A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Sandman Meditations

Dates in fiction always cause my meaning-minded ears to prick up, and when a date is the first text in an issue of Sandman, a work rich with allusions, I pay close attention.

“June 23rd, 1593” are the words that invoke this story, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.  June 23rd: St. John’s Eve, one of the days of the midsummer solstice.  1593, the year Christopher Marlowe died.

Many scholars fix the earliest possible date for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at 1594, the year when, famously, King James in Scotland had a chariot brought in to a feast by a Moor instead of a lion, because people feared the lion would cause too much terror amongst the audience.  The Rude Mechanicals in Midsummer fear bringing a lion into a royal gathering for similar reasons.

In his introduction to the Arden edition of Midsummer, Harold F. Brooks discusses the date and occasion of the play for more than twenty pages, finally concluding, “The hypothesis which fits the largest number of facts and probabilities — though it must remain a hypothesis — is that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was composed in the winter of 1595-6, for the Carey wedding on 19 February…”  Plenty of scholars are less certain about the occasion, but 1595-6 is one of the most accepted probable dates for the play’s composition, putting it on one side or the other of Romeo & Juliet, a play with which it shares many similarities of plot, theme, and, especially, style.

But all of this is, as Brooks admits, hypothetical.  It’s possible the play was performed during the summer of 1593 — in fact, it’s more likely that it was performed that summer than that it was first performed for an audience of faeries and goblins.

The key to understanding why 1593 is a good choice for Sandman’s “Midsummer” is Marlowe.  We saw Marlowe and Shakespeare briefly in issue 13, “Men of Good Fortune”, and learned there that Shakespeare’s creative genius was the result of a bargain with the Sandman.  (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” clarifies exact terms of that bargain — terms that Shakespeare himself will not understand until 1596, when his son Hamnet dies.)

On page 16, the Sandman reveals to Shakespeare that Marlowe has recently been killed.  Shakespeare is shocked and saddened, which surprises the Lord of Dreams, who says, “I did not realize it would hurt you so.”

“You did not realize?” Shakespeare says.  “No, your kind care not for human lives.”

Emotional distance is one of the primary concerns of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and it is tied closely to questions of the value of art and creation.  (Note that the faeries call the Sandman “Shaper”.)  Shakespeare is hurt and horrified by the Sandman’s inability to empathize with a mortal’s view of death, while Hamnet is pained by his father’s absorption into the world of his plays.  “All that matters to him,” Hamnet says, “…All that matters is the stories.”

As in “Calliope”, we see again the dangers of art.  Creative acts require a certain distance from the stuff of life, because within the distance lies creative vision.  Many writers speak of  embarrassment, even shame, at the part of themselves that sees all their experiences as potential material for their art.  No experience, no matter how ecstatic or traumatic, can be fully inhabited if part of the brain insists on considering how the experience can be shaped and used for a story or a poem or a song or a play.  Devotion to art, too, often makes people bad parents, bad spouses, bad friends — not just because of the distance between experience and art, but because creativity is, at its best, all-consuming.  All that matters is the stories.

Shakespeare is unaware that the genius allowing his work to become immortal (or as close to immortal as anything made from the perishable goods of language, ink, and paper can be) is also a force that makes his emotional life rhyme with that of the immortal beings for whom human death is nothing to get worked up over.  He might be surprised to discover his son finds him distant and thinks his true loyalties lie with his plays and poetry, not people.  Readers who know that Hamnet died in childhood will immediately see the personal tragedy presented here; readers for whom the last panel of the issue, which notes Hamnet’s death, is a surprise may feel the tragedy even more acutely at the moment of surprise.

Somewhat more subtly, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” considers how the world is represented through the art for which people sacrifice lives and loves.  The audience for the play is not just a bunch of strange and marvelous beings — the audience for the play is the beings who are themselves represented in parts of the play.  When Puck takes over for the actor playing him, he becomes not just Puck or “Puck”, but Puck playing an actor playing Puck.  This is much like what happens with female characters in many of the comedies where women disguise themselves as men (e.g. Twelfth Night).  In the original performances, such plot devices had added resonances. Women were forbidden from being actors in Shakespeare’s England, and so, as we see in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the women were played by boys.  The role reversals created performances where boys played women playing men.

What, then, is authentic and meaningful in art?  What is art’s value and purpose?  Is there something other than just entertainment — a diversion to kill some time — here?

Meaning is produced not by authenticity, but by representation.  Questions of truth and fact come up many times in this issue of Sandman, and Dream himself addresses the question toward the end, when Lord Auberon says, “This diversion, though pleasant, is not true.  Things never happened thus,” and the Sandman replies, “Oh, but it IS true.  Things need not have happened to be true.  Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.”  Dream made his bargain with Shakespeare as a way to keep old stories alive, to pass along versions of truth from era to era, reality to reality — to escape the dust of memory.

Representations do not have to be authentic to be true, nor does authenticity create durability.  Long-lasting art can be as artificial as one of Shakespeare’s most artificial plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play full of rhetoric and whimsy and fantasy.  Such things allow a distance from the stuff of life, and within that distance we can find the objectivity to discern truths otherwise invisible to us.  Artists risk loneliness and devastation when they delve into that distance, but the result can be a work — a truth — for the ages.

Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.