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A bit of A Midsummer Night's Dream

This post is essentially a reprise of a post from Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month a few years ago.

After all the skipping about the woods with the fairies - which is, of course, the bulk of the play - Act V finds us back in the daytime with Theseus and Hippolyta, who are about to celebrate their nuptials.

HIPPOLYTA

'Tis strange my Theseus, that these
lovers speak of.

THESEUS

More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

HIPPOLYTA

But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.

First, some swooning over Theseus's words

"The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/Are of imagination all compact". That's right - crazy people, lovers and poets are not in their right minds, but have an overabundance of imagination. Especially funny for Shakespeare, fine poet that he is, to poke fun at poets. And take note: He asserts in brief that lunatics see devils where there are none, that lovers see beauty where there is none (or little), and then he waxes poetic (I know - I kill me!) about how crazy poets are - they imagine things out of thin air and make them real through their words!

The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

I cannot help, reading this, to think of how very often I stare into space or out a window while writing poems. Or thinking about Billy Collins's poem, "Monday", which begins "The birds are in their trees,/ the toast is in the toaster,/ and the poets are at their windows . . . "

Shakespeare manages to have Theseus disparage poets for being overly imaginative at the same time that he accurately describes what poets do, all the while managing to exalt poets. Tricksy.

Second, a point about Hippolyta, who has very few lines in this play. Hippolyta, as queen of the Amazons, did battle with Theseus, who defeated her. He is now set on marrying her - in Shakespeare's play, not necessarily in a "spoils of war" way, either, and certainly not in the "kidnap and rape" way presented in myth.

On the one hand, Hippolyta is almost a nonentity within this play, although many in Shakespeare's audience might have been familiar with her story from other sources. On the other, Hippolyta's closing comment to Theseus here - you will notice that she gets the last word in - was a bit unusual. It was uncommon in Shakespeare's time (and, indeed, into the early 20th century, really) for wives (or fiancées) to openly contradict their actual or intended spouses. And yet here is Hippolyta, who has listened to Theseus's carefully crafted speech about how the lovers probably all hallucinated, telling him that he is wrong. He is wrong, she says, because they all have such a similar account of what transpired that it must be true. Were Theseus correct, she argues, they'd have varying stories.

The thing is, Theseus doesn't bridle at Hippolyta's contradiction, just says "here come the other couples". Hippolyta straightens her husband out and doesn't get called on it. And in Shakespeare's play, she doesn't get kidnapped and raped and knocked up and abandoned (all without marriage) - nope, Theseus is marrying her. She has helped to beat his sword into a ploughshare. And if you think I had a double meaning there, then bonus points to you.




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