Monday, June 9, 2014

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Heroes of Classical Mythology

Threepenny is currently in rehearsals for a remount of our first show, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We have the entire original cast returning for three weekends in June. It’s going up this Friday at the Lab Theatre at the University of Memphis. I would say get your tickets now but we don’t have reservations. We sell them at the door, first come, first serve, Set-Your-Own-Admission for every… single… performance.

We truly are the best deal in town.

When considering any dramatic work, the first thing you need to be familiar with are the characters. Shakespeare adapted a large number of his plays from historical sources. Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans are the most well-known, but he also borrowed a good deal from classical mythology and legend.

The backdrop of A Midsummer Night’s Dream centers around the wedding of Theseus of Athens to Hippolyta of the Amazons. Theseus is one of the more famous heroes of classical mythology, most famous for killing the Minotaur inside the Labyrinth (Bowie was not involved, unfortunately). The Minotaur was a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull; a condition directly mirrored by Bottom’s transformation into a donkey-headed monstrosity in Midsummer. Theseus is also associated with the development of civic law over religious absolutism. The oldest surviving dramatic trilogy, the Oresteia of Aeschylus, concludes in Athens during the rule of Theseus with the first recorded trial by jury in the history of Western Literature. Theseus is almost always depicted as a voice of social reason and civic order, which makes the relationship with his betrothed very interesting.

Theseus’s betrothed is Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. In mythology, the Amazons were a tribe of warrior women renowned for their skill in martial combat (one especially gruesome legend says that Amazon women would burn off their right breast to make it easier to draw a bowstring). The Amazons were often referred to as daughters of Ares (the Greek god of war) and were treated as sort of bogeywomen for the patriarchal Hellenistic society, feared because they possessed qualities more commonly associated with men: aggression, violence, and a will to conquer. They were inversions of standard classical ideas of the role of women in society. Nowadays, such aggressive tendencies are not so feared in women, but for the classical Greeks, an empowered woman who wanted to act like a man was as scary as any bull-monster. Hippolyta is featured in several myths with Greek heroes (one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules was the retrieval of Hippolyta’s girdle, a symbol of her rule) and, with the possible exception of Atalanta, may be the most well-known mortal warrior woman in Greek mythology.

There is one other character that has some interesting classical implications. Egeus, the father of Hermia, shares a phonetic resemblance to Aegeus, the mythological father of Theseus. Aegeus was king of Athens before Theseus. When Theseus sailed off to the island of Crete to deal with the Minotaur, Aegeus gave him two sets of sails for his ship: one black and the other white. The black sails were to be hung for the voyage (since the Athenian youths were being sent off to be sacrificed), but if Theseus managed to triumph over the Minotaur, he was supposed to switch the sails over to white to symbolize his victory. Theseus triumphed over the Minotaur, but, due to a series of unfortunate events involving a Cretan princess and Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, forgot to change the sails. Aegeus, spying the black sails from the cliffs of Greece, was overcome with grief at the loss of his son and hurled himself into the sea, which forever after was known as the Aegean.


Of course, Egeus is not the father of Theseus in Midsummer, but Shakespeare had his reasons for choosing that name. Egeus is perhaps meant to represent all fathers. He is the great over-arching father figure of the play, representing entrenched societal values attempting to control and repress the chaotic, youthful power of love and passion represented by the couples. At worst he is an iron-clad embodiment of the Patriarchy, but at best he represents a loving parent who desires the best for his child, even if she doesn’t agree with his choices. You don’t throw yourself off a cliff in anger; you fall from the grief at having lost what you love.

The classical background of these characters helps to enrich the world of the play and enhance the performance of not only the actors playing those specific roles, but every actor playing opposite them. The knowledge can also enrich your, the viewer’s, appreciation of the piece. It is not a necessary ingredient, but we hope it adds a little extra kick to your experience.

Feel free to leave a question, comment, or outraged objection below.

Learning never ends.

Next Time: Lovers, Tyrants, Mechanicals and fun with cats.

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