The Early Modern Drama lecture this afternoon focused on the first scene of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and in particular the clues that the language gives us about the relationships between the characters.
I've always thought that the most intriguing aspect of this opening is the role Hippolyta plays. She is the first character mentioned as Theseus lets us know how impatient he is to wed (and bed) her and how slowly the time is passing.
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hourHippolyta's response is conciliatory, but there's an immediate choice for the actor here. Is Hippolyta soothing her impatient fiance, as is traditionally played? Or is there a cord of sadness that her independence and royal authority about to disappear as she takes a consort's role. She is after all, with or without Theseus, the Queen of the Amazons.
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 step-dame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man revenue.
Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;This is the first and last thing she says in the scene.
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.
The text then introduces another character: Philostrate. Has he been there all along? Or interrupted this private moment between Theseus and Hippolyta? The director must decide, but either way Theseus at once acknowledges his presence and sends him away.
Why does Theseus need to tell her (and the audience) this? Is the recognition a form of mild apology? Aware of her hurt is he trying to gently placate her? The Queen is a long way from her native land. Has she come willingly? Or it it just a triumphant boast? Has she fallen for a man who - to put it bluntly - is very good in bed?
The next two lines offer a change of approach. The 'but' used here always makes me think that Theseus is indeed a little ashamed of his behaviour up to this point. He is keen the wedding should be celebrated by both parties. It's an attempt to make up for the misdemeanour.
Happy be Theseus, our renowned duke.
Theseus seems thrown and has to quickly adjust from a the intimate privacy of his previous conversation to the formal tone of a head of state. It's clear from Egeus' arrival that he has urgent business. Theseus invites it on.
Full of vexation come I, with complaintHe ends his speech by summoning an old patriarchal law giving him the power to decide his daughter's future
Against my child, my daughter Hermia.
Stand forth, Demetrius. My noble lord,
This man hath my consent to marry her.
Stand forth, Lysander: and my gracious duke,
This man hath bewitch'd the bosom of my child;
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.
Theseus response is interesting. He neither agrees nor challenges Egeus, but rather asks Hermia for her opinion, albeit reiterating the importance of her father's decision. Has Hippolyta's continued presence in the scene any baring on his gentle approach?
What say you, Hermia? be advised fair maid:Hermia contests a little and, although nervous that she is speaking out of turn, finds the courage to ask for clarification of the sentence should she refuse to marry Demetrius.
To you your father should be as a god;
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.
Demetrius is a worthy gentleman.
I do entreat your grace to pardon me.
I know not by what power I am made bold,
Nor how it may concern my modesty,
In such a presence here to plead my thoughts;
But I beseech your grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.
Again Theseus' answer changes the dynamic of the scene. He introduces the notion of celibacy and suggests it as an alternative to the death penalty. But in the same breath, perhaps talking as much to Hippolyta as to Hermia, he describes this life as 'cold,''fruitless,''barren,''mew'd' and 'withering.'
Either to die the death or to abjureA mini argument breaks out between the two young men, during which Lysander reveals that Demetrius has broken off a previous relationship with Helena and left her heart broken. The implication is that he will in time treat Hermia in the same way. Like the Leopard he can not change his spots.
For ever the society of men.
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires;
Know of your youth, examine well your blood,
Whether, if you yield not to your father's choice,
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be in shady cloister mew'd,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.
Thrice-blessed they that master so their blood,
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage;
But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd,
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives and dies in single blessedness.
Demetrius, I'll avouch it to his head,
Made love to Nedar's daughter, Helena,
And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes,
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,
Upon this spotted and inconstant man.
The question is how does Hippolyta hear this? Whether she has been brought to Athens by force or whether she is willingly marrying a man she loves, it's almost impossible to construct a reason for her to support Demetrius' claim on Hermia. She is the only character in the scene who is not Athenian. There is little reason for her to support the 'ancient privilege.' Theseus knows that Demetrius has behaved dishonourably and makes an excuse that his own wedding preparations have stopped him intervening. Do we take him at his word here? Perhaps the public nature of Lysander's claim is now forcing him to act? Would he have preferred to turn a blind eye?
I must confess that I have heard so much,There is a final twist. Theseus for all his bluster and confusion does engineer a way for Hermia and Lysander to be alone together. How smart is he being here? Is he giving room for them to plot and ultimately subvert Egeus' wishes and his own state decreed judgement?
And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof;
But, being over-full of self-affairs,
My mind did lose it.
But, Demetrius, come;He leaves making a public statement, however.
And come, Egeus; you shall go with me,
I have some private schooling for you both.
For you, fair Hermia, look you arm yourself
To fit your fancies to your father's will;
Or else the law of Athens yields you up
Which by no means we may extenuate
To death, or to a vow of single life.
And then comes the line that gives a key to the whole exchange. It lets us know that Hippolyta has observed all that has gone on and that her emotional response to it is, at best, ambiguous.
Come, my Hippolyta: what cheer, my love?
The royal party make to leave.
In modern productions the actors playing Hippolyta and Theseus have often doubled up to also play Titania and Oberon. This seems entirely appropriate to me. Could the eponymous dream itself be Hippolyta's? The complicated nightmare of a captured bride on the eve of her wedding in which she reveals to herself a confusion about her attitude to the man she is about to marry. Is he a proud Prince, capable of powerful magic? Or an uncouth bore with little more sophistication than a donkey?