Shakespeare Bulletin (2)

Despite the palpable unfairness of the Athenian law that he chooses to uphold, Theseus is troubled that Hippolyta remains upset with him later in the play; she apparently doesn't appreciate how difficult all this is for him. During the hunt that begins their wedding day, his invocation of harmony through the hounds does not inspire a similar (or trumping) story from Hippolyta. Leaving her sullenly silent, Hoffman has cut these splendid lines:

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 beside 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. (4.1.112-18)

She and we lose the symbolic invocation of a harmonious discord, which in the playtext will help inspire Theseus's decision to witness the Mechanicals' play and which hint at alternative models of concord and cooperation. Instead, Theseus (now for no good reason) starts to praise his hounds as being "bred out of the Spartan kind," by which "their heads are hung / With ears ..."--trailing off incoherently as Hippolyta rides away (4.1.119-21; Hoffman 80).

At that point the lovers are discovered, in fairy-engineered undress, and Theseus finds in them an opportunity to win his bride's approval. His overruling of Egeus and his arbitrary dismissal of Athenian law--which, he had previously claimed, "by no means" might he "extenuate" (1.1.120; not in Hoffman's screenplay)--is presented as an act of reconciliation with Hippolyta, a supreme wedding gift. He decides, however, to hedge his own bets but consulting with her before doing so. When they ride back to the assembly and announce what is now marked as their decision, he begins tentatively but builds in confidence and enthusiasm. All subsequent scenes with Hippolyta are characterized by amity and, it is suggested, mutuality. Theseus has, at least for the moment, avoided the problem of a loveless marriage.

The two other couples in the strictly mortal realm also begin their marriages with deep affection. Hoffman assigns lines, as well as significant business, to Anna Friel's Helena and Calista Flockhart's Hermia during the Mechanicals' performance so they can be seen as mutual partners with their spouses; this way, he can avoid the play's potentially unsettling depiction of these characters being silenced by their new status as wives. Even so, Helena and Hermia have not been treated equally in Hoffman's edits. Their past history has been removed: where the play presents their emerging rivalry as the shadow side of a long, intimate friendship, the film reduces it to merely mud-wrestling over men. Helena's plaintive, conflicted call for solidarity and, indeed, sisterhood with Hermia is reduced to:

Is this all the counsel that we two have shared,
The sisters' vows, the hours that we have spent,
When we have chid the hasty-footed time
For parting us--O, is it all forgot?
And will you rent our ancient love asunder
To join with men in scorning your poor friend?
It is not friendly; 'tis not maidenly.
(3.2.198-201, 215-17; see Hoffman 66)
Although Hoffman will keep Helena's later reference to Hermia being a "vixen when she went to school" (3.2.324; Hoffman 71), he drops other important accounts of the women's shared experience. He suppresses exactly what Helena accuses Hermia of forgetting: All school-days friendship, childhood innocence?
We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds,
Had been incorporate. So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition;
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart;
Two of the first, [like] coats in heraldry,
Due but to one, and crowned with one crest.

These lines are deemed unnecessary, because what matters in this film are male feelings. The textual treatment is replicated in the visual presentation, as Lehmann notes: the camera does not ever "privilege Helena's perspective on the events" of the play (267). We are invited, however, to identify completely with Dominic West's Lysander and

Christian Bale's Demetrius. Lysander is utterly vulnerable in his improvised loincloth--or oversized diaper--made from one of Hermia's petticoats; his passionate, new devotion to Hermia under the influence of the love-flower intensifies the sense of vulnerability. As he blubbers out the line about how "Scorn and derision never come in tears" (3.2.123; Hoffman 63), he is surprised at openly he expresses his emotions. Demetrius, for his part, is exceedingly gentle in his attempts to shake off Helena in the wood. Later, after Helena has repeatedly fallen off her bicycle and cut her knee, Demetrius tends to her wound so attentively that she begins to believe that his recent protestations of love might be true; Hermia's rage intrudes on this potential reconciliation. Later, after Helena has emerged from her wrestling with Hermia, Demetrius helps to wipe some of the mud from her face and she again responds to his ministrations; this moment of trust is interrupted by Lysander's challenge, which in Hoffman's presentation is at least partly inspired by the impression that Demetrius is making on Helena. The point in this version is not what has happened to Helena before entering the wood to make her so suspicious of their statements, but rather what has happened to Demetrius and Lysander within the wood that makes it so important that their statements be believed. The system of male self-assertion and female selfabasement depicted in the play is largely unconsidered and never tested. "We'll try no manhood here" is one of Puck's diversionary taunts to the male lovers as they attempt to settle their dispute over Helena "man-to-man"; the phrase can also stand as a challenge to Hoffman's entire film. The strategies of avoidance may have been prompted by concerns over saving Shakespeare from himself or from his times; they may be rationalized as resistance to textual authority; the results, however, constitute a retreat from the uncertainties of Hoffman's own time, as well as from those within the play text.

The fairy realm employs other avoidance tactics. Oberon is presented as absolutely secure in his power, seated upon a throne that is carved into the rock and decorated with rays: he is the Sun King to Titania's Moon Goddess. In Rupert Everett's portrayal, he is comfortable-- almost careless--with power. The unseasonable weather described by Titania no longer results from their mutual estrangement; here Oberon conjures up a storm, which Titania hastens to calm. "Am not I thy lord?" (2.1.63; Hoffman 22) is not said as this film's Theseus might, with either hesitation or a measure of pleading, but instead with quiet, confident authority. If he is languidly at ease with himself, this Oberon is nevertheless a beneficent deity, genuinely solicitous of Helena and absolutely tender in his insistence on the boy, in his casting of the spell that will lead to Titania's desire for Bottom, and in his awakening of Titania. Casting Rupert Everett, readily recognizable as a gay man in film roles and personal life, allows Hoffman to reinforce further a sense that this Oberon is "above it all" because he presents detachment from the heterosexual pairings that the play problematizes and the film agonizes over. Hoffman, in the published screenplay, strongly suggests that Titania is sexually inexperienced: she and her attendants are so surprised by Bottom's erection that, Hoffman observes, they are "(as HERMIA says) amazed and know not what to say" (59).

The film implies that despite the problems that ensue because of "The love he cannot provide his fairy consort" (Hoffman vii), Oberon must have things easier than the play's other males, because he doesn't have to care what females think.

By contrast, Michelle Pfeiffer's Titania does care about what is going on with the males in her life--Oberon, the changeling boy, and eventually Bottom. Unlike the assured Oberon, she is shifting and uncertain: her identity as a lunar deity is underscored by her having to move onto the scene, carried by attendants, to confront the securely established solar presence of the Fairy King. Dependent upon others' varying responses, she is already marked as a likely candidate for the love-flower's effects. In keeping with her decidedly secondary status in this film and with Hoffman's general practice with the women's roles, significant lines are cut. This Titania is not permitted to join in casting the concluding spell that is meant to bless the marriages and the children produced by these unions: First, rehearse your song by rote, To each word a warbling note:

Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing, and bless this place.

Even four lines were apparently considered too much of a diminution of Oberon's authority. The Mechanicals have their own problems with identity and authority. For Lysander and Demetrius, considerable anxiety has been triggered by a perception that emotional sensitivity is necessary and uncomfortably exposing. For Nick Bottom especially, anxiety is triggered by a personal call to artistic sensitivity that meets with disdain from the general community and especially from his wife. Kevin Kline's Bottom first appears onscreen in the white suit of the dandy, the aesthete--a symbol that becomes a target. As Bottom demonstrates the range of his acting abilities in the town square, two boys of Monte Athena climb some scaffolding above him with bottles of red wine. They pour the wine onto him, inspiring gales of laughter from most of the onlooking villagers. Some consolation is offered within the artistic community, with Roger Rees, as Peter Quince, evincing deep concern at his friend's humiliation here; later, the entire acting troupe is tearfully joyful when Bottom returns to town minus his donkey's ears. The kinship among the Mechanicals recalls the "homosocial bonding" demonstrated by the male actors in Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale (In the Bleak Midwinter) through which "the men can express their mutual affection without becoming maudlin" (Lanier, "Cultural Poltics" 155). Such camaraderie and male-bonding only serve to accentuate the lovelessness of his marriage. At our very first glimpse of her, Mrs. Bottom--who speaks only in Italian--describes her husband (in subtitles) as "that worthless dreamer." Hoffman is not entirely original in placing Bottom in an unhappy marriage: Russell Jackson (40) has noted that drafts of the script for the 1935 Warner Brothers A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle, also present a disapproving Mrs. Bottom; this may be a consequence of casting the most important male star, in that instance James Cagney, in the role and supplying him with further dramatic conflict. The Warner Brothers Dream did not stay with that version of the screenplay, however, and Hoffman's film also deviates from earlier drafts. The published screenplay indicates that Signor and Signora Bottom have an infant child, whose cries go unattended by either parent (Hoffman 17); that degree of physical intimacy and mutual responsibility did not survive either the actual filming or the final edit. In the screenplay, Hoffman goes so far as to label Bottom's wife a "shrew" (17), which in the Shakespearean context should have at the least registered as a questionable term. Also, Bottom was originally to have been not doused with wine, but rather dumped on with donkey manure (16). The change to wine allows for a different kind of emblematic statement. Donkey droppings (in both senses) would have foreshadowed Bottom's transformation into a monster that combines the human with the animal. Hoffman seems to have decided that Bottom's engagement with the fairy realm is more imaginative, even artistic, than elemental: the stain from the red wine dries to pink. Bottom retreats to his home, trying to avoid his wife's notice. Even though he removes his jacket, she sees the rose pink stain on his waistcoat; she turns away silently, dismissively. He's no real man, in her view.

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