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A Note from A Midsummer’s Artistic Director Brian Kulick
“Through this house each fairy stray”
Lurking behind just about every Shakespeare play is a story about its inception. Some of these stories are based on a historical kernel, others on a scholarly surmise, but most are just plain figments of a fanciful imagination that catches our collective curiosity. Perhaps one of the best examples of the “fanciful” variety is the belief that Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM was written as part of the celebration for a certain noble marriage and was actually performed at the private estate where the wedding had just taken place.
It is easy to understand how such a story could gain popular currency since it immediately evokes a bygone age where a grand but perhaps sleepy manor house is visited by Shakespeare’s troupe, all decked out as fairies, who invade the surrounding gardens as night falls and the moon majestically rises; blessing members of the audience as well as a soon-to-be marriage bed. Add to this the play’s allusion that none other than Queen Elizabeth was in attendance and you have a story that is just too fabulous to resist.
Of the eleven noble marriages that have been considered, the most popular candidate is the marriage of Elizabeth Carey to Sir Thomas Berkeley in February of 1596 (putting the performance of MIDSUMMER around the same time as the writing of ROMEO AND JULIET). It makes certain sense that this distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth who was also related to the poet Edward Spenser (no stranger to fairies, having penned the monumental poem THE FAERIE QUEEN) would become the “frontrunner” for inspiring Shakespeare’s play. Thomas Nash also, intriguingly, dedicated his book THE TERROR OF THE NIGHT to Lady Carey, and there still exists a picture depicting this fine-looking young lady as she dances in Ben Jonson’s masque, lithely portraying one of the powers of Juno.
But still, after all the ink that has been spilt over this intriguing lady and future patron of the arts, there is still not one shred of hard evidence to back up this conjecture or any of the ten other possible noble weddings that occurred around the supposed date that MIDSUMMER is believed to have been written. And yet this story persists. Why? Perhaps because it speaks to something deeper than a wonderfully romantic setting for the play and moves closer to an unconscious understanding of what the play is actually “up to”—what the director Peter Brook has called “The Secret Play” of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.
There is an almost computational zeal in how MIDSUMMER catalogues every seeming fear that might beset even the most stouthearted of newlyweds, giving them just pause on their way to the altar. Here we find almost every conceivable romantic farrago under the sun: forced love (Theseus and Hippolyta; Helena and Lysander), unrequited love (Hermia and Demetrius), delusional love (Demetrius and Lysander toward Hermia), failed love (Oberon and Titania), tragic love (Pyramus and Thisbe), divinely insipid love (Pyramus and Thisbe as performed by the rude mechanicals) and, perhaps the most infamous, love-of-someone-who-the-next-morning-turns-out-to-be-an-“ass” (literally for Titania and, thankfully, more figuratively for the rest of us).
In Peter Brook’s famous reading of the play, Shakespeare not only displays all of these maladies of love, but also goes about dispelling them one by one. And it is here, with this dramatic aim, that we come to the heart of the play’s action, its secret core, which is nothing short of bestowing a benediction on all of us “foolish mortals” who fear love’s true call. It beseeches us not to stop at the foot of love’s seeming abyss but to make the greatest leap of all and, in so doing, perpetuate this humble human race so it may continue to” leap” and “love” its way to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit. This dramatic impulse reaches its overt poetic zenith in Oberon and Titania’s final command to their fellow fairies:
Now until the break of day
through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride bed will we,
Which by us shall blessed be,
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate.
A gentle restorative that urges us onward; one hopes it might have allayed whatever worries the supposed Lady Carey might have had. It certainly seems to have done the trick for future generations of audiences in the four-hundred-odd years since it was first recited, becoming a worthy paean for the leap toward matrimony. After all, as Benedick, another of Shakespeare’s immortal lovers has said, “the world must be peopled!”
– Brian Kulick, Artistic Director