A Stage-theory in Depth
The three-stage logic of development in A Midsummer Night's Dream appears to enforce a total containment of fluidity by means of a limited tolerance similar to that adopted by parents of adolescents. A superficial reading moves from law-and-order to magic-and-chaos, returning finally to a more livable law-and-order world. But there is evidence of resistance to containment, and even of failure to contain within the narrative. The contained stage of woodland fluidity, chaos and magic does not move into balanced law-and-order as the realization of its own essence, it goes kicking if not screaming. And even the final stage of balanced law-and-order cannot rightly be read as the expression of a total transformation from anarchy to order. If A Midsummer Night's Dream is a classic case of staged narrative it also suggests the violence that such narratives can do.
Theseus is the typical figure of the law-and-order stages. His encounters with Hippolyta and Egeus in the first act convey a sense of imbalance that is set to rights in the course of the woodland scenes, but these encounters also introduce some lines of resistance and reveal cracks in the authority of law-and-order, even as it gets reconstituted in the final act. Theseus is concerned with legitimizing patriarchal custom by putting a contented face on things.
While he may succeed in his own case, he is incapable of satisfying either Hippolyta or Hermia, both of whom are subjected to harsh male authority. Following Hippolyta's ambiguous (not to say cold or melancholy) response to his own impatience for marriage, Theseus calls for Philostrate to
Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments
Turn melancholy forth to funerals:
The pale companion is not for our pomp.
Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling. [1.1.12-19]
A rollicking Athenian youth hardly seems compensation to a queen who has been forced into marriage by the sword. Furthermore, the new key which Theseus proposes pomp, triumph, reveling is really only the natural consequence and continuation of a successful war campaign. Perhaps more importantly, this attempt to conceal a certain rough coerciveness by making the young public festive is immediately followed by the entrance of the most unfestive of youths. Egeus means to force Hermia's marriage on pain of death; Lysander and Demetrius quarrel over which of them has title to her; Helena laments Demetrius' fickleness. And these are the only youths we meet to whom Theseus might be referring.
The first act is thus characterized by the inability of Theseus' patriarchal order to account for the desires of its subjects. This becomes most clear in Theseus' appeal to Hermia's duty to her father:
What say you Hermia? Be advis'd, fair maid.
To you your father should be as a go;
One that compos'd your beauties; yea, and one
To whom you are as a form in wax,
By him imprinted, and within his power,
To leave the figure, or disfigure it.
Demetrius is a worthy gentleman. [1.1.45]
Theseus is trying to move Hermia to obedience. He gives six lines for duty and the creative authority of the father, followed by a single line for love, or rather, a rationale for love. In Theseus' kingdom, desire is subject to the controlling stamp of patriarchal authority. A desire that deviates as does Hermia's is either destroyed along with its subject, or, thanks to Theseus' 'conciliation', cut off from all objects whatsoever. Despite his function as representative of rational authority, even Theseus cannot escape the wrath of the law. It is his impatience in the face of marriage custom (by which, unlike the will of his wife, he must abide) that opens the play:
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in
Another moon; but O, methinks, how slow
This old moon [wanes]! She lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame, or a dowager,
Long withering out a young man's revenue. [1.1.1-6]
Clearly, there are places in the law that can serve the interests of women a dowager who has some provisional right to hold property, and Hippolyta, who is to be spared being raped for four days due to the observance of propriety in the marriage ceremony. It is perhaps these obstacles to male desire as much as Hermia's plight that motivates flight from the "sharp Athenian law"(1.1.163). The violence that rational-patriarchal order does to desire extends even to the individual most in control of it. It has consequences, and Theseus does not manage to hide them.
In response to this cruelly regulating order, Hermia and Lysander resolve to go beyond the reach of Athenian law, into the woodland realm of magic, fluidity and chaos. The Athenian Wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream is not so steeped in Renaissance poetic traditions of the pastoral as is a play such as As You Like It, for it is teeming with its own system of power-relationships. However, its status as a place where dreams become reality and the boundaries of the possible stretch out have clear precedent in the traditions of pastoral poetry. In Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England, Bruce Smith has identified a 'cultural poetics' that established the pastoral as a sphere of temporary license for the sensual and the passionate. This sphere was particularly characterized by its permission of a male homosocial existence that was set up against the expectation of heterosexual marriage. This male homosocial is structured as a temporary existence carved out and fortified within a narrow social circle of intellectuals against demands for marriage prevalent in society at large. Of interest for my essay, this was a social field created by and for young men; neither they themselves, nor those outside their circles, expected that their members could persist into stable adulthood while remaining within this sensual homosocial sphere. It was a basically transitional mode, even if it could be remembered later with nostalgia.
The status of the pastoral as external to the general order thus had a literary history. Both in terms of literal geography and contemporary literary mappings of social space, the lovers' escape to the woods constitutes an escape from the traditional structuring of marriage . It marks disobedience to paternal and (patriarchal) state authority (in the persons of Egeus and the Duke) and perhaps even a turning toward maternal authority their intent is to become married under the auspices of a "widow aunt", a dowager and Lysander's adopted second mother (1.1.157).
The presence of the magical fairy people sets Midsummer Night Dream's pastoral somewhat apart from the tradition Smith describes, but it also opens it up to a sense of fluidity that comes not only from license but from chaos and hyperbole as well. The idea that fluidity and chaos are what make Shakespeare's comedies enjoyable is not new. These features are essential to audience's pleasure in watching A Midsummer Night's Dream, so the question of why they are contained in a tidy conclusion is not just a matter of narrative theory-making but also of the sociopolitical constitution of real audiences. In later consideration of just how 'tidy' the conclusion is, it will be significant that Puck emerges as the more memorable character among the fairy folk, and that he has the epilogic speech: the principle personification of chaos and confusion has the last word.
There are several specific realizations of the general principle of chaos-indulgence which Puck gives voice to. The variability of desire is the one I will focus on, for its strict regulation when under Athenian law is set in contrast to its woodland manifestation. Fluidity of desire in the woodland is opposed to the single- or limited-choice systems enforced through the larger narrative structure (simply apprehended) and through the patriarchal ideology promulgated by the male figures of authority (Theseus, Egeus, Oberon).
Love and desire are subject to sudden transformation in the woodland. They are intensely variable. They can be put on and taken off at the touch of an herb. Titania falls in love with an ass-headed laborer, only to become disgusted by him in a later scene; Lysander abandons Hermia, his sworn love, to woo Helen, but loves Hermia again before the play is out; Demetrius enters the wood loving Hermia and leaves it loving Helena. Love in A Midsummer Night's Dream is unpredictable, changes suddenly, and does not conform to anyone's notion of reason.
It is no surprise, then, that the law cannot account for the caprices of love, and that desire is confounded in several cases by the legal order that opens the play. Following the conventions of stage-narratives, 'it is only natural', then, that the resolution of romantic strife occurs beyond the reach of law and order.
The confusion of the woodland scenes holds for its audience a pleasure that is above and beyond that of happy resolution, though. (Perhaps it is a pleasure that is even opposed to such resolution). One can imagine Puck being thoroughly successful in his interferences from the first, but this would make for a dull play. I am able to laugh at the lovers' confusion without any knowledge of its impending cessation. The comedic function of the play is not dependent on tidy resolutions. Audiences who like to laugh must sympathize with Puck when he repudiates the rational functionalism Oberon imposes on his missions and takes pleasure in the confusion he has mistakenly caused: "And so far am I glad it so did sort / As this their jangling I esteem a sport"(3.2.352-3).
The dawning of day is situated in the narrative so as to mark the end of the anti-rational phase, but the return to Athens is not perfectly smooth and Athens itself shows some signs of weakness as a containing bracket to the woodland. Morning finds the lovers' affections conveniently aligned so as to be compatible with law as laid down by Theseus. The lovers are wed together "three and three" with Hippolyta and Theseus the ordered pairing of main characters. Throughout the final act Theseus exercises his authority broadly as before, overbearing the advice of Philostrate and setting the tone of commentary on the mechanicals' performance at the nuptial feast.
All of this suggests a complete return to the previous order and even its consolidation of power, but the preceding night in the wood has left its mark. Egeus' will is thwarted by the lovers' realignment, and Hippolyta remains skeptical of any attempt to dismiss their tales as dreamed fantasies. Paternal claims are circumvented and any totalizing claims of the rational are brought into question, at the least.
Perhaps most telling is Theseus' performance as audience to the mechanicals' primitive production. That he selects their play rather than another entertainment reveals some of his own self-doubt, and the juxtaposition of his stated position and his actual position as audience suggests the falseness that can attend the many claims made by an absolute ruler like the Duke. Theseus refuses the other available plays apparently because their story is not new (the Battle of the Centaurs), because the device is hackneyed (The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals), or because "keen and critical [satire]" (Mourning for the Death of Learning) is "not sorting with a nuptial ceremony"(5.1.5-16). These excuses make some superficial sense, but all of these alternative entertainments are obviously a threat to Theseus' authority in some way: the Centaurs threatened a marriage much like the one Theseus just completed; the tipsy Bacchanals tear a man of authority to pieces; the lamenting muses are "keen and critical," not sorting with a nuptial, but also uncomfortable to the ruler whose social order is being critiqued.
On top of these threats lies the weight of Theseus' need always to read performances from a level higher than the performers themselves, whether they be courtiers or players. In this light may be seen as a kind of intellectual bullying his selection of precisely the troupe among all others who are unfit for their subject and obviously inept at both performance and language in general. According to him,
Never any thing can be amiss,
When simpleness and duty tender it
Our sport shall be to take what they mistake
And in the modesty of fearful duty
I read as much as from the rattling tongue
Of saucy and audacious eloquence. [5.1.83-104]
No matter what people say to him, Theseus hears only duty and obedience. For the effective silence of modesty to have as full a meaning as "saucy and audacious eloquence," part of the latter's meaning must be ignored. Further, in selecting his company (including who performs for him), he endeavors to surround himself with those who will quake in fear before him and convey obedience in their silence rather than those who may dare to speak and, whether by chance or by intent, say something to offend him or his order.
For all the elitism and strategizing reinforcement of authority that is implied in Theseus' talk about audience-ship, his actual behavior as audience lowers him in relative class among the other characters and puts the lie to any sense of good-will that might have accompanied his stated intentions to give the most generous interpretations of any error on the part of the players. Theseus stoops to the level of the lovers, joining them in their witticisms at the expense of the players. For the most part, his own quips maintain his promised good humour and indulgence, but upon conclusion he is scathing:
No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse. Never excuse; for
when the players are all dead, there need none to be blam'd. Marry, if he that
writ it had play'd Pyramus, and hang'd himself in Thisby's garter, it would have
been a fine tragedy; and so it is, truly, and very notably discharged. But come,
your Bergomask; let your epilogue alone. [5.1.355]
It remains only to be added that the suppression of the mechanicals' epilogue is a kind of gesture toward suppression of A Midsummer Night's Dream itself, or at least of its untamed, 'transitional' phase. The epilogue presumably consists of 'Bottom's Dream,':
The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not
able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream. It shall be call'd
"Bottom's Dream," because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end
of a play, before the Duke. [4.1.211-219]
It may be too much to say that this epilogue stands for the totality of the play or even the totality of its woodland scenes, but it is at the very least representative of the joyful chaos that those scenes instance. Even if the epilogue pertains only to Bottom, the essence of fluidity and license is maintained in defiance of containment. If it is conceded that 'Bottom's Dream' can stand for the whole of the play, then the mere fact that we are watching the play signifies a radical failure to contain on the part of its own narrative apparatus.
Such a conclusion is only reinforced by the fact that the fairies and, most especially Puck, have the last word. The fairy empire (Oberon, Titania, and minions) take possession of the palace after all the mortals are gone, and Puck's speech goes far toward reinstating the woodland reality at the expense of Athens' order. Take another look at Puck's speech:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumb'red here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call.
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands if we be friends,
And Robin will restore amends. [5.1.423-438]
Puck is the only character who addresses the audience directly. This lends him a kind of authority and a dimension of reality that others lack. This is significant, given that he represents most clearly the fluidity of the woodland scenes. More importantly, Puck addresses the audience not as 'real' beings of the rational world the fictive fantasy of perfect patriarchy but as "shadows." This small word turns the whole play on its head. If we follow its indication and consider the play as if performed before a shadow/fairy kingdom, the mechanicals' rude production figures quite nicely the awkwardness with which we would expect corporeal mortals to represent light-tripping fairies. Reality becomes inverted, so that dreaming signifies entrance into the quotidian world we are all accustomed to. Thus, the concluding speech encourages the response the lovers have upon waking a sense of porousness between opposed worlds:
Are you sure
That we are awake? It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream. [4.1.193]
Within the play's own structure, the need for this kind of porousness is instanced by Hippolyta, who remains ambiguous respecting her feelings for Theseus. Her relationship with Theseus occasions both the presence of an obstacle to male desire under the law (the need to wait the marriage for propriety's sake) and the continuation, into the supposedly all-resolving final stage, of the discord between legal marriage-arrangements and human desire (or repulsion). From her first entrance, having been "wooed ... with [the] sword"(1.1.16), not once does she express desire for Theseus or glad anticipation of their marriage.
Theseus is quite the other way around. He is impatient. He violates the law of his own order, sneaking in his marriage to Hippolyta a day early. Hippolyta informs us as to the proper timing of the marriage:
Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like a silver bow
[New] bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities. [1.1.7-11]
Even granting the day she speaks as one of the four, this leaves three before the "night of ... solemnities." Lysander extracts Hermia's promise to meet "to-morrow night", this "to-morrow" being the same one during which the woodland action takes place. The marriages take place on the following day, leaving at most three days between Hippolyta's utterance and the "night of ... solemnities." However much he and his authority may ultimately be threatened by it, Theseus does not refrain from taking advantage of the woodland confusion to effect its own desires more quickly. Even after the wedding, his impatience for the marriage-bed comes to the point of experiencing hours as ages:
Come now; what masques, what dances shall we have,
To wear away this long age of three hours
Between [our] after-supper and bed-time? [5.1.32-34]
The instability of reality that was present in the woods is continued even in Athens and even by the Duke himself. It finds voice in Theseus' insecurities as ruler and in the fact that it is fairies who conclude the action, not married couples. Whatever function the more and less tidy marriages of the final act may have in foreclosing possibilities and containing subversive trends as they emerged in the woodland, it has another one that counteracts it, working to stress the continuity of unruled desire, the ever-present potential unregulated action, and the violence that accompanies every attempt at its suppression.
Why Stage-narrative is Bad
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a stage-narrative, but it is hard to imagine a narrative structure more apt for impeaching dismissal of unruled passion and dismissal of fantasy as unworthy or illegitimate. The boundaries between worlds in A Midsummer Night's Dream are like the boundaries between discourses or systems of popular understanding in Shakespeare's England; the one reflects and is the product of the other. The transgression of those discursive and behavioral limits in a clearly-delineated narrative field (the staged narrative) demonstrates the interplay between high and low, literary and everyday discourse/behavior that Louis Montrose describes in The Purpose of Playing.
Montrose criticizes previous writers for failing to recognize the intertwining of multiple discourses in the formation of contemporary attitudes toward women's subjugation in marriage, their domestic authority, and their status in biological schema, as well as other dimensions of social situation. This interplay of discourse/behavior occurs within Shakespeare's plays as well as without:
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, as in other Shakespearean comedies, the main impetus is to regulate the concupiscible passions through the social institution of marriage, thus fabricating an accommodation between law and desire, between reason and appetite; however, a subliminal or oblique counter-impetus, of varying strength, frames these acts of regulation and accommodation as tentative, partial, flawed. [Montrose, The Purpose of Playing; p. 129]
This is precisely my take. I would only add that, in reinvoking the woodland's fluidity, Puck's possession of the last word goes somewhat beyond the merely 'subliminal framing' of regulating practices.
The main axes along which these conflicting impetuses can be arranged are the official and the popular or everyday. For Montrose, both have ample expression in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The official discourse of Shakespeare's time consisted of various literary fields and is characterized by anxiety about the health of patriarchal marriage custom and attempts to reinforce its authority (Montrose, pp. 117-18). The popular, everyday discourse on marriage as a regulation of desire was "subject to wide geographic and socioeconomic variation"(117). It is the product of the everyday and often developed contrary to more literary ideals of patriarchal marriage involving total obedience of the wife to the husband. The opposition between the official and the popular discourse is typified in the fact that strong-willed, active, authoritative wives were often desired, even though the official/literary ideal insisted on obedience and meekness (Montrose).
The everyday needs of the popular house-hold pointed to a different ideal from that prescribed in written idealizations. It is this everyday, too, out of which spring desires that are not accounted for in the Athenian law, and it is the continued presence of everyday needs and desires that stresses the authenticity of Theseus' authority. The porousness between Athenian court-society and woodland chaos is caused by the presence of everyday needs across and before boundaries especially the boundaries of narrative. The subversiveness of everyday needs and desires is a continuous presence that only comes to manifest itself as porous when attempts are made to herd it into one social sphere or another. Montrose cites Natalie Zemon Davis' version of this this assertion:
the structure of the carnival form can evolve so that it can act both to reinforce
order and to suggest alternatives to the existing order. ... Comic and festive
inversion could undermine as well as reinforce ... assent through its
connections with everyday circumstances outside the privileged time of carnival
and stage-play. [Davis cited in Montrose, p. 122]
Some of the problems introduced by the narrative strategy of A Midsummer Night's Dream can be generalized and applied in the analysis and critique of contemporary social formations, the institution of the 'teenager' being the example I use here. Taken simply, the play's three-stage narrative is bad. Like some of the criticism which Montrose critiques, its three stages impose a hierarchy on a field of social impulses (or cultural formations, or memes ) that is better off untouched. I will discuss here the hierarchization of rational patriarchy over unregulated desire, but there are other aspects of culture that get ranked in the process of imposing the staged narrative. Instead of allowing two or more cultural agents to compete and attain mutually organized situations that cooperate with the popular practice of everyday life, staged narratives involve the bracketing of certain cultural formations by others. The staged narrative is a discourse about discourse, but it also elevates specific elements within the discursive field, subjecting others to their particular demands. In the play, the simplistic function of staged narrative is to install rational patriarchy into a situation of authority at the expense of unregulated desire. In the case of current conceptions of adolescence, the prevailing stage-narrative establishes the conservative and often mediocre rational functionalism typically expected from adults at the expense of the spontaneity, radical skepticism, and unregulated desire imputed to 'the teenaged mind-set'.
I do not believe that the radicalizing effects of 'the teenaged mind-set' should go unchecked. What I hope to have accomplished here is a beginning to the end of uncritical stage-narrative as a discourse that imposes hierarchy on systems of competing impulses that do better on their own. In the phraseology of classical liberalism, the impulse to construct, control and regulate and the impulse to circumvent and de(con?)struct should compete in a free market of social formations. The radical should be subject to the conservative and the conservative to the radical, but the negotiation of their demands ought to occur on its own terms and without interference from ideologically laden meta-discourses. If we want meta-discourses, stage-narratives or stage-theories are not the model.
Montrose, Louise, The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the cultural politics of
the Elizabethan theatre
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ???
Smith, Bruce R., Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: a cultural poetics
Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1991
Culled and Scrapped (don't read unless you're bored)
But the chaos of the woodland is not total. I acknowledge that the resolution of conflict between Titania and Oberon parallel's and even influences the appearance of restored order that reigns in Athens at the play's conclusion. However, the audience expects comedy (chaos and confusion), and it is Puck's perspective of disinterested pleasure in confusion that we most identify with. And it is his character and his agency that create the sense of chaos pervading the woodland scenes.
The conclusion to the comedy and the audience's anticipation of a "bottom" to its moral puts pressure on its ability to maintain 'disinterested pleasure in confusion', especially when that confusion is at the expense of people like themselves.
The problem in the play and the problem with our conception of certain orientations toward society as defined and limited by and in their adolescence is that these...
I have noted the similarities between the position of 'teenage lifestyles' in contemporary discourse and the woodland 'lifestyle' in the play's staged narration and its patriarchal discourse. These similarities actually overlap to some degree in socio-historical reality, in that the pastoral tradition to which the woodland partially belongs was a literary movement that also had roots in the social position of its chief participants.
historicization of the concept, socialization of the teenager-concept into reality -- STAGE NARRATIVES BECOME REALITY.
Unlike any other character, Puck claims the pleasure that can be had in mixing up forms and causing disorder:
OBERON: This is thy negligence. Still thou mistak'st,
Or else commit'st thy knaveries willfully.
PUCK: Believe me, king of shadows, I mistook.
Did not you tell me I should know the man By the Athenian garments he had on?
And so far blameless proves my enterprise,
That I have 'nointed an Athenian's eyes;
And so far am I glad it so did sort,
As this their jangling I esteem a sport.
He is not concerned with the goals of others, but is prepared to make sport of any situation.
The general understanding of desire's variability as an everyday, commonplace truth
is suggested by such expressions of folk wisdom as "Love looks not with the eye but
with the mind/ And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind," and "reason and love
keep little company together nowadays"(3.1.143).