A “dramaturg” is someone whose expertise is in the literary composition and thematic elements of a play. This person works closely with the director to help in understanding the context and the major themes of the play, ensuring that the director’s vision doesn’t lose any of the author’s intention. Here is some dramaturgical insight from Humanities teacher, Ginny Owens, who teaches A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of our 8th grade curriculum:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an easy play to enjoy: between the young lovers striving for satisfactory marriages, the fairies who intervene (benevolently intended, though comically enacted), the hilarious play-within-a-play, and the play’s smart and self-conscious pivot between fantasy and reality, it offers just about everything we look for in a good comedy. Its title derives from a common legend that a young woman could dream, on midsummer’s night, of the man she would marry.
While the collision between the human world and the fairy world offers whimsy unique in the Shakespearean canon, its treatment of love – its struggles, its power, its danger, its elusiveness, its changeability – is a tale told time and time again. Because really, at its core, this play examines love, specifically why we love.
Shakespeare alerts us to this focus in the opening scene, where characters talk of marriage, love, and the moon, known for its nightly transformations, its inconstant phases, and its mythical ability to inspire lunacy. And so this play, funny and innocent at first glance, is after something deeper: it explores the fickleness of the human heart, how easily our hearts are led by what we see, how easily our love is directed by physical attraction.
Human love is, after all, vulnerable. We think that because it’s love, it’s supposed to be firm, and of course no one enters into love expecting his or her heart to change. And yet Shakespeare pulls back the veil and lets us see how prone to change our affections truly can be. The play’s fascination with the line between fantasy and reality (maximized by the uproariously obtuse Mechanicals) comes to a point in Theseus’ insightful line, “The madman, the poet, and the lover are of imagination all compact,” because they all see what isn’t there, but act as if what they see is real. Love sometimes makes no sense, but is it supposed to? Without this capacity, how would married love weather the decades following the glow of youthful beauty?
And so the play’s fascination with dream constantly forces us to ask what is real. How do we know? Can we trust our senses? Is love anchored in the eyes or, as Helena suggests, in the mind? The play’s interest in the moon’s changeability seems to suggest that love that alters each night can’t possibly be real – even if what is perceived through the eyes and thought to be beautifully attractive inspires seemingly eternal love.
Of course, this kind of intermittently committed affection might recall to us the fair-weather relationships that can so often characterize high school relationships – hence the setting of our play, Athens Academy, a space that brilliantly illuminates the tenuousness of the romantic affection and loyalty we see in Shakespeare’s characters. High schoolers that are avidly messaging each other and “into each other” in September, when the year is fresh and spirits are high, might have cooled by December, and suddenly what was once attractive is commonplace or even undesired.
Oberon’s vindictive prank on Titania unwittingly reveals the potential shallowness of young love: how easily young people can assign their love based on appearance and then abandon previously supposedly stalwart affection and relocate that affection onto a new recipient, how easily their loyalty can shift, and with it their “undying affection,” based on what – or whom – they see. And Shakespeare does not allow us to blame just the magical intervention for this altered affection: we must remember that prior to the action’s start, Demetrius and Helena had been a couple; he had pursued her just as ardently as he is now pursuing Hermia.
But lest we think that Shakespeare is indicting only adolescent love, we must realize that the only character who seems to see most clearly through the love-sight-transformation is Bottom, the most ridiculously myopic, fatuous character on the stage. Perhaps the truth is plain, but adults just aren’t often very good at recognizing it. Because this is what Shakespeare is good at: taking plain truth about the human condition and packaging it so that it can’t be ignored. That’s why we still read him and bring his plays to life on countless stages across the globe (ha ha) 400 years later.
Shakespeare’s work is relatably powerful because it pinpoints irreducible elements of humanity that characterize life, no matter the century or country in which one lives. People are the same, really, whether they lived in the 1590s or the 1900s or the 2000s. (And this play was funny and relatable in 1595 even without social media, Tinder, The Bachelor – how much more now?). We like to think that we outgrow the shallowness of stereotypical teenage love, but Shakespeare seems to suggest otherwise.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the adults are as willing as the young people to accept the rapidly transformed love that concludes the action. The question is, are we?
(Purchase tickets now for one of four performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 7 p.m., March 28-30, and also on that Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m.)