Andreas Karlaganis: Reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream it’s notable how many of the themes it addresses affect us today, from climate catastrophe to trigger warnings in the theater. And it is a timeless piece about transformation.
Christina Wald: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is underrated if you think it’s a sweet comedy about fairies. In Shakespeare’s time there was a kind of »hot, mad summer nights« during the festive season of May and June when adolescents took to the forest. Of course, the intention was not the removal of ethical constraints, but it was an initiation ritual with transgressive potential. It was the idea that transformation, both inward and outward, could occur, and witchcraft was also in the cards. In addition to such customs, Shakespeare found inspiration in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which show us transformations of the human into the post-human, be it plants or animals. They are ambivalent transformations. They can be redemption, they can also be punishment, such as imprisonment in the wrong body, a topic we’re currently dealing with regarding transsexuality. Ecocriticism in turn continues to emphasize the narrow physical linkage of the non-human environment and humans. Nick Bottom, the weaver, is turned into a donkey, though interestingly incompletely, he only gets its head. He becomes a hybrid creature. Ecocriticism talks about »trans-species,« a term intended to reveal that humans are not as sovereign and independent from the animal kingdom and nature as we wanted to think for centuries. Climate change and the pandemic have revealed that we are dependent on microbes, viruses, the weather, etc., and thus are interconnected with nature. In this sense, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is indeed a timely work.
The transition into an alternative way of life seems to be connected to feelings of horror. One discovers things in the forest that are related with oneself, but they are unsettling.
CW Yes, Shakespeare also shows us a midsummer night’s nightmare, even as some characters’ great dreams are coming true. Lysander changes his love interest, but he doesn’t suffer as much as some of the others. Nor does Bottom realize that he has transformed into a donkey and is surprised why the Queen of the Fairies, Titania, is doting on him. Only afterwards he is disturbed, trying to put his experience into words. He wrestles with a language that tries to represent the dream. With Titania, the interpretation is disputed: Does she fall into a nightmare, or is she able to live out what she’s always wished for? Someone’s great dream becomes someone else’s nightmare. We see this a lot in unhappy love affairs.
Theater is the art of transformation. In what state are people even capable of transforming themselves?
CW The laborers are called »rude mechanicals« and understand theater as a basic craft. Then again, the fairies are for the theater, and Puck begins his closing monologue with, »If we shadows have offended…« Hence, theater is situated between craft and magic, that high art inaccessible to people. It is the space where transformation and alternative perception are possible. The question is also raised as to how limited the transformation is. Does it end at the fall of the curtain or does it exceed it? It is crucial that Demetrius is not transformed back at the end. If we prefer to associate theater with conjuring and magic, then some of it can continue to exist. That would be the hope which theater actually has.
In magic, substances matter, too – the fairies trickle an elixir into people’s eyes when they’re asleep. Today one could produce this state with drugs.
CW In Shakespeare the boundary between harmful drugs and helpful medicine is not clearly drawn. »Potion« is a neutral term, even »drug« can mean both. We know the term drugstore, for example. So we have a whole spectrum between therapy, intoxication, and poison for these agents at the time. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, love is portrayed as a state of intoxication. If you look at current brain research or findings in biochemistry, it becomes apparent that the state of being in love works similarly. Oberon proudly narrates the genesis of every flower, for which there were various terms at the time, and which only the King of the Fairies could find. Looking closer at what this love juice actually is, one sees that it is indeed a wild pansy, which in Shakespeare’s time grew in every garden in England. We know that legislation at that time prohibited the concoction of love potions, so there must have been a certain belief in them. The piece plays with this cultural imaginary, or rather cultural fear.
After the summer night’s intoxication ends, Puck describes the doomed souls, who filled with shame, bail before daybreak.
CW Puck is alluding to people who killed themselves, or couldn’t be properly buried for other reasons, and because of this must continue to haunt the living and roam around at night. It is nonetheless interesting for the comedy of it all that at the end of a licentious dream-night, Puck talks about the shame of returning. In Shakespeare’s time, the authorities saw theater as a dangerous alternative world to the morals of the Church. That was one reason why women were not allowed to perform—their display to the public gaze was regarded as a sexual act. Hence the boy actors, who raise entirely different questions regarding the representation of gender and sexuality. Puritans at that time saw theater as a source of danger, a potential source of societal transformation in an undesired way.
Is the time when A Midsummer Night’s Dream was created comparable to this day and age, in which parts of the patriarchal world, for various reasons, are violently and furiously retaliating against change?
CW The system at the time was patriarchal, of course. Still, for decades it did have a female sovereign with Elisabeth I, who skillfully took advantage of the patriarchy and presented herself as a prince. At the same time she was the Virgin Queen. She self-presented using a hyper-contextual ambisexual identity. Overall, what is interesting about the early modern period is that compared to today there were more rigid and moralized values, as far as the legal dress code, which unequivocally indicated class affiliation and gender. Then again in theater, men who dressed up as women were a structural given. In many of Shakespeare’s comedies, these “women” dress up yet again as men. In consequence of which we often have ambiguous sexual and erotic attractions that are same-sex, or ambiguously sexed. Fascinating as well, and this brings us back to transformation, is that in Shakespeare’s time the one sex model prevailed. A highly patriarchal notion which assumed that the one and only gender was male, and women were detained in a preliminary stage. Biologically, it was construed that women had an inverted penis which did not evert due to a lack of body heat. Drawings from that time do not differ greatly from contemporary depictions of sex organs. This suggests that back then women could at least theoretically transform into men. There were stories that purported this had happened. Tangibly, it resolved lesbian romance: A women »transformed« into a man and could thus officially cohabitate with her female partner.