Today was the Shakespeare Club of WA's Annual General Meeting. Now, we all know that most people avoid AGM’s as if they expected to be offered poisonous cookies, or at least given some kind of job for the year. But this one is always well-attended because after the formal meeting we choose the plays to be read over the next ten months – and we all want a say in the decision-making process.
I was tickled pink when my three picks all ‘got a guernsey’ as we say in Australia. (That’s a saying from the national game of Aussie Rules Football. The players wear shirts called ‘guernseys’, and if you ‘get a guernsey’ it means you got a place on the team.) So the three plays I nominated must’ve been general favourites, because they were the selected works for 2016. They are All Well that Ends Well, Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Like many other Shakespeare enthusiasts, I love the middle-period comedies best of all, so I was really happy to see two of them win a spot. Normally, we try to include a comedy, a tragedy and history in the works to be studied, but this time Julius Caesar serves as both history and tragedy.
Here are quick summaries of the plays, largely by courtesy of our friends at Wikipedia –
All’s Well that Ends Well:
Helena, the low-born ward of a Spanish countess, is in love with the countess's son Bertram, who is indifferent to her. Bertram goes to Paris to replace his late father as attendant to the ailing King of France. Helena, the daughter of a recently deceased doctor, follows Bertram, ostensibly to offer the King her services as a healer. The King is sceptical, and she guarantees the cure with her life: if he dies, she will be put to death, but if he lives, she may choose a husband from the court. The King is cured and Helena chooses Bertram, who rejects her, owing to her poverty and low status. The King forces him to marry her, but after the ceremony Bertram immediately goes to war in Italy without so much as a goodbye kiss. He says that he will only marry her after she has borne his child and wears his family ring. In Italy, Bertram is a successful warrior and also a successful seducer of local virgins. Helena follows him to Italy, befriends Diana, a virgin with whom Bertram is infatuated, and they arrange for Helena to take Diana’s place in bed. Diana obtains Bertram’s ring in exchange for one of Helena’s. In this way Helena, without Bertram’s knowledge, consummates their marriage and wears his ring. Helena returns to the Spanish countess, who is horrified at what her son has done, and claims Helena as her child in Bertram’s place. Helena fakes her death, and Bertram, thinking he is free of her, comes home. He tries to marry a local lord’s daughter, but Diana shows up and breaks up the engagement. Helena appears and explains the ring swap, announcing that she has fulfilled Bertram’s challenge; Bertram, impressed by all she has done to win him, swears his love to her. Thus all ends well. There is a subplot about Parolles, a disloyal associate of Bertram’s. A recurring theme throughout the play is the similarity between love and war.
Julius Caesar is certainly historically-based, but it is less about Roman politics than the character of the man most responsible for Caesar’s downfall, Brutus. The play is an excellent specimen of what today we call ‘psychological drama’ in its depiction of Brutus's struggle with the conflicting demands of honour, patriotism and friendship. I studied this one in high school and always love to revisit it.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is another one with high school memories for many of us. It’s one of the most accessible of Shakespeare’s plays, yet one can read it see it again and again and find further nuances every time.
The play consists of four interconnecting plots, connected by a celebration of the wedding of Duke Theseus of Athens and the Amazon queen, Hippolyta, which is set simultaneously in the woodland and in the realm of Fairyland, under the light of the moon.
The play opens with Hermia, who is in love with Lysander, on wanting to submit to her father Egeus' demand that she wed Demetrius, whom he has arranged for her to marry. Helena meanwhile pines unrequitedly for Demetrius. Enraged, Egeus invokes an ancient Athenian law before Duke Theseus, whereby a daughter must marry the suitor chosen by her father, or else face death. Theseus offers her another choice: lifelong chastity while worshiping the goddess Artemis as a nun.
Peter Quince and his fellow players plan to put on a play for the wedding of the Duke and the Queen, "the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe". Quince reads the names of characters and bestows them to the players. Nick Bottom, who is playing the main role of Pyramus, is over-enthusiastic and wants to dominate others by suggesting himself for the characters of Thisbe, the Lion, and Pyramus at the same time. He would also rather be a tyrant and recites some lines of Ercles. Quince ends the meeting with "at the Duke's oak we meet".
(Below) The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Joseph Noel Paton
In a parallel plot line, Oberon, king of the fairies, and Titania, his queen, have come to the forest outside Athens. Titania tells Oberon that she plans to stay there until she has attended Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding. Oberon and Titania are estranged because Titania refuses to give her Indian changeling to Oberon for use as his "knight" or "henchman", since the child's mother was one of Titania's worshipers. Oberon seeks to punish Titania's disobedience. He calls upon Robin "Puck" Goodfellow, his "shrewd and knavish sprite", to help him concoct a magical juice derived from a flower called "love-in-idleness", which turns from white to purple when struck by Cupid's arrow. When the concoction is applied to the eyelids of a sleeping person, that person, upon waking, falls in love with the first living thing they perceive. He instructs Puck to retrieve the flower with the hope that he might make Titania fall in love with an animal of the forest and thereby shame her into giving up the little Indian boy. He says, "And ere I take this charm from off her sight,/As I can take it with another herb,/I'll make her render up her page to me."
Hermia and Lysander have escaped to the same forest in hopes of eloping. Helena, desperate to reclaim Demetrius's love, tells Demetrius about the plan and he follows them in hopes of killing Lysander. Helena continually makes advances towards Demetrius, promising to love him more than Hermia. However, he rebuffs her with cruel insults against her. Observing this, Oberon orders Puck to spread some of the magical juice from the flower on the eyelids of the young Athenian man. Instead, Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, not having actually seen either before, and administers the juice to the sleeping Lysander. Helena, coming across him, wakes him while attempting to determine whether he is dead or asleep. Upon this happening, Lysander immediately falls in love with Helena. Oberon sees Demetrius still following Hermia and is enraged. When Demetrius goes to sleep, Oberon sends Puck to get Helena while he charms Demetrius' eyes. Upon waking up, he sees Helena. Now, both men are in pursuit of Helena. However, she is convinced that her two suitors are mocking her, as neither loved her originally. Hermia is at a loss to see why her lover has abandoned her, and accuses Helena of stealing Lysander away from her. The four quarrel with each other until Lysander and Demetrius become so enraged that they seek a place to duel to prove whose love for Helena is the greater. Oberon orders Puck to keep Lysander and Demetrius from catching up with one another and to remove the charm from Lysander. Lysander returns to loving Hermia, while Demetrius continues to love Helena.
(Below) A Midsummer Night's Dream by Charles A. Buchel
Meanwhile, Quince and his band of six labourers ("rude mechanicals", as they are described by Puck) have arranged to perform their play about Pyramus and Thisbe for Theseus' wedding and venture into the forest, near Titania's bower, for their rehearsal. Bottom is spotted by Puck, who (taking his name to be another word for a jackass) transforms his head into that of a donkey. When Bottom returns for his next lines, the other workmen run screaming in terror, much to Bottom's confusion, since he has no idea what has happened. Determined to await his friends, he begins to sing to himself. Titania, having received the love-potion, is awakened by Bottom's singing and immediately falls in love with him. She lavishes him with attention and presumably makes love to him. While she is in this state of devotion, Oberon takes the changeling. Having achieved his goals, Oberon releases Titania, orders Puck to remove the donkey's head from Bottom, and arranges everything so Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander will all believe they have been dreaming when they awaken. Puck distracts Lysander and Demetrius from fighting over Helena's love by mimicking their voices and leading them apart. Eventually, all four find themselves separately falling asleep in the glade. Once they fall asleep, Puck administers the love potion to Lysander again, claiming all will be well in the morning.
The fairies then disappear, and Theseus and Hippolyta arrive on the scene, during an early morning hunt. They wake the lovers and, since Demetrius no longer loves Hermia, Theseus overrules Egeus's demands and arranges a group wedding. The lovers decide that the night's events must have been a dream. After they exit, Bottom awakes, and he too decides that he must have experienced a dream "past the wit of man". In Athens, Theseus, Hippolyta and the lovers watch the six workmen perform Pyramus and Thisbe. The performers are so terrible playing their roles that the guests laugh as if it were meant to be a comedy, and everyone retires to bed. Afterwards, Oberon, Titania, Puck, and other fairies enter, and bless the house and its occupants with good fortune. After all the other characters leave, Puck "restores amends" and suggests to the audience that what they just experienced might be nothing more than a dream.
So, we embark on another Shakespearean journey! If you live in Perth, why not come and join us in our odyssey?