‘This green plot shall be our stage’
Elizabethan playhouses such as the Globe left ample room for the imagination, and this is nowhere more evident than in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
When Oberon notices Demetrius and Helena in the forest outside of Athens and says ‘I am invisible; / And I will overhear their conference’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the audience must simply accept this statement and pretend that he is invisible.
The amphitheatres of Shakespeare’s London were timberframed buildings, some shaped in a circle and some square; they were not all identical, though they shared some features, including a tiring house (where actors put on their ‘tires’ – costumes and wigs); a scenic façade or tiring house wall; either two or three doors for actors to enter on to the stage; an upper playing space and musicians’ room or gallery; galleries for the audiences to sit and a pit or yard where ‘groundlings’ would stand; most theatres had a stage roof which was likely painted, some grander than others. The backdrops to the stage would have been painted with classical motifs and figures and the roof over the stage or ‘heavens’ painted with stars or the zodiac.
In such theatrical conditions, audiences in Shakespeare’s time would have been accustomed to using their imaginations capaciously. Staging with elaborate sets was not practical, nor was it necessary in this period. Shakespeare and his contemporaries had to rely on an audience to fill in the gaps. The dynamic combination of theatre architecture, words, action and imagination made attending theatre in these playing spaces thrilling and limitless experiences.
Shakespeare was a unique playwright in this period in that he was a shareholding member of the theatre company he wrote for; most playwrights wrote on a freelance basis. Perhaps this gave Shakespeare a special insight not only into each nook and cranny of the playhouses his company occupied – the Theatre until 1597/8, the Curtain for a time (both in Shoreditch) and finally the first Globe Theatre, 1599-1613 – but also into the ways a theatre company worked.
Throughout his plays, there are many allusions, references and playful gestures towards the shape, texture and materials of the theatre building, the act of playing or acting, rehearsal practices and the very illusion of theatricality itself. Some plays do this more than others. The two plays that opened Michelle Terry’s first season as Artistic Director last summer, Hamlet and As You Like It, are two such plays, with their references to the stage roof as ‘fretted with golden fire’ (Hamlet) or to fools gathered in a circle (As You Like It).
A Midsummer Night’s Dream could be considered one of Shakespeare’s love letters to the theatre. With its extraordinary emphasis on the faculty of the imagination and its attention to the mechanics of putting on a play, it moves its audience in and out of the fictional frame, asking us to see the theatre vividly, then asking us to see only the woods. Dreaming becomes an analogous activity to playgoing, as implausible illusion and poetic magic work together to create an experience that seems impossible to relay after the event. Bottom himself discovers:
I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of a man to say what dream it was. Man is an ass if he go about to expound this dream
Shakespeare is suggesting that after attending a play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to try and explain what you have just seen in a rational way may be an impossible task. The limitless potential of the play as a dream metaphor means Shakespeare could make the impossible happen: fairies dancing in a round; a man turning into an ass; lovers confounded by the juice of a flower.
However, the impossible is consistently shown to be possible because of the mechanics and technologies of Renaissance theatre and the endlessness of human imagination – both the imagination of the audience and of the poet/playwright. Sixteenth-century poetic theory reinforced the role the imaginative faculty had to play in creating poetry, The poet and courtier, Sir Philip Sidney wrote:
Only the poet…lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature brings forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like.
Sidney very boldly suggests the poet has capabilities to invent worlds that exceed even Nature’s skill. Theseus reiterates this sentiment when he tells Hippolyta:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance 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
The extolment of imagination and the capacity of the poet speaks to the artistic power of theatre itself. Shakespeare, being a writer of plays, shows us how the participation of the audience and theatricality cooperate in giving shape to a poet’s fantasies. He takes his audience on a journey through the theatre even while he is asking them to imagine they are in a forest. What he draws upon is the audience’s capability to be in two places at once and to be perfectly comfortable with this. The best illustration of this might be in the rehearsal scenes and the play-within-a-play performed by the Rude Mechanicals. As they enter the forest, Quince immediately reminds the audience that they occupy both a theatre and a forest:
…here’s a marvellous convenient place for our rehearsal. This green plot shall be our stage, this hawthorn brake our tiring house; and we will do it in action, as we will do it before the Duke.
The ‘green plot’ he points out is of course the stage, the hawthorn brake is the tiring house wall, but here we are being asked to erase what we see, paint over it with a green plot and hawthorn brake and then re-imagine a stage and tiring house wall. It sounds dizzying but it is a tactic Shakespeare uses time and again because it is playful and it enables him to transport his audience anywhere even while their feet are firmly planted in the playhouse.
In Act V when the Mechanicals are performing Pyramus and Thisbe, Shakespeare takes the visibility of the theatrical process that he has subtly interwoven into the play to a parodic level. The Mechanicals take their play very seriously even if they are being heckled by the aristocratic audience; in their serious attempt to perform, they break in and out of the fictional story. At one point Theseus heckles that the wall ‘being sensible, should curse again’ but Bottom (playing Pyramus) addresses him and draws attention to the fact that it’s just a play: ‘No, in truth sir… “Deceiving me” is Thisbe’s cue: she is to enter now, and I am to spy her through the wall’. While some argue this suggests the Mechanicals are foolish, Shakespeare is trying to show us the very porous line between theatricality, dreams and life itself.
A version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be streamed for free in 2020 as part of our YouTube Premieres season.