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Deja Vu: Repeating the Midsummer Night's Dreaming

December 15th, 2006 | 20 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Here's the final version of the paper I sent in for my grad school application. I made a few subtle, yet important changes in my wording in order to (hopefully!) make my thesis more clear. While I am not sure I specifically address this question by the Bourgeois Burglar (though I do in the comments below his), I think that it is a stronger paper overall. And I am still very interested to hear everyone's thoughts. It's a tendentious thesis, I think, but an interesting one (in, I think, a positive way), if I do say so myself. See more below the fold.

Midsummer Night’ s Dream poses innumerable problems to would-be interpreters. Hippolyta’s description of Hercules’ hounds is a fitting description for the intricate interplay of disparate themes and allusions: “So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.” [1] Not surprisingly, these various themes, as Allan Lewis points out, sustain renderings that range from the idyllic and romantic to the bestial and violent. [2] At some point, the reader is forced to wonder whether criticism should take its cue from Bottom and simply proclaim with him that Midsummer Night Dream has no bottom.

Compounding the interpretational problems of Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s use of the play Pyramus and Thisbe. This play-within-a-play raises significant questions for our understanding and appreciation of Midsummer Night’s Dream as a whole. Yet it too sustains very divergent interpretations, from R.W. Dent’s argument that Shakespeare is using it to write an ars poetica, [3] to Virgil Hutton’s notion that Shakespeare is warning the lovers of the potentially tragic nature of a godless reality. [4] Besides leaving the purpose of Shakespeare’s use of Pyramus and Thisbe an open question, these diverse interpretations also raise the intractable problem of understanding: how do we gain it, and what prevents us from achieving it? In what follows, I will point toward an answer to this problem by examining Midsummer Night’s Dream as a whole, and Shakespeare’s use of Pyramus and Thisbe in particular. In essence, it is the contention of this paper that Pyramus and Thisbe contains a warning to interpreters.

In his helpful essay, Virgil Hutton suggests that Shakespeare uses Pyramus and Thisbe to teach the stage audience, and by extension the rest of us, a lesson. Interestingly, Hutton’s reasons for this conclusion stem from commitments to instruction as a goal of art. [5] He argues that in his choice of Pyramus and Thisbe, Shakespeare instructs the lovers that they cannot depend upon “fairy grace” in their new lives together. Drawing on the work of T. Walter Herbert [6] , Hutton contends that the “Babylonian” world of Pyramus and Thisbe—a world of tragedy that lacks gods or spirits—more closely resembles our world than the “animist” world of the forest. The instruction for the newlyweds, then, is that “in order to have any chance of preserving your marriage and some degree of happiness you must recognize and be ready to meet and endure all sorts of possible calamities that may occur in a world where one cannot count on the continual guidance and aid of benevolent fairies or gods.” [7] The point, however, is lost on the stage audience due to the mechanical’s ineptitude. Just as Hamlet’s play instructs without entertaining, so Pyramus and Thisbe entertains without instructing.

Hutton’s paper provides a good starting point for our analysis. He is correct in his position that Shakespeare wishes not only to entertain with Pyramus and Thisbe, but instruct. “All for your delight we are not here,” says the prologue to the play. [8] And while obviously a distortion, it seems plausible that the prologue reveals more truth than either Peter Quince recognizes. Additionally, Puck’s epilogue echoes Quince’s prologue, suggesting Shakespeare’s intent for Pyramus and Thisbe is parallel his intent for Midsummer Night’s Dream [9] . Just as there is danger for offense in both plays, so there is the potential for both instruction from both plays.

Yet there are problems in Hutton’s conclusion that the content of Shakespeare’s instruction is a warning of the dangers of a godless reality. For one, Hutton presumes that Pyramus and Thisbe is a lesson for all the lovers. But there is good reason to locate its purpose not within the context of the relationships of the four young lovers, but within the context of the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta. Such a move would, I think, limit the purpose of Pyramus and Thisbe. For instance, the first and last acts are similarly constructed. They both open with Theseus and Hippolyta engaged in private conversation before being interrupted by the young lovers. In the first act, the lovers are in discord, while in the last their relationships have been resolved back into harmony. While Theseus and Hippolyta’s relationship forms the backdrop to the lovers’ tryst in the forest, it is pushed to the forefront in the final act. They are the only couple that has substantial interaction with each other. Hermia and Helena are noticeably silent, and Demetrius and Lysander only engage in mockery of the mechanicals’ play. Shakespeare’s decision to draw our focus to Theseus and Hippolyta just prior to, and during Pyramus and Thisbe suggests that Pyramus and Thisbe is less a comment about the four lovers’ future relationships as it is a comment on either Theseus, Hippolyta, or both.

If that is the case, then the nature of Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s relationship will affect our understanding of the purpose of Pyramus and Thisbe. Just as many commentators see Pyramus and Thisbe as a foil for the lovers’ experience in the woods, so traditional interpretations of Theseus and Hippolyta have sometimes argued that they are a foil to the irrational love of the young lovers. They are the exception to Bottom’s rule: “And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.” [10] So argues Ernest Schanzer: “In the relationship of Theseus and Hippolyta reason and love have been made friends and keep company together…And the Duke’s cool reason and sense throws into relief the lovers’ absurdities.” [11]

And yet, while Schanzer’s insight that Theseus and Hippolyta are a foil to the young lovers is valuable, I would suggest that he misconstrues the nature of the foil. If Theseus and Hippolyta are reason and love united, then it is clearly an uneasy union. In the opening dialogue, Theseus informs us of the illicit conditions under which their relationship began:

Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword

And won thy love doing thee injuries,

But I will wed thee in another key,

With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling. [12]

Shanzer presumes that we can take Theseus at his word—that he has reformed from the illicit way he began the relationship. And yet there are subtle hints that not all is as well as Theseus presumes. Shortly after this exchange, Hippolyta apparently registers discomfort at Theseus’ decision in favor of the law of Athens and against Hermia. [13] In act four, Hippolyta brags about the hounds of Hercules and Cadmus, prompting Theseus to give a defense of his own dogs. Hippolyta’s fond reminiscing, and Theseus’s quick apologia, suggests that Hippolyta is not as impressed by Theseus as Theseus might hope. [14] This becomes even more evident in the final act, where Theseus and Hippolyta repeatedly are at odds. Theseus, the alleged model of reason, casually dismisses the lovers’ absurdities as “more strange than true.” [15] Conversely, Hippolyta remains open to their story, as it shows a “great constancy.” Theseus decides to watch Pyramus and Thisbe, while Hippolyta objects. [16] Twice during the play Theseus admonishes her to have patience with it. [17] Most tellingly, they even disagree on Bottom’s performance as Pyramus. While Theseus coarsely jokes that, “This passion, and the death of a dear friend, would go near to make a man look said,” Hippolyta finds herself moved by his performance: “Beshrew my heart but I pity the man.” [18] Her resistance to her own emotion suggests that she is surprised at the sympathy she is feeling. If reason and love have been made friends in Theseus and Hippolyta, it can only be in William Blake’s sense of friendship: “Opposition is true Friendship.”

The nature of the foil that they provide, then, is not as the model couple, but rather as the only couple at the end of the play that is still experiencing discord and disharmony, muted as it is by their adherence to proper court decorum. I would go further to suggest that at the core of their discord is Theseus’ rejection of the lovers’ story in favor of “cool reason.” Theseus stands out as the only major character within the play to deny the plausibility of the “fairy toy” of the lovers. Yet in the context of the dream world Shakespeare has created, his is not the reasonable position. [19] More importantly for our purpose, it seems Theseus does not consider the story reasonably, but dismisses it from an a priori position against “antique fables..[and] fairy toys.” [20] His philosophy has predetermined his position, enabling him to not actually understand what the lovers went through. In this way, it is Theseus with his famous speech about imagination that is at the core of the purpose of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Theseus’ pattern of rejecting ideas from an a priori position continues throughout the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. Though Theseus chooses the play, and says everything right in its defense, he values it only on his own terms and only in the ways in which it appeals to his own sense of honor and dignity. He lauds the effort of the mechanicals out of his “noble respect,” but then proceeds to gently mock their performance. While accepting their intent to honor, he closes himself to the possibility of learning. Hippolyta, on the other hand, recognizes that despite the laughable performance of the play, there is something in it to be valued. In response to Pyramus’ death scene—the beginning of the tragedy—she remarks, “Beshrew my heart but I pity the man.” [21] She does not give herself over entirely to the performance, as Titania gives herself over to Bottom. Instead, she maintains her disdain: “Methinks [Thisbe] should not use a long [passion] for such a Pyramus.” [22] Like Bottom in his translated state, the play does not merit uncritical adoration. But just as Bottom instructs in his translated state—remember that it was he who told us that “reason and love keep little company together nowadays” [23] —so too Pyramus and Thisbe. Despite her better judgment, Hippolyta experiences, if only a little, the pathos of the tragedy before her. Unlike Hippolyta, Theseus mocks, seeing only the noble intent of the actors and thus inhibiting his ability to learn from it.

Theseus’ problem, then, is that he is unable to open himself to ideas or narratives outside his own frames of reference. He does not challenge Philostrate’s assessment that there is, “Not one word apt, not one player fitted” in Pyramus and Thisbe. His emphasis on noble largesse places him above the mechanicals, and consequently makes them fit only for amusement, rather than instruction. But from Shakespeare’s perspective, every word is apt and every player fitted in Pyramus and Thisbe. It is designed specifically to meet its purpose. While the mechanicals wish merely to entertain, instruction supervenes on their performance, as it is Shakespeare’s crafting, not theirs. Theseus is unable—or unwilling—to see the fittingness of their play in and through their inept production of it.

What, then, is the instruction of the play? In what fashion does the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe instruct our understanding of Midsummer Night’s Dream and Theseus’ error? And what counsel, if any, does this provide the interpreter? In order to address these questions, it will be helpful to see in what way the content of Pyramus and Thisbe parallels Midsummer Night’s Dream. As R.W. Dent points out in his excellent essay, one of the chief problems that Midsummer Night’s Dream poses—but does not solve—is the irrationality of love. He writes, “Love’s choices remain inexplicable, and the eventual pairings are determined only by the constancy of Helena and Hermia in their initial inexplicable choices.” [24] One thinks of Helena’s lament in this context:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.

Therefore is winged cupid painted blind.

Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste.

Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste. [25]

Yet despite love’s irrational basis, there is a system that grounds “true” love and “false” love. While Shakespeare is not explicit, he points toward a “natural order” that true loves fit within. When Demetrius is reconciled with Helena by “fairy grace,” he claims that he is returning to his “natural taste” that he left while sick (IV.1.181). When Puck mistakenly places “love-in-idleness” on Lysander’s eye, Oberon chastises him: “Of thy misprision must perforce ensue, some true-love turned, and not a false turned true.” (III.2.92-93). Contra Dent, the constancy of the woman determines more than simply the pairings; their vows create a reality that makes their subsequent professions of love either true or false. The eventual pairings are decided not because of the constancy of the women, but because they are “true loves.” [26]

Fundamentally, the disorder of Midsummer Night’s Dream ensues when the lovers’ irrational attachments lead them outside this “natural order.” Demetrius inexplicably leaves his “natural taste” Helena in favor of Hermia. Lysander is prompted to irrationally attach himself to Helena. Yet it is not, as Dent hints at, simply a problem with “masculine inconstancy.” Irrational “female constancy” poses just as much of a problem. Helena recognizes her devotion to Demetrius is not in keeping with his qualities:

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,

Love can transpose to grace and dignity. [27]

This irrational devotion results in her reversing the natural order, wooing Demetrius in the forest when she is “made to woo.” Hermia, on the other hand, allows her devotion to Lysander blind her, prompting her to repeatedly misinterpret her dream in the forest. She first blames Demetrius for killing Lysander, and then accuses Helena of stealing Lysander’s love. In neither case is her interpretation correct. Despite her dream of Lysander smiling nearby while a snake eats her heart out, she is unable—or unwilling—to acknowledge the reality of Lysander’s willing and eager betrayal. [28]

The problems, then, in Midsummer Night’s Dream are prompted by irrational attachments in the face of, and at the expense of reality. They are problems of interpretation. The lovers in the forest see not what is real—that comes only after “fairy grace” restores them—but what they want to see. Helena who is the most forthright about her own error, acknowledges that she admires Demetrius’ qualities, despite the fact that they are “things base and vile, holding no quantity.” And while she points out that she is widely regarded to be as beautiful as Hermia, Demetrius does not think so. Why? “He will not know what all but he do know.” [29] Alternatively phrased, he knows only what he wants to know. It is the same problem Hermia encounters in interpreting her dream. Hermia, like Helena and the others, is saved from her resistance to reality only by the intervention of the fairies.

As has been pointed out by both T. Walker Herbert and Virgil Hutton, the world of the forest and the world of Pyramus and Thisbe differ primarily with respect to this “fairy grace.” [30] But Shakespeare is not, I would argue, primarily concerned with the existence or non-existence of such creatures. Rather, his concern is to warn Theseus of making a decision based upon a hasty or faulty understanding of reality. Here, the significant difference is that unlike the lovers who wake to “dreams” of their errors and the reality of their new life together, Pyramus remains ignorant of his mistaken interpretation of Thisbe’s mantle. He does not, as in Ovid’s story, get to see Thisbe one last time. The bitter irony of Pyramus’ situation is that he does not know he is mistaken, and consequently takes his own life. His problem, like the lovers in the forest, is that he sees what he wants to see in the bloody mantle, rather than stopping to consider alternative explanations.

It is not surprising, then, that the prologue to Pyramus and Thisbe makes the problem of interpretation explicit:

The actors are at hand, and by their show

You shall know all that you are like to know.

It is a pointed remark that strikes at the heart of Theseus’s rejection of the lovers’ interpretations of their dream. His a priori refusal to acknowledge their accounts is the sort of irrational attachment to his own opinion that the lovers in the forest suffer from. Only like Pyramus, he is fundamentally unaware of his problem, instead trumpeting the virtues of “cool reason” and the nobility of the court. From the perspective of the audience, his rejection of the “fairy toys” is wrongheaded, and yet he persists. The “realism” of Pyramus and Thisbe and the incredibly poor performance lend themselves to the sort of hasty interpretation Pyramus makes when finding the mantle, yet it is just that sort of easy dismissal as entertainment that Theseus commits. He does not find instruction because he is not looking for it—a danger against which the play warns.

Shakespeare’s tale, then, contains a warning to the interpreter. The danger of interpretation is that we will see what we want to see, and too quickly assume that seeming is reality. Just as the irrationality of the lovers causes them to miss the interpretation most fitting to the facts, so our irrationality condemns us to see forms in text that are of our own making, rather than the author’s. And while it would be naïve to not think that the moral applies to the thesis of this paper as well, it is not clear that this is a problem that we can escape. While sometimes “fairy grace” occurs and we are set free from the dangers of mistaken assumptions, the rest of the time the dangers remain.

Theseus enables Shakespeare to get his warning across despite the context of a wedding celebration. By framing the tragedy in the context of a subtle discord between Theseus and Hippolyta—discord that centers upon their different interpretations of the events around them—Shakespeare highlights the dangers of Theseus’ close-mindedness. Theseus’ repeated resistance to Hippolyta’s concerns casts doubt on Theseus’ proclamation that he will “wed [Hippolyta] in a different key” and explains the potential for offense within Midsummer Night’s Dream as a whole. For as interpreters of Shakespeare, we are all in danger of being Theseus.

[1] William Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream, eds. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine (New York: Washington Square Press, 1993), IV.i.122.

[2] See “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Fairy Fantasy or Erotic Nightmare,” Educational Theatre Journal, 21-3, (October 1969): 251-258.

[3] See “Imagination in Midsummer Night’s Dream,” R.W. Dent. Shakespeare Quarterly, 15-2 (Spring, 1964): 115-129.

[4] See Virgil Hutton’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Tragedy in Comic Disguise,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 25-2 (Spring, 1985): 289-305.

[5] Ibid., 294.

[6] See T. Walker Herbert’s Oberon’s Mazed World (New Orleans: Louisiana State University Press, 1977).

[7] Hutton, 298.

[8] Midsummer V.i.120-121.

[9] Compare V.i.114-116 with V.i.440-443.

[10] III.1.145-46.

[11] Ernst Schanzer, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in Shakespeare: The Comedies, ed. Kenneth Muir (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1965), 29

[12] Midsummer I.i.17-20.

[13] Ibid., I.i.124.

[14] Ibid., IV.i.116-130.

[15] Ibid., V.i.2.

[16] Ibid., V.i.92.

[17] Ibid., V.ii.222 and V.ii.269.

[18] Ibid., V.ii.305. It has been pointed out in private conversation with Jeffery Conn that “the man” in Hippolyta’s statement may refer to “the man” previously mentioned by Theseus. However, such an interpretation is doubtful given Hippolyta’s apparent resistance to her own emotion, a resistance that would be unlikely if “the man” lost his friend.

[19] So also Hutton, 291.

[20] Midsummer V.i.3.

[21] Ibid., V.ii.305.

[22] Ibid., V.i.334.

[23] Ibid., III.i.146.

[24] Dent 116

[25] Midsummer I.i.240-243.

[26] While it is beyond the scope of this paper, this concept of “natural fittingness” provides, I think, a basis for identifying a criterion for “true” interpretations of texts.

[27] Ibid., I.i.238-239.

[28] See III.ii.296ff.

[29] Ibid., I.i.235.

[30] See, for instance, Hutton 295.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.