Saturday, March 10, 2007

There was an old drama rule for Greeks that said everything in a tragedy happened within a day. This meant there were many flashbacks--people talking about how we got to this point, the point right before everything resolves painfully.

Shakespeare didn't usually do that.

"A Midsummer's Night Dream," a comedy, not a tragedy comes close to feeling like it happens in a day. An afternoon, a night, and a morning.

We're in the run-up to the king getting married to his queen. She's already a queen--she's queen of the Amazons. (That's interesting and Shakespeare basically doesn't get into it.)

The king invites people in general to make festive happenings around the wedding time. Five guys who work with their hands do so. They are called the mechanics, which at that time meant skilled people who worked with their hands--cobblers, candlemakers and like that.

These guys are not sophisticated. Presumably they have some skill at their jobs, but their approach to putting on play, a tragic play about love, is funny.

We watch them rehearse and have adventures as the midsummer's night goes on. In the end, on the wedding day, they actually put the play on. There lack of sophistication shines. I mean, it's a play within a play in a comedy. Having a tragic love story put on competently would not be good.

As they start to bumble through the play earnestly, some of the more sophisticated watchers start to make fun of them.

The king stops them. He says the very best of this kind of thing is rather silly and the worst is never far from the best if people are really giving it their best shot, as the mechanics clearly are.

The same situation happens in another play of Shakespeare's he wrote earlier. In that one the king has decided to do without women and frivolity and go to the woods with his guy courtiers to study and talk about ideas.

However, a princess and her women attendants show up.

The king who has sworn off women and the father of the princess have a dispute about money. The princess father, another king, is ill, so the princess has showed up to resolve the money issue.

So the princess and female staff and king and male staff are in the woods together.

They float in a very wordy way. It would seem that Shakespeare is making deep felt fun of people who went to university, unlike him, and play narrow word games that only they know the rules of and that have nothing to do with anything but showing off.

Shakespeare shows off with words quite a bit, but he's always doing many other things.

Also in the wood are people who arwho live around there. Some are simple and know it, and some are simple and don't know, not sophisticates. They put on a play. They aren't good at it. There is no one to put in a word for kindness. The audience tears intothe ruralamateurs with verbal brilliance for not being at the urban professional level.

It's a nasty vibe that has little to do with the topic at hand. It is how people get with they are given the opportunity to verbally shoot fish in a barrel and they revel in it.

The play isn't finished. A messenger come from off stage to say the father of the Princess is dead.

Death makes verbal nastiness look as nasty as it is and small.

Everyone shuts up.

So in one case with the not so good players, Shakespeare says, nothing is that great and sincerity counts. In another case he lets the nastiness go on and says we are all in the presence of death. Is this really how we want to spend our time?

A man who was very good with words thinking about the ethics of using that ability against people who were less good. A man who was good a writing about human behavior saying the difference between the best and worst isn't a great as you would like to take comfort in thinking.

The moment in "Love's Labors Lost" where the messenger says, "Madam, your father is dead." is like a gunshot of reality across these shallow smart people games they've been playing the whole time and playing nastily when the play within the play is put in.

Shakespeare's comedy's often have the romance that is to be taken seriously and the silly romance of the unsophisticated. In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," there are two men and two women who all know each other and are having a tough time achieving mutual affection and matched couples. They wander in the woods, are affected by magic, and it's works out pleasantly in the end. They are upper middle class, at the lowest, and we are to take their pain seriously even as we laugh at it.

Then there's Bottom, the mechanic working on the play who thinks he's really smart and isn't. At least one other mechanic is clearly smarter, but they accept his aggressive determine to lead, so other people's smarts don't matter much.

He gets involved in a fight between the fairy king and fairy queen who live in the woods.

He is transformed into a human with an ass's head. The queen of the fairies falls in love with him, enchanted by her ticked off husband.

He looks silly, but he has a great time for a while. A fairy queen can really entertain.

Then morning comes and he's still an ass, but without the asses head, but it was not really a bad experience.

We are never asked to take Bottom's love affair seriously.

Shakespeare says there really isn't that much difference between a play but on well or badly. Same, he implies, with love. The difference between the best and the worst love between humans is not that great so don't look down on anybody.