Wednesday, March 25, 2009

MIDSUMMER DREAMERS: The Duke and Duchess-to-Be

Shakespeare opened his Midsummer Night’s Dream with a scene to make any feminist cringe: not only has Theseus, Duke of Athens, conquered Hippolyta, the Amazon warrior queen, and forced her to marry him, but a few moments later an old patriarch named Egeus bursts in and demands the right, by “ancient privilege of Athens,” to have his daughter killed if she refuses to marry the man her father chooses. The play seems to be about a world where men are winning, hands down, the eternal war of the sexes. But later on, we find that it’s more complicated than that; the story ends with the two female leads (Hermia and Helena) getting what they want, while the desires of the men are ridiculed, transformed, and/or frustrated. Meanwhile, in the world of the Fairies, a different battle of the sexes ends with the queen being ridiculed and the king getting what he wants. So...exactly who wins the war, men or women? No easy answers, in Shakespeare!

Above, Theseus conquers Hippolyta (from a Grecian urn).

For me, the character whose motivation has always been the most obscure is Hippolyta, who weds Duke Theseus in the final scene. Is Hippolyta getting what she wants? Shakespeare doesn’t explain exactly what Theseus means when he tells Hippolyta he “woo’d her with my sword”; but when we first meet them, it’s clear that he’s impatient to get into bed with her, whereas she’s in no rush. In the first lines of the play, they both draw metaphors for the moon, which separates and will unite them. Theseus’ moon is a miserable old spinster, frustrating a young man from spite, whereas Hippoyta’s moon is Diana, the chaste huntress:

Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man's revenue.

This day will quickly steep itself in night;
This night will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.

Or, to translate from Shakespeare to the language of images:

Theseus' moon:

Hippolyta's moon:

Although Benjamin Britten cut Shakespeare’s first scene from his opera, he kept these famous lines for the introduction of Hippolita (Britten also changed Shakespeare’s spelling!) and Theseus in his Act Three. As voice-types, he chose a regal bass and a husky alto; but the music for these two characters is orchestral as well, a wedding of strings and brass in the orchestral interlude immediately preceding their entrance.


(Brian Bannantyne-Scott; Philips 454 122-2)

Theseus’ brassy fanfares may sound royal and pompous, but they are, in fact, the echoes of barking dogs! Britten’s inspiration for this musical figure was a passage he had to cut, where Theseus and Hippolyta discuss the music of such a cacaphony:
We will, fair queen, up to the mountain's top,
And mark the musical confusion
Of hounds and echo in conjunction.

... Besides the groves,
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seem'd all one mutual cry: I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.
As for the beautiful string theme you heard in that passage, I’ve always thought it represented Hippolita, her beauty and her mixed emotions about her rapidly approaching marriage. If she was lukewarm about wedding Theseus at first, and saw the moon as Diana, the chaste huntress-goddess of the Amazons of her youth, by the end she’s ready to move on: of Robin Starveling the Tailor’s performance as Moon, in the Mechanicals’ Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, Hippolita comments: “I am weary of this moon. Would he would change!”

Jeffrey Beruan plays Theseus in Seattle Opera's production; the role of Hippolita is shared by Rose Beattie and Young Artist Margaret Gawrysiak.

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