Contents
A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare's Play)
BBC TV
Reinhardt/Hall Films
New York/Papp productions

Hoffman (1999)


Study Guide for A Midsummer Night's Dream (=MND)

 

1. Some critical comments.

A. John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and his Comedies (London: Methuen, 1964), 90:

If one wished to describe the judgment which informs A Midsummer Night's Dream, one might do so very simply: the play suggests that lovers, like lunatics, poets, and actors, have their own "truth" which is established as they see the beauty of their beloved, and that they are confident in this truth for, although it seems the "silliest stuff" to an outsider, to them it is quite reasonable; it also suggests that lovers, like actors, need, and sometimes ask for, our belief, and that this belief can only be given if we have the generosity and imagination to think "no worse of them than they of themselves." The play's greatest triumph is the manner in which our wavering acceptance of the illusion of drama is used as a kind of flesh-and-blood image of the acceptance which is appropriate to the strange and private "truth" of those who enact the play of love. (From the chapter, "Love's Truth.")

B. C.L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy . . . (1959; Cleveland: Meridian, 1963):

On Egeus interrupting the happiness of Theseus' opening lines: "After the initial invocation of nuptial festivity, we are confronted by the sort of tension from which merriment is a release. Here is Age, standing in the way of Athenian youth; here are the locked conflicts of everyday. By the dwelling here on 'the sharp Athenian law,' on the fate of nuns 'in shady cloister mew'd,' we are led to feel the outgoing to the woods as an escape from the inhibitions imposed by parents and the organized community" (125-126).

Quoting Enid Welsford: "'The plot is a pattern, a figure, rather than a series of human events occasioned by character and passion, and this pattern, especially in the moonlight parts of the play, is the pattern of a dance. . . . The lovers quarrel in a dance pattern: first, there are two men to one woman and the other woman alone, then a brief space of circular movement, each one pursuing and pursued, then a return to the first figure with the position of the woman reversed, then a cross-movement, man quarrelling with man and woman with woman, and then, as a finale, a general setting to partners, including not only the lovers but fairies and royal personages as well.'" Barber modifies this slightly: "This is fine and right, except that one must add that the lovers' evolutions have a headlong and helpless quality that depends on their not being intended as a dance, by contrast with those of the fairies" (128-129).

Barber notes the breaking of "the double-cherry bond" between Hermia and Helena. Before the play has gone very far, they are each fighting for her man. "So they move from the loyalties of one stage of life to those of another." I.e., from their childhood loyalty to girl friends to the more adult loyalty of heterosexual love (130). (Note, though, that the two girls are friends again at the end of the play. Note also that in the medieval "Cherry Tree Song," cherries are associated at least casually with a question of virginity. It's quite possible that "cherry" had the same sexual meaning for Shakespeare that it does for us.")

On the "Pyramus and Thisby" playlet: "It burlesques the substance of the death scene in Romeo and Juliet in a style which combines ineptitudes from Golding's translation of Ovid with locutions from the crudest doggerel drama" (152). He finds the wall especially interesting. Note that Bottom says that "the wall is down that parted their [Pyramus' and Thisby's] fathers": "There is nothing in Ovid about a reconciliation [of the families], but there is a great deal at the end of Romeo" (152). Barber quotes M.C. Bradbook on the difficulty Shakespeare's company may have had in staging a wall for Capulet's orchard in Romeo. The difficulties of the amateur actors with a wall may allude to this.

C. Derek A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare, 3rd. revised edition (Garden City, New York: Anchor, 1969), vol. 1:

On love and reason--after Lysander has had the love- potion put on his eyes: "As Lysander awakes, the web of unreason is drawn even tighter as he succumbs to his new love for Helen and makes his appeal--not, precisely at this moment, without irony--to what he is pleased to think of as reason: // The will of man is by his reason swayed, / And reason says you are the worthier maid. (II.ii) // There could hardly be a more inauspicious moment for asserting the supremacy of 'reason' in the affairs of passion. The entire action in the woods, on the fairy and human levels alike, indicates that the will of man is moved in these matters by irrational factors, and indeed to Helena the sudden change is Lysander appears as one 'mockery' more . . ." (148).

"Bottom and Titania are about to provide the supreme example, central to the whole play, of love's incongruity; and on the verge of this revelation to the weaver's mixture of simplicity and basic common sense is appropriately stressed" in Bottom's line on love and reason (149).

On the coming of dawn, with Oberon giving Titania the antidote to the love-potion. "With the return of reason thus confirmed on the fairy level, it is time for Theseus and Hippolyta to enter in 'the vaward of the day,' as the sound of hunting horns greets the morning to awaken the human sleepers at Theseus' command. The stress is laid now upon harmony, the bringing together of 'discord' into music, the uniting of the sounds of nature to those of human sociability in 'one mutual cry.' . . . Theseus, with the ground thus prepared, 'overbears' Egeus' continued demand for punishment, and calls for reason and concord to be cemented in the social and civilizing bonds of marriage, to which religion will lend its appropriate sanction . . ." (155).

"For love, as this comedy conceives it, is seen to be at once a folly and to carry within itself, obscured indeed and even subject to absurdity, but nonetheless real, a glimpse of the divine element in human life; and at this point [4.1.207 f.] the ridiculous and the sublime meet in what is perhaps the play's deepest, most profound moment" (155). (Traversi is referring here to Bottom's garbled version of 1 Corinthians 2.9. Frankly, I think Traversi may overstate the point: Paul is referring to the power of the Holy Spirit and of human love for God. In combination, the love of God and Divine Grace can allow Christians to know much that is beyond human senses. A Midsummer Night's Dream, however, is a very secular play, and we shouldn't make more of Bottom's comments than they are worth.)

 

2. As with all romantic comedies, look very carefully at the pairing in the komos, the final revel (or, by extention, the exeunt to a revel): Oberon has Titania, Theseus has Hippolyta, Demetrius has Helena, Lysander has Hermia, and old father Egeus is off somewhere by himself. (We can also assume, that Hermia and Helena are friends again.) Note that this was the situation before the play began. Problems arose when Demetrius jilted Helena and when Oberon and Titania argued over the changeling boy. Note also that Demetrius never receives the antidote to the love-potion. If we accept the ending as Right, we must assume that Demetrius' love for Hermia was in some way sick and that he was cured by the potion. Note also that the mature love of Theseus and Hippolyta doesn't need any nighttime madness to make it acceptable at the end of the play. Still, even at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, is there anything wrong with the relationship of Helena and Demetrius? (See 2.1.199 f.)

 

3. Why is Egeus left out of the happy ending? Why does Theseus first uphold Egeus' demands (in public anyway) and later overrule him? Do we get any hint that Theseus doesn't approve of the actions of Demetrius and Egeus in the first scene? Is this simply another example of comedy's prejudice against old men and old laws? On the other hand, if you see comedy as basically anarchistic, why is there such a great emphasis upon order at the end of the play? In what sense is marriage a way to order human passions (as Traversi obviously contends)?

 

4. How do the "mechanicals" fit into the scheme of the play? How are Bottom et al. appropriate in a play about love? Why is Titania's dotage upon Bottom appropriate on a May night in the woods near Athens?

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Study Guide for British Broadcasting Corporation's

A Midsummer Night's Dream

 

Source: Shakespeare on Television: An Anthology of Essays and Reviews, ed. J. C. Bulman and H. R. Coursen (Hanover and London: UP of New England, 1988) 282.

 

CITATION AND CREDITS:

A Midsummer Night's Dream. Dir. Elijah Moshinsky. BBC, 1981 (PBS, 19 June 1982). Jonathan Miller, producer.

 

MAJOR CAST:

Bottom:          Brian Glover                     Demetrius:     Nicky Henson

Helena:          Cherith Mellor                   Hermia:          Pippa Guard

Hippolyta:      Estelle Kohler                    Lysander:       Robert Lindsay

Oberon:         Peter McEnery                   Puck:             Phil Daniels

Theseus:        Nigel Davenport                 Titania:          Helen Mirren

 

COMMENTS AND QUESTIONS:

1. If you've been assigned the Shakespeare on Television text, see the excerpted reviews on pp. 283-84. Note especially the comparisons of the BBC production with the Dieterle/Reinhardt film of 1935.

2. I hate to be so crass as to raise the question, but Nicholas Shrimpton of the Times Literary Supplement no less supplies respectable precedent (I, my friends, and colleagues said the same sorts of things, but not in TLS)--anyway, did you find this production, well, funny? Romantic comedies don't necessarily have to have laughs, but MND usually does, especially the "Pyramus and Thisbe" playlet. Whatever its other virtues, is it a problem that this production failed to sufficiently entertain?

3. The BBC A Midsummer Night's Dream indeed does go back to the 1935 film version and the 19th-c. Romantic tradition that the stage historians say reached a kind of apotheosis with the production by H. Beerbohm Tree. Shrimpton finds this "reckless fantasy," conflicting with the "austere historicism" of the production's scenes in Athens. Okay, but from another point of view all the scenes are similar in being naturalistic: that is, they leave little to the imagination. Real water, real fruit, a real horse!

Such staging is incredibly useful for our study. You have 19th-c. style naturalistic stage staging done on television for a play that not only is a fantasy but which has much to say about fantasy. So, Neat-o, hurrah!

Alternatively, one might argue that Jonathan Miller failed in his job: a main duty of producers is to talk directors out of ideas that seem really neat! at the time. The production seems to use the theories of Bottom et al. on how the audience is a little impaired when it comes to imagination--like we need everything spelled out for us and shown.

How did you respond to the production?

4. Real question: Why all the clocks in Athens? I can certainly defend Athens as a world of conscious, masculine, even puritanical time and quote the line from As You Like It on no clocks in the forest; yea I'm well aware of Shakespeare's great interest in time. But what are those clocks doing in this Athens, in this production?

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Study Guide for A Midsummer Night's Dream on Film:

Reinhardt MND and Hall MND

 

From Charles W. Eckert, ed., Focus on Shakespearean Films (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972); supplemented for 221 with Jack J. Jorgens, Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977)

  

I.  Augmemted citation form for a Works Cited, followed by selected credits:

 

A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Dir. Max Reinhardt, William Dieterle.  USA: Warner, 1935.  B/w.  35mm.  117 min.

 

Script: Charles Kenyon and Mary McCall, Jr.

Design: Anton Grot, Max Ree

Music: Felix Mendelssohn (died 1847; arranged by Erich Wolfgang Korngold)

Choreography: Bronislava Nijinska, Nini Theilade

 

MAJOR CAST:

Bottom:        James Cagney                      Demetrius:          Ross Alexander

Flute:           Joe E. Brown                        Helena:               Jean Muir

Hermia:       Olivia de Havilland                  Hippolyta:           Verree Teasdale

Lysander:     Dick Powell                           Snout:                Hugh Herbert

Oberon:        Victor Jory                           Titania:               Anita Louise

Puck:            Mickey Rooney                      <Ninny's Tomb: Arthur Treacher>

Theseus:       Ian Hunter                            [Indian Boy: Kenneth Anger]

 

A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Dir. Peter Hall.  UK: Royal Shakespeare Company, Alan Clore, Filmways, 1969.  Eastman Color.  35mm.  124 min.

Producer: Michael Birkett

Photography: Peter Suschitzky

Design: John Bury, Ann Curtis

 

MAJOR CAST:

Bottom:        Paul Rogers                        Demetrius:       Michael Jayston

Helena:        Diana Rigg                          Hermia:           Helen Mirren

Hippolyta:    Barbara Jefford                    Lysander:        David Warner

Oberon:       Ian Richardson                     Puck:               Ian Holm

Snug:          Clive Swift                           Starveling:       Donald Eccles

Theseus:     Derek Godfrey                      Titania:            Judy Dench

 

  II.  On Reinhardt/Dieterle MND

 

From Allardyce Nicoll, "Film Reality: Cinema and the Theatre" (Film and Theatre, 1936, pp. 1275-81), excerpted in Focus 43-47:

Apart from the opportunity offered by Shakespeare's theme for the presentation of the supernatural fairy world, two things were specially to be noted in this film.  The first was that certain passages which, spoken in our vast modern theatres with their sharp separation of audience and actors [by procenium arch, orchestra pit, footlights, etc.], become mere pieces of rhetoric devoid of true meaning and significance were invested in the film with an intimacy and directness they lacked on the stage.  The power of the cinema to draw us near to an action or a speaker served here an important function, and we could at will watch a group of players from afar or approach to overhear the secrets of a soliloquy.  The second feature of interest lay in the ease with which the cinema can present visual symbols to accompany language. . . .  Owing to the universal development of reading, certain faculties possessed by men of earler ages have vanished from us [particularly the ability to translate heard words into visual images]. . . . (45)

     . . . A modern audience . . . listening to verse drama, will normally require a direct stimulus to its visual imagination--a thing entirely unnecessary in former times . . . We need, now, all the appurtenances of a decorated stage to approach, even faintly, the dramatist's purpose . . . 

     The theatre, however, can only do so much.  It may visually create the setting, but it cannot create the stimulus necessary for a keener appreciation of the imagic value of Shakespeare's lines.  No method of stage representation could achieve that end.  On the screen, on the other hand, something at least in this direction may be accomplished. . . .  Critics have complained that in the film [the Reinhardt/Dieterle MND] nothing is left to the imagination, but we must remember that in the Shakespearean verse is a quality which, because of changed conditions, we may find difficulty in appreciating [without cinematic aid].  (46)

 

From Richard Watts, Jr., "Films of a Moonstruck World," The Yale Review 25.2 (Dec. 1935): 311-20, excerpted in Focus 47-52:

The motion-picture producers love to talk about Art, and the surprising thing is that they really mean what they are saying. . . .  At the same time, they can hardly forget that they are also supposed to be businessmen, concerned with one of the country's  greatest industries, which can only succeed when their pictures appeal to widespread audiences and show a neat profit.  The result of all this is that the masterminds of hollywood are driven approximately mad in the grim darting back and forth between Art and Commerce.  (47)  * * *

     The trouble is that in trying to please everyone, they end by satisfying none.  Those who would have delighted in the film had it been done with integrity will be alienated by the interpolated shoddiness, while the audience for whom such intepolations have been made will be annoyed by what they regard as highbrown affectation.  At the moment there is a grave possibility that this may be the fate of the elaborate Max Reinhardt version of A Midsummer Night's Dream.  After making every effort to see that the phoitoplay was correct in every detail, the producers weakened just long enough to put into the cast, as a popular box-office name, at least one player whose performance is not much short of fatal [apparently Dick Powell as Lysander] . . . . (48)

* * *

     There still is an excess of dialogue in the talkies [film being "essentially a visual medium"], but the tendency in the better works has been in the direction of minimizing the amount of speech.  If, therefore, Shakespeare is to be presented on the screen, will not reaction set in, with a return to the overemphasis on words, rather than pictures [as in the first days of the talkies]?  It is my own conviction that, since the cinema, for good or evil, has adopted speech, then it is to the advantage of everyone concerned that the dialogye should be first-rate. . . .  Always the screen, at its best, had had a curiously Elizabethan, if not Shakespearean, quality about it.  [E.g., farcical low comedy.] . . .  The highly colored dramatic action, the tendency to believe that heroes really should belong to the upper classes while the lower randks of society should supply the farcical relief, the disregard of limitations of space--all of these things have tended to present a certain parallel, which, if not startingly close, is at least enough to suggest that Shakespeare and the films are not altogether alien. . . .  (49)

     [Briefly notes objections to filming Shakespeare at all, including the objection that in the Reinhardt/Dieterle MND] the camera did its work too well.  The theory was that since the words of Shakespeare created a vision of fairyland that approached perfection, any endeavor to recreate that moonstruck world by mechanical artifice was an intrusion and a sacrilege.  Since Shakespeare wrote not for the library, but for the stage, and the stage, even in its simplest forms, cannot escape its visual elements, it seems to me that any such objection should go the whole way and resent the presence of actors, as well as of camera work.  [NOTE: Some people have suggested that Shakespeare should be just read and not produced, not even accurately Elizabethan stages.--RDE] . . . 

     [Notes that Shakespeare's plays have traditionally been cut for stage performances; therefore] there is no reason why the films should be denied their share of editing.

     One of the gravest difficulties to be faced in the fairly unlikely event of a Shakespearean outburst in Hollywood lies in the matter of finding actors.  That was proved with some conclusiveness in A Midsummer Night's Dream.  The cinema actor, it is to be feared, simply doesn's possess the sort of voice or voice-training that equips him for the poetic drama.  Miss Anita Louise, for example, was as exquisite a Titania visually as a poety could sensibly conceive, yet when she started to recite her lines you were aware of an unhappy feeling of being let down.  her voice was completely unfitted for the ordeal that was thrust upon her . . . .  Definitely more unfortunate was young Mickey Rooney, whose Puck, despite connotations of Tarzan, was admirably conceived pictorially.  Here was a Puck to be admired when you watched, but as soon as he opened his mouth and emitted those strange animal outcries, you were aware that much was amiss with the poetic drama. 

     . . . [The problem won't be solved by importing British actors since] few actors, no matter how expert or how experienced in other fields, have the proper training or the proper instinct for this type of acting.  (50)

* * *

     . . . The reason for this [relatively poor business for the Reinhardt/Dieterle MND] . . . may be in part that the spirit of compromise made the producers, who were so austere in most respects, weaken long enough to indulge in a bit of box-office casting that turned out to be neither good casting nor good box office.  It would be absurd, however, if any such statement made it seem that the hapless Mr. Dick Powell is the one cause for the failure of any vast national stampede to see [51] the Reinhardt spectacle.  For one thing, the picture is far too long.  Half an hour of the ballets could have come out to admirable effect.  A lot less of Puck's boyish screams would have been a great blessing.  In addition, there is, upon occasion, a touch of heavy-handedness in the Reinhardt production that seems more Teutonic than cinematic.  (51-52)

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Study Guide for A Midsummer Night's Dream on Film:

New York Shakespeare Festival

 

CITATION FORM FOR A WORKS CITED:

A Midsummer Night's Dream.  By William Shakespeare.  Dir. James Lapine.  Delacorte Theater, New York.  Summer 1982.  A New York Shakespeare Festival Production.  Produced by Joseph Papp.  Taped live as an ABC Enterprises Production.  Dir. Emile Ardolino.  Films for the Humanities. 

CREDITS:

LOCATION: "This performance taped live in the summer of 1982 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park."--New York, NY.

MAGIC: Ricky Jay            

MUSIC COMPOSED BY: Allen Shaw

PRODUCER: Joseph Papp            

STAGE DIRECTOR: James Lapine

TAPING DIRECTOR: Emile Ardolino            

CHOREOGRAPHER: Graciela Daniele

  

MAJOR CAST:

Bottom:        Jeffrey DeMunn              Demetrius:       Rick Lieberman

Egeus:          Ralph Drisckell                Flute:               Paul Bates

Helena:        Christine Baranski           Quince:            Steve Vinovich

Hippolyta:    Diane Venora                  Lysander:         Kevin Conroy

Oberon:       William Hurt                     Philostrate:       Ricky Jay

Puck:           Marcell Rosenblatt          Titania:             Michele Shay

Snout:         Andreas Katsulas            Snug:                Peter Crook

Starveling:   J. Patrick O'Brien            Theseus:           James Hurdle

 

TECHNICAL STUFF:

     The director and editor(s) of this tape were careful not to show the cameras, but that wasn't true of the earlier tape of King Lear (starring James Earl Jones); if the method of taping was the same, the tape was recorded usual TV style with three cameras.  Shots seem the usual length: 3-10 seconds.

     The stage was the large, outdoor stage of the Delacorte.  The actors were miked, so they didn't need to shout to be heard, but they did need large gestures to be seen by the back row.  Was the acting OK for film or TV?

 

SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL ("Papp") PRODUCTION VS. BBC PRODUCTION:

     1.  BBC uses real or realistic interiors for interior scenes; the set for all of the Papp MND is the set at the beginning: a forest area.  What other differences are there in sets and props?

     2.  BBC uses period costumes: 17th-century British.  Shakespeare wrote his play about three generations before the time such clothes were fashionable.  MND is set in ancient Greece, during the early Heroic Age--as refracted through Medieval stories (it's Duke Theseus, a medieval title); i.e., it's "Once upon a time."  What period are the costumes for the Papp production?

     3.  How is the Papp production an American production?

     4.  Oberon is indeed the drug expert in MND.  What drug was William Hurt's Oberon supposed to be on?  (Or did he just do a couple hundred too many Ambrosia trips back in the Age of Myths?)

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Study Guide for A Midsummer Night's Dream on Film:

Michael Hoffman (1999)

CITATION

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Michael Hoffman, dir., script. USA: 20th Century Fox. 1999. 116 min.

 

MAJOR CAST:

Theseus:         David Strathairn            Hippolyta:         Sophie Marceau

Lysander:       Dominic West                Hermia:            Anna Friel

Demetrius:     Christian Bale                Helena:           Calista Flockhart

Oberon:         Rupert Everett               Titania:             Michelle Pfeiffer

Nick Bottom:  Kevin Kline                     Puck:               Stanley Tucci

Peter Quince: Roger Rees                    Francis Flute:    Sam Rockwell

Tom Snout:    Bill Irwin                        Snug the joiner: Gregory Jbara

Starveling: Max Wright

 

COMMENTS AND QUESTIONS:

 1.       Why do you suppose the director chose to move the setting to Italy as opposed to Greece?  And how did the blatant introduction of the bicycle add to the forest scenes, when the couples wound up on foot, anyway? Is this to emphasize how the modern humans were reduced while lost in the woods to an almost wild state (remember, they all wake up without clothing as well)?

2.       Hoffman reworks Bottom from a helpless fop into an idealistic dreamer by the simple introduction of his wife.  Kline masterfully shows this depth in his reaction to wine being poured on him, as well as the silent scene when he comes home and is confronted by his wife.  How does this make the character of Bottom more interesting?  Is there an identification there that is lost by the underdevelopment of other characters (Demetrius, Titania, etc.)?

3.       Did Rupert Everett’s subdued portrayal of Oberon make the character more complicated, or did it make his scenes banal to watch?  Does it seem confusing when he lovingly kisses Titania’a cheek and then in the next breath command her to “Wake when some vile thing is near.”  Also, does the portrayal of Puck as almost harmless and meek detract from the usually escalating atmosphere of the forest scenes and turn them into something almost, well, tedious?

4.       The forest scenes are continually dotted with familiar visions: a mud bog, a mossy knoll, and stone steps are almost always in the background.  Is this to emphasize the feeling of wandering in circles and if so, does it accomplish its goal?

5.       The city scenes are marked with long shots and silent scenes to emphasize the setting in Italy.  Street vendors are shown, houses and windows are depicted and the crowds are full of people going about their daily lives.  The only forest scenes that compare are in Titania’s nest, and even they usually focus on short, tightly-focused shots that don’t give a feeling of wholeness to the place. Why wouldn’t the director show the settings in the forest as clearly?  Is this so he can focus the film more on the characters and the action than on the setting?

6.       Bottom falls out of Titania’s nestin the forest and  wakes beneath a single tree on a grassy hill, and finds a ring that he had worn as a crown the night before.  What does this signify about his experiences?  Does the lack of his wife at the end, and the brief visit of the faeries at his window seem to make the story unresolved?

7.       The final play within a play is great.  The director keeps the movie going through the most forgotten and usually underdeveloped part of the play.  I laughed out loud […].  {I'd be interested in more recent student responses to this scene, and production. —RDE}

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