Masque: in A Midsummer Night's Dream

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      In the tradition of English theatre, a masque is considered to be what is also referred to as a 'dumb show'. The masque has its origins in a folk tradition. It would typically have masked players who would unexpectedly call on a nobleman or a royal in his hall, dancing and bringing gifts on certain nights of the year, or celebrating dynastic occasions. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the mechanicals, a group of rustic Athenians prepare a play on the life of Pyramus and Thisbe. They intend to present this play as an entertainment for Theseus and Hippolyta on the occasion of their marriage.

      The Oxford Companion to English Literature defines a masque as a dramatic entertainment which involves dances and disguises, in which the spectacular and musical elements predominate over plot and character.

      A masque was usually enacted in indoor settings by amateur actors. The basic design of the plot was such that it led to the involvement of spectators in the action as well. The story narrated was usually in rhyme, it was fanciful and even allegorical. One can say that the defining characteristic of this play lay in the spectacle it provided.

      Plot: The plot of the play is not a superficial or meaningless one. The plot is highly complex and multi-layered. It is also implicit in nature. Unlike a masque, where the plot is secondary; this particular play has the plot as its central concern. The reader or the audience is drawn to the stories of all the characters, whether they achieve a union or not. The restoration of peace in all the worlds is the high point where the play ends. The plot may not be profound or intense as is the case with the tragedies written by Shakespeare. The structure and development of the plot of this play is one where the play differs from the masque written in the old English tradition.

      Characterization: Reality vs. illusion is a central theme in A Midsummer Night's Dream. This suggests that this is a masque in that the characterization has been done in a multifaceted way and the characters are not all what they seem to be. Puck is one such character. On a superficial level, we know Puck to be a mischievous and devilish little fairy who also happens to be the chief attendant of the king of fairies, Oberon. We are given a glimpse of Puck's true colors in the second act from Puck's fellow fairy who asks Puck if he is "that shrewd and knavish sprite" (II. I.). We also learn of his mischievous nature through the descriptions of his antics, such as scaring the "maidens of the villagery". Due to his devilish nature, Oberon believes that Puck has intentionally mixed up the Athenian lovers, making both men pursue the opposite woman, as we see in Oberon's lines, "This is thy negligence. Still thou mistakest, / Or else committ'st thy knaveries wilfully". However, Puck claims that he made an honest mistake due to the fact that Oberon only told Puck that he was looking for an Athenian man; Puck had no idea there were actually two Athenian men in the forest that night. For a moment the reader feels that Puck is feeling genuine compassion for Helena and helps her out by squeezing the juice on the eyes of both Lysander and Demetrius. However, Puck reverts to his original nature, when he says that he is enjoying the confusion which has erupted due to his follies.

      We can also see that the lovers, especially Lysander have a mask-like character and quality. Before Lysander and Hermia enter the woods, Lysander believes that their decision to love and marry is guided by reason. We see Lysander apply reason to argue before Theseus, that he is just as worthy to marry Hermia as Demetrius because he is just as high in social status and as wealthy, as we see in his lines, "I am, my lord, as well derived as he, / As well possess'd". Yet, no matter how reasonable Lysander thinks he is, Puck proves through enchantment that Lysander is actually a very irrational being. Suddenly; without any real reasons, Lysander is in love with Helena and believes he hates Hermia. He even still continues to believe that he is being rationally minded, as we see in his lines, "The will of man is by his reason sway'd, / And reason says you are the worthier maid". Since on the surface level Lysander appears to be a reasonable person, we can say that Lysander is wearing a mask, even though we are aware that he is under the effect of magic. We can also say that magic seems to be a guiding force in giving the characteristics of the masque to this play. Lysander's mask presents him as a reasonable person, when in reality he is just as irrational as the rest of the characters in the play. He makes both intelligent and wise decisions but at the very next instant, he also makes irrational decisions.

      The use of magic and the Supernatural: Shakespeare has employed the use of magic to lend an element of the fantastic to this play. The world of the fairies ruled over by Titania and Oberon is also responsible for gripping the attention of the audience. The pranks played by Puck are responsible for the evocation of laughter and even amusement as Puck also uses magic. Titania and Oberon are involved in a fight over a changeling. The very concept of a changeling is amusing. A changeling is a child who is stolen by the fairies from a human household. We also realize that this changeling, the Indian boy never appears in the play and this adds to the mystery and aura that is created around and about him. Later in the play, on Oberon's orders, Puck squeezes the magical potion on the eyes of Titania. This leads to her falling in love with a donkey and she even makes love to him. This is also a source of comedy as Shakespeare the fantastical in the play. Puck's pranks always involve magic. He transforms himself into objects of daily use such as a fruit bowl, a stood and other such items. He then plays pranks on other such people causing comedy in the play. The use of supernatural is a chief characteristic of a masque, which Shakespeare fully exploits.

      Anti-masque: The anti-masque was also a characteristic feature of the masque in the old English tradition. It is basically a sub plot which serves as an interlude or a parody to the main plot. In this particular play, there is an anti-masque. The plot of the mechanicals who have gathered to perform the play of Pyramus and Thisbe serve as a parody for the story of the fairies. When the artisans perform their play in front of Theseus and Hippolyta, it is striking to note that the unpolished and unrefined play is pitted against the brilliance and magnanimity of the royals. We also see that Hippolyta comments on this every unpolished performance. She does not like the performance as the actors are under prepared. It is only Theseus who appreciates their performance.

University Questions

What do you understand by a masque? Comment with reference to A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Do you consider A Midsummer Night's Dream to be a masque? Support your answer with examples.

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