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David Austin Shilts

Dr. Erin Kelly

English 441


Great Constancy from Fancy's Images: Resetting A Midsummer Night's Dream for a Modern Audience

Re-staging Shakepeares A Midsummer Nights Dream is a task with its success in whether or

not the modifications to the set have an amplifying effect upon the plays message. A play set in an

innovative way should both mean more and be more understandable to a modern audience than a

production where the woods and Athens are depicted as the woods and as Athens; otherwise, the

change is unjustified. To this end, a modern theater production of Midsummer would do well to re-set

the woods as the internet and to re-set Athens as an office of the Department of Motor Vehicles. As the

internet, the woods function as a dislocated space where ones experience is determined by ones

psychology is immediately clarified; as the DMV, Athens role as an instantiation of societys most

intractable legalistic features is intensified. Crucially, the DMV-internet relationship is also consistent

with the plays original Athens-woods relationship, wherein a mundane world of physical reality is

reflected and transfigured by a world of imagination.

This understanding is borne out of a synthesis of the ideas of Laurel Moffat and David

Schalkwyk. Each of them has published a thorough critique of A Midsummer Nights Dreams two

geographies. Their thoughts are excellent insofar as they offer would-be directors frameworks for

understanding the ways in which the woods and Athens operate on themselves and each other.

However, both of their relevant papers fall short of providing the kind of actionable understanding that

those directors could rely entirely upon. Moffats conceptions are too vague, and Schalkwyk ends up

building a whole philosophical scheme to justify his misreading of Athens.

To make their observations useful for a theater company, the work of one must be applied to the other.

Attention to the text of Midsummer and some reference to the work of Michael Mullin will then allow

the development of a well-founded, lucid, and powerful production.

Moffats paper, The Woods as Heterotopia in A Midsummer Nights Dream, argues that

properly understanding the play involves a gentle concord of the mental opposites (Moffat 182)

that Athens and the woods represent. This is a good foundation to start with, and is argued well, but

Moffat mischaracterizes the plays two geographies. Athens is the place of philosophy, law, constancy

and absolutes, and the woods are an antithesis of sorts(Moffat 182) to Athens, but to call them

opposites is to overstate and so to misunderstand how Midsummer works.

Moffat does a lot of good work in identifying the woods as an imaginative space capable of

reflect[ing] and affect[ing] reality (Moffat 185), and she is right when she says that

The woods serve as escape from Athens, yet, simultaneously, the woods and the events

occurring within them (namely the workings of the fairies and their effect on the imagination)

have much to do with Athens. The concord experienced in Athens at the end of the play is a

direct result of the fairies and their magic[] (Moffat 185)

but her description of the woods as heterotopia lacks specificity. She uses a piece of Foucalt's

definition, saying a heterotopia is a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the

other sites which can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and

inverted (Foucalt 24). She pursues this interpretation with fervor, but never seems to clarify it. What

are the woods heterotopic to, and in what ways are the woods reflective? Moffat never answers. The

result is that her overall conception of the Athens-woods relationship and so of the play is nebulous.

Moffats insight into the play can be made more useful by layering it against the work of

another critic: David Schalkwyks The Role of Imagination in A Midsummer Nights Dream. Like

Moffat, Schalkwyk identifies the woods with the imagination. Schalkwyk centralizes and clarifies this

identification, though, and his resultant understanding of the play is interesting. He argues that
identifying the woods as imagination is important because imagination is susceptibl[e] to change, and

that in changing imagination might find ways around the walls built up by reason (Schalkwyk 63).

Additionally, Schalkwyk sees these changes as capable of producing truth, but only if we stop seeing

truth in referential terms and start seeing it as a social phenomenon, not a metaphysical one

(Schalkwyk 63). To him, the play's conclusion is a discovery of truth. The play is an adventure

undertaken by rational people into a realm of imagination in order to achieve a better understanding of


In its general schema the interpretation is serviceable, but, like Moffat, Schalkwyk has

overstated his case. That his conclusion seems to require that his reader make radical metaphysical

concessions should be a clue here. A reader must accept that truth is a social phenomenon

(Schalkwyk 63) before the rest of his interpretation coheres. And even then, it is circular and self-

defeating. At one point, Schalkwyk argues that the fact that Demetrius ultimately remains under the

fairies' spell will disturb us only if we refuse to see that [Pucks] potion serves as a dramatic symbol

for the operation of imagination throughout the play, (Shalkwyk 63) which argument is itself

disturbing . In what sense is Demetrius' love for Helena true? Only in the truth by a sharing of moral

horizons sense, in that it allows the neat pairing off of all four lovers, and gives three of them what

they wanted at the play's beginning. But it is certainly not true in any sense that an unhypnotized

Demetrius would recognize, nor in any sense that the play does any work to justify. Titania is made to

love an ass-headed Bottom by the same mechanism Demetrius is made to love Helena, and it is played

for laughs: While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,/ And stick musk roses in thy sleek smooth head,/ And

kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy (Shakespeare IV.i.3-5). The humor is in how otherwise

impossible it would be for an other-worldy being, who has cavorted with Hercules, to be smitten by a

smooth-headed, large-eared creature. When taken with the earlier mistaken coupling of Helena and

Lysander, it is hard to be persuaded that the love-in-idleness is a carrier of truth. Scahlkwyks

interpretation is being made in spite of, not because of, the evidence.
Nevertheless, his work is useful. His insight that the fiction of the woods (relative to Athens)

results in the creation of a new truth is great as long as his argument is pitched down. Hippolytas

And all their minds transfigured so together/ grows to something of great constancy (Shakespeare

V.i.24-26) shows that there is a new experience going on, borne of a sharing of mutual horizons

(Schalkwyk 63). The play recognizes that the confused lovers have made Athens into something

different. This isnt reflective of any absolute truth, though; this is reflective of the nature of the

Athens-woods interaction.

Taken together, and with their limitations in mind, Moffats and Schalwyks essays provide a

framework for understanding Athens and the woods. The woods are a changeable, imaginative

reflection of whatever Athens represents. The rules of Athens are refigured in the woods, and when

those in the woods return to Athens they carry those refigurements with them.

Alone, though, this framework doesnt contain enough to stage the play. This synthesis is only

enough to determine how the geographies must interact with each other; it must be filled out with the

specific features of both geographies in order to become actionable.

First, it is important to emphasize that the woods are a dislocated space. One of their essential

features is that they do not exist in any fixed geographical relationship to Athens, or even to itself. On

entering the woods, the lovers find themselves in a desert place where wild beasts might attack

(II.i.218-228). The mechanicals find only a marevolous[ly] convenient green plot to rehearse on

(III.i.2-3). The fairies, meanwhile, inhabit a woods full of roundels and.fairy song[s], and where

reality is bent such that a multitude of menial labors can be expected to take a third part of a minute


These contrasts show that multiple parties entering from Athens can still arrive at entirely

different forests. Resetting the woods as the internet will make this immediately apparent. On a dark

stage with a dark backdrop, various online articles/videos relevant to the scene could be projected

either onto the backdrop or over the entirety of the production area during woods scenes. Relying on
projected feeds like this allows for meaning-strengthening contrasts to be made between the separate

woods. The lovers scenes might be compassed by Esquire, Buzzfeed, and Cosmo articles on the nature

of love ideally, articles with dramatic declarations which contradict each other so that the chaotic

nature of both their love lives and their woods is centered. The fairies might have articles and videos

relevant to moderators and web designers to emphasize their role as overseers. In both cases what is

projected should be video, rather than static image, showing a dynamism to the creativity involved. The

lovers scenes would feature semi-frantic browsing/re-ordering/shuffling of tabs and the fairies a more

relaxed re-ordering of them, in order to stress their relative comfort levels in this unknown realm. In

contrast to each of these, the mechanicals scenes might feature a solitary Google search page, with the

question how do i put on a play sitting in the search bar, to humorously convey the simpleness of

their woods.

Further, the woods-as-internet makes the woods complex intra-geography apparent as well

and this is something that no other re-setting could get as right. The relationship that the woods

separate instantiations have with each other is singular, as evidenced by 4.1s final moments. When

Bottom awakens from his ass-headed interaction with the forest of the fairies, he is a changed man.

Schalkwyk offers the suggestion that the mechanicals are originally failures at their art because they

misunderstand the relationship that should exist between imagination and belief in the theater

(Schalkwyk 61). Bottoms speech then signifies an awareness of his own shortcomings, of the potential

for a system wherein reality is bent enough to allow what the eye of man hath not heard, the ear of

man hath not seen (IV.1.207-208). Because he has interacted with the fairies woods and hazily taken

some of it back with himself, Bottom, the founder of the mechanicals woods, is transformed. He sees

now that there might be more depth to what he experiences than what immediate sensory perception

would argue for. If the mechanicals return to the woods to work on Bottoms Dream after the events

of Midsummer, it will be some different woods than the marvelously convenient green plot (III.i.2-

The love-in-idleness, Midsummers other source of forest-to-forest interaction, also operates by

way of altering perception. Here the change is not always for the better, but it is as a modification to the

eyes to do what they should not do. When Oberon instructs Puck to apply the antidote to Lysander, he

says to take from thence all error with his might/ And make his eyeballs roll with wonted[normal]

sight (III.ii.368-369). Oberon is indicating that the love-in-idleness makes they eyes do something

other than see as they normally would. And in IV.i.60-61, where again Oberon characterizes the effects

of the love-in-idleness, it is as a hateful imperfection of Titanias eyes.

The play uses the same metaphor in the case of both Bottom and of the love-in-idleness,

meaning that the audience is meant to see both as the same kind of process. In other words, the separate

pieces of the woods may transfigure each other in the same way they transfigure Athens.

Setting the woods as the internet makes both of these interactions and the woods dislocation

intuitive. The internet is without location, reflective of reality, capable of shaping reality through that

reflection, and made of discontinuous pieces which operate on each. As long as it is clear to the

audience that the images projected on the stage are images of the internet, this complex interaction

between layers of the woods will be clear to them as well.

On its own, the woods-as-the-internet might pair with any number of interpretations of Athens

semi-successfully, as long as Athens remains in some way a stand-in for society at large. The play still

works if Athens is a prairie home or a skyscraper or a local laundromat, because inasmuch as these

things are all representative of common life it makes sense for the internet to reflect and transform


But a production with a lazily staged Athens compromises the plays impetus in a way that an

Athens carefully made into an office of the Department of Motor Vehicles does not.

Which is where Michael Mullin comes in. In Peter Halls A Midsummer Nights Dream, Michael

Mullin identifies a part of Halls production which is helpful for this analysis. Mullin says that Halls

Athens, which is recognizably a rural English great house, is effective because it suggests an era of
rationality enduring in familiar landmarks, but distant in time, as the Athens of Duke Theseus was for

Shakespeares audience (Mullins 532). Mullin has recognized that Athens works mainly by being

imposing and unassailable. The events of 1.1 (and so the rest of the play) occur because of the

characters petitions or resignation to the government, so that much is true. But note that Egeus,

Hermias, and Lysanders petitions or resignations are addressed directly to Theseus. Egeus sets the

plot in motion by beg[ging] that that the ancient privilege of Athens be invoked (I.i.41). Hermia

asks Theseus to pardon(I.i.58) her for her transgressions against the law, and then defiantly but still

duteously declares that she chooses to die, my lord (I.i.79), upon learning that this is her only way

out of coupling with Demetrius. Lysander argues to the same my lord (I.i.99) that mutual love and

Demetrius inconstancy should trump the ancient law. The way in which Theseus then resigns to it

shows that Athens character should be understood as imposing and unassailable in a mundane way.

Consider that Theseus, as king, is the head of whatever law Athens represents, and so also the

human representative of it or at the very least, Theseus represents the furthest limit of what leeway

can be had with the law. His reaction to Lysanders suggestion that Demetrius faithlessness to Helena

should trump the law of Athens shows how negligible this limit is:

I must confess that I have heard so much

And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof,

But, being overfull of self-affairs,

My mind did lose it. But, Demetrius, come,

And come, Egeus, you shall go with me.

I have some private schooling for you both.

For you, fair Hermia, look you arm yourself

To fit your fancies to your fathers will,

Or else the law of Athens yields you up,

Which by no means may we extenuate.,

To death or a vow to single life.

Come, my Hippolyta. What cheer, my love?

Demetrius and Egeus, go along.

I must employ you in some business

Against our nuptial and confer with you

Of something nearly that concerns yourselves. (Shakespeare I.i.111-126)

Theseus acknowledges that Demetrius behavior is morally wrong by saying that he meant to speak to

him about it earlier. He acknowledges that this problem is his fault, and that administrative

complexities (overfull of self-affairs) got in the way of properly addressing the problem. Upon

reconciling his failure with the situation at hand he immediately shifts into repairing it, as evidenced by

the enjambed em-dash and the fact that the play has given us no other topic which Demetrius might

need to be school[ed] on. That Theseus also has schooling for Egeus suggests that Theseus moral

compass identifies antagonists in the same way the play as a whole does the problems he sees are the

ones the audience is expected to see. And so when he throws up his hands and seems to semi-

thoughtlessly move through the fact that the law of Athens yields [Hermia] up, the play is showing

the audience a legal system which has given up the possibility of solving problems that it knows exist.

This is the issue that motivates the play. If Athens simply had its ancient rights, that would be

one thing. But the scene that gives Midsummer impetus is not the lovers coming into contact with the

ancient rights, it is them petitioning and resigning to a man who shrugs at the thought of challenging

those rights.

Re-setting Athens as an office of the Department of Motor Vehicles makes the audience

understand this dynamic before a single word has been spoken. Within the United States, the DMV is a

symbol of bureaucratic inefficacy, sterility, and languor. Although the individual offices are not
uniformly designed, a stage set with the Departments more distinctive features should be enough to

make Athens unambiguously the DMV. There should be a screen displaying the number for the next

appointment, a floorplan split evenly between office space and space for its visitors by a desk

manned by too few DMV employees, and rows and rows of seats. The stage should appear cluttered

and claustrophobic with extraneous desks and plastic office fauna, as if it were set up in the knowledge

that it should accommodate people but without attention to what is actually comfortable. Theseus

should speak from behind the counter, as if he were an employee. The chairs should recognizably be

childrens chairs, to reflect that even waiting to speak to Theseus is to submit to a government which

does not fix obvious problems.

In combination with a woods made into the internet, Athens as the DMV ultimately makes A

Midsummer Nights Dream both more intense and more understandable to the modern audience. Even

for a first time viewer unfamiliar with the plot and unable to keep up with much of the language, a

story will unfold about a powerful and morality-agnostic institution ultimately transformed by changes

wrought by an imaginative space as Shakespeare intended.

Works Cited

Moffat, Laurel. The Woods as Heterotopia inA Midsummer Nights Dream. Studia Neophilologica,

vol. 76, 2004, pp. 182-186.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Nights Dream. The Norton Shakespeare 3rd ed, edited by Stephen

Greenblatt et al, W.W. Norton and Company, 2016, pp. 1048-1095.

Foucalt, Michel. Of Other Spaces.Diacritics, vol. 16, 1986, pp.24.

Schalkwyk, David. The Role of Imagination in A Midsummer Nights Dream.Theoria: A Journal of

Social and Political Theory, vol. 66, May 1986, pp. 51-65.

Mullin, Michael. Peter Halls A Midsummer Nights Dream.Educational Theatre Journal, vol. 27, no.

4, Dec. 1975, pp. 529-534