A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Comedy of Consent, and it’s Dark Undertones
By A Noise Within
November 9, 2023
A good portion of the American youth population came of age during many high-profile #MeToo scandals, and as a result, scores of young people are ever mindful to consider “‘the three C’s’ – consent, consent, and consent.” In the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the bedrock principles of consent are not just ignored but subverted, constructing a nightmarish realm where characters are trapped in a web of uncontrollable desires and decisions. Shakespeare’s comedy, when dissected, reveals itself as a type of horror story, a cautionary tale echoing through the ages about the consequences of disregarding the fundamental principles of consent.
From the very outset, Hermia, despite her love for Lysander, is commanded by Theseus and her father to marry Demetrius under the threat of death or exile as a cloistered nun. This manipulation robs Hermia of her agency and sets the tone for the rest of the play. Throughout the text, Puck serves as the instrument of a host of non-consensual actions on Oberon’s behalf. In the context of the play, we may perceive these acts as necessary to advance the plot. However, when we step back and consider the broader implications, the true peril emerges—hardly anyone in this tale possesses true agency.
Having a sense of agency, and an awareness of that agency, is one of the main things that separates human beings from animals. We have the ability to choose our own fate and try to manifest our own destinies. We have a sense of freedom, and we are not fully beholden to the whims of outside forces. How can we feel anything less than afraid when the very essence of our humanity is taken away from us? How can we laugh, when the entire conceit of the comedy is this lack of agency?
Why should Hermia be almost an innocent bystander, but still suffer the emotional consequences of those surrounding her being under a love spell? Couldn’t Hermia and Lysander have met the merry band of actors in the forest, and convinced them to stage a play about their love? Surely, the bait and switch could prove to be equally humorous and could’ve elicited the same number of laughs from the audience. When our frolicking foursome awake from their hypnotic sleep induced by a potion that gives them the ability to forget the finer points of how they found themselves in love in the middle of the forest, they experience something akin to emotional motion sickness, being forced to surrender to their new circumstances. They have been out of control of their bodies, their feelings and their lives. If we were to remove the play from the vacuum of the stage, the messiness would reveal itself starting off as a small hairline fracture before completely cracking into something resembling the Grand Canyon.
But this is a stage. And somehow this comedy still elicits laughs, from high-schoolers to elderly members of the audience. The walls of the theatre literally shake with their laughter every performance. So there is a way to find humor in the constant state of calamity…
Social norms have changed drastically since Shakespeare’s time. We ask for multiple forms of consent on a regular basis depending on the situation: informed consent, enthusiastic consent, written consent etc. Neglecting the necessity of consent can lead to legal repercussions. It is often a criminal act to ignore the need for consent.
Bridging this culture gap, and allowing the comedy to surface in authentic ways, shows true deft directorial, design, and performing decisions. Rather than going the traditional route and creating an environment that is chock-full of colorful, magical, and whimsical elements—which erase the consent problem entirely—the team at A Noise Within opted to create a much more dark stage picture. In this way, they acknowledge the more sinister parts of the play. And doing so, the comedy is allowed to flow freely throughout the play in a more honest manner.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not just a comedy; it’s a cautionary tale that, when stripped of its whimsy, reveals the chilling aspects of non-consensual actions. The play forces us to confront the consequences of stripping individuals of their agency and consent. This Dream allows its magic and its message to wash over its audiences, and it is now in its final performances, closing on Sunday, November 12. It is a contemporary and thoughtful take on a classic that withstands the test of time. And—in spite of its complexities and confrontations—it is also very, very funny.