The Diversionary Tactics of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

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Dream is considered one of Shakespeare's most elegantly crafted and effective plays. The alternation and interaction of several contrasting plots is remarkable: the frame story of the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta intersects with the debate before Theseus over the marriage choice of Hermia in the face of her father's opposition. The tension resulting from this conflict reinforces the implicit tyranny of Theseus' own imposing of marriage on his captive enemy Hippolyta. Such sexual polarization also matches the iconic quarrel between Oberon and Titania, who epitomize the male and female principles in nature generally, specifically in their confrontation over paternal or maternal domination in their familial relations to the adopted Indian boy. The workmen achieve the play's epitome in their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe which shows the volatility of love relationships, merely symbolized by the arbitrary effects of the juice of Oberon's magical flower. We have staged the young lovers' scenes on their own quite plausibly without the intervention of any magical flower or Puck.

These issues are cleverly managed to provide a highly diversified series of unpredictable scenes, including the astounding sexual seduction of Bottom by Titania, which reinforces the play's stress on the arbitrary and intimidating nature of sexuality. The importance of this deft fusion of characters, situations, and icons is that it provides a brilliantly diversified stage performance which is hypnotic to most audiences in its oscillation between aristocratic dignity, proletarian bluntness, amatory intensity, and allegorical icons, all further complicated by unexpected reversals of character and commitment. In the theatre any performance above minimal competence of these diverse effects briskly earns audience attention, and there are innumerable opportunities for varying interpretations of these contrasting characters, so that few productions seem repetitive.

The analysis of stage conventions and their audience affect in the workmen's rehearsals provides some of the best illumination of Shakespeare's awareness of audience involvement. These discussions come much nearer his own practices and those advocated by Lope de Vega's El arte nuevo de hacer comedias than the elitist aesthetics of Hamlet's supercilious address to the actors, which censures many of the bold effects that Dream exploits, such as Bottom's farcical overacting. Despite the voicing of occasional death threats, the play ends with universal happiness transcending even the basically positive conclusion posited by the conventions of tragicomedy.

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond