Derrida’s concept of the frame, the perergon, which he uncovers in his deconstruction of Kant’s 3rd Critique might bring into focus some of the issues regarding Midsummer that I have been struggling to put into words. (Strange, perhaps, that Derrida might bring anything into focus.)
Derrida constructs the frame as the middle ground which Kant gives us as a directional tool, pointing us in the direction of the true aesthetic object. The frame is perergon, it is outside the work, but it is essential in telling us that a work of art, in fact, exists (ostensibly, within the frame). However, Derrida exposes the empirical regression that such a dichotomy–of inside and outside, artwork and pererga–must necessarily introduce. We can never be sure that we have, in fact, set all extraneous details aside in our pursuit of the object, and so must eventually put the object of beauty itself aside in order to finally determine its beauty. Self-defeating, to say the least.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, this same concept of liminality is turned inside out. The play itself is structured so as to make the audience successively uncertain as to their position with regards to reality. Kant’s aesthetic (for Derrida) suggests a continual movement inward toward the object, while at the same time necessitating a continual ‘reframing’ of the object in relation to those things external to it. Derrida’s hypothetical artwork–a framed painting of a building surrounded by columns shaped like clothed statues–points up this continual reframing. Shakespeare’s play also seems to point continually outward to a reality, while continually reframing that reality with regards to the ‘art’ which is theatrical performance.
One of the most ingenious aspects of the play’s structure is that it must necessarily be in play before the play itself actually begins, and it extends itself outward again from the play’s ending. In between, it plays all sorts of games with the concepts of interiority and exteriority. Here, very quickly, I’ll breakdown how I see this being achieved.
The audience of the play has, upon entering a theater, set aside certain assumptions about ‘real life’. There is a tacit understanding that ‘entertainment’, whatever else it may be, is a diversion from the real. While I am being entertained, there are no jobs to worry about, no familial concerns, no pressing external circumstances (the fact that I have come to the theater suggests that I have made arrangements for my work, my kids, etc.). In this respect, the theater itself acts as the first realm of unreality into which the audience is drawn. While this is true at the play’s start, it is made explicit as the play ends, when Puck offers the audience the opportunity to cast the play itself off as nothing more than a dream. By vocalizing the option, however, Puck extends the plays action beyond that played on the stage, in order to incorporate, at the very least, the action of the audience as they leave the theater and return to the ‘real.’
Within the action of the play itself, however, this same structure is preeminent. The play opens in Athens, which is at the start to be considered the realm of unreality, when compared with the perceived reality of the actual people in their actual seats in the actual theater. That Athens is being played before them on the stage offers the audience the opportunity to reframe their concept of the real: perhaps they had considered that entering the theater was a diversion from reality, perhaps not, but now they are clearly being asked to draw a frame around the artwork, and to place themselves, externally, in relation to it. I am real, Shakespearean Athens is fake, is fantasy, is artwork. It is key, however, that in this section of the play certain elements of the ‘reality’ of Athens are also established. Patriarchy is in full effect, gravity works, death is possible, social interactions are fraught with complications; things are not ‘ideal.’
The escape from the city again brings into focus the dual nature of the Derridian frame: the lovers move outward from the city, away from civilization and toward nature (and thus, ostensibly, toward some deeper biological reality–for Freud and Lacan, the dreamworld is a little bit more ‘real’); however, in doing so they draw the audience, once again, into a deeper sense of unreality. Now, the audience must conceive of Athens as ‘real’, insofar as it is opposed to the ‘dream’ of the forest. Thus far, the audience has stacked their frameworks: The world outside the theater is real, I in my seat am real, Athens is real, and it is the dream-forest that is the center of unreality. It is from this point that art springs. And yet, in the Mechanicals rehearsal, a further level of unreality is suggested. That a play could be performed in the dream world itself suggests that the dream world is not so much different than our own. We, after all, are watching a play right now (although the play itself seems intent on obscuring this very simple formulation). As Quince goes about the forest clearing pointing out the stage, the tiring-house, he is surely indicating the actual stage, and in the Elizabethan theater he might as easily indicate the actual tiring-house, which immediately collapses the framework thus far established. Indeed, the entire rehearsal, which takes place at the center of the audience’s frame, is built around exposing the inner workings of the illusion of theater. Here, in the ‘reality’ of the dream-forest, the Mechanicals discuss stage lighting, prop difficulties, the writing of the play, the fact that characters are just actors in costumes. It seems as though, right in the center of its artifice (Act 3, Scene 1 is the center of the play, both by scene, and–more or less–by length), Midsummer performs a sort of deconstruction on itself, pointing out through characters at the center of the artifice that it works to sustain the ‘mechanics’ by which that artifice is sustained.
Bottom’s dream, which we experience as the reality of the dream-forest, is indeed, the bottom of our dream as well. From the moment he goes to bed with Titania, the play moves increasingly back out of the frames which it has constructed. It seems interesting to note here, however, that the devices by which things are ‘put right’, in the play’s interest to get the lovers back to Athens, to move back to reality, all seem to involve a ‘putting to sleep’ as well. This offers the opportunity for the image of awakening to reality–the lovers awaken to the reality of Athens, bottom awakens to the reality of the forest–but it also suggests that the move to that reality contains within it the same qualities of ‘putting to sleep’ that are associated with dream.
By ending with “Pyramus and Thisbe,” the play repositions its audience to consider the framework in which they experience art and artifice. They have, along with the lovers, been reintegrated into the reality of Athens, but even this movement is one which must certainly recall the original, and more immediate, disintegration into the false world of Athens with which the play began. If this suggestion is missed by anyone the first time around, the play-within-the-play drives it home. The audience now is asked to respond to pure artifice (we saw it under construction in the forest, and we see it fall apart in “Pyramus and Thisbe”), but we are responding to this pure artifice alongside Theseus, Hippolyta, and the lovers, with whom we must both identify (we watch what they watch) while we are immediately distanced from them (we watch them watching). (Does Derrida’s regressive frame not suggest itself further: who watches us watching them?)
Of course, as I have already suggested, Puck’s final monologue points outward once again. If the implication was not taken up by watching the audience on stage, Puck leaves no doubt that the audience, too, has been complicit in this artifice. “That you have but slumbered here” suggests that you, too, must now wake up. However, as in the play, we may question what it is we are waking up to. No one in the play could quite shake off their dreams, and we might expect to have the same experience. Oberon’s final speech, indeed his final existing in and presiding over the manor house at Athens, makes clear the role which fantasy plays in the propagation of reality.
All this very quickly.