Now that the big theatre event of the year is over, everyone remotely “connected” (!) with theatregoing in the four metros has seen it, and everyone has read all the reams printed about it, can there possibly be anything left to write? Ever since I was invited to join the project as dramaturge—and immediately agreed, having seen Tim Supple’s interpretation of A Comedy of Errors thanks to its British Council tour of India in 1997—I asked myself, focusing on the text, why should we at all consider as significant a British director’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring an entirely south Asian cast and crew? The play strikes even a student as structurally weak, for the conflicts end happily ever after rather prematurely in Act Four, leaving a full Act of ostensibly pointless festivities. Hardly any institution of higher learning prescribes it as compulsory reading; if anything, it finds itself in some school syllabi.
A scene from Supple's Dream
So why did this director of international stature choose the lightweight Dream instead of something solid like King Lear or The Tempest, especially for such a prestigious enterprise going to Stratford next month and generously backed by the British Council? We could, of course, put it down to personal preference (it is simply one of Tim’s favourite plays) and leave it at that. But I wanted to investigate if there is more to it than met even Tim’s sharp eye. Sure enough, when selecting the Dream, Tim had not reckoned that it is more curiously “connected” (that word again!) to India than we realize. Its first publication dates to 1600, the very same year that the East India Company was founded in London. It was probably written a few years previously, just as the establishment of the East India Company merely formalized commercial developments over the preceding years.
Then there is the case of the Indian boy, over whom Titania and Oberon squabbled and virtually had a cold war, the only Shakespearean character (albeit in absentia) of ethnic Indian origin. Admittedly, “India” for Shakespeare could well have meant the West Indies, besides functioning as imaginative Elizabethan shorthand for exotic otherness, but I do not wish to enter the intricacies of that question. For our convenience, let us accept that the child came from our India, according to Puck stolen by Titania from “an Indian king” and desired by Oberon for his train. Titania reinforces this statement by addressing Oberon as “Come from the farthest step of India,” presumably where he searched in vain for the boy—the word “step” emended to “steep” in the Folio and interpreted by editors as a hill range. She provides the most details about the boy: that his mother, her friend, had died in childbirth, influencing her decision to take and look after him for the mother’s sake, who “Was a votaress of my order;/And in the spiced Indian air by night,/Full often hath she gossiped by my side” on the seashore.
For an author like Shakespeare, so careless about his geography, these multiple allusions to India almost sound deliberate. What did he really want to say? It is momentarily exciting to speculate: were both parents of the child Indian? If so, then Titania might be Indian too (“a votaress of my order”), like she obviously is in Tim’s production. Tim has also opted to show the boy in the flesh, though not the first to do so: he appeared on stage probably as early as 1816 and many times since then, well into the twentieth century. To take the Indian “connection” to its “farthest step,” the boy in our troupe, Ram, belongs to a family that originally hails from Maharashtra, where the Western Ghats rise “steep”ly from the Arabian Sea beaches on which the first Europeans landed. Purely coincidental, of course, but fact sometimes matches fiction.
Actually the Indian links may not be as far-fetched or as flippant as I have suggested. In a stimulating recent essay titled “England, the Indian Boy, and the Spice Trade in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Professor R. W. Desai argues persuasively that Shakespeare intended the Titania-Oberon-Boy tussle as an analogy for the struggle between Portugal (Titania) and England (Oberon) over the maritime routes to the land ripe for exploitation, India (the boy). He substantiates his point with a very close reading of the text, tracing parallels in historical accounts and geographical voyages of the time. We can surely interpret the play as a treatment of imperialism and even internal colonialism: Theseus captures and more or less forces Hippolyta to wed him, and the aristocrats laugh condescendingly at the mechanicals’ verbal and artistic efforts.
It is equally interesting to note, in our problematic days of globalization, that the Dream spans action from Hippolyta’s homeland of the Amazons to Athens and to farthest India, possibly the widest itinerary in Shakespearean drama, even if only in the mind. Not for nothing does Oberon—whom, we may recall, Shakespeare’s contemporary Spenser identified with King Henry VIII in The Faerie Queene—tell the reconciled Titania, “We the globe can compass soon,” and his minion Puck promise to “put a girdle round about the earth/In forty minutes,” bringing the magic flower back with him. (The resemblance with Rama dispatching Hanuman on his successful aerial expedition to locate the curative herb might strike south and southeast Asians; the Ramayana, too, deals with abduction, conflict and conquest.) In fact, Puck returns much faster, like a supersonic cruise missile, in roughly five minutes.
The Dream’s trajectory occurs within India too, not merely in the facile sense of travelling across the country. I made the point in my programme note that the play is all about translation, in its old meaning of metamorphosis (an idea not too far away from reincarnation). Helena is prepared to give the world to be “translated” into Hermia; Puck declares that he has “translated” Pyramus; and in the most familiar line in this vein, Bottom’s colleagues tell him, aghast, “thou art translated.” How appropriate, then, that translations—although in the modern sense—into so many Indian languages should jostle side by side in this production, for we are after all a multilingual people.
The concept of dreaming also draws Indians to the play, since maya, or life as a dream, deeply embeds the Hindu-Buddhist consciousness. Indeed, the Dream belongs to the subgenre of classic philosophical dream dramas like Calderon’s Life Is a Dream and Strindberg’s Dream Play. There is something metaphysically and metatheatrically Indian about Puck’s coda to the audience: “you have but slumbered here/While these visions did appear.” Leave alone the many occurrences of the word “dream,” Shakespeare’s ambivalent usage of “vision” complements them; just as in Indian tradition, a dream can seem a revelatory vision upon awakening, while vision can carry connotations of deception because it relies on material sight perception. Hence, Oberon says the lovers’ nightmare in the forest both “Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision.” After Titania and Bottom wake up separately, she exclaims “what visions have I seen!” while he states matter-of-factly, “I have had a most rare vision.” Which vision is which? Visuals create the most immediately appealing aspect of any Dream production. However, if depicted literally, for instance in the spectacular nineteenth-century manner, they detract from visionary insight. Tim’s art attempts to slice through superficial artifice into deeper visual reality, the kind we see in dreams, in the dance of the forests and in the realm of the spirit.
It may not be just a fluke, therefore, that A Midsummer Night’s Dream has endured so well in all languages of Indian theatre; it has proved perhaps the most-performed Shakespearean play here, according to Dr Poonam Trivedi in her new book, India’s Shakespeare. I know for certain that after the Dream ends, all those creatively engaged in its production will have to wake up echoing Keats’ lines of half-joy, half-lament: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/Fled is that music—do I wake or sleep?” And if you as a spectator felt the same, I can only conclude that the play must have succeeded.
Centre for Advanced Studies in English
Jadavpur University, Kolkata