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Het Midzomernacht Project is bedoeld voor klassen Advanced en Proficiency English, of leerlingen die een traject op maat volgen. De aanpak werkt optimaal rond een grote tafel met een groep van max.15 leerlingen.

Het project heeft identiteitsvorming als bijzonder onderwerp, waarvan diverse aspecten worden verhelderd via René Girard’s mimetische theorie. Door middel van deze analyse zal het samen lezen van Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream vruchtbare discussies en presentaties in de klas opleveren, naast de noodzakelijke onderdelen van taalverwerving. Onze benadering, verlevendigd met een mooie theaterproductie op DVD en de toepassing van de Elizabethaanse dramaturgie, verschaft vakoverstijgend inzichten.

Hieronder staat een filmpje over het Midzomernacht Project op het Haarlemse Stedelijk Gymnasium. Neem contact op met Els Launspach voor het lespakket, bestaande uit lessen en een tentamen.

 

English

The Midsummernight’s Dream Project is aimed at students at an advanced or proficiency level of English. The project works best in a group of max. 15 students seated around a table.

The focus of the project is on identity development. Various aspects of this concept are explained by means of Rene Girard’s mimetic theory. The reading of MND combined with this analysis will generate interesting and fruitful discussions and presentations in class, and simultaneously incorporate useful aspects of linguistics and literature and the application of Elizabethan dramaturgy. As such, our approach provides interdisciplinary insights.

In addition the project is enlivened by a fascinating and humorous production of the play, available on DVD.

The play’s tradition

For centuries Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream (MND) was appreciated mainly for its fairy-like qualities, and regarded as a merry mixture of three pointless subplots. The four main characters, young people in love, were generally not held responsible for their deeds, as they seemed manipulated by magic. It was Puck who steered their erotic adventures, by means of the juice of magical flowers, which his superior Oberon summons him to use.

However, René Girard analyses in A Theatre of Envy that thematic and dramatic unity does exist in the play, very convincingly and masterly accomplished. In his eyes the comedy is a refined work of art and it’s seemingly rhetorical language full of meaning, coming to meet the Elizabethan preference for the oxymoron as an expression of ambiguity.

Such ambiguity – according to Girard – can be understood as expressions of mimetic desire: the desire each subject develops unconsciously, looking at the behaviour or possessions of a model. The result is that this mediator is admired (as model) and intensely hated (impeding the subject’s desires) at the same time. Consequently much violence is to be noted in MND’s dialogue and metaphors, used by four young lovers who seem to cling to cliché’s.  For a long time the imagery in the play, either divination or blood and destruction, was felt as overdone; but now we discern how the devastating nature of mimetic desire is implied, and highlighted during the utter confusion in the forest, when Lysander and Demetrius don’t want anything more than having the other killed.

Hidden force.

In MND mimetic desire is the engineering force, regulating and dislocating human relations. Desire for the rival’s identity appears to be the source of social integration and disintegration; behind the veil of playful fun lingers conflict and scapegoating. Mimetic desire is a hidden force and simultaneously – if we want to see it – this is strangely and vividly portrayed. For instance when Hermia, who has entrusted Lysander her reputation and life, is utterly deserted, prey to sexual abuse or wild animals. Why? Lysander suffers from a sudden love for Helena, which is only comprehensible for us as some product of magic. However, as soon as we see mimetic desire at work, our bewilderment disappears.

To be honest, our romantic souls could never acknowledge that mimesis is the driving force of passion. Gladly we accept the juice of flowers, or the crude intervention of gods, as an explanation and Shakespeare leaves the choice to us. We can look properly, noticing that Lysander and Demetrius are in love with the same girl, almost at the same time. In addition their rhetorical inspiration is similar, and has the same purpose when the object of love is dramatically changed (with the exception of Helena being tall and blond, and Hermia a finely chiselled brunette).

Prehistory.

If we look properly, piercing the fairy-like atmosphere, the play seems realistic and coherent. Let’s continue to analyse the many incidents in function of a mimetic logic. Demetrius follows Lysander’s example; does he imitate Lysander perhaps because this friend has won Hermia’s affection, which used to be his? Being defeated by Lysander, this former friend becomes his model and rival. Lysander mediates Demetrius’ passion first for Hermia and later on, in the nightly wood, for Helena. We, as the audience, are in the position to observe how Demetrius’ desire is only being enflamed as long as Lysander is his model…

What happened in the past between the youngsters, before the play began, we call prehistory: incidents mentioned by the dramatist in short sentences without much impact. Why they are mentioned at all? Perhaps they are meant to enlighten our knowledge in one way or another, to direct our attention to some pattern of changes between the four protagonists, before they are cheated and enchanted by Puck. Why Hermia snatched Demetrius from her close friend Helena, and after this conquest won Lysander as well? Given the prehistory it’s impossible to blame Puck’s and Oberon’s magic. Is there true love to be found in the couples, which we are accustomed to idealise, or isn’t there? Why would successful Hermia, after casually winning Demetrius, suddenly prefer Lysander… because D. is sullen and L. is new, exotic, to be conquered?

And for whatever reason would Demetrius, being faithfully loved by Helena, now declare his love for Hermia? Simply because she preferred Lysander, which is for him too much to bear? Demetrius seems fascinated by the woman who scorns him, in the same way Helena dotes on him. So far prehistory… But in the wood, when Lysander is smitten with love for Helena, this is evidently the result of Puck’s mistake. Or isn’t it? Might we consider that Helena, in love with Demetrius, is desirable while she simply doesn’t care?

Triangular.

What we see in this comedy is the stability of frustrated love, set against the changeability of successful love. The play offers a kaleidoscopic rhythm of combinations, in order to establish how the model (the mediator) is the main figure in this triangular system of desire. Witnessing how the model turns into an obstacle for the subject, we discern a growing reciprocity: rivals becoming doubles of each other, intensifying the interaction to a point of crisis and violence. Still, this is a comedy. Mimetic interaction offers entertainment: not individual qualities or characteristics play their part, but the whirlpool of artificial passion.

Of course Shakespeare was inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphosen in MND, but he used its theme of changing forms for a sublime parody, portraying a society of ‘individuals’ who are completely dependent on each other. The dramatist paints a human desire to be original and authentic, while imitating someone else. The more you desire to be different, the more you become undistinguishable.

In short, MND is a new type of comedy almost on the verge of tragedy. The play mocks desire and unmasks our most intimate lies. Let’s face it: the happiness of the youngsters is not threatened by patriarchal Egeus and Theseus, paper tigers in the story frame, but doomed by themselves. So we can choose: uphold our habit of old and romantic views (true love impeded by society or bad luck) or enjoy the ambiguity of the social satire. In Shakespeare’s own time there must have been colleagues and educated people preferring the implications beneath the melodious storyline. As Girard tries to tell us, in the centuries to follow this enjoyment was lost from sight.

Els Launspach