Shakespeare and the Summertime of Imagination

Flowering trees drop blossoms on the pavement. Rows of tulips cup the midday sun. Even the moon, more starkly visible in winter, seems more richly rounded and hauntingly mysterious.

Though the calendar may say it’s springtime — summer in all her extravagance had arrived.

When summer rolls around, I often think of live performances of Shakespeare. For as soon as the flowers spring to life, so do the many festivals and outdoor summer stocks and community playhouses — ranging from intimate seaside stages to the star-studded New York Shakespeare in the Park.

Nothing beats a performance of Shakespeare after a hot summer’s day, maybe stopping on the way for a relaxing dinner and a glass of wine; then later, slowly walking to the performance hall, taking a playbill from a friendly student usher, counting the rows to find your seat, and then waiting for first notes of magical language to ring out from the stage.

I have spent some memorable summer nights like this, and even one summer day enjoying a riverside picnic before a matinée in Stratford, Ontario. Doesn’t look like we will get there this year, though it would be great to check out Colm Feore’s King Lear. But that’s okay — there will be another festival next year, and the year after that. Maybe as long as there is summer, there will be another Shakespeare festival.

But I think it’s not just the timing of the performances that bring Shakespeare to mind. It’s also the luxuriance of the plays themselves.

Everyone has a favorite — and some have many favorites — but for my money you can’t beat the warm mirth and magic of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, especially in June, as an invitation to the abundance of the season.

The “Dream” begins with two lovers talking about their upcoming wedding in (of course) Shakespeare’s exquisite, delightful, peerless language.

It opens with this exchange:

Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in
Another moon; but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires,
Like to a stepdame or a dowager,
Long withering out a young man's revenue.

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night,
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.

She lingers my desires... How sweet and wistful Theseus is! And Hippolyta answers with tender reassurance, comparing the moon to a bow “new bent in heaven” that will be a witness to their wedding. What sublime loveliness — and all in the first exchange.

These two, and their eventual wedding, form one part of the story. Add to that four star-crossed young lovers who spend a lot of time running around a nighttime forest, getting lost and becoming enamored of each other in inconvenient ways.

This is all silly and fun, but, as always, Shakespeare over-delivers — adding two more layers to this fanciful wedding cake.

Turns out the forest is enchanted, ruled by a fairy king and queen and their attendant staffs. Oberon and Titania are lovers, who, to the peril of all, are warring and enraged. Spells are cast, and the silly human lovers become entangled in the fairy escapades. This adds magical and bewitching flourishes to the human folly and shenanigans.

Also in the forest are a group of salt-of-the-earth laborers who have their sights set on performing at the upcoming wedding, and who are earnestly practicing their hopelessly preposterous play. These laborers a.k.a. acting hopefuls also cross paths with the busy, interfering fairies.

With no June-time performances in store for me, I first thought about re-reading the play. The advantage there is you can take your time with all the staggeringly beautiful phrases as you encounter them.

But instead I found this Youtube audio recording of a BBC 3 production.

The great thing about listening to the play, especially an expert performance like this one, is that you can hear how funny it really is. Shakespeare liked his actors to relish their comedic roles, and here they have plenty of opportunities to ham it up.

But it’s not simply funny — it’s a rare and precise brand of innocent, benevolent humor. In the “Dream” you don’t laugh so much as giggle, almost like a delighted child being tickled.

But there is always an intimidating power in Shakespeare, even when he is at his most silly and playful. He’s like a frightening wizard who may perform a few throwaway tricks to engage an audience but, in the blink of an eye, can summon all the elements in an act of awe.

The end of this play is a strange case in point. Of course everyone finds their way out of the forest, all the lovers — both human and fairy — are reconciled, there is a sumptuous multiple-wedding banquet, and, really, the whole thing could end there. But instead, in a final act, the laborers are called upon to perform their so-bad-it’s-funny, play-within-the-play.

What follows are some of the most hilarious moments in the “Dream”. So, even though it’s kind of over, like tipsy and satisfied wedding guests we are happy to stick around. But then, just as we are laughing at the absurd players and their really awful schtick, something happens. The tone abruptly shifts and, at least in this BBC rendition, we find ourselves moved by the players’ heartfelt speeches on tragedy and death, and their enactment of a double suicide!

Well! Nobody at the wedding seems to know quite what to make of this, and there are a few awkward and mildly disparaging remarks, and then, the wedding is over and off to bed they all go. Then Shakespeare sends in his fairies to bless the house, and even throws in a apology in case he has offended anybody, reminding the audience that, if they didn’t approve of what they just saw, they could think of the whole thing as just a “Dream”!

Scholars now think that the play could have been first performed at an aristocratic wedding, possibly with Queen Elizabeth as the guest of honor. I found myself wondering if Shakespeare was perhaps a little annoyed by the commission and snuck in a strange suicidal note at the end as a reminder of the scope of his power, or maybe as a tiny gesture of revenge.

But there you have it. There are always new ways to be intrigued, enchanted and mystified by The Bard.

I think the only thing better than seeing a play performed live in the summer might be seeing it unexpectedly — like when scenes from Shakespeare were staged on NY subway cars a few years ago.

The Bard Underground, they called it.

Now there’s a slow train you wouldn’t mind taking.