A Midsummer Night’s Dream – It’s Magic Time!

Come. Clear a story circle on the woodland floor. Find a copse or glen, dew dazzled and downy with fern. ‘Tis time for a tale of creatures strange, of Oberon, King of the Faeries, Queen Hippolyta and mischievous Puck, of Snug the Joiner, Snout the tinker, Starveling the tailor and… oy the vey.

I like a little fantasy, or, let me put it this way – I like flights of fancy. The supernaturalism woven into a Hawthorne or Rushdie novel. But I don’t want the flights to land. I don’t want the flight attendants to start speaking Elvish and the plane’s wings to suddenly feather up. There’s a line, is what I’m saying. And on the other side of the line is someone tiptoeing through the forest green, surrounded by whirling motes of fairy dust, glinting and shimmering. And they’re welcome to stay on their side.

To be fair to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the faeries, sprites and their immediate supervisors provide plot twists and humor; they don’t really dominate the narrative. But there’s been such a surfeit of fantasy in the new millennium, with Narnia, Middle Earth and Hogwarts springing to digital life with remorseless frequency… I think my usual tolerances have been stretched thinner than a gossamer wing.

So I’ll be less thorough with this play since my appreciation was handicapped by bias. In fact, I finished it a while ago and only just convinced myself to return. And within moments found this forehead-smacking, why-did-I-stay-away, beauty:

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
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.

(1.1.7–11)

‘Steep themselves in night’ – perfect. Why? I was afraid you’d ask. I’m not really sure.

‘Steep’ is great on its own, the image evoked of the skyline, that stealthily deepening blue – but it’s ‘steep themselves’ – that’s odd in such a good way. When Shakespeare uses ‘steep’ there’s usually malevolence attached (daggers steeped in blood, tongues in venom, etc) – so maybe it’s the active aspect, those four days animated and willingly ‘steeping themselves’ that gives this line a pulse of tension, because it seems paradoxical.

Or maybe those four days were happy to steep themselves because the main steeping ingredients of the day were honey and wine.

Or maybe this is an object lesson on how you can over-analyze Shakespeare.

I always try to keep in mind this is a playwright with a deadline, someone who may have believed plays were his day job, that his lasting works of literature were sonnets and poems. It could have been a simple matter of him casting around for an iamb, repeating ‘four days that quickly steep duh-DUH in night’ until he hit upon ‘themselves’. He likes the sound of it, stops pacing and writes.

But regardless of intent or forethought (or lack of both), it simply works. There are a lot of notes in Shakespeare’s plays that, scholarly veneer aside, sound something like ‘your guess is as good as ours’. The implication is usually that the meaning has been lost to time. But I don’t know if that’s the case.

Shakespeare probably wrote his plays quickly (sometimes they were in response to another play enjoying success on the London stage, so time was of the essence) and I think he wrote with the door to the subconscious open, or at least ajar, so his writing sometimes makes sense on a level not quite accessible to us. I doubt that some of his phrases ever made complete sense, even to his contemporary audiences. And we’re left intrigued because it’s both mysterious and right – like Mona Lisa’s smile.

There’s onomatopoeia when a word sounds like its meaning – what about when phrases convey their associated meaning through sound and meter? The first two lines pass so quickly, thanks to the matched rhythm and the word repetition of ‘four’ and ‘quickly’, just like those days and nights steeping, dreaming away. And then commas arrive, and we’re asked to pause and let the last few lines leisurely unfold. As promised, we’re delivered with dispatch to the solemnities (celebrations). Now look what awaits:

the moon, like a silver bow, new bent in heaven

I’d sit through several games of Quidditch for that line alone.

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