A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare Read Free Book Online

Book: A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare Read Free Book Online
Authors: William Shakespeare
the play’s theatrical and cinematic life, offering historical perspectives on how it has been performed. We then analyze in more detail a series of productions staged over the last half-century by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The sense of dialogue between productions that can only occur when a company is dedicated to the revival and investigation of the Shakespeare canon over a long period, together with the uniquely comprehensive archival resource of promptbooks, program notes, reviews, and interviews held on behalf of the RSC at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, allows an “RSC stage history” to become a crucible in which the chemistry of the play can be explored.
    Finally, we go to the horse’s mouth. Modern theater is dominated by the figure of the director. He, or sometimes she (like musical conducting, theater directing remains a male-dominated profession), must hold together the whole play, whereas the actor must concentrate on his or her part. The director’s viewpoint is therefore especially valuable. Shakespeare’s plasticity is wonderfully revealed when we hear directors of highly successful productions answering the same questions in very different ways.
    Interpretations and ideas about the play have altered radically over the four centuries since its first performance around 1595–96. Theories suggesting that it was written to celebrate an aristocratic wedding have fallen into disfavor. The Quarto edition of 1600 claims that it had “beene sundry times publickly acted” by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) and it may be the play referred to in a letter which records a court performance of the “play of Robin goode-fellow” on 1 January 1604. 1 There is no further evidence of performance before the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Will Kempe, the company’s chief comic actor at this period, may originally have played Bottom and Richard Burbage Oberon, possibly doubling the role with Theseus. The text suggests Titania’s fairies were small-sized and may have been played by boys, although recent research based on the pattern of appearances of fairies and mechanicals suggests that the same actors may well have doubled these parts, 2 a theory perhaps corroborated by the cast list of the 1661 droll
The Merry conceited Humours of Bottome the Weaver
, which suggests that Snout, Snug, and Starveling as Wall, Lion, and Moonshine “likewise may present three Faries.” 3
    The play’s combination of realism and fantasy was not to the taste of Restoration audiences. Samuel Pepys judged it “the most insipid ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.” 4 Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century taste preferred romanticized, sanitized versions of Shakespeare’s plays. The drama was heavily influenced by French neoclassicism’s strict adherence to the unities of time, place, and action: decorum was observed and bawdy language eliminated. Theatrical productions emphasized spectacle and there were a number of operatic adaptations which featured the play’s courtly aspects, with music and dancing. William Hazlitt, writing in 1817, argued against all performance on the grounds that theatrical representation is, by its very nature, gross and material, unlike Shakespeare’s airy conception: “The
Midsummer Night’s Dream
, when acted, is converted from a delightful fiction into a dull pantomime. All that is finest in the play is lost in the representation. The spectacle was grand; but the spirit was evaporated, the genius was fled. Poetry andthe stage do not agree well together.” 5 In fact the version that Hazlitt saw was most likely Frederick Reynolds’ 1816 adaptation, as much a musical as a play.
    From the Restoration onward, thanks to technical innovation, increasingly sophisticated theatrical machinery, and movable stage sets,

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