If there is one Shakespeare play in my opinion that’s overdone and maybe I’ll be so bold as to say overrated, it would be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since the word “summer” is found in its title, I suppose that gives theatre companies the justification they need to perform this play ad nauseam during their summer programming. I think I’ve seen at least three versions of this play—including one opera (never again)—and that’s enough for me. If I make it to Bard on the Beach this summer, fortunately there are other options available like Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because it’s not really comedy and not really tragedy. Not so black and white. Critics don’t know what to do with a grey play.
Nevertheless, I recently listened to a lecture on a passage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite who teaches at the University of Cambridge in England. We analyzed some lines from the play where Shakespeare defines the poet’s art through the mouth of Theseus who thinks he is dismissing “these antique fables” and “fairy toys”, but in protesting so strongly against poetry, actually gives a pretty convincing defense of the art. As Dr. Guite said, “He’s sawing off the very branch he’s sitting on.” Have a look:
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 is 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 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!
The poet glances from heaven to earth and earth to heaven—both axes are included, so it’s not an either/or but a both/and. The poet observes and writes everything from the mundane to the sublime, and his power lies in connecting these two axes: the earthly to the heavenly, the ordinary to the extraordinary, the prosaic to the divine, the known to the unknown, the visible to the invisible. The poet finds a form—through “the pen”—to make what is unknown known. He gives the unknown “a local habitation and a name.” (note that Shakespeare doesn’t say what is non-existent but what is unknown, meaning that just because we don’t know or understand something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist).
Anyway, Dr. Guite made an interesting point that all art/all imagination is essentially concerned with this task: of connecting earth to heaven and heaven to earth (or whatever adjectives that can be substituted to represent these dichotomies), and art fails when it fails to connect these two axes (and yes, art can fail—think of kitschy art or a bad story you’ve read or a terrible song on the radio.)
This lecture made me rethink why I really like certain art. I don’t want to go crazy analyzing why I resonate with certain stories or paintings or whatever it may be more than others, but it’s an interesting thought to consider: Is it because this story/painting/poem/song somehow connected these two axes for me? Did it make the unknown or the inexpressible, or what I felt but didn’t know somebody else felt, or what I wanted to say but didn’t have words for, known?
Two examples for me:
The music of Matthew Perryman Jones that I’ve written about before.
“Victory Lap” by George Saunders. This was a surprising one. It’s the first short story in his book Tenth of December. The cover art is a stark contrast between black and white, but his stories inhabit that beautiful, fragile grey line between them.