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Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 5 May 2018

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" by William Shakespeare

I have seen this as an amateur production in The Place Theatre in Bedford; I also saw it performed at Greenwich Theatre by the Lazarus Company (who have also performed for me Tamburlaine and Edward II, both by Christopher Marlowe). The Lazarus Dream included outstanding performances by Eli Caldwell (@EelsCaldwell) as Flute in drag as Thisbe and Tessa Carmody (@Tessa_Carmody) as Puck. In the original play the four-crossed-lovers problem is solved at the end of Act Four leaving Act Five for the knockabout humour of the dreadful Mechanicals play. This is a slightly damp squib ending. This production solved this by moving Bottom's play (minus the audience comments) to before the four lovers woke up in the forest, their differences resolved. Very clever!

The plot of the Dream revolves around Oberon, king of the fairies, using a love potion to make his wife Titania fall in love with the first thing she sees on waking, which Oberon's servant, the mischievous Robin Goodfellow, a puck, ensures is a weaver called Bottom whom Puck has given the head of an ass.

At the same time in the magical wood are a foursome of mismatched lovers. Tall blonde Helena (it would seem that Shakespeare wrote these parts for the characteristics of the two boys who played women in his theatrical company) is in love with Demetrius who doesn't love her but wants to marry short dark Hermia who doesn't want him but Lysander who loves her. So Oberon commands Puck to enchant Demetrius to love Helena but Puck gets it wrong and enchants Lysander instead. So now no one wants Hermia and both men want Helena who now thinks they are teasing her. And of course the men want to fight. The scene in the centre of the play (A3S2) is a brilliant fourway dialogue (tetralogue?)

The other plot is that of the rustics who are to perform a play in front of Duke Theseus for his wedding feast. Their rehearsals in the wood are interrupted when Nick Bottom, the weaver, is given the ass's head. This play ends with their play which, with Bottom overacting, the Wall talking and the Lion reassuring the ladies that he is not really a lion in case they are afraid, is as dreadful as it promised to be.

Classic error-strewn, knockabout Shakespearean comedy with the added bonus that one can really feel the characterisations (there is a wonderful moment right at the start when Lysander, angered that Hermia's father wants Hermia to marry Demetrius, says “You have her father's love, Demetrius;/ Let me have Hermia’s. Do you marry him.” Snarky!).

I have also listened to the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ programme (18th April 2019) on ‘A MIdsummer Night’s Dream’ hosted by Melvyn Bragg with guests Helen Hackett, Tom Healy, and  Alison Findlay. Interesting points included:
  • There was a political aspect to the play. It was written c1595 when Elizabeth I was ageing, unpopular and refusing to name an heir. In the first scene Theseus says: Theseus: “O, methinks, how slow / This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires, / Like to a step-dame or a dowager / Long withering out a young man’s revenue.” Furthermore, the two queens Hipployta and Titania both end up being subjugated by male Kings. 
  • Unusually for a Shakespeare play there is no single source; sources includeOvid’s Metamorphoses, Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, and folklore.
  • Shakespeare was writing Romeo and Juliet at the time and there is a clear parallel in the star-crossed lovers who die with the play within a play of Pyramus and Thisbe.
  • Not only is a distinction made netween nobles who speak in verse and working men who speak in prose but the verse of the fairies starting in Act Two has a different rhythm.
  • Acts One and Five are the reality bookends for the dream sequence of Acts 2, 3 and 4. Titania and Oberon are, as it were, dream personae for Hipployta and Theseus. There was a contemporary best selling book which interpreted the symbols seen in dreams.
  • Shakespeare's encomium to the imagination was deeply radical at the time when the imagination was seen as dark, dangerous and sinful. For example, the Bible says that The hearts of men are full of wicked imagination (Gen 6.5???)  and legal treason was defined as “to compass or imagine” the death of the monarch. Medical books warn disordered imagination creates delusions.
  • The affair of Bottom with Titania was intended to be erotic; Elizabethan audiences would have known that  “The ass has the longest and hardest phallus of any animal on earth” (AF)

And, of course, there is the poetry:

... how slow
This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires
Like to a stepdame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man's revenue


Who'd be a nun?
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.


The world is out of sorts:
The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard.
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrain flock.


Helena tells them not to take the piss:
O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent
To set against me for your merriment.


Why should he stay whom love doth press to go?

You thief of love - what, have you come by night
And stol’n my love’s heart from him?


My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger,
At whose approach ghosts, wand’ring here and there,
Troop home to churchyards; damned spirits all
That in cross-ways and floods have burial
Already to their wormy beds are gon
e”

Cupid is a knavish lad
Thus to make poor females mad.


These things seem small and undistinguishable,
Like far off mountains turned into clouds
.”

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold:
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.


May 2018

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

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