One of the most incredibly frustrating (but also incredibly beautiful) things about Shakespeare’s work is how fluid it is. As an example, arguably his most famous soliloquy, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, exists in three distinctly different versions in the earliest published volumes of the play.
The existence of these different forms is infuriating for Shakespearean scholars and enthusiasts who want to read the “real” version of the play—which version that is, though, will likely never be answered.
The classes on Shakespeare that I’ve taken and enjoyed the most have focused instead on what meaning can be gleaned from the differences—what is gained in the transition from “I, there’s the point” in the First Quarto, to “That is the Question” in the First Folio?
Maybe nothing is gained at all; maybe we’re all projecting meaning on differences that are truly just editorial mistakes, but a lot of literary interpretation is projection, and there’s only so much one can say about Hamlet’s state of mind before one has to move on to other things. Indeed, the more scholarly work that is done about Shakespeare’s plays, the less there is to say.
Since it was written in 1595 or 1596, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has been in some kind of production. Eventually, to avoid the existence of dozens of carbon copy productions, directors have made changes to the script.
Late last month, Russell T. Davies released a 90-minute “Midsummer’s Night” movie on BBC, which after seeing this article about the “lesbian kiss” Davies added, I decided to watch. As it turns out, that kiss wasn’t the only changed Davies included.
Davies’ adaptation turns the play on its head. The original version opens in Athens, where the apparently benign Duke Theseus is planning his marriage to the Amazon queen Hippolyta. In Shakespeare, Hippolyta is a conventional, blandly appropriate character whose needs and wants mirror her husband-to-be’s.
In Davies’ adaptation, Theseus is portrayed as a dictator who’s aesthetic and behavior is very obviously drawn from Nazi Germany, and the first time we see Hippolyta, she is wheeled into the room on a kind of gurney, wearing a straightjacket and a leather muzzle.
She remains in these restraints until the very end of the play—even at her wedding ceremony, she is wearing a straightjacket over her wedding dress—and most of her lines are cut from the production. She has one short speech in the first act of the play, which is fed to her from a kind of teleprompter held by one of Theseus’ servants.
In the original Greek myth, Theseus is an Athenian hero who kidnaps Hippolyta on his way back to Athens from killing the Minotaur; whether or not Shakespeare intended for audiences to think about the myth while watching “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is unknowable, but traditional readings of the play usually don’t address the characters’ mythical backstory.
Davies, on the other hand, has played up the kidnapping tremendously, making it incredibly obvious that Hippolyta is being forced to marry Theseus against her will, unambiguously casting Theseus as a villain and Hippolyta as a victim.
At the end of Davies’ production, Theseus dies (sorry, spoilers) which is a major deviation from the original play, and Hippolyta is released from her straightjacket to reveal fairy wings, another major deviation. The “lesbian kiss” that drew me into the production in the first place takes place between Hippolyta and the fairy queen Titania at the very end of the movie, and the tizzy that the community has worked itself into about the kiss is somewhat over-exaggerated.
The kiss is fairly chaste and, I think, added largely for the shock value. That being said, Hippolyta’s revealed status as a member of the fairy community and her apparent romantic connection to the fairy queen adds a new layer to the play and the potential it holds for relationships.
The plot of the original play is somewhat convoluted, but, as per usual with Shakespeare’s comedies, at the end, everything is wrapped up perfectly. The lovers’ obstacle is removed and everyone marries who they want (and are supposed) to marry.
The main plot of “MND” is a love square between Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, and Davies’ production largely mirrors the original in its depiction of the foursome’s romantic squabbles. Hermia and Lysander are in love, but her father doesn’t approve, so they plan to elope into the woods.
Helena, who is madly in love with Demetrius (who is in love with Hermia) tells Demetrius their plan in hopes of gaining his favor. Ultimately they all end up in the woods, the perfect liminal space for growth and change, and they all end up in the matched pairs they are supposed to end up in.
Another difference between productions is that in Davies’ adaption, Puck makes a mistake anointing the lovers’ eyes with a magic flower, which makes Demetrius, for a brief moment, enamored with Lysander. The mistake is quickly righted, and both men are again aligned with the original plot and in love with the right women.
For that moment, though, some of the lines that Demetrius is supposed to speak to Helena in praise of her beauty he addresses, instead, to Lysander. The slight deviation opens an interesting possibility of same-sex relations in Shakespeare.
One of his other comedies, “Twelfth Night,” subtly explores the possibility of same-sex relationships a little more explicitly, when a woman cross-dresses as a man and forms potentially romantic relationships with both a man and a woman, so the idea of that same thread stretching into his other plays is not totally outside the realm of possibility.
The gender constructs in the time that Shakespeare was writing were fairly conventional, which is what makes the conversation about unconventional constructions worth having, and those constructions are what Davies is pulling apart and inviting his audience to consider more carefully.
A lot of the articles I read about Davies’ adaptation before I watched it hailed what Davies did as simultaneously very true to Shakespeare and also subversive of the original work. At first glance those two actions seem mutually exclusive, but in reality, that dichotomy is the beauty of Shakespeare. Where else can you challenge the meaning of a work while doing your best to honor it, and be successful in both endeavors?