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6 of Crowns - Theseus (& the Mechanicals)

Dramatis Personae: Theseus, Duke of Athens; The Mechanicals: Snug, a joiner - lion; Tom Snout, a tinker - wall; Francis Flute, a bellows mender - Thisbe; Nick Bottom, a weaver - Pyramus; Robin Starveling, a tailor - moonshine; Peter Quince, a carpenter - the Prologue.

Text & Context: As King of Athens and unifier of Attica, the legend of Theseus is extensive. Like Hercules, he accomplished great labours, and was renowned on earth for his physical strength. He was the kind of man who, if he wanted something, took it. With women, he was a brutal abductor. These facts are not lost on Shakespeare, who, in the moonlit comedy of Midsummer Night's Dream, makes mention of Theseus' rape of Perigenia [II.1.78] and the unromantic fact his wife to be, the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, is war booty: "I woo'd thee with my sword, and won thy love doing thee injuries." That a man may persist in such chauvinist ignorance is testament to his unchecked power.

 Before the Mechanicals' play, the audience has witnessed the interplay of worlds, mundane and mythical - the latter world of which Theseus himself is part. When Hippolyta, looking back on the night's adventures, reasonably says, "Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of" Theseus cuts her down to size: "More strange than true." His ensuing speech on the dangerous unreality of the Poet, the Lover, and the Madman, is not only ungallant on the eve of his wedding, but makes clear his greatness at war is matched by his great insensitivity and lack of understanding. 

 The pomp and triumph and reveling with which Theseus weds Hippolyta affords them and us the benefit of seeing the Mechanicals perform. The chosen theme, Pyramus & Thisbe, becomes in their hands a send up of Romeo and Juliet, itself a play about forced marriage, the madness of hostility, the transcendental and unifying aspects of true love - strange or otherwise - and thus, in the process, the transcendental and unifying aspects of poetry. The hard-headed dullness on display in Theseus is reflected in the hard-handed dullness of the Mechanicals, anxious to explain to the ladies the lion which Snug the joiner represents is not a "real" lion. In this, reflecting as it does character, the laughable error of the Mechanicals is immanently generous, while Theseus' error is conspicuously ungenerous.


 As Hippolyta saw, some line must be drawn between the poetic and the un-poetic world, and it is the lovable mechanical Bottom who is allowed to traverse that line so that we, too, may partake awhile in the poetic largess of his dream. That Bottom, by describing this dream, should paraphrase from the Bible [I Corinthians 2:9], is hardly accidental. His synesthesia of senses is not nonsense but epiphany - Plato's cave-dwellers experiencing outside light for the first time - underscored in the end by Puck, speaking directly to the audience through a hole in the fourth wall, designating Theseus, the Mechanicals, and himself as shadows, and we as friends.

Intertext: The Empress III Midsummer Night's Dream; The Wheel of Fortune X The Printing Press.

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