21 JUNE 2014
The word mayhem points, however, to the darker tensions within the play which have been explored in the last seventy years'.
The summer music festival season has officially started here in the UK. The Isle of Wight over, Glastonbury, Latitude, Lodestar and many more to come…. Thousands of people have left home with their tents and wellies and high hopes of some great music, and perhaps a bit of midsummer mayhem.
Midsummer’s Day was celebrated on 24 June this year, although the longest day was 21 June. It is the day of the summer solstice when the sun reaches its greatest height at a geographic pole. Most cultures worldwide mark this day with festivals, holidays and rituals, some connected with fertility, others linked to religion or paganism. Anne Barton, the Shakespeare scholar, neatly sums up the contemporary associations Shakespeare was drawing on by setting his 1595-1596 play at the solstice:
He ‘was obviously concerned to evoke the audience’s memories of holiday license and merriment, the atmosphere of madness and of magic, herb-lore and supernatural manifestations, which Elizabethans connected with May-day and with the summer solstice’.
So much for Midsummer, but what of mayhem? The ‘weakened sense’ of this word according to the dictionary is rowdy confusion, disruption and chaos.
Whilst several of Shakespeare’s plays include confusion in the form of disguise and the disruption of the social order (As You Like it, Twelfth Night, Much Ado about Nothing, King Lear, for example) only one makes Midsummer mayhem its focus – A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For several centuries this play had a bad press. Samuel Pepys, the famous seventeenth century diarist, saw it in 1662 and condemned it as ’the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life’. Fairies, foolish lovers, ill-educated locals clearly did not impress. The word mayhem points, however, to the darker tensions within the play which have been explored in the last seventy years. Let’s briefly explore that darker view:
Just as our festival goers will be hoping to avoid the fields of mud which our crazy British climate can sometimes create, so Titania references the horrifying climate change that is the result of her feud with Oberon:
‘The spring, the summer
The childing autumn, angry winter change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world
By their increase knows not which is which.’
The wood to which the lovers flee to escape ‘the sharp Athenian law’ becomes the place of error and even madness: Titania degradingly falls in love with an ass, the four lovers quarrel and the men duel, the ‘mechanicals’ struggle with the practicalities of their tragic play about doomed love (so appropriate for a wedding celebration!).
At the end, however, ‘sweet peace’ is evoked and Oberon and Puck bless ‘the couples three’ in Athens. The wood has worked its magic and the world has been re-ordered. Will our liberated and refreshed festival goers feel the same when normal life resumes?
Vicki Wienand is a former Head of English who taught English in a variety of schools, including one in Sydney. She then became a freelance publisher and began work on the Cambridge Schools Shakespeare series in 2011, becoming Series Editor with Richard Andrews. She co-edited Cambridge School Shakespeare Julius Caesar (latest edition) for the series.
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