In A Midsummer Night’s Dream… flows a luxuriant vein of the noblest and most fantastical invention; the most extraordinary combination of very dissimilar ingredients seems to have brought about without effort by some ingenious and lucky accident, and the colors are of such clear transparency that we think the whole of the variegated fabric may be blown away with a breath. The fairy world here described resembles those elegant pieces of arabesque, where little genii with butterfly wings rise, half embodied, above the flower-cups. Twilight, moonshine, dew and spring perfumes are the element of these tender spirits; they assist nature in embroidering her carpet with green leaves, many-colored flowers and glittering insects; in the human world they do but make sport childishly and waywardly with their beneficent or noxious influences. Their most violent rage dissolves in good-natured raillery; their passions, stripped of all earthly matter, are merely an ideal dream. To correspond with this, the love of mortals is painted as a poetical enchantment which, by a contrary enchantment, may be immediately suspended and then renewed again. The different parts of the plot; the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, Oberon and Titania’s quarrel, the flight of the two pair of lovers, and the theatrical manœuvres of the mechanics, are so lightly and happily interwoven that they seem necessary to each other for the formation of the whole.
Oberon is desirous of relieving the lovers from their perplexities, but greatly adds to them through the mistake of his minister, till he at last comes really to the aid of their fruitless amorous pain, their inconstancy and jealousy, and restores fidelity to its old rights. The extremes of fanciful and vulgar are united when the enchanted Titania awakes and falls in love with a coarse mechanic with an ass’s head, who represents, or rather disfigures, the part of a tragical lover. The droll wonder of Bottom’s transformation is merely the translation of a metaphor in its literal sense; but in his behavior during the tender homage of the Fairy Queen we have an amusing proof how much the consciousness of such a head-dress heightens the effect of his usual folly. Theseus and Hippolyta are, as it were, a splendid frame for the picture; they take no part in the action, but surround it with a stately pomp. The discourse of the hero and his Amazon, as they course through the forest with their noisy hunting-train, works upon the imagination like the fresh breath of morning, before which the shapes of night disappear. Pyramus and Thisbe is not unmeaningly chosen as the grotesque play within the play; it is exactly like the pathetic part of the piece, a secret meeting of two lovers in the forest, and their separation by an unfortunate accident, and closes the whole with the most amusing parody.
SCENE I. The same. LYSANDER, DEMETRIUS, HELENA, and HERMIA lying asleep.
Enter TITANIA and BOTTOM; PEASEBLOSSOM, COBWEB, MOTH, MUSTARDSEED, and other Fairies attending; OBERON behind unseen
TITANIA Come, sit thee down upon this flowery bed,
While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,
And stick musk-roses in thy sleek smooth head,
And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.
BOTTOM Where’s Peaseblossom?
BOTTOM Scratch my head Peaseblossom. Where’s Mounsieur Cobweb?
BOTTOM Mounsieur Cobweb, good mounsieur, get you your
weapons in your hand, and kill me a red-hipped
humble-bee on the top of a thistle; and, good
mounsieur, bring me the honey-bag. Do not fret
yourself too much in the action, mounsieur; and,
good mounsieur, have a care the honey-bag break not;
I would be loath to have you overflown with a
honey-bag, signior. Where’s Mounsieur Mustardseed?
BOTTOM Give me your neaf, Mounsieur Mustardseed. Pray you,
leave your courtesy, good mounsieur.
MUSTARDSEED What’s your Will?
BOTTOM Nothing, good mounsieur, but to help Cavalery Cobweb
to scratch. I must to the barber’s, monsieur; for
methinks I am marvellous hairy about the face; and I
am such a tender ass, if my hair do but tickle me,
I must scratch.
TITANIA What, wilt thou hear some music,
my sweet love?
BOTTOM I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let’s have
the tongs and the bones.
TITANIA Or say, sweet love, what thou desirest to eat.
BOTTOM Truly, a peck of provender: I could munch your good
dry oats. Methinks I have a great desire to a bottle
of hay: good hay, sweet hay, hath no fellow.
TITANIA I have a venturous fairy that shall seek
The squirrel’s hoard, and fetch thee new nuts.
BOTTOM I had rather have a handful or two of dried peas.
But, I pray you, let none of your people stir me: I
have an exposition of sleep come upon me.
TITANIA Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms.
Fairies, begone, and be all ways away.
So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.
O, how I love thee! how I dote on thee!
OBERON [Advancing] Welcome, good Robin.
See’st thou this sweet sight?
Her dotage now I do begin to pity:
For, meeting her of late behind the wood,
Seeking sweet favours from this hateful fool,
I did upbraid her and fall out with her;
For she his hairy temples then had rounded
With a coronet of fresh and fragrant flowers;
And that same dew, which sometime on the buds
Was wont to swell like round and orient pearls,
Stood now within the pretty flowerets’ eyes
Like tears that did their own disgrace bewail.
When I had at my pleasure taunted her
And she in mild terms begg’d my patience,
I then did ask of her her changeling child;
Which straight she gave me, and her fairy sent
To bear him to my bower in fairy land.
And now I have the boy, I will undo
This hateful imperfection of her eyes:
And, gentle Puck, take this transformed scalp
From off the head of this Athenian swain;
That, he awaking when the other do,
May all to Athens back again repair
And think no more of this night’s accidents
But as the fierce vexation of a dream.
But first I will release the fairy queen.
Be as thou wast wont to be;
See as thou wast wont to see:
Dian’s bud o’er Cupid’s flower
Hath such force and blessed power.
Now, my Titania; wake you, my sweet queen.
TITANIA My Oberon! what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamour’d of an ass.
OBERON There lies your love.
TITANIA How came these things to pass?
O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now!
OBERON Silence awhile. Robin, take off this head.
Titania, music call; and strike more dead
Than common sleep of all these five the sense.
TITANIA Music, ho! music, such as charmeth sleep!
PUCK Now, when thou wakest, with thine
own fool’s eyes peep.
OBERON Sound, music! Come, my queen, take hands with me,
And rock the ground whereon these sleepers be.
Now thou and I are new in amity,
And will to-morrow midnight solemnly
Dance in Duke Theseus’ house triumphantly,
And bless it to all fair prosperity:
There shall the pairs of faithful lovers be
Wedded, with Theseus, all in jollity.
PUCK Fairy king, attend, and mark:
I do hear the morning lark.
OBERON Then, my queen, in silence sad,
Trip we after the night’s shade:
We the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wandering moon.
TITANIA Come, my lord, and in our flight
Tell me how it came this night
That I sleeping here was found
With these mortals on the ground.
Max Reinhardt – A Midsummer Night’s dream (1935)
Directed by Max Reinhardt. With James Cagney (Bottom), Dick Powell (Lysander), Joe E. Brown (Flute), Jean Muir (Helena), Hugh Herbert (Snout), Ian Hunter (Theseus), Frank McHugh (Quince), Victor Jory (Oberon), Olivia de Havilland (Hermia), Ross Alexander (Demetrius), Verree Teasdale (Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons), Anita Louise (Titania), Mickey Rooney (Puck), Arthur Treacher (Ninny’s Tomb), Billy Barty (Mustard Seed), Kenneth Anger (Changeling Prince), Angelo Rossitto (Gnome).
BW-144m. Closed captioning.
…Reinhardt’s Dream is a relic of the kind of Shakespeare that was being staged in the Edwardian era. Shakespeare had been a source for motion pictures since the art form was invented, but this Midsummer Night’s Dream represents the first big-budget Hollywood production of The Bard in the talkie era. That it came from Warner Brothers is integral to its curious composition, for that studio was best known for gangster thrillers and romantic musicals (thus, studio-contracted actors such as James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, and Dick Powell play major roles). In the long view, it seems fitting that a studio specializing in such mass-appeal fare would be best suited to do Shakespeare, and do him right.
However, in Depression-era America, Shakespeare was high art and an Old Country import. Warner Brothers wanted to make a prestige film, and the studio not only considered Shakespeare the epitome of prestige, it hired a man who, by Hollywood standards, was the most prestigious theater practitioner of the day. Reinhardt, a visionary who developed the concept of spectacle theater, had staged an elaborate Dream in his native Austria that he reprised at the Hollywood Bowl. Jack Warner saw this show, and his studio hired Reinhardt to replicate the spectacle on film. Reinhardt’s movie-making and English-speaking skills were scant, so William Dieterle was brought in to be co-director. What we get is Reinhardt’s extravagances combined with Dieterle’s technical skills.
Benjamin Britten – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960)
The opera begins with Shakespeare’s second act — in the woods — and there are only six words in the libretto that are not in the original play. To clarify why Hermia and Lysander are fleeing Athens (one of the major plot points in Shakespeare’s first act), Britten and Pears added the line, “compelling thee to marry with Demetrius,” for Lysander to explain Hermia’s plight.
“One of the things I like about Britten’s adaptation is that he starts in the woods,” says Edward Berkeley, director of Aspen Opera Theater Center. “The music at the beginning has the feeling of threat, of something ominous going on. In the play, and the opera as well, the Shakespearean tangle is actually a place where people go to essentially resolve inner issues that they can’t resolve in society. So the Shakespearean wild is like a place of psychological nightmare.” By starting in the woods, it means that only the final scene of the opera takes place elsewhere — after the characters have resolved their dilemmas.
“The music Britten wrote for the opening of the opera, plus a lot of the Fairy music and for Oberon and Tytania, has a sense of disorder,” Berkeley points out. “I think the best of the lovers’ music comes when they start fighting, and the music is at its most disorderly. There’s the sense the lovers have left organized society, ready to battle it out. They’ve had to go to another place. It’s as if we have to leave society to resolve things.”
The orchestral music with which Britten opens the opera immediately places us in the woods, the glissandos in the muted strings — repeatedly moving up and down the scale — suggesting the breathing of someone deep in sleep. Or perhaps it is the sound of the wood at night, with creaking branches; or the sound of the magic spell that is on the wood and everyone who comes within it.
Britten’s music brilliantly depicts the three different worlds of the play – the world of the Fairies, the world of the human lovers, and the world of the Rustics, as Britten called Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” – by giving them each a distinctive musical signature. The fairies have a rather delicate sound from the orchestra: harps, harpsichord, celesta and percussion. Oberon, King of the Fairies, is a countertenor (see sidebar), his Queen, Tytania, is a coloratura soprano, and the fairies are sung by a children’s chorus. Puck is a speaking role, accompanied by drum and solo trumpet, though the exact rhythm of his words is notated in the score. “I got the idea of doing Puck like this in Stockholm where I saw some Swedish child acrobats with extraordinary agility and powers of mimicry,” Britten explained.
George Balanchine (Felix Meldenssohn’ music) – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962)
A ballet about the transforming power of love, George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is based on William Shakespeare’s comedy about the romantic adventures and misadventures, quarrels and reunitings, of two pairs of mortal lovers and the king and queen of the fairies. The ballet, through its themes of reality versus illusion, and change versus constancy, displays love in all its guises. In the first act there are dances of unrequited love and love that is reconciled. There is a pas de deux for the Fairy Queen Titania and Bottom, who has been turned into an Ass — a perfect illustration in dance of the old proverb, “love is blind.” In the second act, which opens with Mendelssohn’s familiar Wedding March, there is a pas de deux representing ideal, untroubled love.
Shakespeare’s 1595 play has been the source for films, an opera by Benjamin Britten (1960), and a one-act ballet by Frederick Ashton, called The Dream (1964). George Balanchine’s version, which premiered in 1962, was the first wholly original evening-length ballet he choreographed in America. On April 24, 1964, A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened the New York City Ballet’s first repertory season at the New York State Theater. Balanchine had been familiar with Shakespeare’s play from an early age. At age eight he had appeared as an elf in a production in St. Petersburg, and he could recite portions of the play by heart in Russian. Balanchine loved Mendelssohn’s overture and incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (composed respectively in 1826 and 1843), and it is this score, Balanchine later said, that inspired his choreography. Mendelssohn had written only about an hour’s worth of music for the play (not enough for an evening-length dance work), so for twenty years Balanchine studied the composer’s other oeuvre, finally selecting a number of additional overtures, a nocturne, an intermezzo and a portion of Symphony #9 to weave together the ballet score.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a German composer of the Romantic Era. Like Mozart, he was a child prodigy who excelled in every aspect of music: he was one of the finest pianists of his time, as well as an excellent conductor and well-known educator. Mendelssohn was only 17 when he wrote the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which musically introduces all of the ballet’s characters and themes.
Michael Hoffman – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)
Directed by Michael Hoffman. With Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, Stanley Tucci, Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Christian Bale, Dominic West, David Strathairn, Sophie Marceau, Roger Rees, Max Wright, Sam Rockwell, Bernard Hill, John Sessions
Much of the play’s fun comes during a long night in the forest, where the mischiefmaker anoints the eyes of sleeping lovers with magic potions that cause them to adore the first person they see upon awakening.
This causes all sorts of confusions, not least when Titania, the Fairy Queen herself, falls in love with a weaver who has grown donkey’s ears. The weaver is Bottom (Kevin Kline), and he and the mischievous Puck (Stanley Tucci) are the most important characters in the play, although it also involves dukes, kings, queens and high-born lovers. Bottom has a good heart and bumbles through, and Puck (also called Robin Goodfellow) spreads misunderstanding wherever he goes. The young lovers are pawns in a magic show: When they can’t see the one they love, they love the one they see.
Michael Hoffman’s new film of “William Shakespeare’s a Midsummer Night’s Dream” (who else’s?) is updated to the 19th century, set in Italy and furnished with bicycles and operatic interludes. But it is founded on Shakespeare’s language and is faithful, by and large, to the original play. Harold Bloom complains in his wise best seller, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, that the play’s romantic capers have been twisted by modern adaptations into “the notion that sexual violence and bestiality are at the center of this humane and wise drama.” He might approve of this version, which is gentle and lighthearted, and portrays Bottom not as a lustful animal but as a nice enough fellow who has had the misfortune to wake up with donkey’s ears–“amiably innocent, and not very bawdy,” as Bloom describes him.