Dr. Tripthi Pillai was our featured speaker for the 6th annual Georgetown Shakespeare Festival on January 30, after the matinee performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the American Shakespeare Center, which she attended with several of her students from CCU. She spoke on audience engagement with Shakespeare and involved our students, faculty, and some of the ASC actors in a consideration of how gender, class, and humor work in this play.
“The play doesn’t start with love,” she pointed out. “The dad wants his daughter dead.” In Shakespeare’s time, women were valued while they could produce offspring and a father could force his daughter into an arranged marriage (Hermia/Demetrious) or women could be captured in war and forced to marry (Hippolyta/Theseus). By the end of this play, though, even some men were “forced” into marriage by magic or witchcraft.
The play features three “classes”: the noble Athenians, the Faeries, and the Rude Mechanicals. Dr. Pillai told us that in Shakespeare’s time, fairies were not cute—they were “monstrous and destructive.” Since they could not have children, they stole children from people (the Boy is neither Oberon’s nor Titania’s child). The Mechanicals are lower-class laborers, whom Shakespeare identifies strongly with poets, playwrights, and artists. Bottom and his band put on a terrible performance of Pyramis and Thisbe, which still somehow emotionally moves Titania and the others. Bottom’s “profound speech” when he wakes up from his “dream” of being a king makes us identify with poets and poor people, with anyone whose dream has been snatched away. We laugh at Bottom, but at the same time we feel his loss.
“Laughter is not the same as joy,” said Dr. Pillai. “Laughter has a cruel side.” But humor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is always tempered by audience engagement. When characters are silenced, whether it be through laughter or violence, Shakespeare always gives their voice to another and we hear it again. Dr. Pillai got the students to talk about which characters had engaged them emotionally and students came up with a variety of characters and reasons. Fletcher liked the Duke of Athens. “He makes a bad thing seem chill,” he said.
“It is an honor to see all of you relating to Shakespeare,” Dr. Pillai told us. She complimented our students on their understanding and mastery of the play and encouraged us to keep working. “You all are vibrant with imagination—you should definitely embrace it. Make it big!” she concluded.