Saturday, December 09, 2006

Reason, Love and Ontology in Midsummer Night's Dream

This is a review and interpretation of the comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, as adapted by the theater students at the University of Puget Sound.

A good number of people think Shakespeare romanticizes love and celebrates it. But he also finds love absurd in the comedies. Love is moving and profound--one of the most wonderful things that can happen to a young person--but simultaneously makes you behave like a fool. In another play I'm familiar with, As You Like It, the heroines are much more self-aware of how foolish they are. Nobody in Midsummer Night's Dream is that aware. They're absurd but they don't realize it.

It is Puck, Oberon's faery spirit and servant, who actually says they are absurd, "What fools these mortals be?" But Puck is detached from the situation and is manipulating them by making the characters fall in love with the wrong people. Puck himself is not in love. He's not even human. He's a mythological creature who doesn't literally exist. But he represents a kind of narrator who manipulates the characters and then tells us that they behave that way naturally. The theater students conveyed this by giving Gothic style clothing to the mythological characters, which is perfectly suitable. The Goths were in my opinion the best characters of the play. (By Gothic I mean the fashionable post-punk subculture.) Anyone dressed in Hot Topic clothes on stage is of the faery world, or "the wood" as they call it, and should not be thought of as literally existant. They're much more Freudian than that.

In the wood outside Athens, Love is absurd. There are two young men and two young women in the play. Both the young men are first in love with Hermia. Then they fall out of love with Hermia and into love with Helena. The literal reason is because Puck sprinkles them with magical faery dust. The women tie themselves into knots because of what Puck has done. But Puck does not literally exist. So the play is not about Puck's magic. The magic merely brings out the inherent irrationality of love. I say irrational because all the four lovers in this play are equally desirable. They're also indistinguishable. And in Midsummer Night's Dream love makes a difference where there is no difference.

Love first says that Helena is ugly. Then love says she is a Goddess. Love finds Hermia worth running through fire for at one point. Then love says she's sour and commonplace. But both Hermia and Helena are well brought up, highly desirable women of the noble class. Most men would find either of them quite attractive. Helena and Hermia have essentially the same qualities. But love insists on making an absolute difference where there really isn't much difference.

Then love magnifies its irrationality by insisting that its reasons for love are very rational indeed. When people fall in love or change the person they love, the first thing they do is justify the reason why they had a change of heart. At each change of heart in the play, the characters give their reasons for it. These reasons are more like rationalizations. Lysander's reasons, for example, are greatly unreasonable. He says, "The will of man is by his reason swayed, and reason says you are the worthier maid." What a silly answer! He's nothing but a sophist (in the prejorative sense.) To switch from one woman to another is completely rational to Lysander, and his appeal to "reason" without actually having a reason makes it irrational.

The worst example by far is Titania, who is made to fall in love with an ass, or rather an ass-headed man. She says that his singing is beautiful--his donkey singing!--and begins to seduce him. She tells her cute little Goth faeries to pamper him and give him all he wants. The donkey replies by saying, "Methinks, Mistress, you should have little reason for that. And yet to say the truth reason and love keep little company nowadays." This is by far the best one-liner in the whole play. And notice too that the donkey speaks in prose: now there's the voice of reason, finally! Immanuel Kant, writing the Critique of Pure Reason, could not have expounded more reasonably than this ass.

Near the end of the play, once the course of love is running smooth, Helena is married to Lysander and Hermia is married to Demetrius. Titania and Oberon are once again joined together in love after their tiff, which is supposed to be over an Indian boy. But I didn't see his equivalent in the UPS adaptation. Oberon and Titania are supposedly the ones causing all this love-trouble which begins in the psychologized faery world. But I don't recall that the cause of their dispute, the indian boy, was represented in the play. (I'm writing this review several weeks after, however.)

The play is nearly over. And now since the marriage unions have been achieved, the whole business of lovers running off into the forest can be safely parodied. This is done with the ridiculous tragedy of Pyramis and Thisbe. This is a wonderful play-within-a-play, seen by the four newly-wed lovers with Hypolita and Theseus. They sit to watch a play about two young lovers who are frustrated by fathers and the law and who run off into the woods. It's their own story! But the lovers don't realize it because it's supposedly acted so badly that they sit scoffing at the performance. In some ways, the students who acted as the amateur theater troupe in Pyramis and Thisbe were more comedic than the four lovers. The audience certainly believed so. The troupe succeeded at making this part of the play wholly absurd. Not to scorn the skill of these actors and actresses, but it's easier to recite lines in parody than it is to act seriously and comedic at the same time. Parody and the postmodern sensibility go well together.

The world of dream and the world of the love may be strange. But it is not merely fanciful. I suggested earlier that it was Freudian. But I now want to leave on a Hegelian note. In a psychological sense the faery world does exist. We cannot say that it must exist because it's confirmed by all the lovers. It isn't an individual hallucination. Everyone participates in it. It suggests that the lovers are not operating on their own individual psychological experiences. They are participating rather in what Hegel calls the Welteist, or the World Spirit. This term he uses is meant to sound supernatural but it's meaning is better understood as group-consciousness, where everyone synthesizes with everyone else and moves forward in history.

The structure of A Midsummer Night's Dream confirms the coexistence of the real world and the World Spirit which we are conscious of and basing our actions from on some level. The faery world is not treated like an odd little Freudian episode, some psychotic hallucination. Shakespeare brings the faeries back at the end. The nature-oriented faeries come out of the wood, and they get the final lines of the play, and with their last words they bless the house and the lovers. By analogy, acknowledging the fact that real world people have blessed the marriages and now the World Spirit does too. In the audience we have seen the whole thing. The fact that the faeries are still there is surprising, and provocative. We have seen the strange and variousness of it and leave talking about the world of daylight and the world of dream, the world of people and the world of faeries. The world and the world spirit.

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