A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed plays, and with good reason. It is distinctly Shakespeare, but with a plot that is more accessible to the general public and with more genuine humor in the text that hardly requires staging in order to yield laughter. The play is in many ways a “gateway drug” to the rest of his work. As I explore this play again for the third time in performance and at least sixth time literarily, I see more of just how malleable it is, and just what a single direction can mean in interpretation of this comedy.
This effect is most noticeable in Puck’s relationship with Oberon, the fairy king, and in the Lovers’ Fight in 3.2. Puck is a mischievous fairy and Oberon’s right hand. His mistake creates confusion amongst the Lovers lost in the woods, and it is he who gives Bottom a donkey’s head. Puck has a childish quality that extends to his relationship to Oberon, too. Having been reprimanded for his error involving the Lovers, he boldly confronts the King of Shadows about the directions he received. After his moment of gloating Puck reels in the error and decides to find entertainment in the situation before setting things right. What is more, he convinces Oberon to do so, too. What sets Puck apart from the other fairies in this comedy is the degree of his jester qualities. It is possible to see him as a version of Shakespeare’s fool character, or actually a fool. It is possible to view him as nothing more than a meddling minion, or as an unquestioning agent of Oberon. This current production plays a little of both, with the primary difference being that Puck exhibits more slapstick type physical humor. This humor more closely resembles the Lovers’ behavior in the woods. Such physical comedy, combined with tumbling, aerial silks, and other antics, demonstrates the difference between the fairy kingdom and Athens.
Puck may be more mischievous than the other fairies, but his joy in meddling simply because he can reveals his need for entertainment (it’s tough to be immortal) and the creativity needed for continual existence in the fairy realm. The heightened physical comedy in this interpretation of the play not only reveals this information to the audience, but also provides a cohesive connection to the Lovers. As the Lovers become more lost in the woods and more influenced by the woods, Puck revels in amplifying comedic qualities of them being out of their element and quite literally his playthings. The Lovers are driven to near hysteria in 3.2 as they struggle to make sense of anything in their drugged states. Helena and Hermia, who are not charmed directly by fairy magic, become just as caught up in the confusing predicament. Not understanding Lysander and Demetrius’ sudden mercurial switch in affection, the two women turn on each other and hilarious hijinks ensue. The world of the fairy realm dizzies the Lovers and makes them incapable of maintaining the façade of restraint and order seen in Athens. When the Lovers are woken by Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus, and Philostrate traces of confusion remain. They remark to each other that memories of their time in the woods seem as if through parted eye. They cannot remove themselves from the fairy realm’s influence but must be expelled from it to experience any restoration of order. Puck and Oberon choose to remove the Lovers from their absurdity once they’ve had their fun because they recognize the Lovers do not belong in their world. The four young people can be part of their game, but cannot stay.
It is as the play moves back to Athens that full societal order reasserts itself. Theseus and Hippolyta rule the court, Egeus must accept Theseus’ decision to allow Hermia to marry Lysander and Helena Demetrius, and the household runs efficiently under Philostrate’s care. The play the Mechanicals perform for all wedded couples momentarily re-introduces some nonsensical comedy, but is not a direct result of fairy tampering and influence. Bottom is by now restored to his human self and none are the wiser for what transpired when Puck gave him a donkey’s head and Titania doted on him in the forest. Despite this, the Mechanicals’ play Pyramus and Thisbe reminds audiences that the comedy associated with the fairy world is not limited to the fairy world but can exist in the liminal space provided by tradesmen. It can be found in the simplest of places and seep into everyday life. In further demonstration of this the now-reunited fairy realm gathers on Theseus’ wedding night to bless the house. Maintaining this, Puck invites the audience to think on the events of the play as a dream or vision, encouraging them to step into the Lovers’ shoes to try to make sense of the hilarity of the events of the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The entire play then becomes possibly no more than fairy play, rather than a story in itself. Every part of it is subject to change.