Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Dark Side of the Dream

Hey all. Here is a little something I wrote about Midsummer Night's Dream, for my Shakespeare class:

Many of Shakespeare’s comedies focus on the theme of love as a foolish power that clashes with the rules and rationality of the social order. Love is associated with the golden world, as contrasted to the brazen world of reason, and it is there that our dreams play out in the absence of order; it is in the golden or green world that necessary chaos brings about the restoration of the social order. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the golden world of love is simultaneously a home to the shroud of night and the mysterious mischief of fairies. The serious and dark aspects of the play serve to emphasize the aspects of love that are necessarily chaotic and absurd; even though love is a force at work in the restoration of the social order, its powers must share space with the irrational forces of night, chaos, and death.

From the beginning of Act I, love is the center of the characters’ musings. Theseus begins the play by stating his growing expectation at the looming wedding between him and Hippolyta. He accuses the moon of being an obstacle: “how slow/this old moon [wanes]! She lingers my desires,/Like to a step-dame, or a dowager,/Long withering out a young man’s revenue” (I.1 3-6). Here the moon is associated with the pain of desire and the absence of desire’s fulfillment. Connected very closely to this very sentiment is Hermia, who ruminates on her desperate situation (she must choose between forced love and death) as she and Lysander speak of their misfortune. She says, “O hell, to choose love by another’s eyes!” (I.1 140), to which Lysander responds:
Or if there were sympathy in choice,
War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,
Making it momentary as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth;
And ere a man hath power to say, “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion. (I.1 141-149)
Lysander practically gives the audience a catalogue of the influences that conspire against love; they are all associated with either illusory swiftness (sounds, dreams, lightning, shadows) or unfavorable and alien forces (war, death, sickness, shadows, darkness, confusion). The uniqueness of this comedy begins to take shape here, for the purpose of comedy is usually to stave off the forces of death and destruction, but in this play love, which is supposed to, as it were, “vincit omnia,” must wrestle with these forces in the golden world where it is night, where the dark side has home-court advantage.

Towards the end of Act I, Helena observes that “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind” (I.1 234). This is a puzzling line, and we cannot interpret mind here to mean something rational or reasonable. Shakespeare seems to be foreshadowing the approaching descent into chaos, where the lovers will not look with their eyes at reality, but instead will live in a dream world where the illusions and convictions that dwell in their minds (their ideas of love) reign. Thus Act I prepares us for the illusory dream of the golden world. Indeed, love will soon show its face as the catalyst of comedic chaos as the play moves from the world of reason, authority, and order, to the dark and mysterious night. The question remains of whether love will come out of this mess alive.

In the golden world, chaos reigns. It is the place where lovers are fickle, where queens fall in love with asses, where loveless young ladies’ suddenly become the object of desire. These scenes of the play are certainly comic to the audience. Eventually Oberon, the king of the fairies (and one might add the golden world as well) instructs Puck to put things back in order, saying, “When they wake, all this derision/Shall seem a dream and a fruitless vision,/And back to Athens shall the lovers wend/With league whose date till death shall never end” (III.2 370-3). What is important here is that Puck then makes reference to the “damned spirits” (II.2 382) that wander the night, and that he does not have much time to act against the rapid arrival of the dawn. These spirits, according to Puck, must hide away for fear of shame, and it is clear in this speech (378-88) that the mad lovers in the woods can be compared to these spirits. The night and the dark things of the night serve to emphasize that love is part of that world of night where illusion seems to win and where the lovers cannot remain for long until the eyes of day expose with mockery the mind’s deceits. What this indicates is that love does not win on its own in the golden world; it needs the help of Puck or the magic of Oberon to right itself. Without the hand of the gods, love remains subject to the jaws of darkness about which Lysander laments.

In Act V, Theseus reiterates that “Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/More than cool reason ever comprehends” (V.1 4-6). This is a reference to the imagination with which lovers look at the world, compared to the eyes’ perception of the way reality is. He says that lovers apprehend more, but what is the content of this “more”? Is it a reality? And if so, is not this reality a scary one, one of fairies and damned spirits, unfounded fickleness and chaos? The rite of marriage seems to restore the social order after the night has played its games on the poor mortals. However, Puck returns at the end, after the play should have seemingly ended around line 370, and beings again with his usual dark meditations. As the lovers go off to celebrate, Puck says, “Now is the time of night/That the graves, all gaping wide,/Every one lets forth his sprite,/In the church-way paths to glide” (V.1 380-82). He then says, “I am sent with broom before,/To sweep the dust behind the door” (V.1 389-90), hinting that it is possible that the so-called world of night might not actually be an illusion but an unseen reality. If this is the case, the images of night as a haunted realm where the unknown happens give the play’s ending an eerie twist. We are left wondering if Oberon has really set everything aright or if it is Puck whose last words have the final say on the play’s result.

The images of darkness and night throughout the play recall the audience to the darker, mysterious side of love, and the presence of this imagery is so rampant that one must wonder whether the social restoration of the wedding has really had the final say. We are also left to wonder what Puck means in his closing remarks: “If we shadows have offended,/Think but this, and all is mended,/That you have but slumb’red here/While these visions did appear” (V.1 423-26). The shadows have the last word, and it is not certain whether one should trust Puck or perhaps worry that he is trying to sustain our illusion. As Puck finishes his apologies, the play leaves a haunting question lurking in our minds: has the audience really woken from the dream when they leave the theatre?

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