Saturday, 18 July 2020

Anton Chekhov

In this essay, as the title suggests, I want to discuss the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. It is his plays, and only his plays that will dominate this essay, for his short stories are so large (he wrote 450 in all) that, to give Chekhov the full respect he deserves, it would be fitting to speak about these short stories in another essay entirely. The playwright wrote five great plays, and it is these plays that shall be discussed in this essay. These plays five are Ivanov, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull.  

Before I speak of these plays, I will, with all my best efforts, give some preliminary information. Anton Chekhov was born in 1860 in Taganrog, six-hundred miles south of Moscow.  Unfortunately, much of Chekhov’s plays have not survived, albeit this is not as unfortunate as it appears. For he was a child, and going off earlier plays, they can hardly be regarded as masterpieces, he, like any other great artist does, matures with age. He completed a five-year course as a medical student and in 1884 become a doctor.  

It was this period, in the early 1880s that Chekhov began to write plays but they lacked structure, a great deal of action happened in them, too much, and in all fairness, were not very good. He was only in his twenty-seventh year when he finished the first draft of one of his great plays, which is Ivanov. It is this play that will be examined presently.

Nicholas Ivanov is a landowner in his thirties; his wife, Sarah, is dying of tuberculosis. Some years later Chekhov would, at the age of forty-four, succumb to this dreadful malady. Ivanov, however, does not look after his wife as he should. He ignores the doctor's advice in taking her to the baths where fresh air is. Instead, he is far too busy meandering and seducing the younger neighbour. Sarah dies. Later we see a final confrontation between the doctor and Nicholas.

There is a great deal of existentialism in the plays of Chekhov. Wasted lives and lost loves is perhaps something which best describes these Chekhovian dark comedies. Michael Borkin, a distant relative of Ivanov’s sums up the idea of wasted lives perfectly: 

‘A man’s life is like a bright flower blooming in a meadow. A goat comes along and eats it up. No more flower.’ 

Absurdity persists in Chekhov everywhere, and this absurdity does not arise from plot or the environment which the characters reside; this existential hopelessness comes only from the characters. It is they who fail, disappoint, and beat themselves up on the ‘I could have beens.’ It is almost as life has eluded them.

Another character in the play, Matthew Shabelsky, Ivanov’s uncle on his mother’s side, often, as much as Chekhov’s characters do in his plays, speaks of how his life was once filled with some sort of happiness and contentment, but sadly, that no longer appears to be the situation.

Who am I? What am I? I was rich, free, quite happy – but now I’m a parasite, a scrounger, a degraded buffoon. If I express indignation or contempt, I only get laughed at. And when I laugh they shake their heads sadly and say the man’s a bit cracked. More often than not they don’t hear or notice me.

Sometimes when these characters speak, one would believe they were eighty or ninety. They would think this more often than not because these characters have given up on life and they genuinely believe no more opportunities will arise for them to redeem themselves. Nevertheless, these characters are not in their eighties or nineties, they are not in their sixties, or even fifties. These characters are in their forties, thirties and even in their twenties, and their lives are empty and vacuous. All life has been drained out of them. However, the great tragedy is they could have been something but for some misguided reason nothing ever presented itself to them, and so forever and a day they are living an existential nightmare.

Nicholas Ivanov is in his thirties and is a rather pathetic figure if we are to be blunt about the matter. He feels the need to throw pity upon himself. He is not somebody we feel a great deal of sympathy and empathy for either. His wife, Sarah, is dying from something quite terrible, and he spends his spare time seducing another woman. He is, in sooth, waiting for his wife to die. His pity is not for her but himself. He mourns his life:

God, how I despise myself. How I loathe my own voice, footsteps, hands – these clothes, my thoughts. Pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? And pretty mortifying. Less than a year ago I was strong and well, I was cheerful, tireless, and dynamic...My eloquence moved even ignorant louts to tears, I could weep when I saw unhappiness and protest when I met evil... But now, oh God! I’m worn out, I’ve no faith, I spend days and nights doing nothing...There’s nothing I hope or care about, and my spirit quails in fear of the morrow. Then there’s Sarah. I swore to love her forever, told her how happy we’d be, offered her a future beyond her wildest dreams. She believed me. These five years I’ve watched her giving way beneath the weight of her own sacrifices and wilting in the struggle with her conscience, but God knows she’s never looked askance at me or uttered one reproach. What then? I stopped loving her. How? Why? What for? I can’t understand. Now she’s unhappy and her days are numbered. And I’m low and cowardly enough to run away from her pale face, sunken chest, and pleading eyes. How shameful. [Pause.] Little Sasha’s touched by my misfortunes and tells me, at my age, that she loves me. It goes to my head, so I can’t think of anything else. I’m spellbound, it’s music in my ears. So I start shouting about being born again and being happy. But next day I believe in this new life and happiness about as much as I do in fairies. What’s the matter with me? What depths have I sunk to? Where does my weakness come from? What’s happened to my nerves?... I just don’t understand. I might as well shoot myself and be done with it. 

This is the third act when his wife is still alive. At thirty-five, he speaks as if he were an octogenarian but we know he is not. He is a young man. He is a local government official ‘concerned with peasant affairs,’ so the text tells us. Chekhov referred to Ivanov and the other plays under review as ‘dark comedies.’ They are clearly dark, but you have to look with a fine magnifying glass to spot the comedy. With Chekhov, though, it is the case of digging. The more you read his plays the more you unearth, the more you unearth the more you understand and consume his ‘dark comedies.’

In act four Ivanov makes a series of (relatively) long speeches about his own misery and his inability to do anything and to even function. He is a broken man on the verge of collapse. Just to recap the recent events relating to Ivanov in the play. His wife Sarah has tuberculosis and dies, he remarries and remains unhappy. He draws scornful ire from doctor Lvov. His life is breaking down before our very eyes. Like many of Chekhov’s characters there appears to be no escape. He cannot even work or write anymore. All his senses, creativity, rationale, have given up. We can see no way for himself to free himself from this manic crisis. We get the impression it will end only one way. Either that or a revolution within his mind will erupt. Nevertheless, with the words emanating from his mouth, it seems highly unlikely:

Once an intelligent, educated, healthy man begins feeling sorry for himself for no obvious reason and starts rolling down the slippery slope, he rolls on and on without stopping and nothing can save him. Well, what help is there for me? What could it be? ...I can’t write bad verse, nor can I worship my own laziness and put it on a pedestal. Laziness is laziness, weakness is weakness – I can’t find other names for them. I’m done for, I tell you, there’s no more to be said.

When we hear him utter those words in act four, and there is more, and he appears to be getting worse every time he speaks, we ponder what the end of the play will bring. Indeed, we cannot be totally optimistic about the future. It appears he is beyond redemption. His mind is imprisoned and is unable to escape. But there is more:

I used to be young, eager, sincere, intelligent. I loved, hated and believed differently from other people, I worked hard enough – I had hope enough – for ten men...I was in a hurry to expand all my youthful energy, drank too much, got over-excited, worked, never did things by halves...and now I look how cruelly life, the life I challenged is taking its revenge. I broke under the strain – I woke up to myself at the age of thirty, I’m like an old man in his dressing-gown and slippers. Heavy-headed, dull-witted, worn out, broken, shattered, without fear or love, with no aim in life, I mean around, more dead than alive, and I don’t know who I am, what I’m living for or what I want. Love’s a fraud, so I think, and any show of affection just sloppy sentimentality, there is no point in working, songs and fiery speeches are cheap and stale.  

Shortly afterwards he shoots himself. It is almost as if his entire mind is disabled and in reality, there was only ever one outcome. Chekhov wrote the play in 1887, when he was only twenty-seven. However, Ivanov, as well as other characters in his plays such as Vanya, Astrov, Irina, Treplev, are, of course, Russian, but the plays and especially the characters speak to all of us; to all of humanity. It can be argued Chekhov himself is an acute observer of the human mind, and he documents the human condition. Yet there appears to be much of the playwright in the plays himself. What we are presented with are characters that are not only existential absurdities in a sort of Kafkaesque state of mind, they, unlike Steinbeck’s characters in his novels, have no hope whatsoever. The hope is vanished, never to return, and the most terrible thing of all is we see the condition, if it is a condition, slowly deteriorating. We get a morbid and damning sense that only two options remain: death or perpetual misery. In this instance, towards the end of Ivanov, Nicholas says, 

‘I’m on my last legs-I’m so weak I can hardly stand.’  

Two years after Ivanov, Chekhov finished writing his next play, The Seagull. This play, quite literally flopped and the young playwright fell into a deep depression. He vowed never to write another play again. However, when the theatre producer, actor and practitioner, Konstantin Stanislavsky took over the production of the play, it was an overwhelming success and Chekhov broke out of his sombre mood.

It has been argued repeatedly in the plays of Chekhov, you can sense the revolution in the atmosphere, but of course we never see one. Nothing happens in these plays yet everything happens. The revolution will come; we know it will.  Peter Brook, the legendary theatre director, once observed that Chekhov is akin to playing a tape recorder and hearing the tape play. Chekhov, the strange fellow he was, took it upon himself to dismiss and rubbish Henrik Ibsen’s plays, and later, in regard to Ibsen’s plays, he regarded them as something special. With a first reading of Chekhov, many of us may not be impressed but each time we re-read Chekhov then we start to comprehend the universal genius of the Russian.

‘I must write, I must-. Hardly have I ended one story when I somehow have to write another, then a third and fourth on top of that.’ These are the words of the young writer, Trigorin. The start of the rather long speech seems, a little at least, Chekhovian. What is so bad and miserable about writing, we must ask. There is no Beckettian damnation here, or is there? Consider the next line of the speech: ‘What’s so wonderful and brilliant about that, eh? It’s such a barbarous life’.

These five words: ‘it’s such a barbarous life,’ is echoed throughout Chekhov’s plays. Many of his characters believe it, it is almost as if the lot of them are suffering from a catastrophic mental illness that is incurable. The older they get the worse the irritation becomes.

We suspect the play is called The Seagull because Constantine Treplev, the twenty-five-year-old writer, shoots a seagull, that is before he shoots himself, as Ivanov did. It is Trigorin who is having all the success as a young writer, and he is some years younger than Treplev. Constantine Treplev’s mother, Irina, talks a great deal about him and his works. Nevertheless, Treplev himself is hardly the beacon of happiness. As a young man, he says things like: 

‘I feel like I am wasting my life.’

We should recall Chekhov’s wasted lives and lost loves. We get the sense no matter what befalls these Russians, they will, waste their lives, and lament their peculiar existential nightmare.

We see the agonies in Trigorin as in Chekhov himself. They are both writers, and young ones at that. It has been made clear of Anton Chekhov’s deep depression when the play failed and the young Trigorin reveals the pressures of a writer. We can only think of the author of Ivanov and The Seagull when he speaks.  

I’m afraid sometimes afraid they’re just waiting to creep up, grab me and cart me off to an asylum like the lunatic in Gogol. And in my young days, in my best years, when I was just beginning, this writing business was sheer agony. An obscure writer feels clumsy, awkward, out of place-especially when things aren’t going well.  

We do know Chekhov himself was having tremendous agonies as a writer, and he would often rage against writing and the theatre itself. For it is true to say he loved the theatre and hated it. It would be unreasonable to suggest Chekhov wrote about the tortures of life without experiencing them for himself, or did he? Ingmar Bergman, even in his comedies, people suffer, and with Bergman, we do not see a world in which God creates everything. It is people who are in control of their, often, bleak lives. All life has no purpose. It has no meaning for Vladimir and Estragon, for Meursault in Camus’ story, even in the novels of Zola. It is existential madness.  

The second point to consider in Trigorin’s speech is his constant referral to ‘my young days’ and ‘when I was just beginning,’ we get the feeling he may be older than his young age; but he is not. What must he be like if he reaches thirty, forty, fifty and beyond? It is not certain whether he will be around at that time, Chekhov died a young man. The summer he died Stanislavsky wept and wept for the entirety of the season. We see, in each of his plays, a doctor present, apart from The Cherry Orchard. In Ivanov, there is doctor Lvov, in The Seagull, Eugene Dorn, Astrov in Uncle Vanya, in the Three Sisters, Chebutykin. Whoever first raised the idea that all fictional writing is biographical may have a valid point. A final point with regard to Chekhov, he did not give up practicing medicine until 1897, due to the worsening of his illness. He, would, practice medicine through the day and write short stories at night time.  

One must not give the false impression that only a man’s world exists in these dark comedies. This is certainly not the case. The point can be proved here. For, in any case, the title of the play, The Three Sisters, ought to make it clear. Nina Arkadina, the young actress towards the end of the play, speaking to Treplev, appears not only fatigued and restless but more disturbingly her mind is losing its grip on reality. For she says: ‘I’m a seagull. No, that’s wrong. I’m an actress – Ah, well...ah, well. It doesn’t matter. I’m a seagull. No, that’s wrong. Remember you shot a seagull?’

For Treplev’s part, he is astutely aware Nina is losing her mind and soon enough that is clear. For her, hope seems abysmal. All these lives, that have the ability, talent, intellect, and at times the genius to give the world, never quite manage to achieve anything significant or anything at all. It is almost as if these people are in the middle of a macabre dream, rather, a nightmare, but terrifyingly, the nightmare will never end. There is no waking up because the nightmare is infinite: death only ends it.
The Cherry Orchard is a wonderful play with equally wonderful characters. We have Gayev of course, who famously laments a bookcase. His sister, Madame Ravensky, Trophimof, the ‘perpetual student,’ Lopakhin, the manservant, Firs, who, at eighty-seven is hard of hearing.  Like all Chekhov’s plays, it is bleak, and we, as readers and audience, are anxious about the fate of the cherry orchard.

The fifty-one-year-old Gayev, like Firs, offers gentle humour, while Anya tells him, ‘uncle do be quiet.’ He laments an old bookcase as if it were a living person:

Dear most and honoured bookcase. In you I salute an existence devoted for over a hundred years to the glorious ideals of virtue and justice. In the course of the century your silent summons to creative work has never faltered, upholding in several generations of our confidence and faith in a better future and gathering in us the ideas of virtue and social consciousness. 

Tears roll down Gayev’s eyes after this little eulogy to the bookcase. It is a beautiful piece of poetry and it tells us a great deal about the gentle humanity Chekhov had. For nobody could have this sort of humanity without creating these characters and having them saying the things they say. He has already been mentioned in the essay, the characters have no hope of, well, anything. Nevertheless, the bookcase, of course, is an inanimate object. It cannot, in any case, think, feel, feel sadness, and achieve anything spectacular or anything at all. It is a bookcase. As for the other characters in the play, they do not have the same luck as this bookcase Gayev praises. Madam Ravensky, for example, is rather blunt and candid in her criticisms: ‘you people shouldn’t get to see plays, you should try watching your own performance instead, what drab lives you all lead and what a load of rubbish you all talk!’

With the exception of Vanya and Astrov in Uncle Vanya Lopakhin is perhaps the character, not a terribly benign one, who speaks of the existential absurdities in reference to himself.  For he says:

To be honest, the life we lead is preposterous. My father was a peasant, and an idiot who understood nothing, taught me nothing and just beat me when he was drunk, with a stick too. As a matter of fact I’m just a big numbskull and idiot myself. I never learnt anything and my handwriting’s awful. A pig could write as well as I do, I’m ashamed to let anyone see it.  

What Chekhovian characters often do is speak of the idiocy and misery of their own lives, and not of other people’s apart from perhaps Vanya. We do get it but it is hardly an emerging theme. It also must be added these disillusioned people speak with such coherence. They are all semi-Freud’s: they have the acute ability to examine their own lives, and they are quite blunt about it as well. It is true we never see these people in their jobs, working. Instead, we see them lamenting their woes elsewhere. Often in fact, they are not even in their own homes. This is the ‘dark comedy’ Chekhov speaks about.  When Lopakhin says: ‘I’m just a big numbskull’ and ‘a pig could write as well as I do,’ it is comedy, bleak comedy. We, in reality, laugh at other’s misfortunes.  

It is the ‘perpetual student,’ Peter Trophimof, who shifts away from berating and lampooning himself. Like a man condemned, that is not to say he does not do it at all, he does, but he offers us more than that. Peter is well liked in the play, and we, the audience member and reader, appreciate his intellect and tomfoolery. In this instance, instead of criticising his own life, he gives a philosophical and ideological argument on Russia. In this long speech in act two, he says the following:

Mankind marches on, going from strength to strength. All that eludes us will one day be within our grasp, but, as I say, we must work and we must do what we can for those who are trying to find the truth.  Here in Russia very few people do work at present. The kind of Russian intellectuals I know, far and away the greater part of them anyway. They still don’t know the meaning of hard work. They call themselves an intelligentsia, but they speak to their servants as inferiors and treat the peasants like animals. They don’t study properly, they never read anything serious. In fact they don’t do anything at all.  Science is just something they talk about and they know precious little about art. Oh, they’re all very earnest. They go around looking extremely solemn. They talk of nothing but weighty issues and they discuss abstract problems, while all the time everyone knows about the workers are abominably fed and sleep without proper bedding, thirty or forty to a room-with bed-bugs everywhere, to say nothing of the stench, the damp and moral degradation. And clearly all our fine talk is just meant to pull the wool over our eyes and other people’s too. Tell me, where are these children’s crèches that there is all this talk about? Where are the libraries? They’re just things people write about, we haven’t actually got any of them. What we have got is dirt, vulgarity and squalor. I loathe these earnest faces. They scare me, and so do earnest conversations. Why can’t we keep quiet for a change?

This is a savage indictment on Russian culture and society. In Fact, if we read all the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century, we get much of the same from Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev, Pushkin and so on. However, Chekhov is different. It is his characters that suffer because of the corrosive degradation they are all subject to. We, of course, seldom get vicious attacks on the Russian intelligentsia and hierarchy but Trophimof offers us something different. Instead of characters in the play bewailing their own existence, Trophimof here is looking at the symptoms, the root cause of the problem. One of the major questions that ought to be asked regarding Chekhov and his plays, is this: are the characters portrayed in these Chekhov plays victims of a pernicious, repressive, barbarous society or are the characters themselves culpable for the failures in their lives?

There is little need for Chekhov to be overtly political. It is not necessary, for example, for him to say the Tsar needs hanging because he is a filthy beast, or Bulgakov, who during the Soviet era, to say Lenin and Stalin are murdering bastards and need whipping. Such words would see them in grave danger anyway. However, if Ivanov, Treplev, Nina and others’ lives were put forward one-hundred years and lived in modern-day Paris, London or New York, would their lives be much better? Is the fault with the individual? It is clearly not with God, as Bergman would have it. Nothing is definite with Chekhov, and nothing is really ever resolved. It is up to the audience and reader of his plays to come to their own conclusions.  

Of course, Peter Trophimof, in the famous speech quoted, attacks the Russian intelligentsia.  Michael Bakunin, a Russian contemporary, went on to do this, well he did not go on to do it, he made the distinction before Chekhov wrote the Cherry Orchard. In fact, we can hardly call Bakunin a contemporary of Chekhov’s: he died when the young future playwright was still in school. However, his critique of ‘the new class,’ a formidable prediction that proved to be true, for he predicted men of knowledge will convert this knowledge into power He writes:

The reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and elitist of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy of real counterfeit scientists and scholars, and the world will be divided into a minority ruling in the name of knowledge, or an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe onto the mass of the ignorant ones.

So perhaps Peter Trophimof is the anarchist, disguised as a student, who knows. Nevertheless, as is abundantly clear, Trofimof’s criticisms are quite different to Bakunin’s astonishing prediction.  For the ‘perpetual student’ argues that they ‘don’t do anything’ and that ‘they have never read anything serious.’ However, when you attack societies for not having crèches and nurseries and that ‘they’re just things people write about in novels,’ well that is a clear attack against the state. For who else is to blame for having no libraries?

It is sad to say the Cherry Orchard is chopped down, and Firs, the old man, we assume, dies. As the play ends we hear nothing, everybody departs except Firs. It is almost as if we can hear the silence. We read the play and when we finish reading the play, we can hear the felling of trees.  Perhaps the cherry orchard is like life. Whatever we can say about it only disaster looms. It is true, everybody that was born at a certain time has died. Why must the death of an orchard be any different?

Chekhov, it is true, forces us to analyse our own lives. We see how terrible these lives have become then inevitably go on to look at our own. His characters, like Steinbeck’s, have been battered and bruised. The fundamental difference though is significant. Tom Joad, in The Grapes of Wrath, or Juan Chicoy, in the Wayward Bus, keep going, and with your Ivanov’s and Trigorin’s we can lay the claim they are oppressing themselves. They create their own downfall.

You know I’ve never done a thing and that’s a fact. Since I left the university I haven’t lifted a finger, I’ve never even read a book. I’ve read nothing but newspapers (takes another newspaper out of his pocket). See what I mean? I know from newspapers there was somebody called Dobrolyubov, for instance, but what that fellow wrote I’ve no idea. I can’t say I greatly care either.

This is the fifty-two-year-old army doctor, Ivan Chebutykin, speaking in The Three Sisters. Out of all Chekhov’s doctors in his plays, Chebutykin is potentially the most absurd. He is amusing, we can be sure of that, he is, what some may call an ignoramus. He, in the play, at the most inopportune moment, pulls a newspaper out of his pocket. We must remember that is fifty-two and has never read a book. However, later in the play we see a more serious side to him:

Damn the whole lot of them. To hell with them. They think I’m a doctor and cure diseases, but I know absolutely nothing. What I did know I’ve forgotten. I don’t remember a thing. My mind’s a blank. To hell with them. I had a patient at Zasyp last Wednesday, a woman. She died, and it was all my fault. Yes indeed. I did know a thing or two about twenty-five years ago, but now I’ve forgotten it all, it’s all gone. Perhaps I’m not even a human being, perhaps I only pretend to have arms and legs, perhaps I don’t exist at all, and imagine I walk about and eat and sleep. Oh, how nice not to exist. Who the hell cares? A couple of days ago at the club they were talking about Shakespeare and Voltaire. I’ve never read them, never read a word of them, but I managed to look as if had and everybody else did the same. Could anything be more vulgar? Or more sordid?  Then I suddenly remembered the woman I killed on Wednesday. It all came back to me and I felt rotten, dirty, twisted inside. So I went and got drunk.

In this long speech, the doctor tells us a great deal. The patient he speaks of, haunts him and it is clear his life is filled with a certain emptiness. He even says: ‘Oh, how nice not to exist.’ It is a sad indictment for a doctor who, it appears, has not the soundest of minds. Nevertheless, even if he were the most wonderful doctor in the world, he still would be the unfortunate figure that he is. He even despises himself for pretending to have read Voltaire and Shakespeare, and so it goes. We get the distinct impression that he despises himself. That is the thing with Chekhov’s characters; we get the sense they all despise themselves in one way or another and this theme runs through his dramatic works, and their fate, so it would seem, is doomed.   

It does not matter what walk of life these characters come from, what their jobs are, their experiences or whatever, they, in the end, fail. However, the failure is something awful, because, in some cases, they are brilliant people, and they are trapped in an existential bubble, which they are never quite able to escape. They physically cannot escape their own miseries. Yet, it is interesting to note, despite the pessimism that runs through his plays, we do not see it as depressing, ourselves, because every word the characters speak is poetry, and we cannot help but empathise and sympathise with these, sometimes desperately pathetic people.

Of course, there are other characters in the play who are equally troubled, and one of these is forty-two-year-old army commander, Alexander Vershinin. Some of his words, sentences, even speeches in The Three Sisters are haunting. In one particular lengthy speech in act one he makes us think of our dreary lives and the place we live. For it is true, there are unhappy souls everywhere:

I don’t think there exists, or ever did exist, a town so dull and dreary that it has no place for intelligent, educated men and women. Let us suppose that amongst the hundred thousand inhabitants of this town – oh, I know it’s a backward, rough sort of place – there’s no one else like you there. Well, you obviously can’t hope to prevail against the forces of ignorance around you. As you go on living you’ll have to give way bit by bit to these hundred thousand people and be swallowed up in the crowd – you’ll go under, but that doesn’t mean you’ll sink without trace – you will have some effect. Perhaps when you’re gone there will be six people like you, then twelve and so on.  

We are forced to think of our own existence here. For how many of our towns are ‘dreary?’ ‘dull?’ and/or ‘backward?’ This is common to most people and although people, quite generally, loath to admit it is the plain truth. People leave unhappy lives it is true, and part of that problem is the slum in which they are native to. It need not be a working-class ghetto either. It is quite noble then that a writer such as Chekhov to put so much emphasis on human suffering. Whether it is doctors, landowners, professors, servants, teachers, peasants and anybody else. It gives us all pause for thought.

Some of the most poignant and profound sentiments expressed by a single person in these five great plays of Chekhov presented in this essay is one of the three sisters, Irina. Her speeches remind us of what I consider Chekhov’s greatest creation, uncle Vanya. It is because she speaks of the possibility of having wasted her life; Vanya is forty-seven but Irina is twenty-three: ‘I can’t remember Italian for ‘windows’ – or ‘ceiling’ either. I’m always forgetting things. I forget something every day and life is slipping away, it will never, never come back again and we shall never go to Moscow either, I just know we shan’t.’

‘Life is slipping away,’ and yet she is only twenty-three. Treplev was twenty-five, Trigorin was younger and he killed himself. It appears to make little difference what age they are, it also, is as if their lives have been destroyed already, that their life was doomed before they were even born. That is the impression we are given. It is though wherever we live and whatever we choose to be, say a writer of some kind, and we know we are one of the great writers in history, but somehow for whatever reason, are not able to publish our work, and end up a one of life’s greatest failures.  The awful thing is that the potential is there, but the lives of the people that have this potential are literally wasted. If we look at the final piece from this play, also from Irina, it is both haunting and terrifying:

Oh, I’m so miserable. I can’t, I won’t, I will not work. I’ve had enough. I used to be at the post office and now I work for the town council, and I loathe and despise everything they give me to do. I’m twenty-three, I’ve been working all this time and my brains shrivelled.  I’ve grown thin and ugly and old and I’ve nothing to show for it, nothing, no satisfaction of any kind, while time passes by I feel I’m losing touch with everything fine and genuine in life. -it’s like sinking down, down in a bottomless pit-I’m desperate. Why am I still alive, why haven’t I done away with myself?  I don’t know.

This is not a lengthy speech at all but it does say a great deal, it says for more than what is spoken. It is shocking to hear these words for a twenty-three-year-old. This ‘bottomless pit’ she speaks of is an accurate description not just of her mental state but of most characters in the plays of Chekhov. She is unhappy at work; well that is a universal problem. People can easily identify with that because they have experience the same difficulties. There is no changing these moods, what is needed is to save these characters from even more perpetual misery is a revolution.

It is not a social revolution that is required here but a revolution of the mind: a revolution Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist, spoke of.  A revolution to free the mind of all its chains as it were.  In today’s society if people expressed the sentiments Irina had there would be calls for an intervention of some kind. A counsellor perhaps, or some other therapy, but it is normalised in Chekhov’s world; it has all become normal, and at this ‘bottomless pit,’ she stays.

Astrov and Vanya are two truly great characters in the play, Uncle Vanya. Astrov, a doctor, is forty-four, and Vanya, forty-seven. This was Anton Chekhov’s last play; his and the doctor’s name could not be more similar. As for Vanya – he is full of absurdities, frivolity, pity, regret, disillusionment, and doom. The two of them are idealists who have great qualities, but the great tragedy is the inevitability of it all.

I would like to speak of these two characters individually, firstly, I will speak about Astrov at length, and the naturally Vanya. The doctor, according to Marina, an old nurse, the idealistic doctor has never had a day off work in ten years. He is, what we may call a great humanitarian, an ecologist, environmentalist, a man who upholds cherished values, composed of the utmost decency, and yet has not the energy to sustain himself any longer.

What kind of provincial, parochial life we get in Russia – that I simply can’t stand, in fact I despise it. As for my own private life, well, heaven knows there’s absolutely nothing good about that. You know, sometimes when you walk in a wood on a dark night there is a glimmer of light shining in the distance, isn’t there? Then you don’t notice how tired you are or how dark it is or how the thorns and twigs hit you in the face. As you well know, I work harder than anyone else around here, the most awful things are happening to me and there are times when the whole business really gets you down. But for me there’s no light shining in the distance. I don’t expect anything for myself anymore.

Astrov is not one of those numbskulls that is about to take his own life through a barrel of a gun; in fact, he is far from a numbskull. In many ways, he has similarities with the ‘perpetual student,’ Peter Trophimof. They both speak of ‘Russia,’ this may appear like an odd thing to say but it is not. It is true all the plays are set in Russia but that is hardly ever emphasised, only when we see an ideologue like Trophimof or Astrov is the ideal of Russia questioned or even mentioned. In addition, when such people do mention the country it is very purposely done.

For Astrov is passionate about the natural world, and he feels Russia, his homeland, is being destroyed. This is one aspect of Astrov which is unique amongst the characters in Chekhov’s plays. We see where his true passion lies in the following lines:

The forests of Russia are crashing down before the axes, millions upon millions of trees perish, the homes of bees and birds are devastated, rivers grow hollow and dry up, wonderful scenery disappears without a trace and all because man’s so lazy – hasn’t the sense to bend down and take the fuel from the ground...only an unreasonable brute could harm beauty like this in his stove, destroying what we cannot create, so he can add to what he’s been given. But up until now he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing. Rivers dry up, wild lives become extinct, the climate’s ruined, and the land grows poorer and uglier every day...But when I walk past our village woodlanders which I’ve saved from the axe or hear the rustle of my own saplings, planted with my own hands, I feel that tools have some slight control over the climate that if man is happy a thousand years from now I’ll have done a bit towards it myself. When I plant a young birch and later see it conversed with green and swaying in the breeze, my heart fills with pride.

There are some important points to be made about this speech and I shall deal with each one separately. It is both illuminating and curious how Astrov says ‘the forest of Russia’ and not the forests of humankind or mankind, or some other distant place, or rather, forests generally, but he mentions Russia, this is significant. It is also significant that he does not mention Russia again throughout the entire speech. If the word Russia is removed then we can say the following: there is no specific social, political, ecological or even moral argument aimed specifically at Russia.  However, the doctor is attacking Russia and the debasement of the world’s habitat and natural beauty. For he says: ‘Only an unreasonable brute could harm beauty like this’...it is a very revealing speech and has many layers. ‘Russia is our garden,’ so says Peter Trophimof.

In 1954, 2002, 1987, 3094, we say with certainty that the environment will be an issue for the likes of Astrov in the world today, and there are many of them. Global warming, climate change, the carbon footprint, the melting glaciers, CO2 emissions, pollution, greenhouse gasses. All these are contemporary problems, and still, from late nineteenth century ideals, Doctor Astrov is speaking of these issues and ideals. He is far more impressive and advanced than the majority, and even by today’s standards, and it is a corrosive degradation that has not gentle ecologists who care for the aesthetic environment but ‘unreasonable brutes’ who wish to annihilate it. The two atom bombs dropped in 1945 alone killed most of it, and human life, we may add, quite significantly.

The third point is the man himself: Astrov. He speaks of the ‘millions and millions of trees (that) perish, the homes of birds and bees are devastated...forests keep disappearing.’ This is a man who has dedicated his life to such practices, and for him, as long as he does his ‘bit’ that will protect future generations, and see a glimpse what life will be like in a hundred years in the future when he will be rooted in his grave.

Astrov is, in his speeches, prophetic, eloquent, coherent, profound, and in some, chilling:

Those who live a century or two after us and despise us for leading lives so stupid and tasteless, perhaps they’ll find a way to be happy, but for us – there’s only one hope for you and me, and when we’re resting in our graves we may have visions. Even pleasant ones perhaps. Yes, my dear fellow, in our whole district there are only two decent, civilised people – you and I. But ten years of this contemptible parochial existence have brought us down. This poisoned atmosphere has poisoned our blood and we’ve become as second rate as the rest of them.

Astrov here is talking to Vanya. In that monologue, he sums up what a Chekhovian character is, for he says it all: it is both deep and meaningful, and as always is the case when he speaks, he is full of wonderful humanity. The people then for Astrov will ‘despise us for leading lives so stupid.’ This is the entire crux of the sheer stupidity and idiocy, one may add, of all the characters. These characters are not tramps moseying the streets, neither are they drug addicts where they are slaves to the drug or perhaps alcohol, they have not been to prison, nor have they led lives that are so awful, like as a Dickensian character, such as David Copperfield has. No, we have professors, doctors, landowners, brilliant students, and so on. Still, they are so preposterous and dilapidated that we must laugh at their peculiar and irrational behaviour.

When one considers Astrov’s words, once again they must contemplate the actions of their own lives. But say they are frivolous, stupid, foolish, self-conceited oafs, and they analyse their own lives and are well aware of their faults, if they were true Chekhovian’s they would carry on leading the same, often dull lives, complain and go around in this fashion throughout their whole lives.  Who knows, perhaps they may shoot themselves or just carry out this ‘parochial’ existence.  

Uncle Vanya is the most interesting character in the play and the most tragic. He is forty seven and believes he has wasted his life, and we hear this throughout the play. There is a running battle throughout with himself and Alexander Serebryakov, a former professor.  From very early in the play it is clear Vanya dislikes the man:

A retired professor-an old fossil, if you see what I mean, a sort of academic stuffed trout.  he suffers from gout, rheumatism, migraine and liver trouble, and he’s almost bursting with envy and jealousy. The old fossil lives on his first wife’s estate.  Not that he wants to live here, but he can’t afford to live in town...for precisely twenty-five years the man’s been lecturing and writing about art. And what does he understand about art?  Nothing. For twenty-five years he’s been chewing over kinds of tomfoolery. For twenty-five years he’s been lecturing and writing about things which every intelligent person has known all along, and which don’t interest fools anyway. In other words he’s spent twenty-five years chasing his own shadow. And all the time ghastly conceit. What presumption. Now he’s retired and not a single person knows who he is. He is totally obscure.  In other words, for twenty-five years he’s been in the wrong job. But you just watch him strut about as if he was God almighty!

Later in the play, Vanya shoots the old professor (twice) and misses. He says, after the incident, why don’t people call the police and so on.  Then he refers to himself, jokingly we suspect, as a madman. However, of course nobody does call the police. He is clearly resentful, not only of Alexander but of others too. Is he unstable? Certainly he is.  No question. After the shooting incident, Vanya says: ‘I’m mad, aren’t I? I’m not responsible for my actions, so I have the right to say stupid things.’ We have certain warmth towards Vanya, just as we do towards Astrov.  Nevertheless, his behaviour is disturbing, and it increases as the play continues. He is extremely negative about the past, present and future. He feels he is a failure; disillusioned with his own achievements to say the least; he has little hope or energy to do or accomplish anything worthwhile. He believes he is old and past it, and finally he has turned into a pathetic figure of a man, and his suffering continues:

Day and night my thoughts choke me, haunt me with a spectre of a life hopeless, wasted.  I’ve never lived. My past has been thrown away on stupid frivolities and the present is so futile, it appalls me. My life and my love-well, there you have it. What can I do with them?  What can I make of them?  My feelings are wasted like a ray of sunlight falling in a well, and I’m running to waste too.

It is as if he is describing a fictional account of a character from Kafka, which is that one’s nightmare is too awful to even contemplate. He, though, lays blame on himself in this instance. He says, for example, his life has been ‘hopelessly wasted’ and ‘my past has been thrown away on stupid frivolities.’ And now at forty-seven he feels he cannot go on any longer. The theme of wasted lives is clear here, as is lost loves. For Vanya represents the true Chekhovian existentialism. There is nothing. Just a black hole. However, the man, has, or rather had, ambition, a wonderful future, he still wants it of course but life has sapped all the energy out of him, which, of course is awful. In a famous speech, he compares himself to Schopenhauer and Dostoevsky. ‘My life’s ruined. I’m gifted, intelligent, courageous. If I’d had a normal life I might have been a Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky. But I’m talking nonsense.’

Schopenhauer was a nineteenth century German philosopher, and Dostoevsky, of course, already mentioned in this essay, was a nineteenth century Russian novelist, thought to be as good as anyone.  Nevertheless, it is clear Vanya will not achieve what Dostoevsky did. Everybody knows that much. However, Vanya is just forty-seven, and he believes that is too old. There appears to be no hope for him because he has not only made his mind up concerning this matter but also he is in immense pain, not physical of course, but mental anguish. He is, to use Irina’s phrase in The Three Sisters at a ‘bottomless pit.’ But Vanya is different, we ponder to ourselves that if things had turned out rather differently he could have been somebody of great intellectual or cultural importance. Indeed, he may well have been another Balzac or Marx, but of course, nothing of the sort shall materialise. In the final piece in the play and the essay, Vanya looks towards the future; it does not start terribly optimistic:

Oh my God, I’m forty-seven. Suppose I live to be sixty, that means I still have thirteen years to go.  How am I to get through those thirteen years? What am I to do?  How do I fill the time? Oh, can you think -? Can you think what it would be like to live the rest of your life a new way? Oh, to wake up some fine, clear morning feeling as you’d started living all over again, as if the past was all forgotten, gone like a puff of smoke. To begin a new life. Tell me, how should I begin?

When we see or hear these lines spoken, we think ‘hope!’ There is hope for Vanya yet, but in all reality, there never was any hope. There is little doubt this tragic figure of the play suffered the agonies of failure, he, like all great Chekhov characters, failed.





















Thursday, 9 July 2020

Sketches on Shakespeare

In my youth, I purchased two mighty strong hardback books of William Shakespeare. They were his complete works; volume one consisted of many of his plays, all of his plays in fact and the second volume consisted of his poems, including his sonnets, aside to this there were one hundred pages of notes from his plays, almost entirely. I was in my later teenage years and had stumbled upon them and stumbled on other books too, which were, as I remember correctly, of the grandest quality. I did not know the other authors at the time, some of which were the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the works of Henrik Ibsen, Robert Browning and Oscar Wilde. The man, in fact, that sold me the books was a rarity, and it is sad to say, but true, people like him do not exist anymore; yet it is the case the man may still be living, but even so, men like that are a dying breed and may never be seen again on our shores. 

I still recall my first encounter with this man. I stumbled on his outside stall, moseying around, thinking how silly and frivolous my life was. I was cold as it was one of those days in England; days we no longer have. I was cold; my nose as I was told more than once, was glowing red as were my hands. The man greeted me with his black untrimmed beard and his woolly hat which I never saw him without, with a cup of coffee in his hands. I told him I was looking for some books. He asked me is it for study, I replied it was not for study, but merely because I wished to read something and he put some of the books my way and I took them away. This was my first acquaintance with Shakespeare outside of school.

I have always had remarkable eyesight, which is just as well as the writing in these two books were smaller than one would think possible. I had no trouble with the writing in any case. I was living at home with my parents then and was for a good while after that as a matter of fact. I took the books to my room but I could always hear voices downstairs, so I would put on the radio and read the books as the music played. I first looked at the two books, smiling to myself, giggling even as though I had just been given all the money in the world. I opened volume one, then put it down and opened the other volume. I smelt both editions. It was his comedies, Shakespeare’s that is of course, that I started to read first. I can even remember the first play; and according to this edition, it was the first comedy he wrote, which was Love’s Labour’s Lost, but this is false I later learned. 

Every edition of the play I have bought since this time, the character of Biron was not spelt in this way but as Berowne as every other edition has it so. The book itself had his works and nothing else, no introduction or anything of the sort. I knew nothing of the man, of Shakespeare; I just read the plays, firstly reading all his comedies. Sometime later, after I had read these plays and re-read them too, I read some books of literary criticism on Shakespeare by all the great writers and critics and it was, if my mind serves me correctly, Charles Lamb that said Love’s Labour’s Lost is as ‘light as a bubble,’ speaking of the plot of course. Lamb is correct in his analysis of this, no doubt. A contemporary of Lamb’s, William Hazlitt, wrote of the comedy, 

If we should part with any of the author’s comedies, it should be this

He goes on to say, ‘we should be loath to part with,’ a number of characters in the play; including Biron himself, Don Adriano de Armado, Nathaniel, Holoferness, Costard and the constable, Dull. There are two brief points I should like to make here; the first being Hazlitt’s view that if we should wish to part with one of Shakespeare’s comedies, it ought to be this one. There are, in the pantheon of literature, bad plays, good plays and great plays. No bad plays belong to the author himself, there are good ones, which Love’s Labours’s Lost falls into that category as do others of course; and there are great ones, which there are many of. The play currently being discussed, however, I have great affection for, nonetheless, Hazlitt is correct in his analysis here; the second point I wish to make, tersely, is Hazlitt’s other statement, that he would not wish to part with the above-named characters. Again, I must agree with Hazlitt’s wisdom here. I would like, as it is required, to look at these characters in more detail, starting with the first character from Shakespeare I fell in love with: Biron.

I recall reading the play for the first time all those years ago. After reading it, it was Biron and no other character that stuck in my memory. He was a precursor to a more fully rounded character from perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous play, but not his best; it was Mercutio, Romeo’s friend; the witty master of words and Petrarchan lover. As the first scene opens in the play, we are presented with four characters; Biron being one of them, and he is, without doubt, the only character of merit, and speaks at length, his language and wordplay is a joy to read as those words bounce off the page. Biron, along with Longaville and Dumain, are lords attending the king and must, they have been told, withdraw from,
one day a week to touch no food 
to sleep but three hours in the night
not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep. 
The three men never stick to the edict of course, which is the plot of the play, ‘as light as a bubble’ indeed. 

To seek the light of truth, while truth the while
Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look.
Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile;
So ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
Study me how to please the eye indeed
By fixing it upon a fairer eye,
Who dazzling so, that eye shall be his heed,
And give him light that it was blinded by.
Study is like the heaven’s glorious sun,
That will not be deep search’d with saucy looks;
Small have continual plodders ever won,
Save base authority from others’ books.
These earthly godfathers of heaven’s lights,
That give a name to every fixed star,
Have no more profit of their shining nights
Than those that walk and wot not what they are.
Too much to know is to know nought but fame;
And every godfather can give a name.

These are indeed the words of Biron, the conjuror of words, of wit, metaphors, similes; he revels in his words and speeches, monologues and soliloquies. We can take Hazlitt’s view that the play, out of all of Shakespeare’s comedies, of which there are many, is what we may part with. When we first read Shakespeare; rather, when we first encounter him as was the case with me, the comedy currently being discussed, we are overwhelmed, perhaps others are not, but overwhelmed with the wordplay Shakespeare employs; he employs it in a such a way that we declare, solemnly, that no playwright or other writer for that matter before or after him has had such an impression on the mind and no such writer used language in this way before. If we are not impressed with Biron’s verbose grandeur, with his majestic use of the words, we can turn to another such character, who makes his first appearance as well as Biron, in the very first scene.

Moth is the page to Don Armado, a fantastical Spaniard. The exchange between the two characters is a marvel to read, or if performed well, a rarity indeed, a joy to watch. We have been accustomed to exchanges between master and servant or page, fool, clown, in many of the plays of Shakespeare, not just in his lighter comedies either, but in his darker comedies we see in Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice as well in his tragedies, history plays; in other words, in all his works. It is, as no other words can be used, comic genius. It is one single facet to Shakespeare, by no means the greatest, but a facet indeed, that separates Shakespeare, not only from his contemporaries, who were very grand and great writers of genius, some were in any case, many in fact. Love’s Labour’s Lost is an example of the exchange between, often, minor characters in the play. It may be concluded such exchanges in this play do not reach the standard of comic genius, but if that is the case, they certainty laid the groundwork to his later works of genius. Act three scene one proceeds in the following manner, with only Armado and Moth present.

Moth. Master, will you win your love with a French brawl?
Armado. How meanest thou? Brawling in French?
Moth. No, my complete master, but to jig off a tune at the tongue’s end, canary to it with your feet, humour it with turning up your eyelids, sigh a note and sing a note, sometime through the throat, as if you swallow’d love with singing love, sometime through the nose, as if you snuff’d up love by smelling love; with your hat penthouse-like o’er the shop of your eyes; with your arms cross’d on your thin-bellied doublet like a rabbit on a spit; or your hands in your pocket like a man after the old painting; and keep not too long in one tune, but a snip and away: these are complements, these are humours, these betray nice wenches that would be betray’d without these; and make them men of note—do you note?—men that most are affected to these
Armado. How hast thou purchased this experience?
Moth. By my penny of observation.
Armado. But O—but O—
Moth. ‘The hobby-horse is forgot.’
Armado. Call’st thou my love hobby-horse?
Moth. No, master, the hobby-horse is but a colt,
Aside.
and your love perhaps a hackney.—
But have you forgot your love?
Armado. Almost I had.
Moth. Negligent student, learn her by heart.
Armado. By heart and in heart, boy.
Moth. And out of heart, master; all those three I will prove.

There are other such exchanges in the play between the fantastical and his page. Don Armado, without his page, shows his wit and humour, employing his fantastical wordplay. His greatest speech and only soliloquy, is spoken at the end of act one. 

Armado. I do affect the very ground, which is base, where
her shoe, which is baser, guided by her foot, which
is basest, doth tread. I shall be forsworn, which
is a great argument of falsehood, if I love. And
how can that be true love which is falsely
attempted? Love is a familiar; Love is a devil:
there is no evil angel but Love. Yet was Samson so
tempted, and he had an excellent strength; yet was
Solomon so seduced, and he had a very good wit.
Cupid's butt-shaft is too hard for Hercules' club;
and therefore too much odds for a Spaniard's rapier.
The first and second cause will not serve my turn;
the passado he respects not, the duello he regards
not: his disgrace is to be called boy; but his
glory is to subdue men. Adieu, valour! rust rapier!
be still, drum! for your manager is in love; yea,
he loveth. Assist me, some extemporal god of rhyme,
for I am sure I shall turn sonnet. Devise, wit;
write, pen; for I am for whole volumes in folio.

One should ask what is Shakespeare’s genius composed of. It is a pertinent question, as, of course, Mr Hazlitt points out rightly I believe, that the play of all his comedies; this one is the weakest. I have digested the matter, digested the valued opinion of Mr Hazlitt. I have considered the other comedies written by not only the literary master his age but of all time and concluded, when all things are considered, Mr Hazlitt is right. 

We can first consider The Comedy of Errors, a play of mistaken identity as everybody knows, with that, comes the comedy, yet the lay play is composed of a different manner. The mistaken identity extends to pure farce; and unlike this play that is currently being discussed, it is full of humour throughout the play. The Two Gentlemen of Verona, another play of his early period and like the other two plays, is not considered one of his great comedies, but is made of more serious things. It has such characters as Launce, a clownish servant to Proteus and Speed, the equally clownish servant to Proteus’ servants best friend, Valentine. There is, unlike the other two plays, villainy; there is, too, especially with Speed and his master, the exchanges full of wit and humour and a play on words, which Shakespeare is the master craftsman of. It goes on and on with his comedies, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom, who is one of Shakespeare’s most adopted and loved characters as is Puck; as is the same with characters from the Tempest; so, it is the case, in all probability, Love’s Labour’s Lost is weakest of all the comedies of Shakespeare. 

Before the departure from the comedy, there is one character, who we may say, without some note, even a curt one, just would not do. Holferness, the pedantic schoolmaster, to put it mildly, has a passion for words and language. He is the character, perhaps along with the exchanges between master and page, already discussed, which bring out the comedy in the play. His excessive use of metaphors and similes is pure farce. He is a minor character and arrives in the play late. One speech of his, highlights his pompous pedantry and verbosity. 

You find not the apostrophes, and so miss the
accent: let me supervise the canzonet. Here are
only numbers ratified; but, for the elegancy,
facility, and golden cadence of poesy, caret.
Ovidius Naso was the man: and why, indeed, Naso,
but for smelling out the odouriferous flowers of
fancy, the jerks of invention? Imitari is nothing:
so doth the hound his master, the ape his keeper,
the tired horse his rider. But, damosella virgin,
was this directed to you?

There are other speeches by the schoolmaster. Of all the characters briefly studied in the play, these characters of particular merit and are we say brilliance, it is Holferness then who is the most verbose and spectacular in his wordplay with his language he employs; if there was one thing we would ask of Shakespeare regarding this minor characters it would be to show more of them. Writers and critics of all ages, since the time of Shakespeare, may ponder the point, referring to Hazlitt’s view that this very play is the weakest of all his comedies, well if that is so, with these characters and, that is some legacy; another important subject must be commented on here before leaving this early play. It is this. I read this play as I have mentioned more than once, before any other work of Shakespeare, I did not know it at the time but certainly now I do, and that thing is this: as you read, rather as I did, Love’s Labour’s Lost, there is something magical, that runs through all Shakespeare’s comedies, his earlier comedies certainly, and many other plays; that is of a dream, as a world that is now lost, not in our time but in Shakespeare’s; but indeed, it is lost in our time and it was lost, in Shakespeare’s time too. That is a world consisting of innocence and of Camelot, midsummer evenings; the gods always shine on us, the mild days remind us of another epoch; romance is chivalric, of knights and jesters and damsels in distress. The cruelty of the word is invisible, it is only exists elsewhere we hear of cruelty; and it is this picture of merry England as I first read these plays many years ago, the reason for writing the essay.

Several years later, after reading this two hardback books of Shakespeare, I was not remaining idle on my bed or outside on the doorstep as my parents smoked cigarettes incessantly and talked about the most trivial nonsense; I was in there, on the cold kitchen floor, sitting on the washing up bowl, reading the plays; whilst walking wherever I was walking I would read them, but by this time I had other books, other editions, small ones that were able to fit in the pocket; I was no longer idle, which I preferred to be in any case, if, so I am told, reading Shakespeare is remaining idle, but enough of this, for I was in college, studying drama, not theoretical drama but the practice of the art of acting. It was here that I saw people who knew Shakespeare and there was lots of chatter about it, much of it dismissively. 

‘Bald Ric,’ was a man I met there, who was some ten years older than all the other students on the course and was older even than his teacher. His name was Richard but as such things happen nicknames are required for strange and peculiar people, and ‘bald Ric’, was one such person. When I first saw the man, with his shiny bald pate and his large green eyes that forever stared, blinking his eyes as if they were exploding bombs and every time this silly man, for that is what he was, blinked his eyes, we thought he had gone to sleep! He had not of course. The man had no depth to him, he had neither courage, nor bravery; he would never take a risk, in acting or otherwise. I found this out in one of the classes I did with the man. I did only one class a week with him. In this class, which was part of our A levels, we were required to perform a monologue from a piece of dramatic literature. He was largely known as an idiot, but I talked to the man and even liked him as he was interesting and spoke with passion in various subjects, but Shakespeare was not one of them. 

In this class we were both coming to, which was every Wednesday afternoon for three hours, he had decided, he told me, to perform a monologue from the playwright, Willy Russell. I had never heard of the writer, but as soon as I had, I made it my business to borrow his plays from the library and read them and having done so, I was as impressed with his writing as I was with bald Ric being a man of great genius. Ric, as I usually called him, not only not a man of genius, he could barely memorise a sentence without him bumbling around. One, also, had never seen such nerves before. It is no understatement to say he was not born to act. You could see his legs visibly shaking, his voice breaking. It was, tragically, worse that that; he could not create a character no matter how much study. He merely spoke words as if he read them from a card. He could not even, as tragic as it is, memorise a speech in Blood Brothers, which is a miserable little play by this frivolous playwright. I choose to dramatise Dr Stockmann from Ibsen’s’ An Enemy of the People. When I told the peculiar fellow about my choice, which I thought was a great play, as I do now, he scrunched up his face, proclaiming, in his high-pitched squeaky voice, which is more suited to the playground than the theatre, that the play is’ too much’ for him. It translated, indeed, that he did not wish to tackle any text which may require any skill in acting or that he did not care for the social plays. 

Sometime after that, I learned he was not fanatical with his Shakespeare as I was and with Ibsen and Shaw and other dramatists. He was, as I soon learned, infatuated by a comedy duo who went by the name of Laurel and Hardy. He would talk about the two men as if they were Shakespeare reincarnated! He attended many of their conventions dressed up with a bowler hat, which he brought into the studio where we studied in the college. Great laughter fell by all those present and further ridicule lay prominent in the air for everybody to touch and feel, as the poor man, albeit his own doing, was in the room and indeed out of it. I would, because I was not then and am not now, an unpleasant and unkindly fellow, not seek to ridicule the man whatever manner it came in, so I sought to humour him and him likewise me. During one of our many discussions, which, to be candid and plain, fell in to total farce, he told me in the most explicit terms that his duo which he admired stated loud and clearly, were the two greatest actors ever to have existed, not just in their lifetime, and the generations following it, but of all time! 

I asked this peculiar and maverick of a man what is an actor composed of, what are the components. It seemed, when I asked him this, like I was asking a small infant the complexities of Hegelism. He looked at me, laughing all the while, bumbling and stuttering like he does, almost foaming at the mouth in the process. He gave some answer, which was inadequate and what the answer was exactly I cannot altogether remember but it was, I am certain about, something like this: ‘to act well and convince the audience of your performance.’ After the man said as much, I gave a sort of smile. He must have, after that, asked me what I believed an actor was composed of and the like and I told him, in no uncertain terms, an actor is somebody who is trained in the art of acting. The art of acting is, if I recall correctly, the ability of the performer involved, to play roles, to dive into the skin of anther and act in such a manner that is unrecognisable; their speech, actions, gait, behaviours, the way they, stare, think, muse, and so on. I recall him, too, after this interview, telling me this duo, were the greatest actors of all time, who played nobody but themselves, who never acted as such; rather, they played themselves and entertained many millions of people; for, it is true, I said to the man, they are entertainers, nothing more, nothing less. He then told me, when the discussion turned to Shakespeare, they were in a production of one of his plays; when I asked which, he said The Comedy of Errors. 

The comic duo, of course, never were in a Shakespeare production; this was sheer and utter nonsense by the man who displayed excessive trivialities, possibly even in his sleep. What he referred to, however, was a film, a feature length motion picture, the pair were in, in which the duo had twins, and there was, ultimately, confusion, which led to it being a comedy. That was as far as it went. By using the theme, mistaken identity, namely twins, that makes it, said the befuddled man, a Shakespeare production. He never did shake off his peculiarities even; one would think, in fact, he was born with such things and no doubt will take them to the grave with him. 

The Comedy of Errors, if I remember correctly, was the second play I read by Shakespeare. The bard it is true, which very few authors can achieve, paints pictures with his words, and once the plays are devoured by the way of the eyes; I was in any case, taken on a magical journey, full of intriguing and wonderful characters. The play is truly funny, in most places, and we see it is written by a master craftsman who still, has not yet achieved his full potential; not even close in fact, but it is true, any author would take this play for their own and cherish it for eons and eons, and even after death. 

The play, like almost all the plays of Shakespeare, with the rare exceptions, both comedies, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, are not his own creations. It is well known he borrowed the stories and the characters, albeit he improved on them and introduced others; this play, is no exception to the rule. Plautus’ The Brothers Menaechmus, is the play Shakespeare drew his source from, which, according to Hazlitt, is 

not an improvement on it

It is, of all his plays, the shortest, and is, along with The Tempest, the only two plays in the oeuvre, to observe the Aristotelian principle of unity of time; that is, the action of the play do not elapse twenty-four hours. One may observe what has thus so far been written about the description of the last play. It focused, of course, as that is where the brilliance of the play, on the most excellent and wonderful characters, and did, which is the plain truth, draw out the comedy. The Comedy of Errors does not draw its comedy in this fashion; instead, it is the plot, which draws out the humour. This play, full of miracles, so-called, madness, and, as Antipholus of Syracuse tells himself, at the end of act one scene two as it is a soliloquy, 

They say this town is full of cozenage:
As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many such-like liberties of sin:

As I read this play as a youngster, I was all confused, bewildered and confounded at the comedy in all this, I should say, is what the play is about; mistaken identity. In the play, there are, not one set of twins, but two. The confusion lies in the characters names. The twins, both of them, have the same names, as well as the same faces! The sets of twins as mischance would have it, the two sets of twins become separated in a shipwreck; Antipholus and his servant, Dromio, attempt to find, with success, at the end of the play, the other Antipholus and Dromio, the servant of Antipholus, not without eerie sights, apparent lunatics, transformed from sanity in an instant, that there is witchcraft, so much more, which, is, we know, all down to mistaken identity!
The first instance of mistaken identity resulting in plain farce, comes about when Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, look for their siblings. After entering the town, which the pair had never entered before, and soon enough, not only wished they had not entered the town but wished they had never been born! The confusion begins, rather, the madness starts when Antipholus telling his servant to,

Peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings,
And then return and sleep within mine inn,
For with long travel I am stiff and weary.
Get thee away 

Dromio is told, ‘get himself away,’ only to return moments later, so Antipholus believes; but it is his twin, Dromio of Ephesus,

What now? how chance thou art return’d so soon?
Return’d so soon! rather approacht too late
Where have you left the money that I gave you?
O,–sixpence, that I had o’ Wednesday last
To play the saddler for my mistress’ crupper:–
The saddler had it, sir; I kept it not
Tell me, and dally not, where is the money?
I pray you, jest, sir, as you sit at dinner:
I from my mistress come to you in post;
Come, Dromio, come, these jests are out of season;
Reserve them for a merrier hour than this.
Where is the gold I gave in charge to thee?
To me, sir! why, you gave no gold to me.
Come on, sir knave, have done your foolishness,
And tell me how thou hast disposed thy charge.
My charge was but to fetch you from the mart
Home to your house, the Phoenix, sir, to dinner
Now, as I am a Christian, answer me,
In what safe place have you bestow’d my money;
I have some marks of yours upon my pate,
Some of my mistess’ marks upon my shoulders
But not a thousand marks between you both
Thy mistress’ marks! what mistress, slave, hast thou?

Upon my life, by some device or other
The villain is o’er-raught of all my money.
Antipholus of Syracuse, a few lines after he has uttered the last sentence above, who is now alone, believes the town, which he has just entered, has the devil about it, 

Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks
And many such like liberties of sin:
If it prove so, I will be gone the sooner. 
It is the first instance we see, of mistaken identity, which transforms the minds of the characters, Antipholus of Syracuse, certainly, into madness, believing there to be madness around him, which only increases to farcical degrees, for, such things continue, not just with these those characters but with the others too, and it goes forth in this manner and so on and so on. We are now situated in a make-believe world Shakespeare has taken his reader or play-goer and cause such confusion, madness, lunacy, befuddlement between the characters involved, not just the twins either, but the wives of the two Antipholus.

In act two, attention shifts, as it does throughout the play and achieves maximum comedy potential, towards Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, who receives news from Dromio, the servant of not Antipholus of Syracuse, but Ephesus, unknown to him, has been conversing with the twin. For, the man, freshly eaten by the man mistaken for his master, reports such events to Adriana,

Why, mistress, sure thy master is horn-mad
Horn-mad, thou villain!
I mean not cuckold-mad;
But, sure, he is stark mad.
When I desired him to come home to dinner.
He ask’d me for a thousand marks in gold:
Go back again, thou slave, and fetch him home
Go back again, and be new beaten home!
For God’s sake, send some other messenger.
Back, slave, or I will break thy pate across.

In this play, what soon materialises, the reader and play-goer comes to comprehend is not merely the fact one such character believes the corresponding character is mad, whom they think they have been acquainted for many years for, indeed, the fact is, as the case is here the first time they have met in fact; it is not just the one character that thinks the other is mad, but now, Dromio, the faithful servant of the other Antipholus, believes his master, who is not his master of course, to be mad; but such characters believe each other to be mad, and the contagion or pandemic, as that it what it appears it may be, from the characters’ perspectives of course, and such madness and lunacy, will, ultimately spread through the town, if it has not done so already. 

In the very next scene, act two scene two, again, we meet Antipholus of Syracuse, but instead of meeting Dromio, not his Dromio, whom he mistook for his very own servant, who has now elucidated such madness, as they both perceive it to be, to his wife, Adriana, but to his very own Dromio, which, no doubt, the confusion only exacerbates,

How now sir! is your merry humour alter'd?
As you love strokes, so jest with me again.
You know no Centaur? you received no gold?
Your mistress sent to have me home to dinner?
My house was at the Phoenix? Wast thou mad,
That thus so madly thou didst answer me?
What answer, sir? when spake I such a word?
Even now, even here, not half an hour since.
I did not see you since you sent me hence,
Home to the Centaur, with the gold you gave me.
Villain, thou didst deny the gold's receipt,

Nobody, it seems, ever got more beatings than the Dromio twins; for in this scene as well as the previous scene and in many more, the two Dromios receive more beatings than a drum at a carnival. The previous scene with the corresponding Dromio and his interview with Adriana, gives the reader and the play-goer alike, the indication this will, the confusion and mistaken identity, of course, not only go in the manner, which has been seen twice, but increase and cause more confusion than anybody thought possible. Alas, in the very same scene just observed, Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus and not of Syracuse, enters and now, there is to be mistaken identity with Adriana taking the wrong man for her husband, which is more than double the confusion! And it proceeds in the following way,

Ay, ay, Antipholus, look strange and frown:
Plead you to me, fair dame? I know you not:
Come, I will fasten on this sleeve of thine:
Thou art an elm, my husband, I a vine,
Whose weakness, married to thy stronger state,
Makes me with thy strength to communicate:
To me she speaks; she moves me for her theme:
What, was I married to her in my dream?
Or sleep I now and think I hear all this?
Dromio, go bid the servants spread for dinner.
O, for my beads! I cross me for a sinner.
This is the fairy land: O spite of spites!
We talk with goblins, owls and sprites:
Why pratest thou to thyself and answer'st not?
I am transformed, master, am I not?
Come, come, no longer will I be a fool,
To put the finger in the eye and weep,
Whilst man and master laugh my woes to scorn.
Come, sir, to dinner. Dromio, keep the gate.
Husband, I'll dine above with you to-day
And shrive you of a thousand idle pranks.
Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking? mad or well-advised?
Known unto these, and to myself disguised!

Antipholus of Syracuse has now, unfortunate man, encountered three such people that has led him to believe, this town which he has just entered, is full of madness and bedlam. Things, as he will see, and the other characters as they will experience much of the same, have only just begun with all this. It is unfortunate, thus for them, how Antipholus of Syracuse, has thrice, in such a short time period, had three encounters that has bewildered him, and Dromio, both of them, have also been on the receiving end of the condition, as has Adriana, whom she took for her husband. 

In act three, as if things were not problematic already, they become more so. Shakespeare, here, employs a new stratagem. Throughout much of the scene, Adriana and Dromio of Syracuse are ‘within,’ coming so close to putting an end to the mayhem and to the bedlam that is to follow. Antipholus of Ephesus is present throughout the scene, as is his servant, with other minor characters. The first confusion arses, not from the characters, but with the master and servant. It ought to be noted of course, Dromio of Ephesus, undeservingly, received a beating who, he believes is from his master but was from the twin of Antipholus of Ephesus. 

Say what you will, sir, but I know what I know;
That you beat me at the mart, I have your hand to show:
I think thou art an ass.
Marry, so it doth appear
By the wrongs I suffer and the blows I bear.

After this has materialised, shortly after, as a little conversation proceeds before this, Shakespeare’s stratagem then comes into play; for both Dromio’s in the same scene but one such Dromio, is ‘within,’ which means the two siblings cannot see each other and this causes more devilish behaviour, more confusion, and inevitably more comedy. First, a terse exchange between the two Dromios, then one between Adriana and her husband.

[within] my name is Dromio.
O villain! thou hast stolen both mine office and my name.
The one ne'er got me credit, the other mickle blame.
Are you there, wife? you might have come before
[Within] Your wife, sir knave! go get you from the door.
In the very next scene, another person, Adriana’s sister, is embroiled in the confusion and mayhem. Adriana at times in fact, because of the behaviour of her husband, and who she thinks who is her husband, behaves, to put it mildly, like one who has escaped from bedlam; it is her good sister who settle her nerves, but these things cannot be helped. After Luciana has delivered her long speech at the beginning of act three scene two, Antipholus, not of Ephesus, but of Syracuse, becomes perplexed by her words.
Sweet mistress--what your name is else, I know not,
Nor by what wonder you do hit of mine,--
Less in your knowledge and your grace you show not
Than our earth's wonder, more than earth divine.
What, are you mad, that you do reason so?
Not mad, but mated; how, I do not know.
Why call you me love? call my sister so.
Thy sister's sister.
That's my sister.
No;
It is thyself, mine own self's better part,
All this my sister is, or else should be.
Call thyself sister, sweet, for I am thee.
Thee will I love and with thee lead my life:
Thou hast no husband yet nor I no wife.
Give me thy hand.
O, soft, air! hold you still:
I'll fetch my sister, to get her good will.

This is Shakespeare’s shortest play; it could well have been his longest as he could have carried such things on and on, although one had the feeling if it were as long as Hamlet, which is his longest play, it in all probability would not work. Love’s Labour’s Lost is his longest comedy, and is, one can say, too long. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also one of the playwrights shortest play and is considered one of his greatest comedies, which even a child could comprehend everything that takes shape in the play. This play is unique, and for one reason. That we see the action, all that is required in the play is for one such person, either it be Dromio, either one of them, or Antipholus, either one of them too, to surreptitiously meet the other; then all the rest is put to bed and the play ends. 

Presently, however, Luciana has run for her life, perhaps not life as such, but we know she will tell her sister what has materialised in the interview we have been presented with and we fear, or rather hope, depending on the whims of the reader or play-goer, more of that madness continues. The issue with Luciana informing her sister what has unfolded here, does not follow directly in the scene, which she has just left and does not return, is not yet over; for there are further lunacies taking shape. Needless to say such things contain other confusions, of a more serious kind. In the same scene, we see Angelo, the goldsmith, who mistakenly gives a gold necklace to Anthophilous, not of Ephesus, but of Syracuse. 

Master Antipholus,—
Ay, that’s my name.
I know it well, sir:—lo, here is the chain.
I thought to have ta’en you at the Porpentine:
The chain unfinish’d made me stay thus long.
What is your will that I shall do with this?
What please yourself, sir: I have made it for you.
Made it for me, sir! I bespoke it not.

The following scene, act four scene one follows on from this and begins with the merchant, who Angelo owes money to, but cannot pay of course as chance, or mischance rather, would have it unless he can get his money off Antipholus of Ephesus, whom he believes he has given the gold necklace to. His ill fortune would have it as well as Antipholus’ even more so, that it is he and not his twin that should arrive in the scene. The following duologue takes place between the two men,

Then you will bring the chain to her yourself?
No, bear it with you, lest I come not time enough.
Well, sir, I will. Have you the chain about you?
And if I have not, sir, I hope you have:
Or else you may return without your money.
Nay, come, I pray you, sir, give me the chain:
Good Lord! You use this dalliance to excuse
Your breach of promise to the Porpentine:
I should have chid you for not bringing it,

But like a shrew you first begin to brawl.
The hour steals on, I pray you, sir, dispatch.
You hear how he importunes me—the chain!
Why, give it to my wife, and fetch your money.
Come, come, you know I gave it you even now.
Either send the chain, or send me by some token.
Fie, now you run this humour out of breath.
Come, where’s the chain? I pray you let me see it.
I answer you? What should I answer you?
The money that you owe me for the chain.
I owe you none, till I receive the chain.
You know I gave it you half an hour since.
You gave me none, you wrong me much to say so.
You wrong me more, sir, in denying it.
Consider how it stands upon my credit.
Well, officer, arrest him at my suit.
I do arrest you, sir: you hear the suit.

In the next scene, Luciana informs her sister what has materialised between her husband and herself, not her husband of curse but she reports it as she believes this is true. Such things, it is true, in this array of mass confusion, can go in infinitum; it does not of course, and in fact everything is put right as we see the two sets of twins together, all on stage and all is revealed. In conclusion, it is sufficient to say any person, whether it be a man, woman, or even chid, just like Ric, or bald Ric, we can reduce Shakespeare to the bare minimum and say, as he did, with the comic duo he is fanatic about, or was in any case, people, can, of course, redeem and reform themselves, but in this case I think it extremely unlikely, for if one can claim the case is true that such people whoever they may be performed in a play if Shakespeare or made a movie out of his works, when they have not only merely have they acted in a lot similar to that of the bard, for if that was the case, we should not point to Shakespeare, as already discussed, the original story came from Plautus, so it ought to be he whom we credit. When we reduce Shakespeare down to plot only, we have all become too modern and too capitalistic with art and aesthetics. 

I first met ‘bald Ric,’ in my first year of study. He had been there one year already. It was unfortunate for him, well, perhaps it wasn’t, but ought to be laboured, the sympathy ought to be given to the rest of his class, which there were only nine members. What I refer to here is the performance, dramatic performance, they were to give, referred to only as, ‘the end of year performance.’ 

This performance, which was, as I remember it well, performed for three nights; and for three nights, with various people, different people attended, for nobody attended the three performances, unless they had some duty to perform, or were paid for their time. The misfortune the rest of Ric’s colleagues is that he was to play a part in this play, and not a small part, it is true to say. The man whose knees shook as he said a word from any play or any words he was required to learn by memory a part in the play, not a small part, but the part of Nick Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The first thing, which is of primary importance, is that Ric not only could not act for the life of him, he, also, to add insult to injury, was not funny in the slightest. If a man or woman, if she or he practiced the art of sadism long enough, abused him to his underwear and stated, in no uncertain terms, without warning, if he could not make them laugh, or say something amusing; humorous, they would lay him down and stick a hot poker up his rectum, he would, no question, fail in his task. Nick Bottom, if people needed reminding, is a humorous fellow in the play, and Ric, with his bald pate and wobbly knees and the gait of a drunkard, could not, for the life of him, even make a child laugh, even a baby. I, in the evenings, such as was my dedication, would stay behind and watch the rehearsals, and see Ric make as ass of himself. He spoke his lines; there was no clarity; the truth of the matter is nobody heard him. I talked to people I knew, friends who also watched the rehearsals, well, in fact, one friend, who himself was strange, peculiar, but not in such a befuddling way. He did, however, tell more lies than Nozdryov, the most ridiculous and blatant fabricator in all fiction, from Gogol’s epic, Dead Souls. He was a man, however, who lamented the very presence of Ric.

This man, Antoni, was a man of great ambitions, who was more than adequate at debates, but was no match for me, was well read on the classics and knew Shakespeare well.  We could spot a bad player, by their gait, their mannerisms and the like, and Ric, when on the stage, whenever that may be, on every occasion portrayed his own mannerisms as he seemed incapable of doing another’s. We both feared, as did others, this would be an event best forgotten. That is without mentioning the other colleagues of Ric’s, of the girls in the class, who certainly to epic proportions could not act. The young men could perform comedy but not verse, so, much to the dismay of myself and Antoni; but, I should say, it had no bearing on me, for the tutor decided, as his students were so abominable with the business of acting, to edit the play, which we both wrangled over. I told him, in plain English, that I thought he was the most idiotic man I had set eyes upon, It did not bode well for me. 

I told the man the play is not King Lear, Hamlet or even The Merchant of Venice or The Tempest, he knew that well of course. The tutor, who was to be my tutor the following year, was called Alan, and was highly regarded as a teacher and educator. We continued to have disagreements about such thing,s about how the plays of Shakespeare ought to be performed and so on. The man, if the plain truth ought to be told, did not like me. He believed Shakespeare ought to be modernised so more people can understand his plays, but, I was against this and told him a much. He blocked me from attending the rehearsals, with Antoni too; so the two of us, sometimes joined by others, but often the two of us, frequented the pub together and discussed the issues of the world and such things. 

I will not here, nor anywhere, discuss the three performances of the play I saw all those years ago. Not only was the play cut up like a butcher cuts his meat; it was, too, performed in modern dress, without any of the actors speaking verse, which represented a pantomime or something worse perhaps. It just leaves me to say Alan, the following year, chose not to select a classic play, but a modern play, and from a class of only seven, I was given a minor role. It suffices to say, to end on this, the lead, the man who was, and still is, so it has been reported, a contemptible character, who did not return to lessons after a break, so the role was given to another. 

It was, of course, much earlier when I first read the play. It was, as I recall, the third play I read of Shakespeare’s which followed immediately after the last play discussed. The great American actor, director and performance artist, Orson Welles, asserted with some clarity and authority, on many occasions in fact that he was against the modern age and romanticised about the past, as, so he claimed, Shakespeare did. Mr Welles must be congratulated here when he says this as it is clear to me, and to others, that in this play certainly but in many others, perhaps As You Like It and Twelfth Night are good examples, that is the idea in the plays that runs throughout them, of escaping from the modern world and entering another as it is, perhaps, too ghastly for us to endure and accept. Welles also said the villains in Shakespeare, the wicked and nefarious ones, were all, ‘over there.’ The villains, one supposes, are not villains Shakespeare paints in a play such as this but villains that inhabited Shakespeare’s modern word, which was, no doubt, far less barbarous than the modern times of today. As Hazlitt says,
In the MIDUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM alone, we should imagine, there is more sweetness and beauty of description than in the whole range of French poetry put together.

The play is one of Shakespeare’s more adored and cherished plays by people of all ages. The reason, no doubt, is because there is nothing in the play a child cannot or should not hear. There are tenfold other such reasons too. The play, in effect, is a dream, or resembles one, a fairy tale, full of wonderful and fascinating characters. Every great fairy tale has a king, queen, princess or Duke, perhaps all four. I must clarify here, the usage of king and queen. A king or queen in the real world, in Shakespeare’s day certainly was very different from the fairy tale. In reality, they are known to torture, murder and imprison their enemies and even their friends, using mass terror and other awful things to consolidate their power. 

Queen Mary, for example, only died six years before the birth of Shakespeare. When a person acquires the name ‘bloody Mary,’ people are inclined to panic, feel mild concern at the very least. Three-hundred protestants were burned at the stake for heresy, hundreds were forced into exile, and her half-sister, queen Elizabeth, religious heretics underwent the same treatment, and so it goes. In the play, presently being discussed, however, it is another world entirely. We, the reader of the play, as we proceed with the infolding action, want to remain here in this majestical world and wish to remove ourselves from the world which we now inhabit, until it is time to depart once more; it is, also, the same with the performance, but a word of warning about Shakespeare’s comedies in performance, more particularly  A midsummer’s Night’s Dream. His comedies and this play especially, are seldom, if ever, performed to any standard, in Shakespeare’s home county certainly. one ought to read the play and create, in their minds the performance but, it is the case, in the world today, few do this, for if they did, their disappointment would be inevitable of such a base performance and the bastardising of the text. 

There are, in the play, several sets of characters; we have, from Shakespeare, as he is such a craftsman, characters that are funny, such as the mechanicals or the characters that are not so humorous but it is the plot we are thrown into that reveals the humour in such a fantastical play. I will first, as that sems to be the way to progress, first discuss the characters of the play, very tersely; then talk about the play itself.  The mechanicals make up six characters and are not, I would say, involved in the plot of the play, but rather the sub plot. These characters are Peter Quince, the carpenter; Snug, the joiner; Flute, the bellows-mender; Snout, the tinker; Starveling, the tailor, and Nick Bottom, the weaver. The plot of the play unfolds rather quickly, we meet Lysander and Demetrius, who are both in love with the same girl, Helena, but she is in love with only one man. Hermia is in love only with Lysander. The third set of characters, as where we see, no doubt, the magic in the play which make it the ‘dream,’ something of idle fantasy. There is the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania. There is puck. There, also, are the four fairies, Peas-Blossom, Cobweb, Moth, Mustard Seed. The final set of characters being perhaps the most unremarkable of all the characters in the play, for they are the only characters in the dream that are not, as it were, part of the dream. These are Theseus, the duke of Athens and, Hippolyta, his betrothed, the queen of the Amazons.

In the first act and first scene we are invited into the palace of Theseus, in Athens. This is where, we learn later, where the plot begins as most plays do, and from the second act, we are guided elsewhere. First it is to the opening scene. There is nothing magical or fantastical about the scene or the second for that matter; no, it is the second act where we observe the magic and idle fantasy. In the first act we learn the first two characters, who after the first scene we do not see until the end of the play, announce they are to marry in four days’ time. There is nothing amiss here, but, enters Egeus, the father of Hermia. Demetrius, he asserts, to the duke, has his permission to marry Hermia but, for the life of her, she does not wish to marry him, but another, and this is well known, by Egeus at least. If Hermia refuses to marry the man her father wishes to betroth. Theseus says, 
Either to die the death, or to abjure
For ever the society of men.

When Theseus and Hippolyta leave, along with Aegeus and others, we are left with the two overs, Hermia and Lysander. What materialises here between the two lovers and what happens in the next scene will, become, the dream, not a dream as such, not a dream at all in fact as it is a real as the teeth are in the mouth and not outside it and the dream, also, is as real as a chestnut tree is, once at its maximum height is taller and bigger than any woman, man and child. We could say as it would be valid to say so, that he second act of the play and the rest of the play, does, indeed represent a dream. Lysander and Hermia, now alone, fear they must do what lover must do. Lysander says to Hermia,

Steal forth thy father's house to-morrow night;
And in the wood, a league without the town,
Where I did meet thee once with Helena,
To do observance to a morn of May,
There will I stay for thee.
Tomorrow truly will I meet with thee.
Tomorrow truly will I meet with thee, 

says Hermia to her beloved. If it were the case, they were to rush to
‘a wood near Athens,’ 

even if the mechanicals were to be present in the very same place which they will of course, to rehearse their play, which they are to perform to the Duke and his betrothed, it would still not suffice a plot for the play. There had to be, another stratagem in the pay, in the form of  a character to provide the amusement, adventure, folly and humour when we come to the dream in the wood in the following scene sand acts. This stratagem or person rather, attend the scene as Hermia and her lover are presently planning their escape together. This is Helena. Even in the presence of Hermia Helena attempts to woo Lysander, albeit unsuccessfully, and she will, Helena, that is, not stop, and would, if it were warranted, in her mind out least, follow the man who is in love with another to the end of the earth and back. When she learns of the two young lovers escaping, once alone, at the ed of the scene, she herself, in a soliloquy, states that she will tell Demetrius of their secret plans.
The second scene takes place at Peter Quince’s house. They are, so Quince tells them, to rehearse the play on the ‘palace-wood.’  The scene and other scenes with the mechanicals, too, are dominated by one, Nick Bottom, who is a delight to hear and see, if performed correctly of course, for the reader and paying audience member, but, one should, it is true, empathise with the other characters in his presence, for Mr Bottom talks a little more, rather, a lot more than is necessary; yes, he is terribly verbose and nobody can shut him up; it is also the case he says nothing of note, nothing of any importance, but he does talk all the while and is a funny little character. 

The dream part of the play, which, effectively is the rest of the play, until the final scene where we meet, once again the duke and his betrothed, as well as Aegeus, because in the rest of the play, in the wood near Athens, they are absent. We do not, in the wood near Athens meet the most Machiavellian of Shakespearean villains. Indeed, there is no Iago, who murders and drives people to murder, no Aaron the Moor either, who is no better; there are no Scottish kings in the wood and no Scottish kings who go on vast killing sprees, nor is there bloody murder and assassination, nobody is demanding a pound of flesh, nobody is imprisoned, nobody eye re gorged out; no, life is different here. 

Act two opens, not with the characters we have seen before, and again as w saw with the mechanicals we can well believe in fact, we have stumbled on yet another play, three plays within one! In this scene, in ‘a wood near Athens,’ two character enter, Puck and a fairy. Some words of exceptional aesthetic beauty are spoken by Puck as well as other characters that emerge afterwards, but it is here in this scene where Puck says, 

I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:
And sometime lurk I in a gossip's bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her wither'd dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And 'tailor' cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,
And waxen in their mirth and neeze and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there.

The fairy too, after Puck asks,
How now, spirit! whither wander you?
Replies, and as the reply comes, we perceive, we read te play and see the performance, if it is performed correctly, understand at once we have entered something sublime; something different to what we know, what we have endured, and so on because this is not as modernity would have it or any other time. When we hear these words by the fairy, we know, something different awaits us to what we have seen and heard in the least two scenes, in the last act to this one,

Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be:
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dewdrops here
And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear.
Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I'll be gone:
Our queen and all our elves come here anon.

What is the difference here, in this play, to Shakespeare’s other plays, is the simplicity of the language for they are such they can be read by a small chid and be understood and for the people that chop and change and edit and such thing it is unnecessary and not required even by the enthusiast if butchery and philistinism but that dud not of course, stop Alan, my former tutor at college, all these years ago, but he had his reasons, as people, acting in the play would rather read base comic book than perform Shakespeare, which ought to be an honour of the highest degree, of the highest accolade, but that is another tangent. It is not just children can enjoy and understand and enjoy the words and the play, it is, as Welles argued, this was not the ‘modern world,’ this was more, ‘Camelot,’ a more sane world perhaps, without the villains, without he murder and conspiracies and the bloodshed we see in Titus Andronicus, King Lear, Richard III, Hamlet, and so on. Oberon, the king of the fairies and Titiana, the queen of the fairies enter and overtake proceedings. I still recall, in my second year at college studying drama, a student or two spoke these very lines from the dream,

These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer's spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb'd our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems' thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

These characters are not without heir own story, their own dilemmas and their own remonstrances. Oberon, to begin with, is unhappy, with Titiana, in particular, as she has, stolen by the fairies, a young servant boy whom she is adamant she will not be rid off despite his protestations. Puck or Robin Goodfellow as they bear the name was not Shakespeare’s invention. The name of the mischievous and impish fairy appeared in earlier plays and had his name in folklore any mythology. Peter Bottom is considered a Shakespeare character which people of all ages enjoy. But with Puck, does, we can say with absolute certainty, that he steals the show away from the weaver. It is Puck, which Peter bottom does not possess, and that is, of course, qualities no human mortal possesses. Because Titania is adamant she will not be rid of this servant boy, after she had departed the scene, it is Puck that thinks she ought to ay with his insolence. There is, however, no such thing as malice in this world Shakespeare takes us on, but merely roguish mischievousness. Puck will, he says, squeeze the juice from a flower on to the eyelids, which will have her fall madly in love with the person looks upon and the spell, he says, will not be removed until Titiana agrees to be rid of this servant boy once and for all. 

In the following scene, scene two in the first act, in another part of the wood, enters Titiana with her ‘train.’ Part of this train are the fairies she commands sing a song; the fairies do so,

You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.
Philomel, with melody
Sing in our sweet lullaby;
Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby:
Never harm,
Nor spell nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So, good night, with lullaby.
Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.
Philomel, with melody, & c.

After the charming and delightful song, Titiana falls asleep; after she does, Oberon enters and squeezes the flower on to Titania’s eyelids. After Oberon has departed and Titiana is still sleeping, we see, for the first time in this wood near Athens, some of the characters we saw in act one, the youngsters that is, not a triangle of love, confusion and obsession, but more like a hexagon of love, confusion and obsession! Lysander and Hermia enter, the two lovers, then sleep. Although the play is not one of a dagger in the gut, the disembowelling of the entrails and the murder of many, but does have it dilemmas, its problems; for, of course, if it did not, what do we have here? Puck accidentally squeezes the flower on to the eyelid of Demetrius that was meant for Lysander. The two lovers still sleep, Puck departs and the two, not lovers of course, albeit one does love the and the other would not have it so. It is of course, Helena and Demetrius that enter. Demetrius is attempting to escape from the woman that is obsessive about him and will follow him to the end of the earth, but he departs, leaving Helena with the two sleeping lovers, unaware of their presence there. 

Luck would have it, bad luck rather, for Hermia in any case, that Lysander, when he awakens, sees Helena and then declares his love for her but she is unwilling to believe his words as it appears too silly and trivial to say such things and believes she is being mocked all the while, unaware of the magic and the fairies and Puck and such things that inhabit this wood. But the charade goes on. Hermia sleeps. She awakes to find herself alone as the man she is besotted with has departed, unknown to her, chasing Helena, whom he now loves, or at last thinks he does. We now have a bigger web of bewilderment and confusion than had previously been the case. 

In the next act, act three, we meet once again, the six mechanicals. Once again it is Nick Bottom with his verbosity here, which Peter Quince, who is to direct the play, harshly perhaps, says to him.

What say’st thou, bully Bottom?

They are to perform, for the duke and for the queen of the Amazons, Pyramus and Thisbe. The play that is to be performed, they fear may be too explicit for the duke Theseus and his betrothed. Bottom describes how the Hippolyta and her betrothed may be offended and alarmed at such a performance of the play,

There are things in this comedy of Pyramus and
Thisby that will never please. First, Pyramus must
draw a sword to kill himself; which the ladies
cannot abide. How answer you that?

Throughout the scene, which is relatively long, certainly, compared to the later scenes we have witnessed in the play so far, Bottom dominates the action with the absurdity that emanates from his mouth, for he says,

Nay, you must name his name, and half his face must
be seen through the lion's neck: and he himself
must speak through, saying thus, or to the same
defect,
--'Ladies,'--or 'Fair-ladies--I would wish
You,'--or 'I would request you,'--or 'I would
entreat you,--not to fear, not to tremble: my life
for yours. If you think I come hither as a lion, it
were pity of my life: no I am no such thing; I am a
man as other men are;' and there indeed let him name
his name, and tell them plainly he is Snug the joiner.

Puck, once again, weaves his magic against the weaver this time. Bottom departs, but when he enters once again he returns with an asses head; the response from the other other mechanicals, on seeing this monstrosity, is the sensible option, which is to run. They depart the scene and we never see them again, and one cannot blame them, in this wood near Athens. It is then the case, Titiana, in seeing Bottom with an asses head, instead of his own of course, falls in love with him. 

In the next scene, act three scene two, Puck tells Oberon what has materialised so far, with the ass-headed mechanical and of Titiana and how she has, unfortunate woman, fallen in love with such a being, he explains it in the following manner, 

My mistress with a monster is in love.
Near to her close and consecrated bower,
While she was in her dull and sleeping hour,
A crew of patches, rude mechanicals,
That work for bread upon Athenian stalls,
Were met together to rehearse a play
Intended for great Theseus' nuptial-day.
The shallowest thick-skin of that barren sort,
Who Pyramus presented, in their sport
Forsook his scene and enter'd in a brake
When I did him at this advantage take,
An ass's nole I fixed on his head:
Anon his Thisbe must be answered,
And forth my mimic comes. When they him spy,
As wild geese that the creeping fowler eye,
Or russet-pated choughs, many in sort,
Rising and cawing at the gun's report,
Sever themselves and madly sweep the sky,
So, at his sight, away his fellows fly;
And, at our stamp, here o'er and o'er one falls;
He murder cries and help from Athens calls.
Their sense thus weak, lost with their fears
thus strong,
Made senseless things begin to do them wrong;
For briers and thorns at their apparel snatch;
Some sleeves, some hats, from yielders all
things catch.
I led them on in this distracted fear,
And left sweet Pyramus translated there:
When in that moment, so it came to pass,
Titania waked and straightway loved an ass.

It suffices to say Oberon is not only satisfied at such a mischievous trick and devious stratagem; he could not have thought such dealings could have gone better for him. What we must not forget, however, in the midst of all the madness, trickery and mischievousness here, we have the four young people whose problems are all in a muddle. Puck and Oberon observe as Hermia and Lysander appears and as Pucks tells his master,

This is the woman, but not this the man.

Hermia, of course, is looking for the man she loves, Lysander. As Hermia exits, Lysander sleeps. When this is observed by the fairy and Oberon, the mischievous Robin Goodfellow is told he has made an error and caused confusion for the four youngers, so it is for Puck, considering his error, to
put it right again and he seeks to make amends for his mistake. He does so. As Demetrius sleeps, he squeezes the flower on to Demetrius’ eye. Helena and Lysander enter. Helena still believes Lysander mocks her, and so the quarrel goes on. Demetrious awakes. As he does, he looks upon Helen and there is, now unfolding double trouble due to the mischievous mistake of Puck. Demetrius now is in love with Helena, which he believes as does Lysander. Helena, now, believes the mockery is double. Hermia the enters. One can predict what mayhem now materialises and so it does, that is until Puck puts things as they should be and when the lovers depart the wood near them, Hermia is to be married to her Lysander in a triple ceremony at the end of the play; Demetrius marries Helena and Hippolyta marries Theseus. The mechanicals perform Pyramus and Thisbe. That is when the play ends.