“‘A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisby; very tragical mirth.’ Merry and tragical! Tedious and brief! You may as well talk about hot ice and similarly strange snow.”
Theseus asked Philostrate, “How shall we find the concord of this discord?”
Philostrate said, “A play there is, my lord, some ten words long, which is as brief as I have known a play; but by ten words, my lord, it is too long, which makes it tedious; for in all the play there is not one word apt or one player well cast. And tragical, my noble lord, it is, because Pyramus in the play does kill himself, which, when I saw rehearsed, I must confess, made my eyes cry; but more merry tears the passion of loud laughter never shed.”
“Who are they who do play it?” Theseus asked.
“Men with calloused hands who work here in Athens,” Philostrate said. “They have never labored in their minds until now. They have taxed their unexercised brains to create this play to celebrate your wedding.”
“And we will hear it,” Theseus said.
“No, my noble lord,” Philostrate said. “It is not for you. I have seen the play, and it is nothing, nothing in the world. There is nothing in it to bring you pleasure, except perhaps that you may take pleasure in their good intentions and in how hard they have worked — and it has been hard work for them — to make this play and to learn their lines. All of this they have done to do you service.”
“I will hear that play,” Theseus said. “Nothing can be amiss when it is presented with sincerity and a sense of duty. Go, bring them in.”
Philostrate left, and Theseus said, “Please sit down, ladies.”
All sat down, but Hippolyta said, “Should we see this play? I don’t want to see working-class people attempt to do something that they are incapable of doing and embarrassing themselves when they are trying their best to serve you.”
“Why, gentle, sweet Hippolyta, you shall see no such thing,” Theseus said.
“But Philostrate says that they can do nothing right in this play.”
“Then the kinder we will be, to give them thanks for nothing,” Theseus said. “Our entertainment shall be to take as correctly done that in which they make mistakes. Whatever they cannot correctly do, we can generously judge their performance in accordance with their good intentions, not in accordance with their bad performance. In places where I have come, people have intended to greet me with premeditated welcomes. But I have seen them shiver and look pale, make periods in the midst of sentences, and throttle their practiced speeches because of their stage fright. I have seen them completely break down and be able to say nothing. Objectively, they have not paid me a welcome. Trust me, sweet, out of this silence I have subjectively found a welcome. In their stage fright and modest and dutiful attempt to do what they could not but wished that they could, I have found as much welcome as I would from the rattling tongue of confident and bold eloquence. Love and tongue-tied innocence say much, I believe, although not in words.”
Philostrate returned and said, “So please your grace, the Prologue is ready.”
“Let him approach,” Theseus said.
Trumpets sounded, and Quince came on stage to say the prologue:
“If we offend, it is with our good will.
“That you should think, we come not to offend
“but with good will. To show our simple skill,
“that is the true beginning of our end.
“Consider then we come but in despite.
“We do not come as intending to content you,
“our true intent is. All for your delight
“we are not here. That you should here repent you,
“the actors are at hand and by their show
“you shall know all that you are likely to know.”
Theseus had said to Hippolyta that often people who intended to greet him would make periods in the midst of their sentences. Such was the case here. Quince had badly recited his prologue, and it had come out in a way that was insulting to the audience.
This is what Quince had meant to say:
“If we offend, it is with our good will
“that you should think we come, not to offend,
“but with good will to show our simple skill:
“That is the true beginning of our end.
“Consider then we come — but in despite
“we do not come — as intending to content you.
“Our true intent is all for your delight:
“We are not here that you should here repent you.
“The actors are at hand and by their show
“you shall know all that you are likely to know.”
Amused, Theseus laughed and said, “This speaker does not understand how to use periods at the ends of sentences.”
As he had said to Hippolyta, Theseus was able to find a subjective welcome where no objective welcome existed. If he were a different kind of ruler, he could have had Quince executed.
The other noble members of the audience followed Theseus’ lead: They were amused and not angry when they talked about Quince.
Lysander said, “He has ridden his prologue like a colt that is being broken. The colt does not know how to stop, and this speaker does not know to stop briefly at the ends of sentences. One can learn from this, my lord. It is not enough just to speak — one must also speak correctly.”
Even Hippolyta was amused: “Indeed he has played on his prologue like a child plays a flute that he is attempting to learn. The flute makes sounds, but it does not make music.”
“His speech was like a tangled chain,” Theseus said. “No link or word was broken, but the chain of links or words is all disordered.”
Theseus laughed and said, “Who is up next?”
While the royal members of the audience had been talking, Pyramus and Thisby, Wall, Moonshine, and Lion had come onstage. While Quince recited the next part of his prologue, the actors pantomimed their parts.
Quince recited, “Gentlepeople, perhaps you wonder at this show;
“but wonder on, until truth makes all things plain.
“This man is Pyramus, if you would like to know;
“this beauteous lady Thisby is not plain.
“This man, with limestone and cement, doth present
“Wall, that vile Wall which did these lovers sunder;
“and through Wall’s chink, poor souls, they are content
“to whisper. At this let no man wonder.
“This man, with lantern, dog, and bushel of thorn,
“presenteth Moonshine; for, if you will know,
“by Moonshine did these lovers think no scorn
“to meet at Ninus’ tomb, where their love would grow.
“This grisly beast, whom Lion we do call,
“did scare away, or rather did affright;
“the trusty Thisby, coming first by night,
“and, as she fled, her mantle she let fall,
“which Lion vile with bloody mouth did stain.
“Then comes Pyramus, a sweet youth and tall,
“and finds his trusty Thisby’s mantle slain:
“Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
“he bravely broached his boiling bloody breast;
“and Thisby, tarrying in mulberry shade,
“his dagger drew, and died. For all the rest,
“let Lion, Moonshine, Wall, and lovers twain
“at large discourse, while here they do remain.”
Theseus was amused by the bad poetry, and by Quince’s belief that the audience needed to be told the well-known plot of the play in advance.
In a good mood brought about by a wedding that was making him happy and by a bad play that was making him laugh, Theseus said, “I wonder if the lion will speak.”
Demetrius joked, “It will be no surprise if it does, my lord. One lion may speak, when many asses do.”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
Note: this is an excerpt from my book William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Retelling in Prose, which is available here:
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