“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!
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.
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.”
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.
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?”
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:
This essay was read for my Deal Me In Challenge, counting for the 8♠️.