Confining Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a singular reading does great injustice to what is otherwise a rich, immensely playful, and rather engaging play, to say nothing of its often-surprising handling of “serious” topics. Upon a first reading, the play yields a variety of potential subjects for discussion: the function of legality as a contractual vow parallel to that of marriage; the parallel of an systemic imposition of male authority in a world inhabited by females who, in spite of their subjugation, seem to be far less easily coerced and stymied. To name one more: the marvelously comical language, pun-laden and often self-aware, that permeates several characters (most notably, but not limited to, Bottom and ‘Puck’). Adding to these variegated fields of interest, the conceptual scheme of “space” may also provide a unique, albeit less direct, reading of this text.
Drama demands an appreciation of space, by its very nature as a thing to be performed. This literal notion of space, linked to ideas of physical place and movement between “areas”, is a useful precursor to a more notional grasp of the concept, and how it may illuminate this particular drama. An amplification of what is understood by the term “space” may take into consideration the literal presence of characters in relation to one another, but also their metaphoric relation. Therefore we can appreciate the interactions between men and women as definable by means of tacit conventions that bound off and curtail the “limits” of modesty, appropriateness, et cetera. But we also understand the idea of space as having significant ramifications for something like the legal code of the play’s world. When Lysander introduces the idea of removing to the woods in order to marry Hermia, the creation of physical distance mirrors the implications for legal space: in order to unite in marriage, the lovers must go outside the law, away from its jurisdictions, and indeed perform a covenantal ritual that is, ultimately, not recognized within the institutions of Athenian law. Lysander is firmly aware of this, as he says to Hermia, “And to that place the sharp Athenian law / Cannot pursue us” (1.1.164-5) when conveying his reason for choosing the wooded area. (By way of an aside, it is interesting to note the several coy parallels Shakespeare provides between the rehearsing of the play, “Pyramus and Thisbe”, and Lysander’s plot to marry Hermia. An ambitious reader can, to my mind, draw evidence from these passages to fuel a discussion on the theatrical “space” embodied not only by the actors, but by the performance of a play-within-a-play.)
Spatiality is interrogated in another, more prismatic, way by the mythical fairy world. Immediately we are presented, via the first Fairy encountered (in conversation with Robin Goodfellow), with a more transgressive idea of space. “I do wander everywhere” (2.1.6), says this spirit, alluding to an unfixed relation to a place, an idea of space that sees spaceness as a malleable, unattached to physical presence, and whimsical too. This is surely a far cry from the world of jurisdictions and legal boundaries. But if we accept my claim that this world of fairies (this other world, yet still enmeshed with the goings-on of the human world, thereby indicating that the distinction of worlds can only be an analogical one) posits a more fluid function of space, we must also come to realize that this fluidity can be disastrous. Titania communicates this clearly. Departing from her indictment of Oberon’s erratic interrupting of her dances (it is noteworthy to remember that dance is, also, a way of behaving towards space; movements and “pieces” are choreographed according to an aesthetically evocative handling of space), Titania divulges the consequences thereof. The “mazèd world” (2.1.116) is in utter disarray, bearing rivers “made so proud / That they have overborne their continents” (2.1.96-7) and the sheepfold that “stands empty in the drownèd field” (2.1.99) having been diseased. Titania thus conveys a world dislocated from its natural function because of a violation of the spaces within it. Spaces literally and metaphorically overcome their boundaries, negating their appropriate confinements and thereby throwing the world into discord.
There is more to be said on the question of spatial consequences with the muddling of Oberon’s plan to intoxicate Demetrius with love (for Helena). Prior to this event, however, the exchange of Demetrius with the unrequited Helena (alternatively pathetic, comedic, and near-tragic) offers a significant manipulation of the concept of space, particularly in its relation to love. We are speaking of something like “the space of love”. Indeed, it is with language of spatiality that Helena supplicates Demetrius to return his favor: after the latter once again confirms his inability to love her, Helena wonders, “What worser place can I beg in your love / (And yet a place of high respect with me) / Than to be used as you use your dog” (2.1.215-17)? Helena’s despair is read in her appeal to Demetrius, going so far as to deem servitude and neglect but with the certainty of company preferable to a total lack (of love, and of his company). But this dejection is understood in terms of a relegated place of inferiority, a being radically beneath Demetrius, and in other words, existing confined in a space of passive observation for the sake of adoration. This role inhabits an exalted space within Helena only because of the fortitude of her unfulfilled love. For Helena too, space does not necessitate fixity or a linear relationship amongst ‘objects’, conceptually speaking. Her love, personified, can be a dwelling space. Indeed, when she asks, after naming Demetrius as being her entire world, “Then, how can it be said I am alone / When all the world is here to look on me?” (2.1.232-3), she is conjointly fusing the image of one’s love-object representing a wholeness and a totality of meaning with the notion of love carrying the potential to fill emptiness, envelope the void, and in a word, close spaces. It is interesting that she does not use imagery of blood or death, metaphors of weight or weightlessness, or other such determinations associated with poetic language of love. In their stead, she exhibits her despondency with a deceptively simple formulation of love as love existing in spaces.
Only few and briefly developed instances have been focused here as exemplifying the possibilities that reimagining the concept of space through its manifold uses can have on a reading of this text, or another text. In truth, these examples have barely grazed the surface. Much can be done to this end with Goodfellow’s (‘Puck’) befuddling of Oberon’s plot to poison Demetrius with love, noting how the literal and representational idea of space synchronically allow the possibility, and eventual unfolding, of this plot. Alas, that, and more, will be for another time.