by KATE FARRINGTON
Dreams don’t make sense.
Dreams start in one place and flit to another, begin as pleasant memories and end as nightmares. They recklessly blend pieces of past, present and future, give enemies the faces of friends, and warp the most familiar landscape into something strange and parlous. Dreams are as real as sight, smell and taste, and as insubstantial as mist. Dreams have no logic—except that, in the moment we dream them, they absolutely do.
No playwright has ever gotten quite so much mileage out of dreams as William Shakespeare. Whether popping up as powerful portents to shape the fate of kings, revealing divine blessings or curses, or simply inviting us into gossamer visions of a happy future, his characters live in worlds shaped, explained and revealed by dreams.
But in no other play did Shakespeare so totally lose himself to the idea of “dream logic” as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his ethereal and earthy tale of passion gone mad and familiar turned foreign. In no other of his works are the edges of reality so beautifully blurred. We experience this dream from the inside out, and delight in the madness we find there.
I have had a most rare vision. –Bottom, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
All’s not well in the woods beyond the city of Athens. Titania and Oberon, proud rulers of the fairy kingdom, are embroiled in a nasty spat and are (very loudly) not speaking to each other. All this fuss—and over nothing more than a mere boy, a human child Titania won’t give up. The royal couple’s jealous, magic-fuelled rages have sent the seasons themselves reeling, plunging the natural order into anarchy. Oberon’s solution to this mayhem? More mayhem! A love potion is just the thing, he thinks, to win him a little vengeance and clear the marital muddle up nicely—right?
But the fairy world isn’t the only romantic rumble in town. Blundering into this topsy-turvy forest come a quartet of lovers on the run from authority—aching with desire, pulsing with poetry and passion, and just a little bit punch-drunk on love. The woods are dark, deep and perhaps dangerous, but they don’t care. Suddenly they feel free and far removed from angry fathers, disapproving lords—and the ordinary dullness of the everyday world.
Last but not least, a gormless gang of tradesmen-turned-actors are looking for a place to rehearse their play, a labor of love—if not talent. They too seek escape from prying (laughing?) eyes by slipping off into the forest.
Little do they all know that in the course of a single surreal night, they will all, spirits and mortals alike, come face to face with their fondest dreams and their worst nightmares.
Midsummer plays pretty fast and loose with reality. Figures from the ancient myths of Athens run headlong into the mischievous spirits of medieval Britain, who in turn run smack into 16th century working-class Londoners. Time and place mean nothing in this play. Here poetry flows as easily and swiftly as water. Here innocent desire has a sinister side. Here passion isn’t so much about whom we love as What We Need Right Now. This dream is not theirs—or ours—to control.
This was my dream; what it doth bode, God knows. –Gloucester, Henry VI, Part Two
Elizabethans were obsessed with dreams. In 1576, Thomas Hill’s The Most Pleasant Art of the Interpretation of Dreams became a sensation, boasting the only comprehensive explanation for every possible dream—from picking apples (a good sign) to eating beans (bad luck) to dreaming of the queen (prosperity), to wheat growing out of your torso (…complicated). Simon Forman, the “it” London astrologer, recorded the nightly visions of scores of people who came to him to have their dreams read and their futures explained. On the international stage, the reported dreams of kings and queens—of particular interest in times of unrest—were widely discussed and dissected.
This fascination had much to do with the sheer mystery of dreaming. Then as now, people could not understand exactly why we dream. Were dreams, as in Biblical stories, a link to the divine? Were dreams messages about the future? Were they explicable by science (remembering that the “big tent” of 16th century science included numerology and astrology)? Or were they, as essayist Thomas Nashe put it, a simple “froth of fancy which the day hath left undigested?”
Whatever dreams were, there was obviously a code to be cracked here. There must be a reason and purpose for such a powerful phenomenon. But in an age of exploration and nascent scientific discovery that sought to pick apart and analyze the known world, dreams stubbornly refused to give up their secrets.
No wonder Shakespeare liked them so much.
O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. –Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet
Even as the age they lived in tried, haltingly, to bring some sort of intellectual order to a chaotic world, Shakespeare and his theatrical contemporaries kept right on jumping in puddles and reveling in the splashes they made. Neoclassical theorists denounced theatre’s impossible leaps through time, spirits breaking into the human world, and shocking violence onstage. Shakespeare answered with ghosts, fairies, some pretty fabulous gore, and feats of time travel. He and his worlds were not to be so easily fenced in or pinned down.
Perhaps Shakespeare’s unflagging interest in dreams came from his seeing them not just as plot devices or crowd pleasers but as symbols of the unknowable. Richard III and the would-be Henry VII share prophetic pre-battle visions; Shylock anxiously recounts dreaming of money bags (a sign of impending loss); Romeo describes a dream-Juliet who raises him from death. Across genres and worlds, Shakespeare’s characters are frightened by dreams, mocked by them, guided, comforted and grieved by them, but never once are their dreams, the unexplained part of them, ultimately found unimportant.
From his earliest plays, Shakespeare seems fascinated by the uncontrollable and indefinable in human nature and how best to capture it onstage. Othello’s wild jealousy, Lear’s plunge into madness, Juliet’s “boundless” love, Antony’s unconquerable passion–these characters are not entirely rational. They fall victim to their own desires, fears and loves. And the harder they or those around them try to curtail their emotions, the more damage they cause—for good or ill.
More often than not, Shakespeare seems to take a cautionary view of the irrational. The man who created Iago knows the blood-red vein of darkness, even madness, that runs through all of humanity. He understands the terrible havoc it can wreak on the world.
So it’s a pleasure when, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare shows us that our inborn chaos can be worth celebrating. Sometimes we’d be lost without it. It isn’t clear thinking that propels Helena into the woods after her straying Demetrius—it’s her heart. It isn’t wisdom but passion that governs Lysander and Hermia and makes them willing to defy law and family. For these lunatic lovers, uncontrollable love is the prime mover, the elemental force that will change every day of their lives…starting right now, onstage, as we watch.
Shakespeare seems sure we’ll root for this foursome and their crazy stupid love–and why not? He knows who we are: impossible, unreasonable creatures ourselves, oh-so capable of incredible heights and depths, of passion, laughter and outright absurdity.
We are the stuff his dreams are made on.
We are the music-makers
And we are the dreamers of dreams. –Arthur O’Shaughnessy, Ode
No art form is more dreamlike than theatre. From the moment we enter a performance space we agree to believe in an alternate reality: where strange vistas and cities appear before us, where time means nothing, and where actors transform into lovers, families, friends and enemies. We agree to embrace that transformation. We agree to be swept off into other worlds.
Director Eric Tucker celebrates Shakespeare’s delicious dream-spirit, whisking us off into a world where one actor can transform into three different people (not to mention the occasional animal, household appliance or rocket) before our eyes. And in the spirit of Shakespeare’s endlessly playful melding of past, present and future, our Dream offers snippets of the contemporary world woven together with the most luscious poetry the 16th century ever heard—or saw.
All done with five actors and a patch of dirt—the stuff dreams are made of.
Filed under: General