Heretic’s Foundation IV: Bottom’s Dream Becomes Arden’s Nightmare

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By John Hudson
darkladyplayers@aol.com
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

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Perhaps you know the name of Patricia Parker, English professor at Stanford University? If she does not rank as the world’s top Shakespeare scholar, then she comes not far behind. Her analysis is so elegant, so insightful, so brilliant and so enormously erudite that it is one of the few things that can make me cry. She is also the leading expert on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It was therefore very strange and peculiar that last year, Cengage Learning, then publisher of the Arden Shakespeare series, decided to terminate Dr. Parker as the editor of the new Arden edition of Midsummer, on which she had been working — without an advance — for at least 13 years. It provoked such an outcry around the world that at last count, more than 840 academics and theater people had signed a petition to reinstate her as editor. Earlier this year, Methuen bought the Arden imprint; despite the outcry, Methuen has not reinstated her.

This is most strange. Most recently, it led to an article in The Australian that openly wondered if the reason for Dr. Parker’s termination was that Arden decided they wanted “a more accessible edition” of Midsummer. Gary Taylor at Florida State University put his finger on it when he noted that Parker’s work would have caused Arden headaches not because it was in any way faulty but for the opposite reason-it was too smart. As Dr. Taylor put it in the article, “the kinds of questions she has been asking are discomforting.” So long as her research remained buried within the scholarly literature, it was exposed to only a few academics who mostly talked to each other. To have it communicated to a popular audience was quite another thing, as Parker’s published articles have already made it very clear that all of our popular assumptions about the play as a trivial fairy comedy are entirely wrong. Midsummer has a meaning, all right — a revolutionary, important meaning that challenges almost everything we take for granted. Parker’s Midsummer, in other words, meant trouble.

We need to have a debate about what Parker has found. To that end I wrote my thesis, Midsummer Night’s Dream: An Experiment in Allegorical Staging, on Parker’s work, while at the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham. In 2007, I mounted the first production of the play to incorporate this research in performance. This production opened in March 2007 at the Smithsonian as part of the Washington Shakespeare Festival, and then was mounted at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex in New York, as described in New York Theaterwire and New Jersey Jewish News. I am hopeful that at some point this year, this allegorical version of the play will be restaged by Kelly Morgan, professor of drama at Fitchburg State College and the former associate director of the Riverside Shakespeare Company, who states that the research opens up “breathtaking new avenues” for performance.

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Perhaps because Parker’s critical work was too hot for other publishers to handle, it got deeply buried. Her key essay, “Murals and Morals; A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” appeared in the most obscure, out-of-the-way place you could imagine: in a collection of papers on editing, titled partly in Greek, German and English, based on a university colloquium held in Heidelberg. You would only find it if you set out to, because very few copies exist, in scattered university libraries. The review of the collection essentially ignored Parker’s essay, perhaps because it was written by a professor of Greek (who knew nothing about Shakespeare) at a university in Amsterdam, and was published in a journal that only covers the classics and archaeology! Although it didn’t reach many informed readers, Parker’s essay certainly deserves attention because it radically changes our understanding of what A Midsummer Night’s Dream is all about.

Essentially, Parker shows that the play is an allegory, a common Elizabethan literary device. Join me in a little play analysis if you would, and let’s look at the pieces slowly, in turn. First, the figures of Pyramus and Thisbe, who are in the play that the Mechanicals are performing, turn out to be a common Renaissance and medieval allegory for Jesus and the Church. Bottom/Pyramus dies for love of Thisbe, so Jesus dies for love of the Church. Second, Jesus wants to come back to unite with the Church on the Last Day when the Partition that separated heaven and earth comes down. The Wall in the play — which is the “wittiest partition” — represents precisely that heavenly Partition. Third, Peter Quince, whose names are petros quoin in Greek and Norman French, is Mr. Rocky Cornerstone, or Saint Peter. Finally, as has been known for 200 years, Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, bears the names of two devils.

So we have Jesus, the Church, a Partition, Saint Peter and the Devil. Putting it all together, the play the Mechanicals are staging is a Passion story, a comedy in which the Wall/Partition comes down on the Last Day so Pyramus/Jesus can have sex with Thisbe/The Church. However, it goes horribly wrong and both die. Then the spirits come out of the graves as in the accounts in the Gospel story.

So if Parker is right, the death of Bottom/Pyramus would be a comic Passion story, a crucifixion parody. It only takes a moment to see if it is. As I pointed out in my own research, the death scene of Pyramus is sandwiched inside a rhetorical structure called an envelope or inclusio, of the words “passion” (5.1.277 and 5.1.303). In between there is a disappearing of the light, a stabbing in the side, and the line “Now, die, die, die, die, die” (line 295), which the Arden 2 footnote says is a reference to dice-playing. The Gospel account of the Passion story, as it is known, also features the disappearance of the light, a stabbing in the side, and the casting of lots — which was always shown in mystery plays as dice-playing.

Like it or not, Parker is right. This is a comic parody of the Passion narrative, as the photograph from my Midsummer makes perfectly clear. So the question is this: What is a comic parody of the crucifixion doing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Believing Christians did not write comic crucifixion parodies in the 16th century. And if the play involves first century Biblical figures, what of Oberon — a jealous, invisible Lord, some of whose lines come from the solar Psalms? Could he be Yahweh? And was the God of the Hebrews fighting a war as Oberon is? Indeed, Oberon was fighting a war against Titus Caesar — is that who Titania represents? Is that why Titania orders the legs cut off the bees (3.1.162), similar to the way Titus Caesar ordered the limbs cut off one of the descendants of the Maccabees? Is this simply an Elizabethan pun? Is that why there are so many jokes on the song “Monsieur,” which includes a version of Psalm 137 and the destruction of Jerusalem? And so on.

Far from being a nice fairy story, this play is a very clever comic satire of the Roman-Jewish war of 66-73 C.E., written from the Jewish viewpoint. And who put that in the play? No wonder that Parker was not allowed to complete her Arden 3 edition. It would have opened up an enormous can of worms. Fancy a worm anyone?

John Hudson is a strategic consultant who specializes in new industry models and has helped create several telecoms and Internet companies. He has recently been consulting to a leading think tank on the future of the theater industry and is pioneering an innovative Shakespeare theory, as dramaturge to the Dark Lady Players. This Fall he will be Artist in Residence at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has degrees in Theater and Shakespeare, in Management, and in Social Science.