Monday, September 10, 2012

Comedy and Tragedy

In the theater of Ancient Greece, Comedy and Tragedy would never intermingle, yet in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” it definitely does. Act V begins with Hippolyta and Theseus discussing the “strange…fantasies” that four people all had the same weird dream (5.1.1,5).  The strangeness is that it is unlikely, if not impossible, for four people to have the same dream.  Hippolyta thinks that these are not just figments of imagination but more that the two couples have been transformed even if she does find the idea of it entrancing.  Nevertheless, they are to think of how to kill time before the party is over and they all get to go to their beds for their first marital sex. 

They decide on a paradox, a play that is “tedious brief” of “tragical mirth” (5.1.56-57).  Despite all the complications that occur in Acts I-IV—Hermia and Lysander eloping, Lysander and Demetrius both falling for Helena after receiving magical love potion on his eyes, Helena imagining they are all playing a trick on her, the Fairy Queen Titania falling for a “rude mechanical” with an ass’s head, and finally all undone so that Hermia and Lysander are back in love, Demetrius and Helena are now in love, and Oberon gets the changeling boy from Titania—now in Act V, we find Theseus deciding that “simpleness and duty” will make a play, life good.  In fact, Quince says in the Prologue that they will “show our simple skill” which includes telling the audience what will happen during the entire play.  Paradox even to the point of oxymoron is used in this Act.  For instance, when Bottom (as Pyramus) says, “I see a voice” and “I can hear my Thisbe’s face,” it is not only comic but lends to the supernatural feelings Hippolyta refers to at the beginning of the play (5.1.190-191). The “brief” description of the play seems not to be a part of it.  This is seen when Starveling enters with a lantern, thorn bush and a dog and yet has to say to the audience that he is the man in the moon which makes sense but why indicate that both the thorn bush and dog are his? The point is negligible and tedious but not brief.  Furthermore, although Hippolyta says, “I hope she will be brief,” Flute as Thisbe gives a 24-line response before she too commits suicide (5.1.305).  The play itself is a paradox as it ends with a happy rustic dance at the end of the tragedy of two lovers committing suicide. 

Although the plot seems to have been already resolved with all three couples happily marrying, Bottom, breaks the fourth wall several times in Act V, but the break is toward the audience of the Duke, Hippolyta, and the rest of the marital party, not to the actual audience.  For instance, when Theseus says the wall should “curse again,” Bottom speaks directly to the Duke giving away the next parts of the play (5.1.180-181).  This is either a sign of insecurity on Bottom’s part or fear that the Duke is losing interest, both could lead to a loss of money for Bottom.  Bottom does it again at the end of the play when Demetrius says that the Wall too could help to bury the dead couple by responding, “No, I assure you, the wall is down that parted their fathers” and asking, “Will it please you to see the epilogue or to hear a bergamask dance between two of our company?” and so the play ends with a comical dance having nothing to do with a tragedy of two lovers having committed suicide (5.1.337-339). To me, the purpose of the play was to show that, like marriage, a play needs to remain flexible. It is better to sway with the willow than hold straight like the oak.

Yet another paradox in this play ends it.  Puck tells a scary story that leads to fear of night and the recognition that Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, is actually a frightening fellow although he will help with the cleaning as he is to “sweep the dust behind the door” (5.2.20). Oberon gives blessing on the children to be conceived this night, all three couples will have a happy marriage, nature won’t cause problems, and their children will be healthy. Now, although this should be the happy ending all comedies have, Puck ends it with the tragedy that this was all just “a dream,” as if life has no supernatural fairies helping them out to ensure a happy marriage and healthy children (Epilogue.6).

Finally, although funny and at times not (although not tragic), “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is neither a comedy nor a tragedy.  Shakespeare has developed an even more complex and unique play than a mere comedy.  He leaves the audience thinking rather than just laughing.


Anonymous said...

This post is as accurate and informative as it is thought-provoking. You attentively highlighted and discussed instances of paradox within the play, some of which I noticed myself but none of which I could have explained as eloquently as you have. I particularly enjoyed reading your breakdown of Pyramus and Thisbe, where you pointed out several instances of paradox through a detailed close reading. You bring up some really good points about the play as a whole, namely the question: is it only a mere comedy? I totally agree with your perspective; I, too, believe that Shakespeare was trying to achieve much more than entertainment in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play tends to raise more questions than answers, and this is what always fascinated me about it. So often, readers dismiss Midsummer as Shakespeare’s “trippy” or “ridiculous” play, but that is only how it might appear on the surface. Obviously, when one really examines it deeply, there is so much more to be found. I believe what you concluded is correct: Shakespeare was making several profound statements in this play (on society, on time, on love, etc.) well beyond the entertainment purposes of a mere comedy, and it certainly gets an analytical audience thinking.

Cyrus Mulready said...

I really like the idea of the play's central figure of speech being the paradox in this final act. This makes sense of the mechanicals' blundering, as well as of the overarching problems of comedy and tragedy. A very nice connection of these ideas!!