Monday, February 7, 2011

Shakespeare’s tenderness & humility

The laughter in act 5 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and it is one of the most enduringly funny scenes Shakespeare ever wrote—is built on a sense of superiority in intelligence, training, cultivation, and skill. The audience is invited to join the charmed circle of the upper-class mockers onstage. This mockery proclaimed the young playwright’s definitive passage from naïveté and homespun amateurism to sophisticated taste and professional skill. But the laughter that the scene solicits is curiously tender and even loving. What saves the scene of ridicule from becoming too painful, what keeps it delicious in fact, is the self-possession of the artisans. In the face of open derision, they are unflappable. Shakespeare achieved a double effect. On the one hand, he mocked the amateurs, who fail to grasp the most basic theatrical conventions, by which they are to stay in their roles and pretend they cannot see or hear their audience. On the other hand, he conferred an odd, unexpected dignity upon Bottom and his fellows, a dignity that contrasts favorable with the sardonic rudeness of the aristocratic spectators.

Even as he called attention to the distance between himself and the rustic performers, then, Shakespeare doubled back and signaled a current of sympathy and solidarity. As when borrowing from the old morality plays and folk culture, he understood at once that he was doing something quite different and that he owed a debt. The professions he assigned the Athenian artisans were not chosen at random-Shakespeare’s London theater company depended on joiners and weavers, carpenters and tailors—and the tragedy they perform, of star-crossed lovers, fatal errors, and suicides, is one in which the playwright himself was deeply interested. In the period he was writing the “Pyramus and Thisbe” parody, Shakespeare was also writing the strikingly similar Romeo and Juliet; they may well have been on his writing table at the same time. A more defensive artist would have scrubbed harder in an attempt to remove these marks of affinity, but Shakespeare’s laughter was not a form of renunciation or concealment. “This is the sillies stuff that ever I heard,” Hippolyta comments, to which Theseus replies, “The best in this kind are but shadows.” – Stephen Greenblatt

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