KR Blog

Daniel Elihu Kramer’s Midsummer

Because I am quite intrigued by Daniel Elihu Kramer’s thoughts about Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I thought that I would write a blog in response while I’m also looking forward to reading Kramer’s further thoughts as his production of the play develops. It seems to me that his emphasis on change and transformation very much gets at the central dynamic of the play, for it is not Bottom only who is transformed, in the woods outside of Athens, that night; hearts are changed as well, if only a little, for in the end Theseus overrides Egeus’s will that his daughter, Hermia, marry either Demetrius or join a convent (in ancient Greece no less). Thus, while the Athenian status quo remains unaltered, the local culture has a flexibility at the end of the play that it did not have at the start. I take it to be a fairly common interpretation of the play that Theseus’s change of heart is not the result merely of his own marriage, but also–and perhaps primarily–that of the play’s dreamwork. As the human lovers and the mechanicals have infiltrated the woods, so have the fairies infiltrated the city, along with the mind and heart of the city’s Stalwart leader, Thesus. The world of transformation–associated with the moon and woods– that the fairies represent has come to exert a stronger force on the daylight world of the city.

There is one passage from the play that has long intrigued me, Bottom’s speech upon awakening from his transformation, near the end of Act four: “I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was–there is no man can tell what. Methought I was and methought I had–but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was.” As is well known, what Bottom misquotes here is from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 2:9-10: “But as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’–these things God has revealed to us through the spirit.”

This passage has circulated rather widely through our literature. Of course, many passages from Scripture have thus circulated and continue to do so; it’s just that this one keeps showing in things that I read, showing up in particularly haunting ways. I believe Jan Kott points out, in a discussion of Midsummer, that the allusion to this passage in First Corinthians occurs near the end of Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly. Folly is describing the experience of the Godly fool in a state of mystical rapture (I am quoting from Clarence Miller’s translation): “This, indeed, is what the prophet promises: ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has the heart of man conceived what things God has prepared for those who love him.’ And this is Folly’s part, which shall not be taken from her by the transformation of life, but shall be perfected.” Here “Folly’s part” is a promised stay against the “transformation of life,” though the promised perfection is a kind of transformation too, quite a radical transformation, it seems, given Folly’s further description of the mystic awakening from ecstasy: “Those who have the privilege of experiencing this (and it happens to very few) undergo something very like madness: they talk incoherently, not in a human fashion, making sounds without sense…. Soon after, when they come to themselves, they say they do not know where they have been, whether in the body or out of it, whether waking or sleeping. They do not remember what they heard or saw or said or did except in a cloudy way, as if it were a dream.” This description sounds much like Bottom’s state of passionate confusion as he awakens in the woods, implying that his experience of extreme physicality and sensuality–traditionally associated with the ass, into which he has been transformed–is also linked with mysticial experience. Thus, Midsummer is a realm of integration as well as transformation, a coming together of the deeply spiritual and the decidedly physical.

Recently, another allusion to First Corinthians 2:9-10 has come to my attention, at the end of Mark Strand’s book Man and Camel (2006). In fact, it comes up in the closing lines of the book, which ends with a sequence entitled “Poem After the Seven Last Words.” The seven last words alluded to are the words, actually the utterances, of Christ on the cross. Perhaps the most famous of these utterances is Jesus’ quoting of the opening of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Each poem in the sequence makes its own use of one of these utterances, but the last poem in the sequence also alludes to the passage from First Corinthians. Here is the latter half of the poem: “And beyond, / as always, the sea of endless transparence, of utmost / calm, a place of constant beginning that has within it / what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand / has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart. / To that place, to the keeper of that place, I commit myself.”

This passage is indeed much quoted and alluded to, as it was already being quoted or alluded to when St. Paul wrote it down. Traditionally, what is pointed to as St. Paul’s source is the Book of Isaiah 64:4: “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” However, I find in the notes of my copy of The New Oxford Annotated Bible the conjecture that Paul might be alluding to “a Jewish writing that drew on Isa 64.4.” Thus, in various senses, this passage shows in perhaps an especially intensive way what all language constantly does as long as it remains alive–it circulates and transforms in meaning, speaking to and into the context in which it occurs. Part of what I find especially compelling about this passage’s circulations and transformations is the way it constantly calls the reader beyond itself as it addresses the desire always for something beyond–what eye has not seen, what ear has not heard–what many find represented in and by the woods, the moon, the ocean, and much of human folly. I suspect that it is also why many of us write and, like Bottom, put on plays.