One of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular plays, and also one of the most frequently reinterpreted. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was systematically cut and blended with other works, David Garrick’s version (1755), entitled The Fairies, contained, for example, only 600 of the original lines to which were added several lyrics by Dryden. The play has also been rendered as an opera on several occasions, the best known by Mendelssohn (1826) and Britten (1960). Even once the use of the full text was re-established, directors, operating under the influence of the opera and ballet traditions of interpretation, still took every possible occasion to make their versions of the play as spectacular as possible. An 1840 production had Puck entering on a flying mushroom and one in 1856 had ninety fairies dancing.
As for the plot, Shakespeare frames his narrative around several key relationships. First we have the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta announced at the play’s beginning and celebrated at its end. Next the relationship between the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, that enters stormy waters over the question of Titania’s “Indian Boy”. Third is the relationship between Hermia, Demetrius, Lysander, and Helena. At the start of the play, Demetrius loves Hermia, and his father wants them to marry, but Hermia loves Lysander and together they elope to the woods outside Athens, with Demetrius in pursuit and Helena, who loves Demetrius, pursuing him. As in many Shakespeare plays, the wood becomes the site of several magical transformations as relationships are at first confused by the tricks of Puck, and then reordered. The sub-plot of “rude mechanicals” rehearsing in preparation for the queen’s marriage further complicates matters as Puck turns Bottom the Weaver into a donkey, and then, at Oberon’s instruction bewitches Titania into loving the beast. This too is all resolved, and the play ends with a series of reflections on the events in the wood. Bottom articulates the strangeness of his half-recalled experiences, Theseus dismisses the young lovers’ accounts as ramblings typical of “the lunatic, the lover and the poet”, whilst Hippolyta points out how such tales “grow to something of great constancy / But howsoever, strange and admirable”. Puck concludes the play with an epilogue that tells the audience that they have “but slumbered here”, further complicating an already ambiguous play that combines meditations on married life, falling in love, power and dramaturgy with the tantalising, half perceived language of a dream. “Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream”.
Contributed by James Harriman-Smith