by resident dramaturg Philippa Kelly
Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream between 1594 and 1598, when the playwright was in his early to mid-thirties (solidly-middle-aged by the standards of his time, “young” by today’s measurements, where the Y and Z generations have an estimated average life-span of 103!)
Midsummer was preceded by Titus Andronicus, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the three Henry VI plays that we produced last season. The play’s closest companion, however, was Romeo and Juliet, of which it can be seen as an inversion: while Romeo and Juliet begins as a comedy about youthful infatuation, suddenly plummeting into intense passion and ultimate tragedy, Midsummer begins with a cruel threat of death, soaring from there through darkness, misunderstanding and panic all the way to a glorious comic resolution that is celebrated in multiple marriages. The use of trickery, too, is inverted in the two plays, one for tragic purposes, the other for comic: in Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers are tricked by fate into losing their lives; while Midsummer’s lovers are tricked into complicated, intersecting versions of misunderstanding and despair, ultimately to be resolved within joyous concord.
But why doesn’t Midsummer end with the several weddings that provide a gorgeous wrap-up to the hectic cross-currents of alarm and confusion? Instead of ending with its weddings, the play has a final act that counters concord with discord: all of the wedding couples are forced to sit through a performance of The Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, a Romeo and Juliet-style horror-show complete with blood and gore, hilariously rendered by an inept group of unschooled actors.
I think this ambivalent ending provides one of the analogues that make the play so powerful in our present day, when myths about happy families and forever-marriages are no longer hammered in as they were after the two world wars. As a part of their wedding celebration, Shakespeare’s contented lovers witness love that doesn’t end up happily ever-after. They witness, in other words, the future that might easily have confronted them, or the future that they still might face. Swearing to love forever doesn’t necessarily mean forever: there was any number of accidents (falling into a pothole, catching an infection, burning in a house fire), that ended many sixteenth-century marriages almost before they had begun. In a time that was governed by carpe diem (“live for the day,”) people understood, at the most profound level, that happy-ever-after is a dream to be longed for, but, perhaps, something that exists as only a dream.