A Thought Dance Through a Midsummer Night’s Dream

“Heavenly as the radiant stars, immortal eyes appear, eyes which the night has opened within us.”
            –Novalis

As I was reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream this quote from Novalis came to me in an associative kind of thought which grew out of the play’s imagery. Throughout the first two Acts we get repeated moon and eye images and metaphors linked with the theme of sight. Indeed in the very first lines some of these central themes arise–take Theseus’ first words for example:

THESEUS  Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in
Another moon–but O, methinks how slow
This old moon wanes!… (1.1, 1-4)

Perhaps it would be a stretch to say that the word choice of “nuptial” recalls “nocturnal,” but I for one actually misread it as “nocturnal” on first glance, perhaps anticipating the theme of Night from the play’s title. But in any case the next word “hour” sets up the theme of Time–closely related to the movements of the moon–and also, being a homonym for “our,” it foreshadows themes of possession (by Law), metamorphosis (of identity). The word “Draws” in the next line calls two themes to mind–the obvious one being Time, the apparent passing of time (as it draws apace); the second theme is more subtle: the theme of art (to draw), which is more prevalent than we might first imagine. Later in 2.2 line 110 Lysander exclaims, “Transparent Helena, nature shows art/ That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart.” Art here has less to do with what we today consider artistic–that is, something which contains artifice and is therefore pleasurable to the intellect or our arbitrary tastes–it is rather a magical force of nature, an alchemical force symbolized in the sweet juice of the pansy. Nature’s art transforms the soul to make it capable of supernatural perception–the night awakens “sphery” eyes within us. And so a relationship forms between day and night, which Theseus hints at in the following words: “Four happy days bring in/ Another moon.” This also recalls the title: A Mid/summer Night’s Dream. “Mid” suggests transition while “summer” is a time of waking daylight and “night” of course a time of dream; as we know, the laws of Time do not apply to our dream life in the way they apply to our waking hours. Dreams are a time of vision, a time when through symbolic images–perhaps akin to fairytale pictures–our inner struggles can arise before our souls in a certain mood, and through the magical powers of transmutation, through metamorphosis, we come to see the dynamic, unfathomable depths of our beings. The powers of dream are closely linked to the forces of the moon, the sphere O which opens our inward eyes to a new reality in sleep. But although we dream most intensely in the night, our dreams–however dim they may be–stay with us throughout the day; it is just that the light of dream consciousness is like a small flame in the daylight of waking consciousness, so that we rarely glimpse these metamorphoses; but sometimes they arise and form the foundations of great art.
    Although Hippolyta says only these lines in the first two Acts, they are some of the most prescient and beautiful in the play:

HIPPOLYTA  Four days will quickly steep themselves in night,
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities. (1.1, 7-11)

Here again we see this relationship of day to night through the movement of Time and yet there arises the question of their actual separateness–that is, are day and night truly separate or are they merely aspects of one another, as days steep themselves in night and nights dream away the time. And then the lovely simile which resonates with Cupid’s bow made of silver; silver, a metal, like steel, or to steal away from the town into the wOOds, where eyes OO awaken under the mOOn, Luna the moon (lunatic), who makes one “wood” (archaic diction for “insane”) Luna who “shall behold the night of our solemnities,” from Latin sollus meaning “entire” or Sol, the sun god whose light is reflected palely, solemnly by the moon, or solum meaning “soil” where grow the flowers of the night.
    Indeed in her words live quite poetically the themes which I stutteringly try to indicate in more abstract terms. But that is the magic of poetry: it creates in but a few lines a world of meaning.

“Our life is no Dream, but it may and will perhaps become one.”

                    –Novalis

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2 thoughts on “A Thought Dance Through a Midsummer Night’s Dream

  1. Christina_Joseph

    After reading your blog and looking deeper into the words of Hippolyta’s speech, I realized just how beautiful her words really are. The mention of the moon being Cupid’s bow that will bless their wedding night and their marriage full of love negates the notions that I had at first about their relationship. It seemed as if she was Theseus’ prize for defeating the Amazons; if that were the case then she most likely would not be anticipating her wedding night and reassuring her future husband of how quickly the days and nights will pass so that they can be joined lovingly in the marriage ceremony.

    Reply
  2. Cyrus Mulready

    There is much to ponder from your analysis, Cliff! One idea I'd like to pick up is that of "art," which is treated in interesting and contrasting ways through the text. I agree that there is a sense of Nature's art that permeates the text, but so, too, of man-made art (drama) or even the root meaning of the word, simply to "make." If we think of the "artisans," a term that didn't acquire it's currently gentrified meaning until much later ("I'll be having the artisanal cheese tonight"), then we see another kind of art or making at work–mechanical work that contrasts with the more natural forms of creation (and reproduction) we see elsewhere in the play.

    Reply

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