April Fool’s Day is going to be a bit of a washout this year. I can’t imagine that any of the news outlets are going to put their heads together and come up with their usual pranks – although I really hope they do. God knows we could all do with all the laughs we can get at the moment. Our Literary Nuggets series is going to celebrate the day gently, with a well known fool, some old school comedy, some hijinks and even some shenanigans.
As you have probably guessed from the title, it is time to take a look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Specifically, why the play is – I think – Shakespeare’s greatest comedy. Everyone’s definition of a comedy is going to be different, but I feel like a good baseline is – firstly – how much it makes you laugh and, secondly, how good you feel after you’ve watched it. It can make you think too, of course, but in the end the laughs need to be front and centre. Otherwise, what is even the point?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am on the Much Ado About Nothing bandwagon when it comes to Shakesy P. It is my favourite play and it is also hilarious, just as funny as Midsummer. But in Much Ado About Nothing, things get a bit rough when Hero is shamed at her wedding, and Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claudio. In Twelfth Night, there are dicey moments when Malvolio is imprisoned. The great thing about Shakespeare is how his plays are never just one thing. His ‘tragi-comedies’ like A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are really dark and funny too, as the name suggests. But I’d argue that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s greatest comedy because it is just so silly. Bonkers. There are no real stakes here. ‘It was all a dream’ really helps us to distance ourselves.
Like all Shakespeare plays, even the really good ones, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a hard slog to read, and it isn’t funny on the page. It just isn’t. But none of his works are, and that’s okay. Shakespeare’s plays haven’t lasted as long as they have because people enjoy reading them. Every generation of actors has its own definitive Hamlet, until the next one comes along and does it differently. I think it is a bit of a shame that the comedies don’t enjoy quite the same level of prestige as the tragedies or even the histories, because I just think that in many ways they are better. They’re cleverer stories, with more opportunity for interpretation and inventiveness. And comedy is hard to perform, and harder to perform so well that people are rolling in the aisles crying tears of hilarity. I’d choose David Tennant’s Benedick over his Hamlet or his Richard II any day.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream deserves more recognition, therefore, for what it is. It’s a farce, with the partner swapping antics of Lysander, Demitrius, Helena and Hermia. The play within a play is a parody, and Shakespeare comment on amateur performers. It’s a rom com. There’s physical comedy. It’s surreal and it’s witty. There’s so many types of comedy here that the pace is breathless and you never know where you will land next.
The play does have some moments that you can see as a bit dark, or even dodgy, through a modern lens. Yes, Oberon and Titania have some marital issues. Yes, Oberon gives Puck a cheeky magic ‘drug’ to cause some mischief. I am not condoning any of these things, but I also feel like we can get too far into analysis and lose sight of the bigger picture. This is a story about faeries and romance and youthful shenanigans. A guy’s head turns into a donkey head. Puck even lets us all off at the end by saying that the whole thing has only been a dream anyway, so we know that no one has been hurt and it’s all just been riotous fun.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a fun play and when I see it played too dark, I feel like it loses a lot of the charm. The last time I watched it, Puck was cruising around on a skateboard. That’s the kind of interpretation I want to see, and the freedom to do that – and for it still to make sense – is what makes the play Shakespeare’s greatest feel-good comedy.
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