Ask Philippa: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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Cal Shakes' 2019 production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM directed by Tyne Rafaeli; photo by Jay Yamada.

Ask Philippa: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The second round of Shakespeare In-Depth with Philippa Kelly ended with an exploration of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here are just a couple of questions brought up in class. Feel free to leave a comment or email learn@calshakes.org. Further classes and events with Philippa will be announced shortly.

Question:  You keep speaking of the conflict between love and death.  Is it going too far to also consider that conflict with a realization of the symbolic connection between death and orgasm?  That is, is Egeus, perhaps,  in some way sending his daughter to some sort of orgasmic death?

Philippa: Yes exactly, the first part – orgasm was known as “the little death.” The ancient law Egeus cites was a made-up law – but within the context of the play it is real. He really wants her to be killed if she doesn’t obey him – it’s Shakespeare’s way of raising the stakes to begin this play looking like a tragedy, as it makes the tragic/comic juxtaposition more intense.  It is the very fact that the stakes are so high, Egeus so unpleasant, the lovers so urgent, that makes the ensuing comedy even more hilarious. Egeus is so unpleasant that we want the young people to get their way.

Question: I came across a discussion of how Bottom was not awed by having Titania be in love with him. It said that Theseus would have been if he had been in Bottom’s position. I began to wonder if The Athenians had a relationship with the fairies and if they thought the fairies were more wonderful or better or whatever than they were. Oberon and Titania don’t really go to Athens and attend the wedding festivities, do they? They just appear after everyone has gone to bed.

Philippa: I think the big thing about the Fairies is that they can’t have children and yet they don’t have to die; whereas the humans can have children, and yet humans have to die. So there is a separation between the two words. BUT with the “Enter Puck” at the end, we can assume that he MAY have been hiding somewhere (after all, he can be invisible, as we’ve seen) and watching the festivities. 

I think Shakespeare struggled all his working life with the concept of mortality – how do you defeat this thing that defines our humanity and ultimately contains and constrains our presence in the world and the universe? Via poetry that will live on? Via the fairy world that lives in our imaginations? Via affection for a man? Via love for a woman? And yet this world can be a total prison and a torture – why would we want to stay in it?

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