Life Watch: A Midspring Nights Dream

It was sometime in the early 1980s. My friend, the late Nachman Greenberg, had a daughter the age of our oldest son. She was spirited and appealing, and so I spake unto him: “Nachman, there is no reason,” I said, “that things must be with the next generation as they were with ours. You and I married for love. Why don’t we arrange a marriage this time?”

Of course, that proposal was not taken up, and the two youngsters had to move through life, arranging things on their own. Not too long ago, I recalled this scene for a young woman, the daughter of friends. She was just finishing law school, and she was, altogether, joyous and lovely, with grace and spark. I couldn’t help wondering why men were not lined up as suitors. When I sounded my theme of long ago, she agreed with me: She was quite willing, she said, to have a bit of help here, and now that I mentioned it, she remarked (with a disarming smile, of course) that her parents might have given her, in this department, far more help than they had.

What brought all of this back suddenly was one of those bleak nights in February, when my wife and I turned away from the political news and immersed ourselves in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We had the video from Jonathan Miller’s production for the BBC in the early 80s, and we had at hand the text. Once again, we were entranced by the language, as the language was evidently meant to entrance. And so, Titania, Queen of the Fairies, resists a demand from Oberon, King of the Fairies, that she give up to him, as a “henchman,” a boy she is rearing. She puts him off decisively and remarks that the mother of the child was a “vot’ress” of her order. She had gossiped at her side, and marked the “embarked traders on the flood”:

When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following—her womb then rich with my young squire—
Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
To fetch me trifles, and return again,
As from a voyage rich with merchandise.
But her companion, “being mortal, of that boy did die”:
And for her sake do I rear up her boy;
And for her sake I will not part with him.

But after the mortal couples flee into the forest and the fairies work their charms, the couples are turned against one another, then reunited, this time more firmly and surely, with everything set in its proper order. After all of this, there is a banquet arranged by Theseus, the duke of Athens, to celebrate what has become now three marriages. As entertainment for the dinner, the duke chooses an improbable play, produced by an improbable playwright and cast of characters. This is a troupe of amateurs in the best sense—people loving the art they are seeking to master—and the leading character in this troupe is the redoubtable Bottom the Weaver. The aspiring playwright is the carpenter Peter Quinze. With an unerring sense, Theseus’s bride, Hippolyta, takes at once the measure of this troupe and turns to her husband with a certain disbelief. Or rather, with a certain sympathy for players exceeding their means. “I love not to see,” she says, “wretchedness o’ercharged, And duty in his service perishing.”

To this the duke offers what must be the most charming rationale ever set down for the obligations of the cultivated to encompass, with their large natures, the efforts of the less cultivated, however bumbling, to reach something finer. There is, even in their flawed efforts, a deep respect for the things that are truly higher. And that effort, allied to that understanding, merits even the admiration of the wellborn. The duke’s aide thought the troupe could do nothing of the kind of play they were undertaking. To which the duke replies:

The kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing.
Our sport shall be to take what they mistake:
And what poor duty cannot do, noble respect
Takes it in might not merit.
Where I have come, great clerks have purposed
To greet me with premeditated welcomes;
Where I have seen them shiver and look pale,
Make periods in the midst of sentences,
Throttle their practised accent in their fears,
And in conclusion dumbly have broke off,
Not paying me welcome. Trust me, sweet,
Out of this silence yet I picked a welcome;
And in the modesty of fearful duty
I read as much from the rattling tongue
Of saucy and audacious eloquence.

What the players propose to do is enact a tragedy of Pyramus and Thisby. One player waves a lantern to suggest moonlight; another affects to be the wall through which the lovers furtively converse. Pyramus finds Thisby’s silk scarf, ripped by a lion, and he concludes that she was killed. Struck by his loss, he plunges his knife into himself. Thisby, coming upon his body, then takes up her lover’s knife and joins him in death.

The question that puzzled us, of course, was, Why all of this? After the conjuring of the fairy king, and the artistry that brought the couples together, why does the play end with the play-within-the-play, the thing of shreds and patches produced by loving bumblers? Evidently, it is a version of Romeo and Juliet, cast in a comic setting. But why? The teachers of Shakespeare will no doubt supply me, in time, with answers.

On the surface at least, this difference could be read: In comparison with the rest of the work, the play put on, with grand emoting, by Bottom the Weaver and his friends, was curiously more sober and accurate in the sense of being truer to nature. Yes, it so happens that life often dishes up miseries of this kind through random happenings, through mistakes and misfortunes. The loving couples in the play died unhappily. The three couples watching the play were bedazzled with love, but their happy marriages, for the most part, had been brought about through charms or magic. They were not produced by nature; they required contrivances, and understandings, running beyond nature.

Oberon, in ending the play, offers in effect a benediction for these couples: They “by us shall blessed be.” Their happiness was brought about by forces beyond themselves, and their continued happiness would depend on blessings ever more:

And the issue, there create
Ever shall be fortunate;
So shall all the couples three
Ever try in loving be:
And the blots of Nature’s hand
Shall not in their issue stand.

Unless we assume that Shakespeare has slipped into a pagan mode, we may as readily infer that the play with fairies was part of the charm of the theater. But the comparison of the play with the play-within-the-play had to point to the difference between nature and the things that ran beyond, or completed, nature. Nature left to itself would not produce marriages, let alone happy marriages. Marriages are produced by laws, and by a moral understanding that sees the importance of laws as a support for families, and for the strains of marriage. But love reaches beyond nature, and it has to be touched by something divine.

To speak of loving the same person, even as looks alter with time, is to speak of certain things of the soul that are not as likely to change even as we lose those trim figures of youth. As Maggie Gallagher once wrote, it is not free love, “but the vow that is daring. To dare to pledge our whole selves to a single love is the most remarkable thing most of us will ever do.” And to do that may require a surety, or a trust, that shaky humans find it hard to supply. They may need, in short, something outside themselves. They will need blessings.

The philosopher Stanley Cavell once brought his considerable wit to bear on “The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage,” the subtitle of his book, Pursuits of Happiness. In several classic films from the 1930s and 1940s, he found Shakespeare in the structure of the work and found himself appealing to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For most of these comedies began with the tensions of marriage, and for their resolution, the characters had to move to what Northrop Frye called “the green world,” a place of repose, romance, and magic. With Shakespeare, it was a move into a forest containing fairies. With the film comedies, it was a move from New York City into that pastoral place called “Connecticut.”

In The Lady Eve, Barbara Stanwyck and her father, Charles Coburn, are professional gamblers, plying their trade in the luxury suites of ocean liners. She meets Henry Fonda, the heir to a fortune in brewing, but a young man more interested in tropical snakes. Her falling in love with him disrupts the plans of her father to extract from this lad a considerable sum. And the alliance of the gambler’s daughter with the millionaire’s son is altogether improbable. But the father, like many fathers in Shakespeare, has arts of magic. He has tricks of conjuring with cards, and at a moment especially tender, Stanwyck turns to him, with his cards in hand, and says, “Tell me my fortunes.” And in this setting, as Cavell observes, “for her to ask this man for a professional reading of the cards is to ask him for his blessing.”

It is the blessing that is still to be cast distinctly by fathers, and by mothers. They have privileged knowledge; they have known their children since they have been in the womb, and they may still have magic to work in divining the paths of their happiness.

  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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