(Swans - April 11, 2011) A Midsummer Night's Dream has gone through quite a few permutations. Not too long ago it was transmogrified by Woody Allen in the film A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy -- and if Woody Allen can reinterpret Shakespeare, one wonders with trepidation, can Mel Brooks be far behind?
We've had dark Dreams that emphasized the labyrinth of the forest and bright Dreams, like Peter Brook's magically-Meyerholdian version of 1970 and inevitably, throwbacks to timid Dreams where the stodginess of the 19th century was reasserted with a vengeance. But let's say, drawing on the sexual elements contained in the work, one chose to interpret it in a decidedly erotic -- even decadent -- manner. In such a rendering, the story of the play might run something like this.
Oberon, a vindictive homosexual chieftain who exerts immense authority among his circle of followers in the forest, has tried repeatedly to wrest a beautiful Indian boy from his former lover, now rival, Titania, who is himself a homosexual given to dressing up in women's clothes. Titania's refusal to give up the youth or share him with others (which has been the established sexual convention) has incensed Oberon and caused irremediable friction between both camps.
To wreak the revenge burning in his bosom, Oberon arranges through Puck (not an ethereal sprite at all, but a superannuated and embittered slave) to administer a potent aphrodisiac to Titania, which causes him to become sexually obsessed with the first creature he encounters. Because of his dotage and incompetence (as well as the imprecise nature of Oberon's instructions), Puck administers the drug to two of the four refugees who have wandered into the woods to escape the arbitrary measures being meted out by the State. This causes a series of promiscuous imbroglios, presumably uncharacteristic of the four persons involved.
Eventually, through guile, Oberon manages to appropriate the boy for himself, and Titania, now caught in the spell of the aphrodisiac, becomes enamored of Bottom, an amateur actor, one of several rehearsing a play in the forest, who has been transformed into a beast by the vindictive Puck. Having now acquired the coveted youth who is the unquestionable cause of all the play's strife, Oberon takes pity on Titania's condition, releases (him) from the spell, and the old, sharing homosexual relationship is restored. The woods, transformed into an erotic labyrinth, which seems inevitable given the proclivities of Oberon and Titania, encourages the lovers to pursue their carnal and licentious desires until Puck magically lifts their spell.
Once returned to Athens, freed from the diabolical influences of the forest and no longer forced into arbitrary bonding, the lovers settle back to enjoy the entertainment laid on for the Duke's wedding, but Puck, in a final act of vindictiveness, upsets the performance of the play, terrorizes the wedding guests, and reminds them that despite their heterosexual celebrations, nefarious, anti-social spirits such as himself are the true rulers of the world and characters such as Theseus and Hippolyta only its figureheads.
A preposterous imposition, I can hear some of my readers muttering to themselves; a travesty of a play that deals with visions of Arcadia and rustic innocence. And yet, as many scholars agree, the Dream is a play about forbidden fruits -- no pun intended -- about promiscuity, bestiality, the slaking of carnal appetites, all those irrepressible desires that society firmly represses in order to ensure an orderly perpetuation. Midsummer Night, as the Scandinavians know better than most, is a night of unmitigated revelry in which the most potent sexual and anti-social cravings are released. Shakespeare, being a bourgeois writing for a bourgeois public, had to cloak the expression of these pernicious desires within a framework of "a dream" to make them acceptable, but it's a thin disguise and the whiff of amorality fairly wafts through the musk and the foliage.
What is "love-in-idleness" if not an aphrodisiac? "Idleness" means going nowhere, unproductive, unfruitful -- sex for fun and not for procreation. Puck, a character derived from an ancient medieval devil, is the incarnation of our most demonic nature; an old embittered and nefarious flunky who delights in creating confusion and moral disarray. Like a superannuated Ariel in The Tempest, he is Oberon's recidivist -- a "lifer" who, unlike Prospero's sprite, can never have his sentence commuted. He talks about putting a girdle around the earth in forty minutes, but this is empty braggadocio; a pathetic throwback to the alacrity and fleetfootedness he once had but has long since petered away.
And of course, the amorality of Oberon and Titania is reflected in the superficial society in which smug, privileged, upper-middle-class youths play sexual musical chairs and of which Theseus and Hippolyta are, respectively, the kingpin and queenpin. When they were their former selves -- before Puck's nefarious influence was imposed -- they "played at" romance and courtship, blithely circulating from one lover's bed to the other. Demetrius allegedly "made love" to Helena before becoming besotted with Hermia, and Lysander effortlessly switches to Helena under the influence of a mesmerizing aphrodisiac but, as we know, persons under hypnosis can only perform acts basically consistent with their character. The lure of the wood and the spell of Puck's aphrodisiac merely release the lust and lechery that were always latent.
Even in the case of the Establishment figures, the scent of amorality is overpowering Before the present distribution of sexual partners, we are told that Oberon is supposed to have lusted after Hippolyta even as Titania did after Theseus.
The tumult in the world -- vividly expressed in Titania's speech "These are the forgeries of jealousy," etc. -- that results from Oberon's feud with Titania, represents the conflict of the ordered universe confounded by the Spirit of Anarchy and its concomitant is untrammeled sexuality. There is an even deeper reverberation: the opposition between heterosexual love and homosexual license. Oberon, Titania, and their followers represent the homosexual oligarchy that flourished before heterosexuality was actively repressed. The phantoms of that older order still cling to the underside of life and though active only under cover of darkness, they manage to exert their influence and project treacheries against the new social order. The carnality, the bestiality, prevails with nothing to contradict it.
Fanciful as it is, such an interpretation informed the production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Odense Theatre in Denmark in l985.
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