Teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at times badly

by Mr. Sheehy

My sophomores are wrapping up their reading of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and one of their final tasks was to form an acting troupe and perform Act V. I do not teach a pure Folger’s style Shakespeare unit with acting troupes constantly performing various scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, though I have consulted the Shakespeare Set Free text on many occasions for ideas.

Yet with the final act of Midsummer, I do ask them to perform it (with a script in hand) because I want them to realize that Shakespeare did not write his plays to be read, but to be watched. I have a few main goals for students with the assignment:

  • To recognize and appreciate that the plays involve actions and movement crucial to the interpretation and expression of the words.
  • To interpret sub-text to lines written in the play, realizing that the reader needs to infer meaning to catch what is going on.
  • To narrow their attention to crucial lines that they do understand (cutting away the great amount of material they do not comprehend).

In the end, as often happens, the resulting products were mixed and often disappointing. Among the low-lights, one lion never moved, failing to chase Thisby from the stage or “mouse” Thisby’s garment; a wall failed to separate Pyramus and Thisby, leaving them to speak face to face to one another; and another wall began the scene off stage in a desk, and when summoned by his fellow troupe-members, meandered up towards the stage. This was awful enough to watch itself, but it grew far worse when he turned sharply to his backpack and began to rifle through it looking for his script while his group members writhed.

I laughed, I admit, but I laughed not in the vein of Theseus, who sees “what poor duty cannot do,” and then in “noble respect / Takes it in might, not merit.” In these incidents, unfortunately, I was much closer to Puck, who sings mirthfully, that “those things do best please me / That befal preposterously.”

Yet that is the danger in such assignments. One student told me that their group just didn’t have enough time to do better, and this individual honestly believed it, apparently having not realized that the group spent the majority of their time making fun of one another instead of practicing or discussing how to cut the script down to size.

For future renditions of this assignment, I am considering putting a time limit on the performance, which would force a group to examine the script more closely for things to cut. Too many groups cut too little material, which meant they had not interacted with the text enough. More than one group left it to particular characters to cut his or her lines and then passed around the scripts so everyone else could see what they’d cut–which means they had not seen the cutting as an act of artistic judgment but simply as a way to make lines a bit shorter.

I also need an example of some kind to raise the standard to an acceptable level. I do not ask them to be actors, but I do ask them to be sincerely dedicated students, and if I were to record a group that did well, I could convey what this looks like in practice.

A group I should have recorded performed this morning and gave me one of the highlights of the assignment. The wall stood sideways, holding up her hand with her fingers as the chink, and on opposite sides hunched Pyramus and Thisby. The Thisby, I should note, was a girl with a mustache taped to her lip, clearly marking her as a girl playing a boy playing a girl–something Shakespeare would have been proud of. The part that made it great was that the two lovers stayed hunched through the entire exchange of courting lines, each squinting through the hole in hope of glimpsing the other, making their postures contrast greatly with the attempted romance of the lines. I couldn’t help think of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, particularly the ballet version we watch often at my house, where Romeo extends his arm in longing and frustration, while Juliet reaches down to him with the same sense of desire. Pyramus and Thisby, as performed by Bottom and Flute, continually undercut their attempts to achieve such emotion, and this little snapshot from this group captured that contrast.

Ah, well. In my own way I suppose I am Nick Bottom the Weaver, envisioning greatness and actually believing it to be possible, but in reality providing very tragical mirth for anyone who would find sport in my intents. So be it! I will enjoy the Bard wherever possible, in whatever way possible–even if one needs a bit of imagination to see how the characters and performances match.

I see a voice: now will I to the chink,
To spy an I can hear my Thisby’s face.

Thanks for reading.