Shakespeare, to me, has always been about the great tragedies. Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet, I’ve read, re-read, heard and watched so many times and in so many different settings. But until now, I never got around to reading any of his comedies. Probably because I thought they could never match up to his tragedies or even the epic historicals. After all, when we think Shakespeare we don’t really think ‘funny guy’, do we? But this is where I was very wrong. Shakespeare really is a funny guy and he can do tongue-in-cheek as well as slapstick equally well. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is all kinds of funny.
Theseus, the Duke of Athens is to marry Hippolyta, the Amazonian queen and celebrations are underway. Not everyone is celebrating though; there are lovers in turmoil. In a nutshell, Helena loves Demetrius who loves Hermia who loves Lysander. Both couples end up in the woods outside Athens that night. Now the woods also happen to be where a group of workmen are practicing for a play they plan to stage before the Duke and his bride. Add to that, Oberon the king of fairies and his queen Titania are having a spat. An angry Oberon instructs his servant Puck to sprinkle a magic potion over Titania’s eyelids which will make her fall in love with the first living thing she sees. Puck is also to sprinkle the potion on Demetrius so that he may love Helena. But Puck, unfortunately, gets his victims all mixed up with the result that now Demetrius and Lysander both love Helena, nobody loves Hermia and Titania loves an actor who has the head of an ass. As you can imagine, much confusion ensues.
Now, I know all this sounds like a lot to take in, but I promise you, it isn’t. There is a lot happening in the play and never a dull moment but there was never a point when I didn’t understand who was who or what was going on. This is largely because Shakespeare gives each character a very distinct and unmistakable identity. The way each of them talks and behaves is so unique that you find yourself following along very smoothly. The comedy element is surprisingly modern, by which I mean, that it is still funny, even to an audience fed on a regular diet of stand up acts and sitcoms. I especially like the final scenes where the tragic play-within-the-play is being performed to great comic effect. I love the tongue-in-cheek comments of Demetrius, Theseus and Lysander.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is really a comment on the absolutely irrational and insane emotion that is love. All the characters are doing things they know to be crazy, all in the name of love. Speaking of her unrequited love for Demetrius, Helena laments:
Things base and vile, folding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity:
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Helena loves a man who loves another, Titania (albeit under the influence of the potion) loves a man who looks like an ass. Centuries later, people are still falling in love with the wrong ones, willfully blind to their flaws and all this without any assistance from Oberon or his magic juice. Therein lays the enduring appeal of Shakespeare. Beneath all the kings and fairies and magic and long-winded verses, his stories are really about human frailties. Now that, never changes, and so, Shakespeare remains relevant and his stories continue to strike a chord.