THE MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM.
Bottom the Weaver is a character that has
not had justice done him. He is the most roemantic
of mechanics. And what a list of companions
he has--Quince the Carpenter, Snug
the Joiner, Flute the Bellows-mender, Snout
the Tinker, Starveling the Tailor; and then
again, what a group of fairy attendants, Puck,
Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed!
It has been observed that Shakespear's
characters are constructed upon deep physiological
principles; and there is something in this
play which looks very like it. Bottom the
Weaver, who takes the lead of
"This crew of patches, rude mechanicals,|
That work for bread upon Athenian stalls,"
follows a sedentary trade, and he is accordingly
represented as conceited, serious, and fantastical.
He is ready to undertake any thing and
every thing, as if it was as much a matter of
course as the motion of his loom and shuttle.
He is for playing the tyrant, the lover, the
lady, the lion. "He will roar that it shall do
any man's heart good to hear him;" and this
being objected to as improper, he still has a
resource in his good opinion of himself, and
"will roar you an 'twere any nightingale."
Snug the Joiner is the moral man of the piece,
who proceeds by measurement and discretion in
all things. You see him with his rule and compasses
in his hand. "Have you the lion's part
written? Pray you, if it be, give it me, for I
am slow of study."--"You may do it extempore,"
says Quince, "for it is nothing but roaring."
Starveling the Tailor keeps the peace,
and objects to the lion and the drawn sword.
"I believe we must leave the killing out when
all's done." Starveling, however, does not start
the objections himself, but seconds them when
made by others, as if he had not spirit to express
his fears without encouragement. It is
too much to suppose all this intentional: but
it very luckily falls out so. Nature includes
all that is implied in the most subtle analytical
distinctions; and the same distinctions will
be found in Shakespear. Bottom, who is not
only chief actor, but stage-manager for the
occasion, has a device to obviate the danger of
frightening the ladies: "Write me a prologue,
and let the prologue seem to say, we will do no
harm with our swords, and that Pyramus is not
killed indeed; and for better assurance, tell
them that I, Pyramus, am not Pyramus, but
Bottom the Weaver: this will put them out of
fear." Bottom seems to have understood the
subject of dramatic illusion at least as well as
any modern essayist. If our holiday mechanic
rules the roast among his fellows, he is no less
at home in his new character of an ass, "with
amiable cheeks, and fair large ears." He instinctively
acquires a most learned taste, and
grows fastidious in the choice of dried peas and
bottled hay. He is quite familiar with his new
attendants, and assigns them their parts with
all due gravity. "Monsieur Cobweb, good
Monsieur, get your weapon in your hand, and
kill me a red-hipt humble-bee on the top of a
thistle, and, good Monsieur, bring me the honey-bag."
What an exact knowledge is here strewn of natural history!
Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, is the leader of
the fairy band. He is the Ariel of the MIDSUMMER
NIGHT'S DREAM; and yet as unlike
as can be to the Ariel in The Tempest. No
other poet could have made two such different
characters out of the same fanciful materials
and situations. Ariel is a minister of retribution,
who is touched with a sense of pity at
the woes he inflicts. Puck is a mad-cap sprite,
full of wantonness and mischief, who laughs at
those whom he misleads--"Lord, what fools
these mortars be!" Ariel cleaves the air, and
executes his mission with the zeal of a winged
messenger; Puck is borne along on his fairy
errand like the light and glittering gossamer
before the breeze. He is, indeed, a most Epicurean
little gentleman, dealing in quaint devices,
and faring in dainty delights. Prospero
and his world of spirits are a set of moralists:
but with Oberon and his fairies we are launched
at once into the empire of the butterflies. How
beautifully is this race of beings contrasted with
the men and women actors in the scene, by a
single epithet which Titania gives to the latter,
"the human mortals!" It is astonishing that
Shakespear should be considered, not only by
foreigners, but by many of our own critics, as
a gloomy and heavy writer, who painted nothing
but "gorgons and hydras, and chimeras
dire." His subtlety exceeds that of all other
dramatic writers, insomuch that a celebrated
person of the present day said that he regarded
him rather as a metaphysician than a poet. His
delicacy and sportive gaiety are infinite. In
the MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM alone, we
should imagine, there is more sweetness and
beauty of description than in the whole range
of French poetry put together. What we mean
is this, that we will produce out of that single
play ten passages, to which we do not think any
ten passages in the works of the French poets can
be opposed, displaying equal fancy and imagery.
Shall we mention the remonstrance of Helena
to Hermia, or Titania's description of her fairy
train, or her disputes with Oberon about the
Indian boy, or Puck's account of himself and
his employments, or the Fairy Queen's exhortation
to the elves to pay due attendance upon
her favourite, Bottom; or Hippolita's description
of a chace, or Theseus's answer? The
two last are as heroical and spirited as the
others are full of luscious tenderness. The
reading of this play is like wandering in a grove
by moonlight: the descriptions breathe a sweetness
like odours thrown from beds of flowers.
Titania's exhortation to the fairies to wait upon
Bottom, which is remarkable for a certain cloying
sweetness in the repetition of the rhymes,
is as follows:--
"Be kind and courteous to this gentleman.|
Hop in his walks, and gambol in his eyes,
Feed him with apricocks and dewberries,
With purple grapes, green figs and mulberries;
The honey-bags steel from the humble bees,
And for night tapers crop their waxen thighs,
And light them at the fiery glow-worm's eyes,
To have my love to bed, and to arise:
And pluck the wings from painted butterflies,
To fan the moon-beams from his sleeping eyes;
Nod to him, elves, and do him courtesies."
The sounds of the lute and of the trumpet
are not more distinct than the poetry of the
foregoing passage, and of the conversation between
Theseus and Hiopolita.
Theseus. Go, one of you, find out the forester,|
For now our observation is perform'd;
And since we have the vaward of the day,
My love shall hear the music of my hounds.
Uncouple in the western valley, go,
Dispatch, I say, and find the forester.
We will, fair Queen, up to the mountain's top,
And mark the musical confusion
Of hounds and echo in conjunction.
Hippolita. I was with Hercules and Cadmus once,
When in a wood of Crete they bay'd the bear
With hounds of Sparta; never did I hear
Such gallant chiding. For besides the groves,
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seem'd all one mutual cry. I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.
Theseus. My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind,
So flew'd, so sanded, and their heads are hung
With ears that sweep away the morning dew;
Crook-knee'd and dew-lap'd, like Thessalian bulls,
Slow in pursuit, but matched in mouth like bells,
Each under each. A cry more tuneable
Was never halloo'd to, nor cheer'd with horn,
In Crete, in Sparta, nor in Thessaly:
Judge when you hear."--
Even Titian never made a hunting-piece of a
gusto so fresh and dusty, and so near the first
ages of flee world as this.--
It had been suggested to us, that the MIDSUMMER
NIGHT'S DREAM would do admirably
to get up as a Christmas after-piece; and our
prompter proposed that Mr. Kean should play
the part of Bottom, as worthy of his great talents.
He might, in the discharge of his duty,
offer to play the lady like any of our actresses
that he pleased, the lover or the tyrant like any
of our actors that he pleased, and the lion like
"the most fearful wild-fowl living." The carpenter,
the tailor, and joiner, it was thought,
would hit the galleries. The young ladies in
love would interest the side-boxes; and Robin
Goodfellow and his companions excite a lively
fellow-feeling in the children from school.
There would be two courts, an empire within
an empire, the Athenian and the Fairy King
and Queen, with their attendants, and with
all their finery. What an opportunity for processions,
for the sound of trumpets and glittering
of spears! What a fluttering of urchins'
painted wings; what a delightful profusion of
gauze clouds and airy spirits floating on them!
Alas, the experiment has been tried, and has
failed; not through the fault of Mr. Kean, who
did not play the part of Bottom, nor of Mr.
Liston, who did, and who played it well, but
from the nature of things. The MIDSUMMER
NIGHT'S DREAM, when acted, is converted
from a delightful fiction into a dull pantomime.
All that is finest in the play is lost in the representation.
The spectacle was grand; but the
spirit was evaporated, the genius was fled.--Poetry
and the stage do not agree well together.
The attempt to reconcile them in this instance
fails not only of effect, but of decorum. The
ideal can have no place upon the stage, which is
a picture without perspective: every thing there
is in the fore-ground. That which was merely
an airy shape, a dream, a passing thought,
immediately becomes an unmanageable reality.
Where all is left to the imagination (as is the
case in reading) every circumstance, near or
remote, has an equal chance of being kept in
mind, and tells according to the mixed impression
of all that has been suggested. But the
imagination cannot sufficiently qualify the actual
impressions of the senses. Any offence given
to the eye is not to be got rid of by explanation.
Thus Bottom's head in the play is a fantastic
illusion, produced by magic spells: on the stage,
it is an ass's head, and nothing more; certainly
a very strange costume for a gentleman to appear
in. Fancy cannot be embodied any more
than a simile can be painted; and it is as idle
to attempt it as to personate Wall or Moonshine.
Fairies are not incredible, but fairies six feet
high are so. Monsters are not shocking, if they
are seen at a proper distance. When ghosts
appear at mid-day, when apparitions stalk along
Cheapside, then may the MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S
DREAM be represented without injury at Covent-garden
or at Drury-lane. The boards of a
theatre and the regions of fancy are not the same thing.