A Midsummer Night's Dream

December 6, 2018

February 3, 2019

CST’s Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Joe Dowling

A Scholar’s Perspective

All Compact

by Stuart Sherman, Professor of English at Fordham University

Spoiler alert: like most romantic comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends in marriages: of Theseus, Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons; and of the two couples for whom the course of true love has not till now run smooth. At the wedding feast Duke Theseus, reflecting on the wild night in the woods that has led up to these nuptials, melds madness, love, and art into a radiant reckoning that in many ways sums up the play:

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.

All three figures, Theseus is saying, are governed by imagination. As he goes on to explain, they each in their different ways see things that are not there: the madman dwells inside his hallucinations; the lover beholds in the beloved virtues and beauties that s/he does not actually possess; the poet revels in worlds that s/he has created from scratch—in the artistic power that can give “to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

Here near play’s end, Shakespeare makes it easy for us to match up each of Theseus’s categories with the passionate, hapless, often adorable characters we’ve been observing in action for a couple of hours: the quartet of lovers, lost in both the forest and their own roiling emotions, subject to forces beyond their control (parental disapproval, amorous elixirs). The temporarily lunatic Titania, Queen of the Fairies, driven so mad by a drug as to fall in love with Bottom the Weaver, half-ass, half-human, who crazily enough accepts her ardors as though they were his by natural merit. And—strangest match of all—the “poet” Peter Quince, carpenter and amateur playwright, who has come up with a script based on the tragic myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, to be rehearsed by his fellow tradesmen, and performed if they’re lucky enough to get the gig) at the wedding feast that rounds out Shakespeare’s larger play.

It’s in the last of these categories—the poet as maker of something out of nothing—that Shakespeare conducts his most intricate maneuvers. The link between lovers and madmen, after all, is long familiar: it’s been a staple in love poems and pop songs for centuries. In Midsummer, it’s forged primarily through supernatural enchantments: in the love-potion wielded by the fairy Puck, eager, airborne, and intermittently inept.

By contrast, Shakespeare presents the endeavors of the “poet”—the labors of Peter Quince and his companions—as anything but magical, as a matter of sweat and fears,  of massive perspiration and minimal inspiration. Rehearsing Pyramus and Thisbe in the Athenian woods, these would-be players fret endlessly about how to shape their show’s impact: how to prevent the women in the audience from being too frightened by the lion; how to make the moonlight convincing; how to help the spectators understand that a spackled human will impersonate a wall. For them, “imagination” is equal parts apprehension (fear of things going wrong) and ingenuity (tactics for making things go right). When Puck, their  amused but unseen onlooker, dubs them “rude  mechanicals,” the phrase makes two points: not  only that in ordinary life these men labor with  their hands, but also that here and now, before  our eyes, they are working out the “machinery”  of theater, the moves and mechanisms that  make it work, as if drawing up the blueprints  for the very first time.

Their naiveté makes them easy to love. We playgoers know the conventions of the playhouse so deeply that we tend to take them for granted. To watch those rules worked out and worked over anew, by baffled mortals intent on doing their theatrical best, is a piquant privilege.  

That privilege, Shakespeare goes on to show, can entail delicious obligations of its own. When, at the wedding feast, Hippolyta worries that Quince’s amateurs in their ineptitude will embarrass themselves and move their audience to nothing but ridicule, Theseus suggests to her a gentler, more capacious way of watching plays: “The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.” Even the best performers (“this kind”) are merely shadows (imperfect images, faint echoes), both of the characters they portray and of the perfection that their own performances might theoretically attain in some ideal world of perfect playacting. Hence, both the best players and the worst need our compassionate, cooperative imaginations to offset the shortfalls intrinsic to human imperfection.

And since, for Shakespeare and his audience, the word “kind” also meant “Nature,” life on earth, Theseus’s pronouncement echoes wider: the imaginative compassion we bestow on bad actors, we should bestow on muddle-minded humanity as well. Theater provides a micro-model for human empathy. If all the world’s a stage, we would do well to look kindly on our fellow-players.

Theseus speaks the words; Hippolyta lives their truth. As she watches poor Pyramus, poorly performed, lament the death of his beloved, the hitherto cynical Queen of the Amazons finds herself moved not to laughter but to tears: “Beshrew my heart, but I pity the man.” Bottom the Weaver, playing Pyramus with a mix of overweening confidence and underwhelming finesse, has snagged the heart of a second queen.

As well he might. When Theseus averred that madmen, lovers, and poets are “of imagination all compact,” he means both that all three figures are “entirely composed” of imagination (and of little or nothing else); and that by dint of their condition, they are intrinsically united in a league (a compact) grounded in shared temperament and experience.

By the end of Pyramus and Thisbe, and of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, too, Shakespeare has managed to increase that league’s membership many times over. The fairies, literally made of and by imagination, throughout his play operated as audience, at once involved and aloof: they have treated the befuddled as objects of empathy, and as rich sources of entertainment. And we, watching the fairies monitor the mortals, who in their turn watch Quince’s play, occupy the outermost circle of observation and delight.

In effect, the rude mechanicals and Shakespeare, the master craftsman who created them ex nihilo, have reacquainted us with the workings of our own imaginations: of how we think and feel when, in watching a play, we collaborate with playwright, players, and all the mighty mechanicals behind the scenes (designers, crew, etc.) to make something spellbinding out of nearly nothing.

In the end, Theseus’s ample compact encompasses us too. The best in our kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.

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