Monday, June 23, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Gods

Two weeks ago, we discussed some of the classical heroes present in the world of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This week we are going to take a look at some of the classical gods referenced in Midsummer, beginning with a pair of deities whose portfolios fully encompass the world of Shakespeare's Athens: the twins Apollo and Diana.

Apollo and Diana were twin brother and sister, the children of Jupiter (the king of the gods) and the Titan daughter Latona. When Latona became pregnant with the twins, Jupiter's jealous wife Juno sent a great monster called Python (hence the snake species) to chase Latona all over the world. Juno (as the goddess of childbirth) also forbade all the fixed lands of the Earth from receiving Latona's children. A loophole was found when Latona arrived at the isle of Delos, which, until that point, was a floating island drifting in the Aegean Sea. When the twins were born the island became rooted in the place.

Diana was the firstborn. She became the goddess of the moon. She was associated with nighttime, as her brother Apollo was associated with the daylight hours. On a more abstract level, Diana is associated with the wilderness and wild places. She was the patron of all hunters and the goddess of nature. Much like nature itself, she could be kind and nurturing or brutal and cruel depending on the circumstances. She was a virgin goddess (indeed she was the virgin goddess of classical mythology in that she actively choose to abstain from sexual interaction, whereas Minerva, having sprung from the brain of Jupiter, was a goddess of pure rationality with no baseline sex drive) When the young lover Hermia (played in our production by Emily Anne Childers) refuses to marry Demetrius, she faces a choice between being executed and spending the rest of her life as a virgin priestess. Indeed, there are little references to Hermia's reverence to Diana throughout the play: her insistence that Lysander not sleep with her in the woods (Diana's territory), her stubborn refusal to acquiesce to her father's demands for common social practices and, of course, her fiery temper when wronged.

Apollo was born second and became god of the sun. In opposition to his sister, Apollo is associated with civilization and culture. He was the patron of the fine arts and the god of the city. While his sister was a virgin, Apollo had many affairs and fell in love easily and often (symbolic of civilization's mutability in the face of nature's constancy).

In act 2, scene 1 of Midsummer, the young lover Helena (played in our show by Miranda Fisher), while in pursuit of her love Demetrius, exclaims, "Run when you will, the story shall be changed / Apollo flies and Daphne holds the chase." Daphne was a nymph daughter of a river god. One day Apollo saw her and immediately fell in love with her and pursued her. Realizing she could not escape the god, Daphne called to her father for aid. The river god turned Daphne into a laurel tree. Apollo broke off some branches from the tree and created a wreath which he wore forever after (the laurel was a symbol of achievement in Ancient Greece, presented to winners at the Olympics, hence the phrase "rest on your laurels").

Between the two of them, the children of Latona encompass the entirety of human existence with Apollo representing the structured, controlled elements of civilization and order and Diana representing wild chaotic  impulses and natural desires. The young lovers are at odd with the rules of the city and must flee into the wilderness in order to eventually find balance.

From a pair of siblings we move to a mother and son: Venus and Cupid.

Venus was the Roman goddess of passionate love and beauty. She was the most beautiful of the gods and reveled in bringing together people in love. Cupid was  traditionally considered to be her son and is often depicted as a young child with wings on his back and a bow and arrow. Anyone struck with Cupid's arrow would be instantly and permanently smitten with the first person he or she looked upon.

Shakespeare uses a variation of this trick in Midsummer when the fairy king Oberon uses a flower that had been struck with one of Cupid's arrows to enchant Titania and the young lovers. Cupid is usually portrayed as a trickster, using his arrows to stir up chaos. This is certainly apparent in A Midsummer Night's Dream when Cupid's power is used for hilarious effect. But there is a bit more depth to the Cupid figure than is commonly thought, especially if you consider one of the earlier creation myths of the ancient Greeks. Cupid was known as Eros to the Greeks (hence the word "erotic"), and he was a more serious figure. Several creation myths actually claim that he was the one of the first gods to ever come into existence.

In the beginning there was chaos, a great whirling nothingness. One day, inexorably a great egg rose from the  depths of the darkness. For a time the egg lay there, until one day it hatched and from it came Eros the god of love, and from him sprang all things.

I've always been fond of this myth. It's nice to believe that all things in this world ultimately spring from love. Love is the driving force in A Midsummer Night's Dream and certainly in our production, specifically. Every one of the characters in our play is driven by love in one way or another, be it romantic love, love of power, love of self, love of a child or love of mischief. Love is the great engine that drives the world, and it is what defines us as a people in our best moments. One ancient myth claims that humanity are the children of Love and Chaos. I can think of no more appropriate parents for us all. When you come to see the play (we have one last weekend June 26th - June 29th) we hope you will take a moment to consider the power of love, and how it affects every aspect of our lives. It is a wonderful thing.

Learning Never Ends.

No comments:

Post a Comment