Most of the things that you liked as a kid will suck. Sure I can watch He-Man now and appreciate the aesthetics of the show and think about how excited the show made me as a kid, but I would have to be deluding myself if I said "Yeah this still holds up and is even better than I remember".
But there are those few gems of childhood that turn out to be even more valuable than you possibly could have understood at the time. A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of them
I am very biased for my love of A Midsummer Night's Dream because of the fond memories I have playing Nick Bottom in high school. I can point to this play as the moment I began to fall in love with Shakespeare.
Duke Theseus is about to marry Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. Before his wedding day he is beseeched by Egeus to enforce the laws of Thebes on his behalf and force his daughter Hermiaa to marry Demetrius, the suitor he chose for her.
Theseus informs Hermia that her choices are to marry Demetrius, be put to death or to commit to life in a monastery.
Lysander convinces Helena to run away with him to Athens where they could marry and not be beholden to Theban law. They agree to run away that night. Before fleeing, Hermia tells her friend Helena that she will elope with Lysander. Helena, who is in love with Demetrius, but who has no interest in Helena, decides that telling Demetrius of Hermia's plans will somehow help her in her plan to win the love of Demetrius.
The two sets of couples meet up in the forest. There is drama...
Meanwhile, Oberon, king of the fairies, is having trouble with his wife Titania, queen of the fairies. To punish Titania for her willful nature, Oberon instructs Puck, his servant, to place the essence of a magical flower on Titania's eyes, to make her fall in love with the first thing she sees.
Oberon also tells Puck to pour this same essence into the eyes of Demetrius so that he will fall in love with Helena. Unfortunately Puck, mistaking Lysander for Demetrius, pours the essence into the eyes of Lysander, causing Lysander to fall in love with Helena.
Hijinks ensue as the couples are all in love with the wrong partner; Lysander falls in love with Helena, eventually Demetrius falls in love with Helena when Puck attempts to fix his error, Titania falls in love with Nick Bottom, who has been transformed into a giant ass.
Eventually all is restored and everyone is in love with the appropriate partner and everyone lives happily ever after.
YouTube has many lovely abbreviated summaries. This ten minute summary does a nice job by taking clips from various films made of Midsummer Night's Dream.
The following quote by Nick Bottom really struck me as being the quintessential point of the play and is a big reason why Bottom is the moral center of the story:
Each of the couple were deficient in either truth (as in being honest with one another), reason (as in thinking and taking action based on logic), or love (as in affection and attraction).
The young couples
The impulsive and passionate love that make it seem like a good idea to run away from home to get married. The reckless love that makes you think that you can convince someone who claims to hate you that you can make it work out. This love that supersedes reason.
Hermia and Lysander : This love that spurs a couple to run away to a strange land without regard for anyone else represents "Eros"; obsessive and erotic love. The couple could barely keep their hands off each other. This novel love is exciting and passionate and all consuming. It is frankly intoxicating and can be incredibly self destructive. It brings to mind Trent Reznor's song "The Perfect Drug".
"You make me hard when I'm all soft inside
I see the truth when I'm all stupid-eyed
Your arrow goes straight through my heart
Without you everything just falls apart"
Hermia's willingness to lie to her father and run away with Lysander shows that this relationship has love and reason but lacks truth.
Helena and Demetrius: In contrast to Hermia and Lysander's love is the love that Helena feels for Demetrius and the equally strong dislike that Demetrius feels for Helena. This kind of passionate back and forth is a different kind of intoxicating. The wild swing of Demetrius hating and then loving Helena and the drama that Helena is willing to create by going to Demetrius to share gossip in the hopes of getting Demetrius is symbolic of "Mania" - the kind of obsessive and often dangerous love that can occur between people.
Mania is the kind of love where someone keeps going back to their significant other regardless of how they are treated. Mania is the kind of love that has people going back to dysfunctional relationships because the passion is so incredibly strong. The Rihanna and Eminem song "Love The Way You Lie" really encapsulates this concept for me.
"You ever love somebody so much you can barely breathe when you're with 'em
You meet and neither one of you even know what hit 'em
Got that warm fuzzy feeling
Yeah, them chills used to get 'em
Now you're getting fucking sick of looking at 'em
You swore you'd never hit 'em; never do nothing to hurt 'em"
Helena and Demetrius had love (albeit one sided at various points) and truth in the sense of telling each other how they felt about one another. But this relationship completely lacked any kind of reason.
Oberon and Titania: These ancient and immortal beings have a love that gets hidden by the contempt that comes with familiarity.
This love seems to be encapsulated by the Greek concept of "pragma". This kind of love that couples who have been together for a long time tend to have. There is love and respect but little passion. When you've been with someone for a long time it is easy to focus on the accumulation of negatives and take the positives of your relationship for granted. Their love kind of reminds me of the love that Archie Bunker has for Edith.
While the fairies had their own sense of reasoning with one another and bluntly shared their demands of one another but in their quest to one up each other they lost a sense of Eros for one another.
Theseus and Hippolyta: This couple represents the reasonable and logical kind of love. The love of people who are still strongly attracted to one another but who do not let their passions get the best of them. The binding of passion, truth and reason. There is logic, passion and respect at this point in their lives.
This love is the synergy of the concepts of ludus (playful love), eros (erotic love) and pragma (mature love). It is clear that Theseus is passionate about Hippolyta and holds her in the highest level of respect and that these two are still hot for each other. It is the ideal state of love.
I think Shakespeare is ultimately saying that in order for this love to occur it must be crystallized in marriage. Marriage sublimates the passions and ties us together through the inevitable difficult times. Marriage is the necessary, but not sufficient (as we see with Oberon and Titania), precondition for the ideal form of love.
I love how Theseus and Hippolyta are able to bring everyone into the ideal. By having the young couples marry on the same day this couple is ushering in the young love from out Mania and Eros into something more mature and sustaining. In setting an example for Oberon and Titania the Duke and Queen are helping these immortal fairies rekindle their passion for one another. In this regard I think that, even though they are not the lead characters, Theseus and Hippolyta are the true heroes of the play.
“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends."
I was really drawn to the quotes of the triumph of reason. Shakespeare isn't denigrating passion but he does see it as something potentially dangerous if allowed to overcome reason. Reason cools the passion that will burn. But reason also allows the fire to burn sustainably.
Versions to watch
YouTube has a charming, but dated version of the play available from the Royal Shakespeare company. It was filmed in 1968 and stars a young Judi Dench and Helen Mirren. I enjoyed watching it even though it lacks the kind of fantastical imagery that you might hope for a story with fairies and magic.
A more recent version, filmed in 2018, was simply wonderful.
It is playing on Amazon Prime and I highly recommend it. Modern day interpretations of Shakespeare are hit or miss for me (I think I was one of the few people not head over heels in love with the 1996 Romeo and Juliet starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio) but this one does almost everything right in my opinion when it comes to creative choices.
I am usually not a fan of changing plot points in Shakespeare but I understood why certain changes were made. For example, rather than leaving Demetrius under a love potion it is implied that Puck removed a spell that had made him repulsed to Helena, which fits in nicely with the "happily ever after" idea.
This is a play that I will happily watch any opportunity I can. The timelessness of this play and the joy and mirth make it good for repeated viewing. I hope to watch other versions down the road.
This was a real pleasure to come back to thirty years after first reading it. I am sure I would have enjoyed reading it in my 20s or 30s but I think there is something about being in the middle of my life that makes me enjoy this more. I am closer to Theseus's version of love than I am to the love sick puppies and the elder fairies.
If you haven't read this play I can't recommend it enough. At least find the time to watch any version of this if you can. It is a real treat and I suspect that this will remain in my top five Shakespeare plays even after I've read them all!