More than anything else Shakespeare wrote, how you interpret A Midsummer Night’s Dream centres around how you play the fairies. Are they the sweet delicate little things of the Victorian myth, posing in gardens for young girls to photograph? Are they proud, noble, natural aristocrats? The stuff of your worst nightmares? Or all of these in turn? Neil Gaiman rather captured the problem in an issue of The Sandman, where Shakespeare’s strolling players perform the play for the King and Queen of Faerie. Peaseblossom, a monster like a walking thorn bush, is outraged at his portrayal. ‘It’s nuffink like me! Nuffink! Issa wossname. Travelogue? Nah, travesty.’
For these reasons, I was keen to get hold of an illustrated edition for my blog. Cardiff University Library hold one of the most beautiful examples ever printed, but to my disappointment I’d already covered that edition in my reading of The Comedy of Errors. I was sorely tempted to break my own rule of reading each play in a different edition, but eventually decided to move on – but not without giving you a view of Arthur Rackham’s incomparable Bottom. (No, sorry, that didn’t come out right.)
Fortunately, my friend Mikey is compiling a database of Shakespearean illustration, and let me borrow a hefty mid-Victorian volume of plays illustrated by Kenny Meadows who honed his trade on that stalwart of the era, Punch Magazine. It is quite fun for once to turn to Introductory Remarks that begin, in high Victorian style ‘Variegated, light, and splendid as though woven in the woof of Iris, the wondrous texture of this enchanting dream is yet of stamina to last till doomsday.’ A modern critic would be laughed out of his job for writing this, but everyone can admire the sentiment. The small print, two column format allow Meadows’s sketches to sit close to the actions they illustrate – sometimes, as with some of the fairy songs, the two seem almost to interact. It’s an organic way of illustration and one he seems much more comfortable with than the more standard dedication of a large illustration to a single page, to judge by the rather stiff and ungainly frontispiece to the play.
Meadows’s talents tend more to the light and delicate – the tiny fairies playing games with snails or encircling the moon. His portrait of Puck as a wicked cherub is unintentionally creepy, and his Bottom isn’t a patch on Rackham’s magnificent specimen. (Not quite right, again!) Yet what I really miss is the feel of the wild wood and the darkness, the maze in which the foolish, lovestruck mortals (and Faerie Queen) are wandering throughout the middle acts. Meadows, I think, gives us too clear a prospect out of Shakespeare’s tangled plotting and characterisation.
Some of the comedies thus far, like Measure for Measure or Much Ado About Nothing, have felt like tragedies only lightly deferred, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream feels like an entirely new genre. Even having read Shakespeare’s early trials of the stage mechanics in the final fairy scenes of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the play seems to have a touch of the uncanny about it, as if sprung from nowhere. I will always remember the shiver that went down my spine the first time I read the play through, in my first year of university, and finished the play just as the chimes of midnight struck out over the sleeping city. For a moment, I was still in fairyland.