Monday, May 28, 2012

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Texts and Contexts, 1999)

The Play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Edition: Bedford/St. Martin’s “Texts and Contexts,” Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Skiles Howard, 1999.

Genre & Setting: Comedy. Also, fantasy: the supernatural element gives MND a somewhat different feel from, say, Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night, and gives it a factor in common with quote-Romance-unquote The Tempest. It is a play that invites spectacular production, too, so depending on the production it may be in the genre of “Big-Budget Spectacular.”

The Wiki article on Shakespearean comedy (as of May 26, 2012) has an list of Shakespeare-comedy characteristics that I found kind of interesting.
  • A greater emphasis on situations than characters (this numbs the audience's connection to the characters, so that when characters experience misfortune, the audience still finds it laughable) – Check. MND’s engine is the who-loves-whom adventures of four attractive young people who are, as far as the script goes, completely interchangeable.
  • A struggle of young lovers to overcome difficulty, often presented by elders – Check. The kids get in trouble when they run off to the woods to elope.
  • Separation and re-unification – Check. I hope that’s not a spoiler.
  • Deception among characters (especially mistaken identity) – Check. The hijinx in MND really take off when Love Potion #9 is administered to the wrong Athenian youth.
  • A clever servant – He’s not only clever, he’s Puckish!
  • Disputes between characters, often within a family – Titania and Oberon are feuding over who gets to have the beautiful South Asian little boy as their chamber servant. Obviously, the less said about this the better.
  • Multiple, intertwining plots – Check. Three and a half multiple, somewhat intertwining plots!
  • Use of all styles of comedy (slapstick, puns, dry humour, earthy humour, witty banter, practical jokes) – Check!
  • Pastoral element (courtly people living an idealized, rural life) – This is a play about the sons and the daughters of the wealthy frolicking in the greenwoods with faeries, for crying out loud.
  • Happy Ending – Well, I wouldn’t want to give anything away.
The setting is technically in Athens and the surrounding forest, but this really means that some scenes are in town and some are in a tricksy but ultimately benign magical wood.

The Gist, which will obviously involve spoilers: Three and a half story lines! 1) Titania and Oberon are having their unseemly tiff. This thread is largely an excuse to have Puck running around, using magic carelessly to mess with people. 2) Youth A loves Youth B, who however loves Youth C, who however loves Youth D. Puck will first disrupt this chain of attraction, but ultimately bring it back better than ever. 3) Local tradesmen want to put on a play. Puck gives one of them the head of a donkey and then causes Titania to fall in love with him. It is implied that the Queen of the Fairies thereupon commits frisky acts of bestiality and, shockingly, inter-class sexuality offstage, in a play that is frequently put on by high school students. Obviously, the less said about this the better. 3½) This all happens in the context of a festival marking the marriage of the Duke of Athens to the Queen of the Amazons, whom he fell for after defeating him in combat.

Students of Gender Studies might well love this play, or love to hate it, for the symmetrical humiliation of every significant female character. This is especially interesting with the two female monarchs: one is a prisoner of war who is marrying her captor, and did I mention that the Queen of the Fairies is tricked into having sex with a donkey? Since this was written near the end of the long, successful reign of one of the great English monarchs, who happened to be a chick, it’s hard to figure whether Shakespeare was just indulging in garden-variety comedic misogyny or whether there was something more to it.

The Edition: The notes in this edition are dreadful. Despite an unusually transparent text – it is not a complicated play, and the plot engine is set up very carefully – the pages are thick with unneeded explanatory notes, about half of which are definitions of not-especially-obscure words whose meanings have not materially changed since they were written. In points where the text is puzzling or could use some supporting context, however, the edition gives you no help at all.

The value-added of this edition is supposed to be the supporting period documents related to the play and some of its themes, which comprise more than half of the book. These might be useful, I suppose, if you were teaching Shakespeare and these particular documents happened to relate to a point you planned to harp on. They seem rather randomly chosen to me, though, and I didn’t spend more than fifteen minutes skimming through them.

Adaptation: I don’t know that I've ever seen MND in performance. I am however already pained by the way that the scenes involving the tradesmen must usually be staged. Doubtless they are usually made to be the elaborately idiotic clowns in the tradition of most Shakespeare “rustics.” But you know, it would be a lot funnier if they were played with some realism, as slightly dim but reasonably dignified average Joes increasingly over their head with the business of trying to put on a play. The tradition of playing the Shakespeare rustics as slapstick buffoons seems to go back centuries, perhaps all the way to the original productions, but I think that is a long, long tradition of directors missing a bet.

The structure of MND is a little weird. The central action with Youths A, B, C, and D is set up very efficiently in the first inning, and then plays out like well-oiled clockwork. All is made well quite a bit sooner then we expect, however, and everybody is ready to live happily ever after with quite a bit of play left to go. Then, the tradesmen present their play in kind of an extended coda after everything else has been wrapped up. Maybe a clever director could make their tale of Pyramis and Thisbe somehow reflect back on the various relationship problems of the four couples – Titania/Oberon, Duke/Amazon Queen, Youths A & B, and Youths C & D – but it’s not a tidy fit, and he or she would probably have to have some Profound Insights to make a really meaningful connection.

Prognosis: Good stuff. This is the first time I have found a Shakespeare play an easy, fun read. This might mean I’m just getting used to reading Shakespeare, but I think it’s also a play without a lot of complexity or baggage. It is, with the above provisos, a lot of fun. There are wacky situations, and some good lines, and who doesn’t want to be Puck, with all his superhuman abilities and mischief? Plus, there’s a happy ending.


Rebel said...

I saw a midnight show of MSN at my college, and it was the best and funniest play I'd ever seen live. They'd set it in the 70s (or possibly the 60s... summer of love and all that). The costumes were awesome, there was a huge tree on the set that Puck kept running up and down, the whole thing was rather spectacular. This was the play that taught me that Shakespearean plays are meant to be seen and not read.

Rebel said...

Oh, and the tradesmen were played as stoned hippies, so that worked a little differently than just being idiots. It worked.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

Comedies from 30 years ago don't stand up. Ones from 200 years ago don't stand a chance.

Michael5000 said...

Reb: Stoned tradesmen is good. I hadn't thought of that approach.

Dr. Ken: I'm not sure, man. In my experience, most comedies from thirty years ago don't stand up, but most comedies kind of suck right out of the box. I think comedy is just kind of hard. And Shakespeare can be a lot of fun with the right crowd.