by David Bevington
"I never may believe / These antic fables, nor these fairy toys," Theseus complains to Hippolyta, in Act 5 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when they have heard the strange story of the four lovers' night spent in the woods near Athens. He goes on to compare lovers to lunatics and poets, all of them suffering an overdose of "seething brains" and "shaping fantasies." Theseus's wry comment amounts to a critique not only of the lovers' amazing story of quarrels and of falling in and out of love as though by magic; it is also a critique of Shakespeare's own play. Theseus talks of the poet's eye, "in a fine frenzy rolling," giving through his heightened imagination a shape to "things unknown," bestowing on "airy nothing / A local habitation and a name." Theseus is partly talking about the play that he, and we, have just seen.
Theseus professes to be skeptical of such overwrought imagination. He is the embodiment of reason and control, associated throughout the play with power, law and authority. To him, poetry is delightful nonsense. At the same time, the woman he has conquered in war and is to marry, Hippolyta, takes a more appreciative view of the poetry of imagination. The lovers' story, in her view, is one of transfiguration, telling of something "strange and admirable" that "grows to something of great constancy." Thus, even in Theseus's ducal court, we hear a debate about the proper uses of the imagination and of poetry in the theater.
The play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare's most brilliant illustration of this kind of poetic drama. It is filled with improbable events: young lovers running off into the woods to escape "the sharp Athenian law" that enables parents to dictate marriage arrangements to their children, the King and Queen of fairies (Oberon and Titania) quarreling with each other, a rehearsal for a play in which the leading actor (Bottom the Weaver) is fitted out with an ass's head, Titania tricked magically into falling in love with Bottom, and through it all the four young lovers falling into one vexing mismatch after another through the potency of Oberon's love juice, until finally all is straightened out, with Hermia linked to Lysander and Helena reunited to Demetrius as was the case before the play even started. Chief architect of mischief is that delightful elf or hobgoblin, Puck, who enjoys a long reputation for practical joking and who takes keen pleasure in bestowing the love juice on various lovers' eyes with predictable and hilarious consequences.
Why does Shakespeare court such improbabilities? He was criticized for doing so in his own day, notably by his great contemporary, Ben Jonson, who thought Shakespeare was an amazing poet but who deplored the "airy nothings" of fairies and magical love juice. Jonson agreed with Theseus, in other words. Yet Theseus is only one voice in the debate as to whether the fairies are "believable." Shakespeare dares to introduce Theseus's skepticism into his play as a perspective his audience must think about, but then transcend through theatrical "belief." Puck, at the very end of the play, makes a similar point when he invites the audience to consider "That you have but slumbered here / While these visions did appear." The actors are only "shadows"; the play is "a weak and ideal theme, / No more yielding but a dream." The very title, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, underscores this fascination with dream and theater.
Theater itself is an illusion. The play within the play of "Pyramus and Thisbe," as deliberately awful as it is, reiterates the point that a theatrical experience is only what the spectators can make of what they have seen. We, as audience, are invited to surrender to the experience of a dream in Midsummer, to believe that the fairies are real. And they are. Puck and Titania and Oberon will be remembered and appreciated when we mortals have disappeared from the scene. Shakespeare was right about the reality of poetry and drama of imagination.