Guest Post: Thou Art Translated: Magic and Meaning in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

During the month of June, ASC Education is featuring the shows of our 2015-2016 Artistic Year in a series of guest posts!

A Midsummer Nights’ Dream appeared in our 2015 Summer-Fall Season. Lia Fisher-Janosz is a forensics coach and drama teacher at the Overbrook School in Nashville, Tennessee.


Thou Art Translated: Magic and Meaning in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by Lia Fisher-Janosz

How are magic and meaning made? Why are magic and meaning made? The answers to these questions stand at the center of Shakespeare’s magnificent play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the search for the answers was (at least in part) what the American Shakespeare Center’s 2015 production and a related Fall Teacher’s Seminar were about.

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Gregory Jon Phelps as Nick Bottom, 2015. Picture by Lindsey Walters.

Our search took us directly into the text itself, as one might guess.  It is in many ways a triune entity; in its one world are three, those of the would-be thespians or “rude mechanicals,” the court and the lovers, and the fairies.  When the boundaries between these three worlds start to cross and blur, magic has either just occurred or is about to do so; at the very root of this phenomenon is not a what, but a where—the wood.

With Director of Education Sarah Enloe and Academic Resources Manager Cass Morris leading us into the forest and back again, we started on the first day by considering the concept of actors playing actors and some insights that can be gleaned (and even some insults that can be gleeked) from the characterizations of the “hard-handed men.”  Next, we explored the traditions associated with courtship and match-making in the Elizabethan era, and we found our perspectives and assumptions somewhat challenged. From there, on the second day, we went on to explore how Shakespeare wrote, and with what purpose (tetrameter=magic!).  Finally, our journey culminated in a visit with Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, the ASC’s founder and Director of Mission, and also the director of the ASC’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which we had the distinct pleasure of seeing later that afternoon.  Dr. Ralph’s direction gave a nostalgic nod to the charm and delight of cinema’s earlier days—magic-within-magic-within-magic, via movies-within-plays-within-plays.  He explained why he made some of the choices he did, but also focused on the prevalence and importance of invisibility in directing and teaching Dream (and in the play itself), and upon what he believes is the “heart of his [Shakespeare’s] mystery,” Titania’s speech about her votaress.

If you thought to read of everything we listened to or learned or loved, know that I will not be the one to fetch and deliver to you such trifles and rich merchandise; for as Walt Whitman wrote:  “Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you, you must travel it for yourself…You are also asking me questions and I hear you, I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself.”  I give just a glimpse, and tantalizing it is, to my way of thinking.

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John Harrell and Sarah Fallon as Oberon and Titania, 2015. Picture by Lindsey Walters.

Ah yes, thinking!  The workshops and performances held at the American Shakespeare Center make you think; they literally provoke thoughts not previously stirred and rouse the imagination from slumber into waking dream.  In this instance, I was prompted into a positively frenetic tarantella of ideas during the ride home from Staunton, one that included, among other things: impressions of Helena, Hermia, and Hippolyta each being a face of the Triple Goddess, for how could it be coincidental that all three names begin with the same letter, also the letter with which the name of a goddess of the moon commences? (the moon, which happens to be mentioned more in A Midsummer Night’s Dream than in any other Shakespearean play); the notion of the entire play being a “dream sequence,” sprung forth from one of Bottom’s fantastical nocturnal illusions; and theories about who the changeling boy really is, and the arrival at the decision that he must be one and the same as that boy who’s perjured everywhere: Love.  Whether or not any of these perceptions hold any weight or water is irrelevant; the point is that they were inspired in the first place.  Dr. Ralph mentioned during the course of our discourse that the play “is about the great gift of the theatre.”  Inextricably linked to this gift is another, freely given by Shakespeare and by the ASC and indeed by all who participate in the theatrical experience, and this is the gift of inspiration, and of communal magic.

Now I’ve touched that standing center stone and found that what’s in hand is gold.  So, what were and are the answers to those questions, then?  How are magic and meaning made?  In sooth, I know only what I myself think the answers are.

The words magic and imagination share the same ancestors:  the (Old) Persian maguš, the Greek magikē, and the late Latin magica, which refer to those mysteries that are part and parcel of the art of the magi, or sorcerer.  Magic and meaning related to it are created by and in the human mind, birthed by the imagination and the intellect, which bring about the enchantment and understanding within and without.  In the case of Shakespeare’s plays, and those who perform and watch them, the enchantment and the making of meaning occur through the written and spoken word, and the spell is mutually cast.  Why are the magic and meaning made?  To paraphrase Dead Poets Society’s John Keating:  we make them because we are members of the human race.  We simply must.

James Joyce—himself an admirer of Shakespeare who loved the Bard’s “radiance of language”—wrote that “we’re all fools in God’s garden.”  We are all just as foolish—and as wise—in Shakespeare’s woods, and a little bit of Nicholas Bottom lives in each of us, Everyman that he is.  If this be true, then it’s we who are translated, transformed utterly by the magic that is worked on us and in us by this play.  Better still, we aren’t lost in translation, but found.