In bringing A Midsummer Night's Dream to life on the stage at Cedar City this summer, the Utah Shakespeare Festival makes possible a splendid opportunity. As Harold C. Goddard has pointed out, “A Midsummer-Night's Dream is in many respects the lightest and most purely playful of Shakespeare's plays.
Yet it is surpassed by few if any of his early works in its importance for an understanding of the unfolding of his genius” (The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. 1 [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951], 74). Here Shakespeare announces overtly for the first time many of the convictions which underlie his earlier works and which will inform his later works: that love is, indeed, a complex matter and has as much potential for disaster as for success; that women, on the whole, are intellectually and morally superior to men in matters of love; and that love is, to borrow a l960s phrase, “where it's at.”
While, on the surface, this play is just that—pure play—we are given here a view of a universe constructed of many worlds—court, country, and fairy. And we find in this universe that these various worlds at times collide, overlap, and intersect, all in a rich and wonderfully comical way. At the heart of this comedy is the world of love, in all its various dimensions, and the assertion of the necessity of permanence in love. But we also discover what is so characteristic of all seven of the romantic comedies composed between l595 and l600: that love, the essential human experience, is to be earned through sheer hard work sprinkled with a little magic and a conviction that harmony in the universe is of fundamental importance.
Exactly how complex an issue love is is demonstrated in the very first scene of this play. Here we find Hermia virtually sentenced to choosing among three alternatives, none of which much appeals to her: she can either wed the man her father chooses, be a virgin all of her life, or lose her life. Lysander, her faithful lover, laments that “the course of true love never did run smooth,” and Hermia sighs about what “hell [it is] to choose by another's eyes.” Meanwhile, Demetrius, who is Hermia's father's choice for her in marriage, is beloved of Helena. And Helena openly asserts her love for Demetrius who “ere he looked on Hermia's eye, / . . . hail'd down oaths that he was mine.” So we have here something central to all the romantic comedies and to many of the tragedies: that the universe is frequently peopled with insufferable young men, sanctimonious fathers, self-contained young women, faithless heroes, faithful heroines, and sudden conversions. And we see that love, for all its promise, holds out always the possibility of disappointment, if not disaster.
But A Midsummer Night's Dream is to be a comedy and not a tragedy like Romeo and Juliet, and, therefore, needs the intervention of other worlds. This intervention comes not only in this play in the form of women who are faithful even to their faithless men, but in the magical world of the fairy kingdom. Still, not everything is easy, especially in matters of love, and the fairy kingdom manages to create a whole passel of problems before it solves any. Puck is told by Oberon, the king of the fairies, to place a love potion on Demetrius's eyes and that he will know the young man by “his Athenian garb.” Of course, the fairies are busy with their own affairs and are operating right outside the city of Athens. Oberon, for all his sophistication, never considers, in his order to Puck, that there may be more than one Athenian in the forest. Naturally Puck puts the potion on the wrong Athenian's eyes, and Lysander awakens in love with Helena.
We may wonder what is to be accomplished by having a young woman—Hermia—suddenly bereft of not one but two lovers and another young woman—Helena—suddenly beloved of two men; but we do not have to look very far. Hermia, in her moral smugness, has one-upped Helena, and not, I think, without some slight sense of glee. Now it is Helena's turn to one-up Hermia, though she does not understand how.
And these two women behave just like any two women in pursuit of the same man. Hermia accuses Helena of having won Lysander by “urging her height,” thus suggesting that women don't play fair in matters of love. Yet, with the exception of Titania, the queen of the fairies, the women here are (at least morally, if not intellectually) superior to the men: while the men change their minds about whom they love, the women never do.
But we mustn't forget that this play is about worlds within worlds, about conflict, collision, and collusion. That is why we have not just the world of the fairies and the world of the court, but also the world of the country—or, as it has been called, the world of the mechanicals. Here we are introduced to Bottom and company, who propose to stage a play for Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding, and not altogether insignificantly for Hermia and Lysander's and Helena and Demetrius' weddings. That they choose to stage a play about the tragedy of love is no accident. These men are aspiring actors who, while well-intentioned, have little sense of social propriety and even less of real love. That Shakespeare chooses to make fun of his crafts—play writing and acting—is, of course no accident. After all, as Jacques reminds us in As You Like It, “all the world's a stage.” Furthermore, it is a reminder of Shakespeare's attitude toward love, most eloquently expressed by Henry V in his wooing of Kate and by Rosalind in her attachment to Orlando (As You Like It); that men have, in fact, died from time to time, and that worms have eaten them, but not for love.
And so we have all the elements for both splendid comedy and intellectual commentary. While it may be very tempting to dismiss this play as nothing but frivolity, it is a very serious mistake, For in this play, Shakespeare anticipates as he never has before what is to occupy his mind for most of the rest of his life: in the infinite scheme of things, what is love to the universe, and, given its importance, how do we arrive at lasting love. We have here the Shakespearean formula for hope in the universe: it begins in love at first sight; it is tested because love must, of necessity, be permanent; and it ends in a commitment which results in rejuvenation of this race.
Oberon tells his fairies after the weddings to roam the households and bless the wedding beds so that “. . . all the couples three / Ever true in loving be; / And the blots of Nature's hand / Shall not in their issue stand.” The purpose of love, then, is not just companionship but also rejuvenation of a dying race.
And if we do not like the message of the play, Puck is there to remind us that, as the title suggests, this has been but a dream, and “if we [fairy] shadows have offended, / Think but this and all is mended. / That you have but slumbered here / While these visions did appear.”
Indeed, here, as in much of Shakespeare, love is “where it's at” because love, lasting love, is the only hope for the restoration and rejuvenation of the species. Is it not interesting that “love can transpose to form and dignity” that which once was “base and vile”? And are we not caught up by Theseus’s reminder that this love which transposes is something like a madness? Perhaps what the world needs today, as in Shakespeare’s time, is a little less reason and a great deal more madness.