Ein Sommernachstraum, v.l.n.r.: Langston Uibel, Lili Winderlich
Ein Sommernachstraum, v.l.n.r.: Langston Uibel, Lili Winderlich | © Matthias Horn

Andreas Karlaganis: Reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream it’s notable how many of the themes it addresses affect us today, from climate catastrophe to trigger warnings in the theater. And it is a timeless piece about transformation.

Christina Wald: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is underrated if you think it’s a sweet comedy about fairies. In Shakespeare’s time there was a kind of »hot, mad summer nights« during the festive season of May and June when adolescents took to the forest. Of course, the intention was not the removal of ethical constraints, but it was an initiation ritual with transgressive potential. It was the idea that transformation, both inward and outward, could occur, and witchcraft was also in the cards. In addition to such customs, Shakespeare found inspiration in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which show us transformations of the human into the post-human, be it plants or animals. They are ambivalent transformations. They can be redemption, they can also be punishment, such as imprisonment in the wrong body, a topic we’re currently dealing with regarding transsexuality. Ecocriticism in turn continues to emphasize the narrow physical linkage of the non-human environment and humans. Nick Bottom, the weaver, is turned into a donkey, though interestingly incompletely, he only gets its head. He becomes a hybrid creature. Ecocriticism talks about »trans-species,« a term intended to reveal that humans are not as sovereign and independent from the animal kingdom and nature as we wanted to think for centuries. Climate change and the pandemic have revealed that we are dependent on microbes, viruses, the weather, etc., and thus are interconnected with nature. In this sense, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is indeed a timely work.

The transition into an alternative way of life seems to be connected to feelings of horror. One discovers things in the forest that are related with oneself, but they are unsettling.

CW Yes, Shakespeare also shows us a midsummer night’s nightmare, even as some characters’ great dreams are coming true. Lysander changes his love interest, but he doesn’t suffer as much as some of the others. Nor does Bottom realize that he has transformed into a donkey and is surprised why the Queen of the Fairies, Titania, is doting on him. Only afterwards he is disturbed, trying to put his experience into words. He wrestles with a language that tries to represent the dream. With Titania, the interpretation is disputed: Does she fall into a nightmare, or is she able to live out what she’s always wished for? Someone’s great dream becomes someone else’s nightmare. We see this a lot in unhappy love affairs.

Theater is the art of transformation. In what state are people even capable of transforming themselves?

CW The laborers are called »rude mechanicals« and understand theater as a basic craft. Then again, the fairies are for the theater, and Puck begins his closing monologue with, »If we shadows have offended…« Hence, theater is situated between craft and magic, that high art inaccessible to people. It is the space where transformation and alternative perception are possible. The question is also raised as to how limited the transformation is. Does it end at the fall of the curtain or does it exceed it? It is crucial that Demetrius is not transformed back at the end. If we prefer to associate theater with conjuring and magic, then some of it can continue to exist. That would be the hope which theater actually has.

In magic, substances matter, too – the fairies trickle an elixir into people’s eyes when they’re asleep. Today one could produce this state with drugs.

CW In Shakespeare the boundary between harmful drugs and helpful medicine is not clearly drawn. »Potion« is a neutral term, even »drug« can mean both. We know the term drugstore, for example. So we have a whole spectrum between therapy, intoxication, and poison for these agents at the time. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, love is portrayed as a state of intoxication. If you look at current brain research or findings in biochemistry, it becomes apparent that the state of being in love works similarly. Oberon proudly narrates the genesis of every flower, for which there were various terms at the time, and which only the King of the Fairies could find. Looking closer at what this love juice actually is, one sees that it is indeed a wild pansy, which in Shakespeare’s time grew in every garden in England. We know that legislation at that time prohibited the concoction of love potions, so there must have been a certain belief in them. The piece plays with this cultural imaginary, or rather cultural fear.   

After the summer night’s intoxication ends, Puck describes the doomed souls, who filled with shame, bail before daybreak.

CW Puck is alluding to people who killed themselves, or couldn’t be properly buried for other reasons, and because of this must continue to haunt the living and roam around at night. It is nonetheless interesting for the comedy of it all that at the end of a licentious dream-night, Puck talks about the shame of returning. In Shakespeare’s time, the authorities saw theater as a dangerous alternative world to the morals of the Church. That was one reason why women were not allowed to perform—their display to the public gaze was regarded as a sexual act. Hence the boy actors, who raise entirely different questions regarding the representation of gender and sexuality. Puritans at that time saw theater as a source of danger, a potential source of societal transformation in an undesired way.

Is the time when A Midsummer Night’s Dream was created comparable to this day and age, in which parts of the patriarchal world, for various reasons, are violently and furiously retaliating against change?

CW The system at the time was patriarchal, of course. Still, for decades it did have a female sovereign with Elisabeth I, who skillfully took advantage of the patriarchy and presented herself as a prince. At the same time she was the Virgin Queen. She self-presented using a hyper-contextual ambisexual identity. Overall, what is interesting about the early modern period is that compared to today there were more rigid and moralized values, as far as the legal dress code, which unequivocally indicated class affiliation and gender. Then again in theater, men who dressed up as women were a structural given. In many of Shakespeare’s comedies, these “women” dress up yet again as men. In consequence of which we often have ambiguous sexual and erotic attractions that are same-sex, or ambiguously sexed. Fascinating as well, and this brings us back to transformation, is that in Shakespeare’s time the one sex model prevailed. A highly patriarchal notion which assumed that the one and only gender was male, and women were detained in a preliminary stage. Biologically, it was construed that women had an inverted penis which did not evert due to a lack of body heat. Drawings from that time do not differ greatly from contemporary depictions of sex organs. This suggests that back then women could at least theoretically transform into men. There were stories that purported this had happened. Tangibly, it resolved lesbian romance: A women »transformed« into a man and could thus officially cohabitate with her female partner.

›A Midsummer Night’s Dream‹ back then was already a nostalgic view of unspoiled nature defiled by humans. Christina Wald

Athens is the place that prompts the getaway and the dream in the first place. The piece begins with a father’s death threat towards his daughter, Hermia.

CW Shakespeare only needs a couple of lines to reveal how rigid the system is. He introduces a patriarchal model in which Theseus, the ruler of Athens, says that fathers can mold and warp their daughters like wax. The father is a god who may create, yet also destroy. This system is reflected in Theseus’s historical subjugation of the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta. A closer look at the myth of the Amazons, however, reveals that in their matriarchy young sons and their fathers were killed. Not a sustainable model for the future, but simply an inversion of the existing model: a male nightmare. The question is if the world of the forest and fairies offers us an alternative, a third space. The mere fact that the fairies cannot be sexually categorized already transcends the distribution of power and conventional classification and could in fact offer an alternative world.

AK What was Shakespeare’s relationship to nature? He lived in times when forests were disappearing, for instance.

CW It wasn’t forest dieback, in the sense of disease, rather it was deforestation because wood was needed. So the alternative world was endangered in Shakespeare’s time. The forest was no longer quite as dense, quite as big, quite as far away from civilization, and fell victim to exploitation. A Midsummer Night’s Dream back then was already a nostalgic view of unspoiled nature defiled by humans.

Titania talks about the changing climate. What does she tell us?

CW The climate has gone haywire because Titania and Oberon are feuding. It can be read today as a climate change nightmare. Titania talks about »contagious fogs« haunting people, causing rivers to rise, and ruining the harvest. People are also afflicted by faulty seasons with unpredictable heat and frost. Maybe these lines would have been cut from a production 50 years ago. For us today they make A Midsummer Night’s Dream especially pertinent.

At that time was there a critical relationship to colonialism? The piece addresses it, and we’re still coming to terms with its exploitative consequences today.

CW That’s a question across the board with Shakespeare’s dramas. Are they misogynist, or do they criticize misogyny? Are they anti-Semitic and racist, or do they criticize anti-Semitism and racism? The same question pertains to colonialism. It is touched upon here. In The Tempest it’s a pivotal question. What we can say is that at the time there were definitely critical voices. For example in the 17th century Aphra Behn wrote the story Oroonoko, in which she portrays an African identification figure who becomes enslaved. Then again, there was always economic interest. Official discourse claimed it was land they were entitled to and therefore allowed to conquer. Here again, the fairies are interesting. They’re like us today. They can go around the world fast, consuming and transporting things all over. The fairies are global figures. In Shakespeare’s time that was as yet a utopian future scenario. Now we’ve lived like that and have to cut back.

In the Ruhr region it could be read as referring to a post-industrial era.

CW Maybe it even poses a post-apocalyptic scenario. Station 11, the novel and TV series, is set in a post-apocalypse induced by a pandemic that killed 99% of the human population. Interestingly, a theater group forms that performs Shakespearian dramas. They realize they have to do his comedies to give people a more positive outlook, so they show A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Today we’re turning again to the preindustrial dramas which arose at a time when people were familiar with certain fears, due to deforestation, for example. From our post-perspective we look back and ask what can this pre-perspective tell us? Not just about our past, but perhaps also about our future?

After the decline, something new emerges related to play.

CW Theater, after all, is the art of recycling. Pieces are constantly being re-staged, costumes in general equipment are being used in some cases, actors who’ve already been in a show revive it by playing a different role. It’s very in line with our sustainability concepts today. In this sense theater is an ecological art form.

CHRISTINA WALD is Professor of English and Literary Theory and Director of the Centre for Cultural Inquiry at the University of Konstanz. She has taught at Cologne and Augsburg Universities, at Humboldt University Berlin and Harvard University. Her research interests include: contemporary drama, performance, film, and TV series, as well as Shakespeare’s dramas and early modern prose fiction, particularly issues of adaptation, intertextuality, and transcultural form travels. She is currently a member of the NOMIS research project, Traveling Forms, on postcolonial adaptations of tragedy. She is the author of Hysteria, Trauma and Melancholia: Performative Maladies in Contemporary Anglophone Drama (2007), The Reformation of Romance: The Eucharist, Disguise and Foreign Fashion in Early Modern Prose Fiction (2014), and Shakespeare's Serial Returns in Complex TV (2020). In preparation for Barbara Frey’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she talked to ANDREAS KARLAGANIS, Head Dramaturg at Vienna’s Burgtheater, which co-produced this work.