A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Craft, Imagination and Renaissance Wisdom

by Alvin Holm

J.W. Waterhouse, Thisbe, 1909

When I was five or six or seven, I enacted the role of Wall in the drama of Pyramus and Thisbe. My older sister, Joy, the director, showed me how to hold my hand to represent the “crannied chink” through which the two lovers (my older cousins Lila and Lois) confessed their devotion. The theater was my grandparents’ parlor on California Avenue in Chicago, and our audience consisted entirely of doting family members. The show, of course, was a great success. Some years later, I reprised the role in a playground production for a community audience in Oak Park, Illinois, my hometown. I suspect that the play within the play, “the most tragical and comic drama of Pyramus and Thisbe,” is even more widely and frequently performed than Shakespeare’s wonder­ful larger play, A Mid­summer Night’s Dream, in which it appears. What can ac­count for the amazing popularity of this silly little drama? Perhaps the story is true.

Sixteen hundred years before Shakespeare, Ovid recorded the legend, which was then already ancient, of a girl and a boy in Babylon growing up on opposite sides of a wall erected by their respective families. In spite of parental animosities, they discovered each others’ virtues by communicating through “the crannied chink,” conspired to elope, made the attempt and met a tragic end. Shakespeare employed the plot again in Romeo and Juliet. Three hundred years later, we enjoyed the musical West Side Story and, a few years after that, the longest running Off-Broadway show was The Fantastiks, all about the same girl and boy, the same wall, the same vows and a similar denouement. There are “skateboard” movie versions of the same theme, I am told by my daughter, of even more recent vintage. Marvelously, the tale retains its glamour.
I am an architect now, and a member of the venerable Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, which is a guild of master builders, the colonial offshoot (1724) of the London Worshipful Company of Carpenters. As an architect, I have a special investment in this tale. It is, after all, a builder’s legend, descending from the story of how, through the masons’ hubris in erecting the tower that almost reached to heaven, Jehovah was angered, the tower was thrown down, and the languages were confounded. We builders bear a legendary guilt. If we, collectively as a craft, are to take any responsibility for the building of the temple of Solomon, then we must as well own up to the Tower of Babel—and the Parthenon, the Pantheon, Chartres and the Seagrams Building, too. Whatever our latter day sins may be, they pale beside the day when, where once all mankind spoke the same language, we were plunged into mutual incomprehensibility. At that point, we built walls between neighbors, and once-amicable families were barred from conversation. Pyramus was taught to despise the family of Thisbe, and she was warned to never converse with the detestable people beyond that wall.
This ancient moral story, “The Confounding of the Tongues,” well-known in certain circles from Bible Class or Hebrew School, was also once related through the craft or guild tradition, a thousands-year-old legacy taught by artisans and master builders to the journeyman and apprentice. Alongside the “squaring of the ashlar” and the “true-hewing of the beam” (these are Masonic expressions) were taught the rules of right-living and the honor of the craft. Surviving today most recognizably in Freemasonry and perhaps less overtly in fraternal and benevolent organizations like the Elks and the Rotary International, the ancient moral teachings persist with some difficulty in a modernist era of situational ethics and deconstruction. There is much to be learned by tracing a philosophical teaching lineage from the Builders of the Tabernacle (Hebrew) and the Dionysian Artificers (Greek) through the Comacines (late Roman and medieval), the Neoplatonist architects of the Renaissance and the Freemasons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with whom we live today, albeit in a shadowy way. The American Founding Fathers (whose world we still happily inhabit) were not only all deeply steeped in classical learning but were also mostly all involved with Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism or some other closely allied deeply traditional teaching modeled on the craft.
In researching the issue of how Shakespeare’s Globe might have really looked to a contemporary audience, in sharp contrast to how it has been restored in London today, I have encountered persuasive evidence that the theater of 1599 was built, financed and operated by a consortium of assorted individuals, high-born and tradesmen, apparently motivated by a “third-stream” point of view, neither wholly Catholic nor Protestant, aristocratic nor commoner, but presenting a Renaissance synthesis of new science and venerable tradition. In building the Globe in the conscious image of the world and in presenting such plays as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this consortium sought to show the way for a reconciliation of the violent warring parties of the day. The group seems to express a kind of Rosicrucian teaching, akin to the Masonic tradition, the Comacines and, again, the heritage of the theater builders who staged the first drama in the rites of Dionysus. Central to this tradition is the legend of the building and destruction of the Tower of Babylon. It is in the aftermath of the Fall of the Tower, memorialized today in all popular Tarot decks, that the fable of Pyramus and Thisbe takes place.
My contention is that the Renaissance Wisdom, imported from the classical past and delivered to the future we inhabit today, is largely conveyed through a craft tradition, parallel but not completely independent from the monastic and university channels which are most frequently credited. I believe that the Globe was a builder’s triumph, and the story of Pyramus and Thisbe a builder’s tale. It is often noted that Shakespeare’s source for the story of Pyramus and Thisbe is the 1565 translation by Golding of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. From the point of view of the master builder, however, it may be more significant to note that the story appears in the first page of the first book in English on classical architecture, First and Chief Grounds of Architecture, published by John Shute in 1563, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I (Chaste Minerva Astraea, as characterized by Edmund Spenser) and originally commissioned by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, Lord Defender of the Queen and father of Robert Dudley, who sponsored the theater which then became the Globe. The relationships are very tight, and elsewhere I will make the case for A Midsummer Night’s Dream being the inaugural play for the Globe, around June 22 in 1599.
The geometric center of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the Dream itself, which takes place in the middle of the slumberless night when the lovers are enchanted and Bottom encounters the Queen of the Fairies. This is the moment of truth and transformation. The confused dualities of the first half of the play are happily resolved, Bottom is transfigured, the lovers’ passions are appropriately redirected, and it only remains for the solemnities to be performed. But before the happy rituals can take place, the very famous play-within-the-play must be enacted, “the merry and tragical” tale of Pyramus and his fair Thisbe. This little silly play, perhaps more frequently performed than A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself, by American grade schools and playground groups, contains within it the key to the fundamental meaning of the larger play. That Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the clear source of the Pyramus and Thisbe tale and that Romeo and Juliet are direct descendents is generally acknowledged. But I think it has not been noticed how acutely germane the original myth is to Shakespeare’s play and to the conditions in England at the time it was written.
In Ovid, as in Shakespeare, Pyramus and Thisbe is presented as a story-within-a-story to illustrate in microcosm how things were in the larger world of the encompassing story. By dramatic inference, the larger story can be seen to reflect the world at large. Ovid completed the Metamorphoses in 8 A.D. and was promptly exiled by Caesar Augustus. The early years of the Christian era were certainly as profound a turning point as history has recorded. To Elizabethans, it may have seemed as if the years around 1600 were profoundly critical as well.
In Book IV, as Ovid sets the scene, a new religion has come to Thebes. All the women, young and old, rich and poor, are called to leave their homes and run off into the woods to celebrate a Bacchic feast: “To go on holiday, each girl, like mistress/Cover her breast with furs, twist the grape leaf/And myrtle in flying hair….” All enthusiastically welcomed the new god, “except the daughter of Minys the rich king, Alcithoe, who would not worship at a Bacchanal.” She and her courageous sisters stayed home, faithful to the old Olympians, choosing to venerate “Chaste Minerve” instead of chasing off to an orgy. To while away the hours, they wove and spun and repeated the old stories, beginning with Alcithoe’s recitation of Pyramus and Thisbe. In London, the new religion was the Church of England, and Protestants of several stripes were rocking the boat. The Roman Catholic faithful were hunkered down telling stories of their own, and no one could be confident of the outcome. Shakespeare’s London was in a state analogous to Ovid’s Rome, riven with conflicting ideologies, old against new, rational establishment against an individualistic ecstatic visionary ideal.
Alcithoe, as she sat spinning at her wheel, regaled her sisters first with a tale of ancient Babylon in the reign of Queen Semiramis, who we know from other sources as the legendary founder and builder of the great brick city. In the Old Testament, it is Nimrod who founded Babylon, but in either case the most notable event we associate with the city is the “confounding of the tongues” when God threw down the arrogant Tower of Babel. From that time onward, mankind has spoken a multitude of languages, any one unintelligible to the others. Then barriers were raised between nations and between families, and walls were erected between groups who could not understand each other. Such was the existing condition between the families of Pyramus and Thisbe, as it was a few thousand years later between the Montagues and the Capulets. Troubled communication between lovers is thematic throughout the play, both among mortals, the Athenians, and on the immortal plane of the Fairies.
This problem and its resolution are eloquently addressed in Act V, Scene 1, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Theseus presents a little dissertation on imagination:

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from
earth to heaven
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Much has been made of these beautiful lines over the years from a poetic and psychological point of view, but in 1600 in certain circles they would have been recognized as deeply metaphysical. Theseus’ speech closely parallels a portion of the Chaldean Oracles, as interpreted by Gemistos Plethon and introduced to the West in Florence at the court of Cosimo de’ Medici. The revival of the hermetic tradition in Cosimo’s Platonic Academy spread out in the art and literature of the Renaissance and was conveyed for the next several centuries through the medium of emblematic illustrations. Books of these allegorical pictures, accompanied by brief poetic captions, were a primary means by which the ancient wisdom was transmitted to Elizabethan and Jacobean England. By reading the image Theseus/Shakespeare creates, as we would interpret an illustration from a contemporary book of emblems, a wholly new meaning emerges.
Those emblem books today seem all but totally incomprehensible. Long series of wildly surrealistic images defy interpretation but simultaneously beguile our fantasy, like the arresting and improbable scenes we encounter in a dream. They were intended for meditation and designed to illustrate esoteric propositions understandable in a wide variety of lights. Communicating directly to the imagination, perhaps eluding the intellect altogether, the emblems were multi-faced metaphors, like poetry. “For what is a picture, but a silent poem,” to quote Daniel Cramer, the author of a notable book of emblems published in 1617, in a prefatory tribute to his artist “the Most Learned and Skillful Master James Muller.” However skillful the artist, though, and however directly a visual poem may address our soul, it must be acknowledged that a mentor helps to elucidate the meaning, and we can be sure that the study and contemplation of these picture books was accompanied by an oral teaching and/or a separate central text. Adam McLean, who today is the editor of the Magnum Opus Hermetic Sourceworks, has written that the presentation through pictorial symbols “was one of the ways in which the Rosicrucians revealed and yet kept secret their esotericism.”
The passage in question has yielded a wide variety of interpretations while remaining intriguing and elusive. Most often, Theseus’ remarks are thought to express his own attitude toward love, a gently condescending rationalist view. The blindness of love and the follies of lovers are certainly thematic throughout the play. Seen from a hermetic perspective, however, alongside a passage from Gemisto Plethon containing all the same symbolic elements, a very different sense emerges, focusing not on love per se but upon the central role of imagination.
In addressing the question of the connection between an immaterial spirit and a material body, as indicated in the Oracles, Gemistos explains that, for the Pythagoreans and Platonists, the soul is neither wholly separate from matter nor wholly inseparable. They postulate three kinds of Forms: one wholly separate from matter, which consists of supracelestial minds (this we may call the lover), one dependent on matter and not self-subsistent, which is dissolved with the matter to which it is attached and is therefore wholly irrational (let us call it the lunatic), and one between the two, which is the rational soul, always linked with matter though independent of it (this is the poet). The soul form employs the heavenly form as its vehicle and, through the power of imagination, is united with the material form, the mortal body. To paraphrase Theseus, the body, the spirit and the soul “are of imagination all compact.” That is to say, they are bound together, unified, by the faculty of imagination, the poetic activity of image-making.
Imagining is seen as a reciprocal process in the sense that the god creates the man in his own image and vice versa. “The poet’s eye…Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven/And as imagination bodies forth/The forms of thing unknown.” The word glance used here connotes not only look but bounce or ricochet, as in reflection. The soul (the poet) is like Mercury, continuously mediating the spiritual (the lover) and the mundane (the lunatic). It is notable that the energy of creative imagination moves in both directions, like lightning, from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven simultaneously. And as in Grace, the creative condition is both a gifting and a thanking. A wealth of esoteric meaning lies beneath the lively storytelling and poetic language of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2009, Volume 26, Number 3