimately kill themselves might frighten the ladies in the audience, and then on the same possible impact of the ‘lion’, deciding to make the actors open with a ‘prologue’ informing the audience that Pyramus is not really Pyramus, but Nick Bottom, and the lion not a real lion 🙂 After resolving other problems that they have of how they would bring in the wall through a chink in which Pyramus and Thisby communicate and the moonlight under which they communicate into the palace, they finally begin to rehearse their lines bungling them up a bit, with Pyramus declaring
‘the flowers of odious savour sweet’
to which an exasperated Quince prompts ‘Odours, odours’, and Thisby promising to meet Pyramus at “Ninny’s (rather than Ninus’) Tomb’, and saying ‘her’ lines all at once, with no pause at the cues to allow Pyramus to reenter the scene.
The Athenians Rehearsing (while still in their house though)
Source: Arthur Rackham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Unknown to them, their antics have a spectator, and that is none other than Puck or Robin Goodfellow, Oberon’s jester. As Nick Bottom exists the ‘stage’ awaiting his cue to reenter, Puck has found an ideal candidate for Titania to ‘fall in love with’, and affixes (though out of the audience’s and thus the reader’s sight) an ass’s head on Bottom’s. This has the effect of scaring away the rest of Bottom’s troop, who suspect something evil at play. Puck is adding to this by frightening them some more, leading them ‘through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier‘ , and assuming different forms (from hog to headless bear) and producing different sounds to make sure they are scared away from the wood. Bottom, however, thinks that this is all knavery on part of his friends and they are attempting to scare him, and make an ass of him, little realising that he has indeed been turned into an ass of sorts. He begins sing on top of his voice to prove that he isn’t in the least afraid.
Bottom sings (Alfred Fredericks, 1874)
Source: By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.
Titania is awakened by this song, and immediately falls in love with Bottom. She directs her fairies to serve him–to ‘feed him with apricoks and dewberries, With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries‘, to ‘fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes‘ while he sleeps, and to fetch honey and make candles from beeswax so that he has light. Bottom on his part, makes the acquaintance of the fairies, leading to a few more smiles with him telling Cobweb, ‘if I cut my finger, I shall make bold with you‘ and Mustard Seed, ‘I promise you your kindred hath made my eyes water ere now‘. Titania claims to be enamoured of Bottom’s voice but all the same wants her fairies to silence him as they proceed to their sleeping place.
Titania orders her fairies to serve Nick Bottom
Source: By Daderot [Public domain or CC0], from Wikimedia Commons
Bottom and the Fairies (Joseph Noel Patton)
Source: Joseph Noel Paton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile, Oberon is wondering how his plans re Titania are playing out, and Puck comes in to tell him just how well he has fared, pleasing Oberon. But the second task assigned to him, of putting the juice of the purple flower in the eyes of Athenian youth, Puck hasn’t got right, ‘And laid the love-juice on some true love’s eyes‘. But Puck isn’t displeased by his mistake, though it was a genuine one, and is all set to enjoy the effects, after Oberon puts some of the flower juice into Demetrius’ eyes, while directing Puck/Robin to bring Helena to the place where he lies by illusion or charm
‘Then will two at once woo one.
That must needs be sport alone.
And those things do best please me
That befall preposterously’.
Of course, Oberon has found Puck’s mistake out because Demetrius has walked into that part of the wood, followed by Hermia, who believes Lysander has been murdered by Demetrius, for why else would he leave his sleeping Hermia alone in the wood. Demetrius admits he wouldn’t mind doing away with Lysander but insists he has nothing to do with it, while Hermia, after a few more strong words chiding him for testing her patience leaves, and Demetrius settles down to rest. This is when Oberon puts some of the purple flower’s juice in his eyes.
Now Lysander and Helena appear on the scene, Lysander still wooing Helena under the juice’s spell, while Demetrius awakes and also begins to do the same. Both Helena and Hermia, who reenters the scene are confounded. Helena persists in believing that Lysander and Demetrius, with Hermia’s involvement are mocking and scorning her. Hermia, on the other hand, is first astonished by Lysander’s declaration of love for Helena, then begins to accuse her of stealing Lysander’s affections, passions running so high that Hermia is almost prepared to strike Helena, even to gouge out her eyes.
Demetrius (Ross Alexander), Lysander (Dick Powell), Helena (Jean Muir), and Hermia (Olivia de Havilland) from the 1935 film
Source: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Oberon, who has been watching, chides Puck for his negligence, while Puck defends himself by claiming that he hadn’t enough of a description to know which young Athenian was being talked of. Oberon wishing to put things to rights, charges Puck with leading Lysander and Demetrius away, and putting the juice of the antidote into Lysander’s eyes, ‘To take thence all error with his might‘, while he himself goes to his queen to get the little Indian child into his possession before he supplies her with the antidote and restores peace once again.
Oberon and Puck (from the Poetical Works of Thomas Hood, 1880)
Source: By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Puck, assuming Demetrius’ and Lysanders’ voices in turn, lures Lysander and Demetrius, who soon tired fall asleep, as do Helena and Hermia. He then puts the antidote into Lysander’s eyes, so when they next awake, Lysander’s love for Hermia will be restored while Demetrius will continue to love Helena, and so closes this Act of the play.
This Act had both laughter and drama–the laughter of course coming from the Athenian band rehearsing their play, from and from Bottom’s song (the song itself isn’t as such funny, but one can’t but imagine Bottom’s rendition to be loud and exaggerated, making it so), and introduction to Titania’s fairies. The rehearsal brought a few smiles to my face, but I think the effect would be much more funny when acted out. Still it is fun to imagine the troop of ‘actors’ trying to anticipate any untoward impact that their performance could have on the audience, muddling up their dialogues, and being scared out of their wits by Puck’s antics (this last bit, very slapstick).
Bottom singing (1888): One can’t help but think this will be funny
Source: By Julius Hoeppner (1839-1893) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
With our four lovers, on the other hand, things took a much more dramatic turn. Helena feels she is being mocked, Hermia knows not what is going on, while the two men are under the power of magic professing their love for the woman who happened to be in front of them when they opened their eyes. It was interesting (yet human) that Helena brings up her childhood friendship with Hermia and the times spent together when rebuking her for what she thinks is the three playing a trick on her, scorning her, when herself she though nothing of it when she betrayed Hermia’s secret to Demetrius. Helena does eventually confess her wrong but she isn’t above accusing Hermia of being a ‘vixen when she went to school‘, and with being fierce ‘though she be but little’. Another glimpse of human nature or perhaps of love, when it takes precedence over all else, where no other relationship seems to remain sacred and beyond attack. Hermia and Helena are not beyond attacking each other–physically or verbally–beyond accused each other of vile deeds or temperament.
Also in this segment, Hermia has found herself in the position that Helena has occupied all this time, of the one reviled by Demetrius and Lysander and not one who is in a position to scorn, Perhaps that is one reason for all her equanimity (so far) being lost, for all the negative side of her character and temperament coming to the surface.
The misunderstanding and drama for the four lovers at least is almost at an end, for we know that when we next see them, the spell will be broken. But will we find either of the girls sorry in the least for their conduct? Do we expect them to be so, or was it simply ‘natural’ that they’d fight ‘tooth and nail’ (quite literally, in fact) for their love, and thus against everyone else? I have’t quite made up my mind on that question. What do you think? Do leave a comment and let me know.
In my next post, I will probably cover both Act IV and V, since together, they’re just about as long as Act III.