Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

SHAKESPEARE: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Good Writing and Bad)

Lord, what fools these mortals be! That’s the conclusion of Shakespeare’s fairyland play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. More specifically we see how love can sometimes make people act foolishly. In Antony and Cleopatra we get the same message, but in that case the result was tragic. Antony and Cleopatra could not hold on to both love and power. They chose love and lost everything. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on the other hand, is a light-hearted comedy. Things end well and everyone goes home happy. Characters fall in love, then out of love, then back in love again. There are love potions and playful spirits that inhabit the forests and fields. There’s a play-within-a-play that’s so awful it’s almost good, in a backhanded sort of way. Such is the genius of Shakespeare. He’s so adept with the use of words that he makes it look easy. It isn’t. To prove it, he throws in a bad play-within-a-play so the audience can see the difference.

Here’s a sample of great dramatic writing: More strange than true: I never may believe These antique fables, nor these fairy toys. Shakespeare doesn’t believe fairies really exist except in our minds; and he knows that we don’t believe it either. Nevertheless, he creates these “fairy toys” to show us what they would be like if they really did exist. He goes on to explain that Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, such shaping fantasies, that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends. Shakespeare is an amateur psychologist as well as a poet. He knows that people are moved by things other than mere logic. Our reason can convince us of cold facts, but we’re moved by the warmth of our imaginations. It’s for that reason that The lunatic, the lover and the poet Are of imagination all the same. One sees more devils than vast hell can hold, That is, the madman: The lunatic sees devils. What about the lover? The lover, all as frantic, sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt. Marc Antony, for example, found more desire in an Egyptian queen than in his own Roman wife. What about the poet? The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; and as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet's pen turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. This is brilliant writing. Shakespeare is that poet. He takes “airy nothing” and gives back to us a whole world of kings and queens and lovers and fairy-spirits. And he makes it all believable.

Do you think that’s easy to do? Then sample this little prologue from the bad play-within-a-play; the tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe:
If we offend, it is with our good will. That you should think, we come not to offend, But with good will. To show our simple skill, That is the true beginning of our end. Consider then we come but in despite. We do not come as minding to contest you, Our true intent is. All for your delight We are not here. That you should here repent you, The actors are at hand and by their show you shall know all that you are like to know.
What is that supposed to mean? This is bad writing. And that’s just the prologue. It goes downhill from there. These guys are so bad that in modern America they would develop a cult following. At the end of the play what have we learned? Maybe not a whole lot, except seeing the difference between good and bad writing. It’s just a pleasant way to spend an afternoon or a midsummer night’s evening at the theater. Then we can go home and relax. Some plays are like that. Even Shakespeare likes to have a little fun sometimes.


Post a Comment

<< Home