What Jenny's Reading

{March 11, 2014}   Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Part 1 of 2

I love Shakespeare.  For some reason this makes me feel pedestrian, like some higher-up in English Major Land will strike me down and say I shouldn’t be wasting my time with high school literature when I could be reading other, more important stuff.  Like…I don’t know.  Zadie Smith or Salman Rushdie, I guess.  I’m sure someone more hoity-toity than me could tell me.

If loving Shakespeare weren’t bad enough, I also love a lot of the movie adaptations of his plays.  Like Romeo + Juliet, Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, the 1999 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the original 1960s version of Romeo & Juliet.  I hated A Thousand Acres, but that was because I thought it was boring (both book and movie).  I haven’t seen Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, which is a wrong I need to correct.  (I have this theory about Kenneth Branagh, and it is that he is incapable of making a terrible movie.  This is because I’ve never seen a bad movie that he was in.  How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog?  Good times!)  Okay yes, I have horrible taste.  But what if I said that one of the things I love about these “modern” movie adaptations, full of beautiful people and anachronisms, is that I imagine kids going to see the movies because they love, say, Leonardo diCaprio or Callista Flockhart, but they’re seeing an adaptation of a play by one of the world’s greatest playwrights.  And maybe those kids might get interested in Shakespeare and check out the rest of his stuff, you know?  It’s like how I loved seeing those huge lines of kids to get a Harry Potter book at midnight.  At midnight!  For a book!  That they were going to read!

I probably should’ve become an English teacher.  Honestly, sometimes I fantasize about going back for my Master’s and Ph.D. just so I can teach at university level.

So I want to talk about one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I will also be talking about the 1999 movie version, but mainly the play.  I’m hoping this will be fun for people to read even if they’ve never read the play, but I guess we’ll see.

The whole thing starts with some commentary about Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, and then Egeus comes in to both start the plot rolling and show off how crappy a dad he is.  He wants Hermia, his daughter, to marry Demetrius instead of Lysander, the guy Hermia actually loves.  Is this because Demetrius is better off and thus a better match in these old fashioned times?  Nope!  Lysander specifically points out that he’s at the same level both socially and monetarily as Demetrius (“I am, my lord, as well derived as he, as well possessed…”).  I’m left to conclude that Egeus just doesn’t like Lysander for untold reasons, or that he’s a dick and hates seeing his daughter happy.  I’m going with the latter, because he’s there to tell Theseus that he wants permission to kill Hermia for not doing what he told her.  Theseus obviously thinks this is a gigantic dick move, but is apparently bound by the law, because I guess all-powerful rulers can’t change the law if they think it’s barbaric or anything.  Just go with it.  He allows a caveat, that Hermia can instead choose to become a nun.  Then he quite awesomely leaves Lysander and Hermia all alone, taking Egeus and Demetrius to another room.  It’s like he knew they were planning their escape, which of course they do.  Also?  I will admit that one of my favorite Shakespeare speeches of all time is Lysander’s “the course of true love never did run smooth.”  I mean, not only is that the plot of so many Shakespeare plays boiled down into a single sentence, but the speech itself is beautiful.

Sidebar: in the film, Demetrius is played by Christian Bale and Lysander by Dominic West.  And now, watching it again after several years, I remember why I have unfairly disliked Christian Bale for so long.  Also?  Dominic West is super hot in this movie.  Worth the watch for the half-naked scene alone, even if you don’t care about the content.

Hermia and Lysander run into Hermia’s friend Helena, who is in love with Demetrius, her ex-boyfriend, who dumped her when he found out he could marry Hermia.  So she just moons around all day, following him, moaning about how he doesn’t love her anymore.  Clearly she is an awesome person that people love to be around.  Hermia and Lysander tell her that they are planning on running away.  She then turns around and almost immediately tells Demetrius the whole plot.

So Helena’s pretty pathetic, and an awful friend, right?  I mean, first she’s all moony over her ex-boyfriend who could clearly not care less about her.  Then she’s kind of bitchy about Hermia and Lysander, because obviously if she can’t be happy, no one should be happy!  So she devises a boneheaded plan to tell Demetrius about their flight, and then follow him into the woods.  Which, what?  Hermia is leaving.  The plan seems to be that they’ll never see each other again.  I don’t know how far away Lysander’s aunt lives, but it’s far enough that Athens has no jurisdiction there.  Also, they’d never be able to return to the city, because they’d probably be arrested at best.  Her so-called “rival” for Demetrius’s affection is about to vanish forever, and she tells him instead of keeping quiet.  I mean, obviously people would’ve figured out pretty quickly that if Lysander and Hermia both disappeared, they were together, and some may have guessed where they were headed.  But it seems idiotic of Helena to be all, “They’re going to the woods, Demetrius.  Let’s follow them!”  I know the text indicates she’s hoping to gain his favor back by telling him the secret, but that seems doubtful.  If Hermia and Lysander were found out, Hermia would be forced back to her father’s, and then have to pick between death, Demetrius, and a nunnery.  Nothing will have changed.  Her actions baffle me.  If anyone has a different interpretation I’m happy to hear it.

Sorry.  This has bugged me for years!  Then there’s the subplot of the fairies, with Oberon and Titania (the king and queen) arguing about a little boy Titania is raising but Oberon wants as a page.  Oberon’s masculine pride is hurt and he sends his jester, Robin Goodfellow (called “Puck” in the movie, and throughout the play as a nickname), to find a flower that makes people fall in love with the next living creature they see.  He then observes Demetrius being a dick to Helena, and Helena being sad.  Oberon takes pity on her and sends Robin off to find Demetrius and use the flower to make him fall in love with Helena.  If this were an English term paper I’d talk about the rapey implications inherent here, but it’s not, so I’m just going to enjoy the fun and remind myself that these are fictional characters.

There’s another set of characters with their own subplot, a group of blue collar workers from the village who want to put on a play for Theseus’s wedding.  Nick Bottom is the main character of this little group, and he’s a giant blowhard.  That’s all you really need to know about him.  The group decides to practice their play in the woods, so that other groups competing with them won’t spy and take their ideas.  They end up meeting near where Titania is sleeping.  Robin sees this and takes offense, and turns Bottom into a donkey, which scares away his friends.  Oberon has already used the flower on Titania, and when she hears him singing she wakes up and falls in love with him.  To be honest, the Titania/Bottom subplot is my least favorite part of the play, and even in the movie, where the characters are played by excellent actors Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline, I still don’t care for it, so we’re skipping a bunch here.

Hermia and Lysander have a sweet scene where Lysander admits to needing directions (seriously, he’s awesome) and they decide to rest for the night.  He then very cutely, in my opinion, comes on to her (in the movie, this is the naked scene!!).  She rebuffs him, gently (girl WHAT???) and they fall asleep in separate spots in the woods.  Immediately after they fall asleep, Robin happens upon them and decides they are the couple he is looking for, and anoints Lysander’s eyes with the flower.  There’s more silliness between a just-passing Demetrius and Helena, where he makes it very clear that he isn’t interested anymore, and she makes it clear that she doesn’t care because all she wants is to follow him around.  Nice self-respect there, lady.  Yes, I know it’s a different time and all, but geez, I want to pitch a copy of He’s Just Not That in to You at her.  Anyway, Demetrius leaves her alone in the woods after threatening to do so and warning her that something might get her without him there to protect her (seriously, Helena isn’t my favorite character, but this guy’s no prize either).  Helena cries a bit, and then finds Lysander and assumes he’s injured, so she wakes him.  And he falls in love with her.

I’ll be back with part two in a bit!  It’s fun and somewhat farcical, so stay tuned!


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