Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37
Written by Katherine Perrault
Astronomy, Alchemy, and Archetypes:
An Integrated View of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
by Katherine Bartol Perrault
Table of Contents
Chapter I: Introduction
Gary Jay Williams states, "We do not go to definitive theatres, we go to the theatres of our times" (Williams 259). In Our Moonlight Revels, Williams addresses the ongoing debate of how we interpret classical plays in contemporary production. Williams illuminates this interpretive debate as he chronicles the production history of A Midsummer Night's Dream, (hereafter referred to as Midsummer) from Shakespeare's day to the present. He contends that in each era "theatre artists have created representations of their culture" (259), what Jan Kott would refer to as making Shakespeare "our contemporary." However, many of these productions were laced with culturally dominant ideologies that may have had little or no origin within the text.
This brings us to the heart of the interpretive debate: Shakespeare's text. Williams shows through the production history of the play that each era will rewrite Shakespeare's works to some degree in its own cultural image. As our society becomes more global and multi-culturalism becomes more prevalent, it seems that this revisionist trend will continue. Shakespeare was a writer of his own popular culture, and it follows that the genius of his work will continue to resonate with popular treatments of his plays.
However, Misha Berson contends that a current popular interpretation of Shakespeare's literature for contemporary dramatic production often "lies so heavily on the boards" due not so much to the sometimes unapproachable genius of his texts, as to the director's use of them (Berson 36). Berson maintains that this occurs as directors handle Shakespeare's plays "much too reverentlyor far too cavalierly [. . .] breaking the Shakespeare rules of previous generations" (37) for the sake of novelty and relevance, often with disregard for textual integrity and unity (either literal, thematic, or both): "There is a striking difference between a beautifully integrated concept production and what director Jonathan Miller calls 'theatre schlepping'that is, loading a play onto a truck and dumping it into another time and geographic zone, whether it really belongs there or not" (37).
In The Theatre and Its Double, Antonin Artaud's call for liberation from "masterpieces reserved for a self-styled elite and not understood by the general public" has stood in opposition to the reverence of the text's primacy in performance (Artaud 74). His radical cry to substitute culture (which works to bond the human community) for elitist art (which divides humanity) influenced many of the experimental Shakespearean productions of the twentieth century, including Peter Brook's 1970 iconoclastic production of Midsummer. Artaud contends that the great works of Western literature are "fixed" in the past and no longer respond to the needs of modern man. He raises the idea that Shakespeare's works are performed merely because they are perceived as "masterpieces," as "art for art's sake": their ability to be culturally vibrant and resonant to us is lost by virtue of the idolatry of the sacredness of the text. While Artaud allows that the masterpieces speak grandly, he holds that they do not speak in the voice of our time. To remedy this problem in staging classical plays for the theatre, Artaud calls for us to look beneath the text for the transcendent, "actual poetry" which is "without form and without text," a "superior idea of poetry and poetry-through-theater which underlies the Myths told by the great ancient tragedians" (78, 80).
In response to what he considers Artaud's challenge to "free the energies of the great classical plays," Robert Brustein responds by questioning, "How do we build a bridge to the past without turning into prisoners of culture and slaves to masterpieces?" (Brustein 19-20). Brustein's position upholds the formalist tradition of maintaining the unity of the text as well as the integrity of the author's voice. However, he does not ignore the power of the audience, as both receptor and site of culture, in contributing to the interpretation of the private work (the literature) for public display (the dramatic production). Brustein objects to "the mutilation of the classics, either through updating, bowdlerizing, or adapting them to the musical stage" and the indiscriminate and irresponsible "jollying up" of Shakespeare's plays by merely "updating" the physical environment of the text with "no discernible reason other than the desire for novelty" (26). However, Brustein does affirm modern interpretations of Shakespeare which are based on "determining a true modern equivalent for the action, [. . .] plot, theme, or characters" stemming from a thorough reading and respect for the text (26, 27). He states: "When something in the play [text] itself stimulates the director to pursue a radical new line of inquiry, then even the most radical transformations can be justified" (33).
In The Open Door, Peter Brook states that Shakespeare "wrote a chain of words that have in them the possibility of giving birth to forms that are constantly renewed. There is no limit to the virtual forms that are present in a great text" (63). While the variety of interpretive forms may be infinite when considering Shakespeare's masterpieces, the formalist contribution to interpretation maintains that such forms may be inherent in the text, and the conception of these forms for the stage should serve to unify the elements of the play (in the context of equivalencythe plot, theme, characters, action), critically as well as performatively (Thomas xvii-xxi).
Statement of the Problem
In the context of this interpretive debate, I wish to offer an equivalent, original perspective for staging Midsummer which reveals the unity inherent in the text and results in the integration of the play's four worlds: the fairy realm, the royalty of Athens, the rustic citizenry, and the courting lovers. While many critics agree that "Shakespeare certainly brings the four separate worlds into a final harmony" (Warren 60), the practical problem exists of finding a thread thematically linking the play's four worlds through one unifying concept in staging the play for production. In criticism of many contemporary productions of Midsummer, Robert Brustein has found their "details of interpretation vivid but absent any unifying metaphor" 1 (Williams 239, 319).
Due largely to the diversity of its elements, Midsummer underwent immense fragmentation to suit the cultural taste of its audience during the Restoration. A primary example of this was Henry Purcell's highly cut and altered revision of the play into the opera, The Fairy Queen, which established conventions for performance of the play "that persisted, with variations, into the twentieth century" (Foakes 13). In 1840, however, Madame Lucia Vestris's Covent Garden production of Midsummer restored most of Shakespeare's text in an attempt to present the play "as an organic and integrated whole," although it was still treated more like an "opera with ballet" (13-4). In 1914, Harley Granville-Barker restored the text of Midsummer in full, abandoning the operatic scenic encumbrances and balletic tradition as well as Mendelssohn's Romantic music that had been inextricably linked with the play in the nineteenth-century. Still, following Granville-Barker's lead, twentieth-century theatrical experimentations continued to subject the play to non-conventional interpretations, justified by refuting what Peter Brook calls "the great misunderstanding about Shakespeare. Many years ago it used to be claimed that one must perform the play as Shakespeare wrote it. Today the absurdity of this is more or less recognised: nobody knows what scenic form he had in mind" (63).
Brook's Royal Shakespeare Company production of Midsummer in 1970 was one landmark production that boldly broke from the play's Romantic performance conventions, opening Shakespeare's Elizabethan fairy tale up to modern interpretation. Brook sought "ways of making the past directly present and accessible, and thus of annihilating the shadow of historical distance" (Kott 7). In response to Artaud's challenge to look beneath the text, Brook delved beneath previous literal interpretations of the play to explore the psyche of Shakespeare's lovers, signaling a return to primal urges and rituals in an urgent exploration of the text's hidden meaning. Simon Trussler, in the introduction to The Making of "A Midsummer Night's Dream,"further discusses Artaud's, Grotowski's, and Kott's influence on Brook and his directorial vision. He states that Brook's conceptualization of the play represented a search "to find the new forms, and through the new forms, the new architecture, and through the new architecture, the new patterns and the new rituals of the age that is swirling around us" (xxi).
While it may be necessary to break with established staging conventions in seeking new forms to contain fresh stagings of Shakespeare's works, it seems important to access not only the contemporary culture in which the play will be produced, but also the historical/cultural constructs that undergird the action in his plays. If Shakespeare was indeed "a product of his own time, and a natural genius with the capacity to transcend its limits and confines" (Parsons 12), it may be possible that the study and research of Shakespeare's culture, with the goal of accessing our own, can also engender new conceptions of the play. While we cannot precisely recreate Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, or even much of Shakespeare's life, there is a wealth of information about the history, culture, and literature of the period which gives us insight into Shakespeare's cultural background that is inevitably embedded in his texts. If we neglect to read the Elizabethan worldview presented therein, or dismiss it as irrelevant, we may also overlook crucial keys for finding, as Brustein puts it, "equivalent" concepts for contemporary productions.
It seems that we still perform Shakespeare's Elizabethan plays because of the multiple readings and interpretations made possible by virtue of Shakespeare's eclectic perspective on the human condition. While some of Shakespeare's plays may seem to have simple overriding themes, many of his plays are compendiums of a complex worldview, constructed in the crucible of years of collaboration with fellow actors. Tom Matheson states in Shakespeare in Performance that during the development of his plays Shakespeare did make "changes amounting to actual revision during their performance history on stage, [. . .] reinforcing the view that for Shakespeare, performance of his plays always took priority over print" (Parsons 9). Shakespeare's plays, written as early as 1592, were fluid vehicles of cultural constructionrehearsed, refined, and played . . . and rehearsed, refined, and re-played over the course of many years until they were officially published in 1623 as the First Folio. In its preface, according to Matheson, Heminge and Condell "seem almost to overstate the accessibility and universality of the author's works in the Folio, offering them to the whole literate population, 'from the most able, to him that can but spell,' [. . .] and affirm the Bard's popular success by stating, 'these Playes have had their triall alreadie, and stood out all Appeales'on the stage" (11).
Thus molded through the collaborative process of writing, rehearsal, and revision, as well as the audience's response to performance, Shakespeare's plays reverberated to the pulse of his erareflecting its literature, art, culture, science, economy, and politics. Alan Scott Weber states that this post-modern view of the Shakespearean text as a communal endeavour of author, compositor, actor, audience, and reader also supports the view of Shakespeare's plays as a widely ranging repository (verging in extent on Saussure's langue, or complete fund of language) of social questions and problems, many of them bearing specifically on astronomy and astrology. (4)
Shakespeare knew his world. He knew his audience. The world was his palette, and he painted adept portraits from it that not only pleased, but also moved his audiences. They knew and recognized Shakespeare's references to historical, literary, and astronomical sources. Though lacking a university education, Shakespeare appeared to be a prolific reader as well as writer, whose "metaphoric habit of thought made constant connections across widely different fields of knowledge" (Parsons 15). Shakespeare deftly used his understanding of human nature to enhance these connections and shape his texts, building immediate receptiveness and intuitive rapport with his audiences. He created inter-textual masterpieces which not only illuminated the discourse and customs of his day, but whose accounting of human experience also reverberates to the presentin spite of their original context within Elizabethan culture.
With deep regard for the text, Brook's 1970 conception of Midsummer forged new ground in an ahistorical, non-conventional interpretation of Shakespeare's characters, highlighted against a timeless background of human passion and pathos. Brook's work affirms the reality of equivalency, of creating a contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare's play that speaks to its audience by virtue of, not in spite of, the author's voice in the text. However, in addition to the text, discovering equivalencies from the author's culture embedded metaphorically in the text also works to illuminate new, relevant conceptions of Shakespeare's plays. Studying Shakespeare's cultural heritage alongside the text of Midsummer with an eye towards contemporary performance offers fresh opportunities to "annihilate the shadow of historical distance" (Kott 7) of Midsummer in production.
The dream I wish to explore in the ensuing pages is a previously unexamined view of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Shakespeare metaphorically integrates the four worlds of the play through the use of the medieval symbolism of alchemy. Alchemical symbolism translates directly to Jung's process of individuation and reveals an equivalent, contemporary view of the play.
The diverse metaphors of A Midsummer Night's Dream may be integrated through an analysis of the play's astronomy that leads to the recognition of mythological archetypes whose symbolic interaction reveals the philosophical process of medieval alchemy. This alchemical process embodies the play's major theme of transformation. Because Carl Jung appropriates alchemical symbolism in his psychoanalytic process, there is a direct correlation between the reconciling of opposites in the transforming action of Midsummer and in the process of "individuation," the integration of the personality 2 (Psychology and Alchemy 413-17). Jungian alchemical symbolism may thus be used as a tool for analyzing the play's text. The correlation between medieval alchemy and Jungian psychology results in a reading of Midsummer that not only reveals an intrinsic unity in the play, but also builds a cultural bridge between Shakespeare's era and our own, affording new perspectives for staging an equivalent, contemporary conception of the play.
In writing A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare drew his unique blend of poetic mythos from many sources:from the heroes and gods of Attica, to the fabula of Rome, to the fairy lore of Elizabethan England. 3 Co-mingled in the alchemical crucible of Shakespeare's Midsummer, these myths delineate archetypes and patterns of human behavior through a dreamscape filled with associative symbols. In Encountering Jung on Mythology, Robert Segal notes that psychoanalyst Carl Jung traces "the origin of dreams back to age-old mythological influences" (60). For Jung, myths are important in revealing psychological truths that apply to every person, in a way that transcends space and time. Joseph Campbell states, "Every mythology has to do with the wisdom of life as related to a specific culture at a specific time. It integrates the individual into his society and the society into the field of nature. It unites the field of nature with my nature. It's a harmonizing force" (55). In the foreword to Jan Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Martin Esslin states that a "great, autonomous creative work of art is for all time, and therefore discloses new facets, new significance for each age" (xx). Midsummer continues to offer new significance for our age when read from an Elizabethan alchemical view, whose concepts are not totally foreign to our age, or our stage.
Today, as in the medieval world, one can read "the world as if the world had messages for you" (Campbell 39). This method of alchemically "reading the world," according to Bettina L. Knapp in Theatre and Alchemy, calls for speculation, association of ideas, images, sensations, observation, and meditation; alchemy in this sense is still alive today. It is not only used both actively and effectively by Jungian psychiatrists and psychotherapists in an attempt better to understand the human personality, but is, as Antonin Artaud suggested, in a general sense also implicit in the process of creating and staging a play, in the formation of the actor, and as the catalyst for the critic. (249-50)
Knapp also contends that the transformative process of alchemy is a definitive part of the playwright's creative experience, as "The dramatist also experiences a transmutation: from the uncreated idea which lies buried within his unconscious, to the externalized incarnation which is his play" (2). Referring to actors, directors, lighting, sound, and costumes, Knapp also asserts that the "integration of disparate forces on the physical stage" into the unified vehicle of the staged text, serves as an extension of the transformation of the literary work into the dramatic performance (2). While her statements refer to the creative work of the playwright and theatre in general, the alchemical process of the integration of diverse, opposing elements can be specifically related to the transforming action within Midsummer.
The philosophical alchemical work of the opus magnum or esoteric alchemy, as summarized by Alexander Roob, 4 correlates directly to the dueling dualistic lovers and their ultimate reconciliation in Midsummer:
In reference to the divine work of creation and the plan of salvation within it, the alchemistic process was called the 'Great Work.' In it, a mysterious chaotic source material called materia prima, containing opposites still incompatible and in the most violent conflict, is gradually guided towards a redeemed state of perfect harmony, the healing 'Philosophers' Stone' or lapis philosophorum: "First we bring together, then we putrefy, we break down what has been putrified, we purify the divided, we unite the purified and harden it. In this way is One made from man and woman." (123)
Psychologically, this process in Midsummer is represented in the progression of the lovers in the rite of passage from singleness to marriage, culminating in the assumption of their functional roles within society as a result of their transformation. The rite of passage serves as a paradigm for the individuation of the personality.
Alchemically reading the world of Shakespeare's Midsummer clarifies how the four worlds of the play are metaphorically linked, and unearths richer linguistic spheres of meaning, as Shakespeare's poetic eye literally glances
From heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (V.i.12-17)5
This research is significant because it leads to a new contemporary equivalent of the play's text, to a fuller understanding of the context within which it was written, and offers fresh insight into how the text truly expresses an intrinsic unity. Shakespeare's alchemical imagery manifested through Jung's concepts of psychological integration reveals an interpretation of the play that provides an interface for Shakespeare's Elizabethan text with the pulse of our time. Such an interface displays the operation of anachronism, as "Literary tradition is constantly being reworked under the pressure of shifting ideological and cultural forces" (Halpern 3). In a multi-cultural, post-modern world, such a positive use of anachronisms for analysis works to facilitate a contemporary reading of Shakespeare's works.
Because the language and imagery of Jungian analysis is based in archetypes and in alchemy, a Jungian interpretation of the play is first dependent upon an examination of these elements within the play's metaphoric structure. This requires an investigation of the astronomy, mythological archetypes, and alchemy in the play that are based in Shakespeare's cultural heritage. I will demonstrate how an understanding of Shakespeare's cosmology leads to an analysis of the play's astronomy, revealing mythological archetypes that correspond to the play's characters. The archetypal struggle which ensues between the characters is the process of the opus magnum of alchemythe coniunctioa physical as well as psychic process which embodies the transforming theme of the play's characters from singleness to marriage via the Dionysian rites of passage in courtly love. This analysis of Shakespeare's medieval imagery leads to a Jungian, archetypal reading of the play's mythological metaphors, which function figuratively as psychological signators in Jungian analysis.
Finally, through the application of the psychoanalytical work of Carl Jung, the play's transformative theme of alchemical individuation is revealed in the integration of the play's diverse elements.
The literature review involves a thorough search of available written material on the research topic (critical writings on the play, Elizabethan culture, and Jungian psychology) and related fields (medieval perspectives of astronomy, mythology, alchemy, and the Dionysian rites of passage in courtly love). I have done preliminary research on the play and Shakespeare's cosmology at the Shakespeare Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon in England, as well as an international review of criticism in books, journal articles, database entries, abstracts, theses, and privately held or published materials and archives. I also conducted further research on Greek mythology and the rites of Dionysus at the University of Athens when in Greece in October, 2000.
To facilitate an archetypal understanding of alchemical symbolism, I will incorporate medieval imagery which exemplifies the metaphoric themes in Midsummer. In addition, I will include some of Marc Chagall's twentieth-century paintings which illustrate similar themes, in order to further support the idea of how archetypal images appear in the work of artists, regardless of space and time, through the collective unconscious. In his introduction to the catalog of the 1968 exhibition of Marc Chagall's paintings at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, Louis Aragon compared Chagall's artistic vision "to that expressed in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream":
For all the differences dividing these great artists and writers, they all share an element of irony that is an essential part of their work. Yet as Nabokov wittily remarked, 'A single hissing consonant divides the comic aspect of things from their cosmic aspect.' The art of such painters, wrote [Nabokov], is directed 'towards those mysterious depths of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass by like the shades of nameless and soundless vessels.' 6
Part of this research also involves an extensive review of the production history of the play as well as production criticism in order to justify new directions for staging Midsummer. The production of the play based on my findings, while not within the scope of the present project, is a subsequent goal of the research, as the performative application of my thesis brings new light to bear on the staging of the play.
In considering the astronomy of the play, I have referred to texts that amply document the generally held pre-Copernican views of the day, such as A History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler (Dreyer), Shakespeare and Science (Cumberland), Medieval Cosmology (Duhem), and Shakespeare's Cosmology (Weber). These texts illustrate the predominantly held Pythagorean/Ptolemaic worldview from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and through Queen Elizabeth's reign.
One work in particular illuminates Shakespeare's medieval view of the cosmos, Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos by T. McAlindon. McAlindon contends that Shakespeare's cosmology stems from the Empedoclean model of the world that produced a "pluralist doctrine that nature is governed by both Love and Strife, sympathies and antipathies; and mainly from this doctrine came the notion of the world as a system of concordant discord or discordant concord" (6). McAlindon traces this view through the works of Shakespeare's literary predecessors: Ovid, Chaucer, and Spenser, to name a few. The Empedoclean view of the world holds that "The whole order of lifeunity, peace, and continuityis founded on this bond of opposites. [. . .] The cosmic doctrine of the two contraries, or reciprocal principles of nature, was world-wide in ancient mythologies ([such as] the Chinese myth of Ying and Yang)" (6). McAlindon appropriates this worldview in his analysis of Shakespeare's tragedies, but he also notes that it is foundational to Shakespeare's imagery in Midsummer. Even so, while McAlindon comments upon the stage of the moon in Midsummer, he does not make the connection that the alchemical coincidence of opposites occurs at the stage of the new moon. McAlindon's work clearly delineates Shakespeare's debt to medieval cosmology, yet he refers only cursorily to Jung's works. He does not bridge the connections between the Empedoclean cosmological schema he has outlined and its symbolism prevalent in alchemy.
The astronomy of Midsummer revealed in the text, along with a study of the early summer constellations, clearly defines archetypal oppositions between night/day, sun/moon, and masculine/feminine that set up a mytho-cosmological reading of the play. McAlindon discusses some of the mythic, cosmological properties Shakespeare assigns to the fairies, and this line of thought is continued in Truax's Metamorphosis in Shakespeare's Plays: A Pageant of Heroes, Gods, Maids, and Monsters. Because Shakespeare places Midsummer in Athens, physically, and grounds the mythos of the play in the Thesean legend, Shakespeare's Elizabethan fairies are seen as counterparts of the Greek mythological tradition.
Once established, the mythic properties of Midsummer's characters work to establish the archetypes of the play in the context of the alchemical operation of coniunctio, which is indicated by the opposition of the sun and its shadow, the new moon. This operation is defined in medieval alchemical works, as well as in The Complete Works of Carl Jung (including the alchemical texts) and writings on alchemy and individuation by Maria von Franz and Edward F. Edinger. I delineate Jung's understanding of myths as archetypes, with supporting text from Sitansu Maitra in Psychological Realism and Archetypes: the Trickster in Shakespeare, along with their "compensatory" function in society as cultural determinants (Coursen, The Compensatory Psyche).
In Shakespeare's Cosmology, Alan Scott Weber masterfully deliberates Shakespeare's pre-Copernican knowledge of the cosmos and archetypal divine numbers, but like McAlindon focuses his application of these concepts primarily on Shakespeare's tragedies. In addition to cursory glances of the cosmology of Midsummer, nearly as little attention has been given to the archetypal imagery inherent in the play other than in the association of Puck with the trickster archetype (Jung, Archetypes 255) and the aspect of the psyche's shadow introduced by Brook's production.
The 1999 dissertation of Mira Linn Wiegmann, A Postmodern Archetypal Approach to Visionary Drama, addresses the archetypal nature of Midsummer and its connection to Jungian psychoanalytical theory as a representation of the process of the individuation of the personality. She grounds her views in an analysis of Peter Brook's 1970 production of Midsummer, in which his use of the convention of doubling the roles of the main characters of Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania contributed to a manifestation of the psychological connection between the conscious and the unconscious. Wiegmann states that the "secret play" Peter Brook's production revealed was "a man's struggle to acknowledge his shadow and integrate his anima," focusing primarily on the work of individuation represented in Theseus, from a patriarchal point of view (63). With its basis in Jung's writings on archetypes, Wiegmann's evaluation of the concept of individuation within the play begins to emerge, but she neglects to fully develop its process from Hippolyta/Titania's perspective.
Also, she alludes to the play as a "liminal world of magic where dreams make what is conscious known" (27) without either defining the "magic" or showing us how it operates through the alchemical interaction of the archetypes in Jung's analytic process. Wiegmann refers often to symbols without identifying them, and her analysis of the mythological archetypes within the play is sketchy, limited only to the dualistic opposition between the masculine and feminine as she focuses primarily on Oberon and Titania (with Puck thrown in for good measure). She gives us only a cursory glance at Shakespeare's grounding of the story in Greek mythology, the source of the archetypes.
Wiegmann also neglects to clearly define such Jungian terms as the collective unconscious, archetype, coincidentia oppositorum, or individuation. Her analysis of the lovers' transformation in the woods comes closest to appropriating alchemical symbolism, although she does not see the wood as the alchemical "matrix" or womb of regeneration, but rather as a "chaotic nightmare that endangers the psyche" (47). Her scattered application of Jung's theory of individuation is based mainly on his writings on the archetypes (Volumes 9 and 17 of Jung's Complete Works), with no reference to the volumes of the alchemical symbolism that he applies to the process of individuation (Volumes 5, 8, 12, 13, 14, 16). As a result, her study is fractured and partial, lacking any alchemical connections or cohesion. There has yet to be a thorough archetypal analysis of the play from a Jungian perspective that integrates the cosmological archetypes with the corresponding psychological analysis of the philosophical alchemy of the play.
A study of calendars and life cycles in Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (Longnon) and Medieval Calendars (Pérez-Higuera) exemplifies the idea of the macrocosm/microcosm and the influence of the heavens upon the natural world. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Barber) and Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions (Kishi, Pringle, and Wells) delineate the rites of May Day and practices of midsummer night's eve common in Shakespeare's era. Michael Camille details the connection of yearly cycles with the medieval rites of courtly love in his treatise The Medieval Art of Love: Objects and Subjects of Desire. Sagar gives further evidence of these practices in "A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Marriage of Heaven and Hell." Citing van Gennep's work in From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, Victor Turner describes the rites of passage that correlate to the rites of courtly love.
In The Forest of Medieval Romance, Saunders deftly describes the forest as an "archetypal romance landscape," and, as does Turner, as a liminal space for transformation (ix). However, when she applies these archetypal properties to the forest of Midsummer, she does not recognize the alchemical properties signified in the primordial chaos of the wood; she sees it merely as Shakespeare's metaphoric way of "reworking the themes of the romances" through the theme of love madness (Saunders 196-7). Jung, however, equates the chaos of the wood with the chaos of the prima materia evident in alchemy and in the process of individuation. Jung further connects this idea to that of the primordial chaos in the Bacchic/Dionysian rites that are referred to by Nietzsche, who points us to the transforming, archetypal rites of Dionysus that Lada-Richards thoroughly elucidates in Initiating Dionysus. The Dionysian rites bring us full circle to the life/death/renewal process in the rites of passage (as delineated by Van Gennep) and philosophical alchemy (evidenced particularly in the cosmological symbolism of the moon's stages).
Some scholars, like Carney, have noted the alchemical imagery utilized by Shakespeare within his tragedies and within his comedy, The Tempest. While Shakespeare was versed in the general alchemical knowledge of his era, scholars have not specifically connected his knowledge of alchemy with his knowledge of the cosmos. I have not uncovered an alchemical reading of Shakespeare's Midsummer in any depth. The alchemical signifiers in the play are multitudinous, but no thorough alchemical analysis has been applied to Midsummer in its entirety in respect to its archetypes or its astronomy.
Mark Stavig in The Form of Things Unknown: Renaissance Metaphor in "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" declares,
the patterns of imagery in alchemy parallel the cyclical patterns I have been discussing. The alchemist attempts to fuse the opposing and apparently irreconcilable elements of water and fire by bringing mercury (liquid) and sulphur (brimstone) together. The imagery used to describe the fusing process recalls familiar metaphorical relationships. As John Read explains, sophic sulphur and sophic mercury "were known as [. . .] sun and moon, Sol and Luna, [. . .] masculine and feminine." The [Philosopher's] Stone, when conceived as the result of the union of masculine and feminine principles, was sometimes represented as an infant." The imagery links the process to the larger patterns of death and rebirth in man and nature. Though imagery of alchemy is not pervasive in the plays, it appears in key contexts, notably in the gold imagery of Romeo and Juliet and in the dawn imagery of Oberon (3.2.388-93). (42-3)
Yet Oberon's vision of the dawn is only one of multitudinous alchemical images in Midsummer. Also, other scholars such as Edinger (The Psyche on Stage) and Aronson (Psyche and Symbol in Shakespeare) might take exception to Stavig's assertion that Shakespeare's use of alchemical metaphors was no more than occasional.
Along with other historical texts, the philosophical views of alchemy are to be found in the writings of Paracelsus, the renowned medieval alchemist, and Robert Fludd, an alchemist who was also Shakespeare's contemporary. John Read's The Alchemist in Life, Literature, and Art and Alexander Roob's Alchemy and Mysticism serve as excellent compendiums of Western alchemy and its symbolism in art. Using these and other sources, I define how the transforming process of alchemy functions as the driving action within Midsummer through its metaphoric structure, plot, and characters. The alchemical correlation to Jung's process of individuation allows immediate access for a contemporary reading of Shakespeare's Elizabethan fairy tale.
Summary of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
The play begins with Theseus, the King of Athens, preparing to celebrate his marriage to Hippolyta, the conquered Amazon queen. Theseus orders his minister, Philostrate, to engage dramatic festivities for the event. Egeus and four Athenian lovers are introduced, and their story unfolds: Helena is in love with Demetrius, who once loved her but now loves Hermia; Hermia loves Lysander, who loves her, but her father, Egeus, wishes her to marry Demetrius. Hermia and Lysander determine to escape from Athens in order to marry; Helena warns Demetrius of the lovers' flight, hoping to gain Demetrius's favor.
Even as the lovers flee into the woods (I.ii.), the townsmenBottom, Quince, Flute, Snout, Starveling, and Snugmeet to make arrangements for a play they hope to perform for Theseus and Hippolyta during the wedding festivities. They arrange to meet by moonlight on the following evening in the woods outside the town in order to hold their rehearsal without fear of interruption.
As Act II commences, the lovers and townsmen lead us into the wooded domainthe kingdom of the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, who are in the throes of a horrific quarrel. The object of the argument is Titania's changeling boy, whom she refuses to give over to Oberon as his page. Their marital conflict has upset the balance of nature itself, in unseasonably cool summer weather accompanied by floods. Titania departs from Oberon with the quarrel unresolved, but Oberon cannot let the matter rest. To force her to yield up the boy, Oberon orders his henchman Puck to find a magical flower, "love-in-idleness," whose liquid incites love at first sight of whatever one first sees upon wakingbe it animal or human. At this point, Oberon sees Demetrius scorning Helena's affection, and Oberon instructs Puck to anoint the disdainful Demetrius's eyes with the love-juice in order to return him to Helena's arms.
In Act II.ii., Oberon carries out his plot against Titania, and squeezes the juice on her eyelids as she sleeps. Puck finds Hermia and Lysander asleep from weariness, and thinking Lysander to be Demetrius, anoints Lysander's eyes. Demetrius enters pursued by Helena, and Lysander upon awaking sees Helena and falls madly in love with her.
In Act III, Puck stumbles upon the rehearsal of the play by Bottom and his company. In pure mischief, Puck transforms Bottom into an ass. Bottom's companions run away, and he inadvertently awakens Titania, who at once falls in love with him and has her fairies lead him to her bower where she erotically dotes upon him.
Meanwhile, Oberon observes that Puck has misconstrued his instructions and anointed the wrong Athenian's eyes, resulting in Lysander's love for Helena rather than Demetrius's. So Oberon commands Puck to bring Helena to Demetriusand Oberon himself anoints Demetrius's eyes so that he will love Helena upon waking. However, Lysander is also in pursuit of Helena, expressing his love for her. Helena is convinced that Demetrius and Lysander have conspired to humiliate her, along with Hermia who has joined the scene. Hermia flies into a rage when she realizes that neither man loves her anymore, and the foursome erupt in a cacophony of fury and recriminations. Helena runs away from Hermia, and Oberon commissions Puck to overcast the night and lead the men separately astray. The lovers, worn out and lost in the midst of enchantment, fall asleep.
In Act IV, Oberon, having obtained the changeling boy from Titania during her enchantment, releases her from her spell of infatuation with Bottom, and the fairy king and queen are reconciled. Oberon orders Puck to remove the ass's head from Bottom.
At the break of day in Act V, the royal hunting party of Theseus and Hippolyta ventures into the forest where they discover the sleeping lovers and awaken them. Lysander's love for Hermia has been restored, and Demetrius has recovered the love he once had for Helena. Bottom awakens with vague memories of grandeur, and all lovers leave the forest to prepare for their nuptial feast.
Bottom's company performs before the court. After the "iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve" (V.i.349), the fairies come and invoke blessings on the bridal beds of the couples, and Oberon and Titania themselves retire to their own bower to love again, now that they are also reconciled.
Table of Contents
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1. Williams refers to critical comments Brustein makes in a review of Midsummer in The New Republic. (23 September, 1985) 33.
2. The medieval constructs of Midsummer manifest conflicting dualities, and Jung asserts that the reconciliation of such opposites results in the integration of the unconscious by the conscious. This results in an alchemical transformation and restoration of equilibrium in the personality through individuation"the process by which a person becomes a psychological 'in-dividual,' that is, a separate, indivisible unity or 'whole' unity through the conflict and collaboration of the conscious and unconscious" (Archetypes 275; 288).
3. See F.C. Horwood, ed., A Midsummer Night's Dream (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966) 3-7; and Harold F. Brooks, The Arden Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream (London: Routledge Press, 1991) lix.
4. At the end of this statement, Alexander Roob quotes Buchlein vom Stein der Weisen, from a 1778 document. While the document is decidedly post-Elizabethan, its essential alchemical meaning derives from alchemical writings and philosophy that pre-date Shakespeare, back to Paracelsus, the foremost among medieval alchemists.
5. All quotes from A Midsummer Night's Dream in this dissertation are from the Arden Shakespeare version of the play, edited by Harold F. Brooks. (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1979).
6. The quote is from Werner Haftmann's text, Chagall (Trans. Heinrich Baumann and Alexis Brown), in which he quotes Louis Aragon. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1984.) 73.