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Shakespeare provides a quick set-up to the plot. It is star-crossed, or at least parent-crossed love. Hermia is in love with Lysander, but her father, Egeus, wants her to marry Demetrius. The stage is in Athens, and the Duke, Theseus, who will marry his own beloved, Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, in a month’s time, proclaims the “law of the land”: Hermia must follow her father’s wishes “To whom you are but a form of wax” or be killed or placed in a nunnery for the rest of her life, as a virgin.
Lysander and Hermia agree to meet in the woods outside Athens, planning their escape…beyond the reach of the “law” of Theseus. Helena, who is not as lovely, betrays her friend, Hermia, and tells Demetrius of the meeting. The woods get crowded with a theater troupe planning a production for the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Fairies are spreading “pixie dust” the magic elixir that changes lives, and now Lysander awakes, and declares his love of Helena, saying that he can see her soul. Hermia had told Lysander not to sleep too near. Hum. A cautionary tale, as it were, for those women who keep their men at a distance. “Reason and love keep little company together now-a-days,” as Shakespeare say, and he explains changes in love’s heart via capricious and whimsical fairies. Probably as good an explanation as any other.
Women in a definitely subservient position? One wonders how a high school English teacher would handle challenges to the not-so-fair Helena’s proclamation to Demetrius: “And even for that do I love you the more. I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius, the more you beat me, I will fawn on you: Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me, Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave, Unworthy as I am, to follow you. What worser place can I beg in you love, And yet a place of high respect with me,- Than to be used as you use your dog?” Hum, redux. Can the teacher chalk it up to good satire rather than straight advocacy? Or, is it just the outlook of a different time and place?
Now to conclude with a most appropriate admonition: “He hath rid his prologue like a rough colt: he knows not the stop. A good moral, my lord: it is not enough to speak, but to speak true.” So be it. And another 5-stars for the Bard.
What better place to start than perhaps my favorite of the comedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream? I have fond memories of a PBS production of the play when I was growing up. It made a lasting impression on me and helped to give me at least a glimmer of appreciation for good literature. The twists and turns of the romance between the star-crossed lovers, Lysander and Hermia, were funny and sometimes poignant. The interference in human lives by the king of the fairies, Oberon, the bumbling of his servant, Puck, and, finally, the act of Oberon that puts everything right again make up the core of the plot.
"The course of true love never did run smooth," says Lysander in act 1. That was never more true than in this play, but, in fact, it could be said of all Shakespeare's comedies, as well as some of the tragedies. It's a favorite device of his to cause misunderstandings between lovers and would-be lovers which then become the running theme of the play that is finally resolved in the final act. And so it is with A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The scene is Athens. Lysander loves Hermia and Hermia loves Lysander. But Demetrius also loves Hermia and Hemia's father favors him as a husband for his daughter. Helena, Hermia's best friend, loves Demetrius but he won't give her a second look.
Lysander and Hermia plan to run away together. They meet in a wood outside Athens, but instead of running away, they fall asleep. Helena, hoping to curry favor with Demetrius, tells him about the plot and he goes to the same wood seeking the lovers, but there he, too, falls asleep.
On (mangled) instructions from Oberon, Puck goes to the wood and sprinkles the eyelids of the sleepers with a potion which causes both Demetrius and Lysander to wake up in love with Helena and hating Hermia. Both Helena and Hermia are very confused. Demetrius and Lysander are ready to fight over Helena.
Oh, what hilarity ensues! Finally, Oberon intervenes once again, sets everything right, and Lysander remembers that he loves Hermia, and, suddenly, Demetrius finds that he loves Helena. They all live happily ever after, each with the one he/she loves. The end.
This, of course, is the selfsame plot we have seen reenacted in virtually every romantic comedy since Shakespeare. In plays and on the screen or in literature, it is always the same and we know how it is going to end, but we love it anyway.
It is not a fluke that Shakespeare is called the greatest writer in English. For one thing, we can hardly get through a day without quoting him. For another, he prefigured practically every plot of every book and short story that came after him and his sonnets are truly timeless. In fact, his writing seems fresh to me still, almost five hundred years later.
There is romance and jealousy. There are mischievous, conniving fairies. There are characters whose only role is clearly comic relief. What more could one want from a play?
While it may not be as deep as some of his other works, this play is fun and entertaining.
I have reread it several times and plan to do so again.
I re-read it in August and love it more. My favorites are of course the fairies.
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