A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an exploration of thematic opposites such as day/night, love/freedom and so on. What potential is there in this to examine the darker undertones of the comedy? Refer to imagery, language, character and plot as well as a range of productions and critics. Although there is a sinister, tragic potential it is important to remember that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a comedy. If the darker themes gain emphasis, a production could be a successful black comedy.
A good example of this is the stage design of Michael Pavelka. Reviewer, Alan Bird describes Pavelka’s work: ‘Empty white chairs are suspended around the stage creating a multi-layered universe. Titania and Oberon are seated on high thrones, veiled from view until they choose to intervene, instantly telling you that it is they who ultimately govern the proceedings’ The symbolism of this blurs what is real or not real, natural or supernatural. This consequently blurs the thematic opposites of the forest and Athens.
Alan Bird observes that Oberon and Titania ‘ultimately govern the proceedings’. Theseus and Hippolyta are the most evident figures of authority, but their influence in the forest is minimal. Oberon and Titania are the most powerful characters and often Oberon (also Puck) abuses their power for ‘their own’ amusement (more realistically for ours). The most obvious example of this is Oberon manipulating Titania through ‘magic’ to “hand over the changeling boy”. Oberon and Titania rule the forest, which has many parallels, as well as contrasts to the city.
The primary difference is control (Athens) and freedom (the forest), especially relating to the lovers. Magic in the forest could be interpreted as a very dark extended metaphor throughout the play. ‘Magic’ could be a motif used today to link to drug use, namely by the lovers and Titania. Puck could exemplify a drug pusher, as it is he who carries out Oberon’s orders. Oberon is the controller of the ‘magic’ and could represent a drug lord. The character is immoral, which is evident when he plots to “Streak [Titania’s] eyes,
And make her full of fateful fantasies” Oberon’s orders often consist of administering ‘illusions’, or ‘potions’, consistently without the knowledge of the subject. “I’ll watch Titania while she is asleep, And drop the liquor of it in her eyes”. The fact that the users are unaware of taking a substance could be seen as a parallel to the date-rape drug. It creates anarchy and spurious ‘love’. There is delusion and confusion, a factor similar to that of a hallucinogenic. An adaptation could be staged to make modern associations, of crime and deviance.
Oberon is referred to as the ‘King of shadows’. The characters in the forest could represent the mafia. In contrast to this the Athenians (such as Theseus and Egeus) represent the government. There are many parallels between the social structure of Athens and the forest. Law in Athens is very strict and is upheld rigidly by Theseus and Egeus. This makes Athens seem very inflexible2. This enhances the polar differences of the two settings In the play there is an ingrained autocratic and absolutist undertone. Theseus illustrates this in saying,
“To you your father should be as a god” Theseus is the embodiment of the law of Athens, which is evident when he addresses Hermia. She will “Either die the death or abjure forever the society of men” if she does not obey her father. Puck could be Theseus’ opposite; he is a symbol of anarchy and disorder. A contrasting pathetic character is Bottom. To Egeus, assuming control over Hermia is his paternal understanding and right. “She is mine, I may dispose of her, which shall be either to this gentleman or to her death”
This shows the insistence and brutality of Egeus. Rather seeing his daughter dead, or discontented than seeing her disobeying him for her own happiness. Egeus’ unromantic view on love is often correct and accurate. His character seems to be able to see through Lysander, whose lack of faith and honesty is evident when he states, “Not Hermia, but Helena I love” In a production by Lucy Bailey, the views of Egeus are personified in a gangster who ‘holds a gun to the head of his disobedient daughter (“as she is mine, I may dispose of her”)’.
This cruel ‘authority’ is just as evident in the fairy world. Oberon behaves with complete indulgence as a leader. He indulges in his power. This self-obsession is evident in Titania and Puck. It is a reckless society that by Athenian standards, and an Elizabethan audience is very promiscuous. Since the Elizabethan era, the perception of promiscuity has altered. To express the sexual freedom of the forest, other issues relating to a contemporary audience could be raised regarding sexual taboos3. Less literally, this staging could denote how love can be sadomasochistic.