A Midsummer Night’s Dream by G.K. Chesterton

A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1897) Giovanni Boldini
~ source Wikiart

“The greatest of Shakespeare’s comedies is also, from a certain point of view, the greatest of his plays.”

Or so G.K. Chesterton says with regard to Shakespeare’s well-known comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It appears Chesterton and I differ radically.  Even with three readings and two performances, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has left me somewhat unimpressed.  I’m not sure if it’s the silliness that puts me off, but the comedic aspect of it fails in my opinion and I’ve never been able to find much meaning in it at all.  Can Chesterton change my mind and reveal to me the appeal of this play that I’ve perhaps been missing?  Let’s find out!

Spirit of the Night

Spirit of the Night (1879) John Atkinson Grimshaw
~ source Wikiart

Chesterton begins by using an example from a George Bernard Shaw lecture, where Shaw says that he believes that the title of the play, As You Like It, is actually a taunt to the audience.  Chesterton strongly disagrees with this assessment for, “he could scarcely have conceived anything more violently opposed to the whole spirit of Elizabethan comedy than the spiteful and priggish modernism of such a taunt.”  The very purpose of Elizabethan comedy is to have a connection with the audience so powerful that they feel they are almost part of the play itself.  He claims the reason for Shaw’s erroneous supposition lies in plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“The sentiment of such a play, so far as it can be summed up at all, can be summed up in one sentence. It is the mysticism of happiness.”  Because man lives on a “borderland,” he can find himself profoundly sorrowful, or meditative, or anguished or ecstatic, and likewise his soul can fly to the farthest reaches with happiness.  Why Mr. Shaw and his type do not recognize the “exhuberant nature of these comedies” is simply because their “logical and destructive modern school” has made them unable to experience it. To engage with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and such plays that blur the fairy-world and reality, one must be able to at least want to live a life of vision and not only one of basic understanding.

The Fairies Pond

The Fairies Pond (1866) Pierre-Auguste Renoir
~ source Wikiart

Shakespeare’s art is never more pronounced than in this play and “the supreme literary merit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a merit of design.”  While the play begins in a normal state of reality, soon there is distress and happiness misappropriated whereupon a bewilderment pervades the character’s reality and we find they are, in fact, in a fairyland.  “Their words, their hungers, their very figures grow more and more dim and fantastic, like dreams within dreams, in the supernatural mist of Puck.”  Yet soon the mists of this dreamland dissipate as Theseus brings a rationality to the scene, “pointing out with a reverent and sympathetic scepticism that all these fairies and spells are themselves but the emanations, the unconscious masterpieces, of man himself.”  And so the play ends with its culmination firmly on earth where it began. “Thus to round off the whole midsummer night’s dream in an eclipse of daylight is an effect of genius,” however there is one more brilliant touch that we must not miss.  It is as if elves come and the question is left floating in the air: suppose the dreams are the realities and reality the shadows …..  Chesterton claims that if the end of the play was performed correctly, every member of the audience should “feel shaken to his marrow if he had to walk home from the theatre through a country lane.”

He believes that Shakespeare has perfectly crafted the dream state; “the pursuit of the man we cannot catch, the flight from the man we cannot see; here is the perpetual returning to the same place, here is the crazy alteration in the very objects of our desire, the substitution of one face for another face, the putting of the wrong souls in the wrong bodies, the fantastic disloyalties of the night.”  There is one other subtlety that is critical: Shakespeare has perfectly captured “utter discordance of incident combined with a curious unity of mood” of a dream.

“Shakespeare contrives to make the whole matter mysteriously hilarious while it is palpably tragic, and mysteriously charitable, while it is in itself cynical. He contrives somehow to rob tragedy and treachery of their full sharpness, just as a toothache or a deadly danger from a tiger, or a precipice, is robbed of its sharpness in a pleasant dream. The creation of a brooding sentiment like this, a sentiment not merely independent of but actually opposed to the events, is a much greater triumph of art than the creation of the character of Othello.”

 

Athens Landscape

Athens Landscape (1936) Yiannis Moralis
~ source Wikiart

To Chesterton, Bottom is the true hero of the play for his simplicity and “like the true saint or the true hero he only differs from humanity in being as it were more human than humanity.”  The others in the play follow his lead unquestioningly as they possess a “primary and savage unselfishness …….. (a) rude and subconscious unselfishness which is older than self.”  And only great men like Shakespeare and Meredith (George) “alone with their insatiable tolerance can perceive all the spiritual devotion in the soul of a snob.”  (These paragraphs have completely gone over my head, hence the heavy quotations.  Of what “savage unselfishness” is he speaking?  I can only conclude that I have no “insatiable tolerance” and therefore, I am not “great”. Ha, ha!)

And on we go, where Chesterton starts to lose me more but what I think he’s saying is that even though Bottom’s words sound silly and often don’t make sense, he obviously has a great knowledge and love of poetry and literature and his rhetoric and diction are masterpieces.  It is not so much words Bottom is concerned with, but sounds.  Theseus could do no better than he, and Dickens, with his character Mr. Micawber, exemplifies the same genius as Shakespeare does with Bottom.

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Robert Fowler

Fowler, Robert; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Rotherham Heritage Services; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-midsummer-nights-dream-69570

There is one other important aspect of the play Chesterton wishes the reader to note: even though the play is set in the city of Athens, when Shakespeare describes this city, a better description of England was never given.  In spite of its setting, the play is unquestionably English.  Yet it is an England of yesteryear, “merrie England” where the people were still comfortable with the supernatural.  But for as many good things that came from Puritanism, the indictment against them is that they retained not a “generous and wholesome superstition” but the “morbid and the dangerous”: witchcraft.  “In their treatment of the great national fairy-tale of good and evil, the Puritans killed St. George but carefully preserved the Dragon”  This decision lies as a shadow over England as occultism is now irrevocably tied to “sad or evil destiny.”  Yet Shakespeare can connect us with a time in England that has disappeared. And although he loves to speak of foreign lands, he speaks of them in a very English way, unlike later patriotism which speaks always of England but in a very un-English manner.

“Casualness, incongruities, and a certain fine absence of mind are in the temper of England; the unconscious man with the ass’s head is no bad type of the people. Materialistic philosophers and mechanical politicians have certainly succeeded in some cases in giving him a greater unity. The only question is, to which animal has he been thus successfully conformed?”

 

A Midsummer Night's Dream Fuseli

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1796) Henry Fuseli
~ source Wikimedia Commons

Phew!  For someone who is has been reading very little dense material lately, I’m unsure why I chose Chesterton for my first foray back into it.  But Chesterton’s ideas, as always, are illuminating and I will certainly be thinking about them when I once again read A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

For more G.K. Chesterton reviews, please see:

Vulgarity

The Club of Queer Trades

Father Brown: The Worst Crime in the World

The Man Who Was Thursday, A Nightmare 

 

This essay was read for my Deal Me In Challenge, counting for the 8♠️.

13 thoughts on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream by G.K. Chesterton

  1. I cannot read Shakespeare’s plays. They weren’t meant to be read. They were meant to be performed.

    I’ve seen Midsummer’s Night Dream three times and I can wholeheartedly say that it entirely depends on the interpretation of the actors. I did not know this when I first saw this play. We, the audience, were rolling on the floor hysterical with laughter. On the way home I had to massage my face muscles to get them to relax.

    So I enthusiastically collared other friends to watch the play with me. The second time was a DVD performed by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Horrible. It really stunk and we couldn’t even finish it.

    The third time was better than the last time I watched it, but the actors just didn’t deliver the lines in a way that communicated humor or anything to the audience. Bleh.

    But that first time back in 1993! Oh, that I could find a film of that. Unfortunately it was live and the actors today are probably retired.

    • I think the play loses some of its depth and perhaps even meaning if one only reads it OR sees it performed. There must be a certain structure or framework or je ne sais quoi that you miss if you don’t read it and only watch. However if you ONLY read, you miss other important aspects displayed in the performance. Personally for my projecct, I’m trying to read as I watch a performance concurrently.

      What you’ve shared is fascinating …. I experienced the same thing in that I watched three performances of Othello and all of them were quite different and some definitely better than others. The interpretation can change a play drastically (as well as the talent of the actors). Even Chesterton says if the end of the play was performed correctly, every member of the audience should “feel shaken to his marrow if he had to walk home from the theatre through a country lane.” Oh to see it performed like that!

  2. This wasn’t one of my favourites but we did see a mid 1960’s style performance a few years ago which was great fun. We’re revisiting Much Ado About Nothing and really loving the banter between Benedick & Beatrice that I didn’t appreciate as much last time. I like listening to the play while reading along.

    • It wasn’t my favourite either but I’m looking forward to re-reading it with further insight. Much Ado is definitely my favourite comedy. And I love Kenneth Branaugh’s version of it. Just excellent! Enjoy!

  3. the 1600’s were an ebullient, bubbly sort of period, with new discoveries and explorations stirring the social firmament almost daily. the developing drama scene was almost as fervent, with new playwrights and plays appearing monthly if not more often… i see MSND as a kind of reaction to this, keying into the new world that was happening all over London if not the whole country. the play expressed to a degree the emotional climate of that era… The Tempest was not dissimilar, pointing to a new way of looking at the world and its staggering realm of possibility. Shakspeare was well aware of this ongoing process, i think, and tuned his work to reflect it…

    • Wow, thank you so much for this insight, Mudpuddle. I hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps if changes were happening so quickly it was as if things blurred, like in a dream. Next time I read it, I’ll have your words in mind!

  4. This is a fascinating discussion! I must admit I’m heavily on Chesterton’s side when it comes to A Midsummer Night’s Dream – I think it might be my favourite Shakespeare play of all, although some of that might be to do with the fact that I’ve been reading, studying, performing and watching it on and off since I was thirteen, and it’s the first Shakespeare play I really go into or, if I’m being honest, really understood. Perhaps that is something to do with the way Shakespeare blurs the line between the fairy-world and the “real” world, and the way he captures the bizarre experience of dreaming. I really like Chesterton’s “mysticism of happiness” comment, it strikes me as an excellent way of describing this particular play. I’d be curious to hear what you think when you return to A Midsummer Night’s Dream having read Chesterton’s comments on it! 🙂

    • Thanks so much for your input, especially as you are a near Midsummer Night’s Dream expert! And you’re in good company with Chesterton! I do have to read it again and keep in mind that dream-state as I read. I’d also pay more attention to Bottom and his lines as Chesteron sees so much sense in him. He’s like the Shakespearean fools who are often the wisest characters. In any case, I admit to looking forward to reading it again. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Hmm. Yes I’m not sure about Chesterton’s either from your comments and quotes, although he’s certainly right when he says that Shaw was wrong!

    I’m not sure I agree that Theseus re-grounds all the fantasy that had happened earlier–when he mocks madmen, lovers, and poets, he himself is a lover, or at least one would hope so, since it’s his wedding. I’ve always assumed he was being a bit ironic at his own expense in that speech–as well as Shakespeare being ironic at his own expense. In fact, I just spent twenty minutes googling to see if it was Shakespeare who played Theseus but I couldn’t find out. But it might have been–an article in the Atlantic says he favored the kingly roles. Burbage as Bottom & Will Kempe as Flute and Shakespeare himself as Theseus? I once saw a production where it was a black woman who played Hippolyta, giving an extra fillip to that line about ‘finding Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt’.

    It’s not my favorite Shakespeare, but I do like it. Maybe I have to! A Midsummer Night’s Dream was my theatrical debut–and very nearly all of my theater career–when I played Tom Snout (Wall) in a college production.

    • That’s wonderful that you have such a deep connection with this play! My daughter was one of the fairies in a school production of it when she was around 12, so it does hold a special memory for me.

      I hadn’t even thought about Shakespeare performing. I would think if he expected to be playing one of the characters, while writing it, that expectation might have affected how he structured certain aspects.

      Just from reading this essay and from everyone’s excellent comments, I do think that I’m going to not only be reading it differently next time I read it, but have more of an appreciation for it. It won’t be one of my favourites but perhaps I’ll at least like it next time.

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