I’m going to get a lot of hate for even uttering a single negative word about the Bard himself, but I feel that acting in two very contrasting plays (Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth) at Bard on the Beach’s Young Shakespeareans summer camp, and being a returnee to see plays at Vanier Park every summer for five years running has given me at least a little room to express a few thoughts.
Of course it’s a great play. I definitely can’t deny that; even though it’s one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays at just 2165 lines (in comparison, Hamlet is 4030). On incredibly subjective polls and blogs ranking his plays, it’s always at least in the top ten. When I watched it in 2014, the light-hearted nature of the prose combined with a devilish performance from Puck and hilarious Bottom won me over immediately. But this week, during my second crack at the piece, I was surprised at the lack of depth behind all the laughs (more on that later). And even though I really love Shakespeare, I’m finding it difficult to excited about anything in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Shakespeare supposedly wrote this in the late 1590’s, when he was starting to hit his stride as a poet and playwright. According to the author Dorothea Kehler, it would have been completed after the monumental Romeo and Juliet and thought-provoking A Merchant of Venice. He found inspiration from the play from authors including Ovid and Chaucer, and its first dated performance was on New Year’s Day 1605. Today, audiences have always greatly supported it; the jokes and overall mood are a good fit for those who aren’t familiar with Shakespeare’s plays.
The popularity of the play is definitely a contributing factor to why the play is studied in high schools, particularly in grade nine. However, the awful film adaptions of Midsummer, as well as the lack of invigorating content and other comedies that are able to highlight complicated themes are all contributing factors as to why it shouldn’t be a main play studied in high school.
In 1999, Mike Hoffman directed a popular mainstream film adaption of Midsummer, featuring actors including Michelle Pfeiffer, Christian Bale and Calista Flockhart. Hoffman changed the setting of the play from Athens, where it is traditionally played, to a village in Italy. It gave him the advantage of having an incredibly beautiful landscape and atmosphere, but what he gained there is completely lost. Case in point: the trailer.
You know you’re in trouble when the trailer is bad. The American narrator that makes Shakespeare sound like a Thomas the Tank Engine movie combined with atrocious CGI effects would have turned anyone off going to the theatre to watch it 17 years ago, yet it grossed more than a dozen million dollars and is regarded as the quintessential performance of Midsummer.
But why? And why is the film so terrible?
- The CGI. Did I mention that already? The sparkles are blinding when contrasted against dark setting of the forest, and it seems so out of place.
- Awful acting jobs. Particularly Titania and Lysander. The cast already sounds out-of-place, with American and English accents being tossed around. Both these characters sounded as if they were reading lines without any knowledge of what they meant.
- Bottom. Not sure if this was the actor Kevin Kline’s choice, but the presentation of a clearly comical character as a troubled man was an utter failure. The most definitive example of this is when he gets drenched with wine and humiliated by the townspeople. The scene was already unnecessary, yet we are forced to watch him slowly walk home and sit on his bed, staring into space and contemplating his life choices as his wife (a made-up character) silently judges him. Nothing in the script suggests anything of this variety, and the attempt to present a different interpretation of Bottom is a symbol of what’s wrong with this adaption: Hoffman is messing with Shakespeare. And you cannot mess with his play, take out a sizeable portion of an already short script and fiddle with perhaps the funniest character
- Did I mention that every time I saw the CGI sparkles, I wanted to tear my eyes out of their sockets?
To even be considered to be studied in schools, a work needs to leave a profound impact on students. With Shakespeare, it’s no different. In a lineup in the coming years including Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet, arguably some of the most influential pieces of writing the literary world has ever seen, it does seem odd that this short ditty of a play is leading it off. Yes, it is hilarious and happy and everything the other plays are not, but upon further investigation, there really seems to be no hidden message that’s in the text. It is the literal definition of a comedy (a play, movie, etc., of light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending – Dictionary.com) and demonstrates Shakespeare’s innate ability to make people laugh.
But, in an education system where we are only given four cracks (i.e. weeks) at discovering a genius, it doesn’t seem right to spend one-fourth of the time looking at a play that doesn’t demonstrate anything that we can learn. And looking into Shakespeare’s comedies is just as important as his tragedies, but a quick search shows that he wrote than a dozen comedies, many of which include important themes:
- Taming of the Shrew – misogyny (I may be very biased towards this play after spending a month with it in the summer, but it’s funny, and includes a topic that is very very very relevant today
- Merchant of Venice – racism (“If you prick us, do we not bleed” is perhaps the most important line ever)
- Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well – these two are known as problem plays – they cannot be classified as comedies or tragedies, and are complicated works that could be studied in English 11 or 12
And so ends my rant. It’s not deserving to our education – nor the Bard himself – to study a play that is great in its own right, but simply is outclassed when compared to the masterpieces that follow it, and multiple other comedies that are able to keep us thinking and engaged for the entire unit.