Act Five, Scene One (the only scene of the last act) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins in Duke Theseus’ palace; Theseus and his new bride Hippolyta arrive with Philostrate. Hippolyta notes that “‘Tis strange, my Theseus, (w)hat the lovers speak of” (V.i.1). Theseus is dismissive: “More strange than true. I never may believe // These antique fables nor these fairy toys” (V.i.2-3). Theseus, the warrior king, has no time for tales of fairies.
ironic that Oberon claims that Titania once had “love to Theseus” (II.i.76), no?
“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,” Theseus proclaims, “Are of imagination all compact” (V.i.7-8), are without reason. As a man of action, not of imagination, it’s easy for him to have this opinion. Hippolyta, however, questions this argument:
But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.
Before the newlyweds can go any further into this philosophical discourse on imagination, enter the newly married lovers, and Theseus calls for entertainment. Philostrate reads over some of the possible choices, but none seem right for the occasion: a song sung by a eunuch, the tale of Orpheus being killed by the Bacchanals, the Muses mourning the death of Learning. On the other hand, there is “A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus // And his love Thisby; very tragical mirth” (V.i.56-57). The oxymorons (tedious/brief, tragical/mirth) grab the Duke’s attention, and he begs Philostrate to tell him more about the play.
Philostrate outlines the reasons behind the oxymorons (the scene only has ten speeches, but feels too long; it’s supposed to be sad, but “more merry tears // The passion of loud laughter never shed” [V.i.69-70]). Theseus is dying to hear it, but Philostrate tries to steer him away form the choice, citing its poor quality. Theseus will not be denied, saying that if it is bad, the nobles’ job will be to act as if it is well done. This classy philosophy will be sorely tested, however.
Quince enters to deliver the prologue, and we can see immediately what Philostrate was warning the Duke from:
If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think, we come not to offend,
But with good will. To show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning of our end.
Wow, that’s awful… but pretty damn funny. And the play begins, punctuated at times with commentary from the newlyweds–though interestingly enough, mostly by the males, and none whatsoever from either Helena or Hermia. None of criticism reaches the level of cruelty of the audience participation from Love’s Labor’s Lost, but there is some mocking nevertheless.
I think we’ll comment in greater depth upon the play and the responses later in the month…
The Prologue (Quince) outlines the action to follow. The Wall (Snout) comes into to introduce himself and to hold up his fingers as the chink through which the lovers will speak. Pyramus (Bottom) arrives to declaim his love from one side of the wall; Thisby (Flute) then arrives to do the same from the other. The lovers decide to meet at “Ninny’s tomb” (V.i.201), a mangling of “Ninus’ tomb.” The lovers and wall exit, and on come Lion (Snug) and Moonshine (Starveling) to deliver their expository lines, with the latter interrupted so often that he finally jumps off-script (and out of doggerel and into prose) to proclaim,
All that I have to say, is, to tell you that the lanthorn is the moon; I, the man in the moon; this thorn-bush, my thorn-bush; and this dog, my dog.
Thisby enters, Lion roars, Thisby runs off, Lion mouths Thisby’s scarf then exits. Pyramus enters, finds Thisby’s bloody scarf, thinks the worst, and kills himself (after much dying discussion).
I’ve always thought this was a comic predecessor to Hamlet’s tragical final words…
Thisby returns, finds her lover dead, and kills herself. End of play.
The play is a mess, poorly written, clumsily delivered, and certainly not befitting a Duke. If played right, it really should be, in Hippolyta’s words, “the silliest stuff that ever I heard” (V.i.209).
There is the offer of a epilogue (Bottom’s Dream, perhaps?), that is respectfully declined; the Duke has better ideas:
Sweet friends, to bed.
A fortnight hold we this solemnity,
In nightly revels and new jollity.
And the mortals all leave the stage.
The fairies return for one last moment, to bless the “bridebed” (V.i.395) and ensure that “the issue there create // Ever shall be fortunate” (V.i.397-398). Off go the fairies to leave Puck to delver the final speech of the play, directly to the audience:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
and that, most certainly, is a speech that merits more attention later this month…
And, as an audience, we give Puck our hands (in applause), and the play is over.