Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Framed Again

" Theseus and Hippolyta are, as it were, a splendid frame for the picture; they take no part in the action, but surround it with a stately pomp."

That Shakespeare knew Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, especially the Knight's Tale, is certain; after all, The Two Noble Kinsmen is a reworking of that tale.

But there are echoes of the opening of the same tale in the opening of A Midsummer Nights Dream - Theseus wedding Hippolyta, "with muchel glory and greet solempnitee." (The 'stately pomp' of our Victorian commentator's 'splendid frame'.)

There is also talk of the battle they fought.

The names of certain characters, Theseus, Hippolyta, Philostrate come from the Knight's Tale and all appear and are named in the first few moments of the play.

If the Duke and his Amazon 'frame' the action of the play, they do so in a way which connects with a wider world - it is a frame which links to other frames and the pictures they contain. We have a gallery of images Shakespeare is willing to make reference to.

Shakespeare is invoking the Knight's Tale.

To do this, he must have been certain that at least some of his audience knew the work of Chaucer - and knew it well enough to recognise it quickly from the brief sketch he draws in the opening 24 lines.

But the connections seem to stop there: A Midsummer Nights Dream is a comedy with a happy ending; The Knight's Tale and The Two Noble Kinsmen are much darker, some would say tragic, stories with death and blighted love much to the forefront.

So, what is Shakespeare up to?

One thing I think he is doing is reminding his audience, from the outset, of this darker alternative to his happy ending - a sort of momento mori.

In The Knight's Tale, two friends end up loving the same woman and fight to the death for love of her: In A Midsummer Nights Dream, two friends almost end up doing the same thing. Without the alternative of The Knight's Tale ending, the Dream's ending is blunted.

If the border between Comedy and Tragedy is a knife edge, then this knife has been hoisted in the air and there is a dirty great chasm below it ready for someone to fall into.

When Theseus returns and finds the sleeping lovers, we are again reminded of Chaucer's Tale. Chaucer has Theseus and Ipolyta out hunting (and delighting in his hounds) when he comes across the two 'Noble Kinsmen' preparing to fight to the death; Shakespeare has the two lovers, who have spent the last part of the night before trying to fight each other, asleep. They will wake to a resolution worked by the 'magic' of the flower, but it is a resolution - the two kinsmen go on to fight until one is killed.

To know the Chaucer is to give an added depth to the Shakespeare who is framing his own Dream in the Knight's Tale.

But he doesn't stop there - he sticks another 'picture reference' into this frame - Ovid's Love Story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Remember, it is a gallery we are working in!

And here the twist is to bring 'Death' onto the stage and laugh at it. We cannot do this until we have finished with the 'action' contained within the picture, it can only be done in the frame.

There is a lot of milage in thinking about Theseus and Hipolyta as a frame to the action of the play, but it is a frame which does a lot more than provide a decorative container - it is the the conection with the outside world, it is the introduction to themes worked within the picture and it is the 'frame' on which the picture is stretched.

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