“They may pass for excellent men:” Audience and Interpretative Labor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

[5-7 minute read]

Last week, I discussed Hamlet’s metatheatrical play within a play, The Murder of Gonzago, in an attempt to discuss what Hamlet’s attitudes towards acting could tell us about the relationship between theater and audience. This week, I would like to shift gears and discuss a different moment of metatheatricality in Shakespeare: the performance of The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe in the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As with my previous examples, Midsummer has an investment in the relationship between actor and audience, particularly as it pertains to moments of interpretation relative to an imagined, unchanging ‘text.’ Here though, that interrogation would seem to lack the political stakes that characters like Hamlet and individuals like Elizabeth I associated with the theater. Rather, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we are presented with the possibility that an audience’s ability to interpret a text against an implied authorial voice does not represent a threat to the theater as an institution. Instead, this moment represents an instance of productive labor that allows audience and playwright to work in unison.

Among the many subplots moving through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a great deal of time is spent with the “Rude Mechanicals,” a band of Athenian lower-class craftsmen preparing a play for the upcoming wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens. The performance is framed as comically inept. From its treatment of the staging to the acting, the text of Midsummer’s invites mockery of the Rude Mechanicals’ stage play. The performance, which dominates the fifth act of the play,[1] becomes a spectacle of failure as the onstage audience of the performance mocks and jeers at the actors in what amounts to a four-century old version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. While the Rude Mechanicals are not Hamlet’s boisterous clowns, they seem aligned with his idea of the overly zealous actor who would threaten to “out-Herods/ Herod,” and thus cause the audience to fail in understanding the gravity of the play’s printed text.[2] The original Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragedy drawn from the pages of Ovid, and invokes the same vaunted high artistic sources in which Hamlet finds his text. Unlike The Murder of Gonzago within Hamlet, Pyramus fails to produce its desired effect and the narrative is transformed into farce.

Rude MechanicalsShakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals

To this end, it is important to consider not only the metatheatrical performance undertaken in A Midsummer’s, but also its metatheatrical audience. Theseus and his cohort are very aware of their role as audience members, and the beginning of Act V serves as a justification for why the Duke allows this performance to go on in the first place. Central to this is Duke’s assertion that he and his fellow audience members are serving as a magnanimous corrective to the failure of the mechanicals; they act as individuals who know the play will be awful but will watch it nonetheless, because their presence will solve the problem of the mechanical’s ineptitude, and thus ‘fix’ the play. The Duke, being informed of how awful the play will likely be, remarks “[t]he kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing. / Our sport shall be to take what they mistake.”[3] Taking what they – the performers – mistake implicitly frames Theseus’s goal as one of interpretative labor, in which he and his fellow audience members will correct the problems arising from the inability of the mechanicals to ‘properly’ perform tragedy.

This is however, made significantly more complex by how the performance of A Most Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe does not fail in a metatheatrical sense. In other words, although the Rude Mechanicals fail to properly perform tragedy within the logic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the live audience is compelled to join in with Theseus and his royal audience. We laugh with them and the comedy of Midsummer becomes successful, even if it is at the expense of lower-class actors failing to produce real affective tragedy. We take it upon ourselves to participate in Theseus’s reinterpretation of the play and in doing so, we too find pleasure the kind of corrective interpretation that Theseus promises when he claims to “take what they mistake.” The audience is not a passive figure tasked with correctly taking in the meaning of the tragedy, as that is not the real stakes in the final moments of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead, the on-stage audience are active participants in the construction of the play and in doing so, provide a bulk of the pleasurable comedy. We, as the audience in the theater, are brought to laugh with the on-stage audience and in doing so, we aren’t failing to properly interpret Pyramus and Thisbe; we are correctly interpreting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is the central metatheatrical tension in Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s, and it is this tension between text and performance that creates the comedy of the final act.

Now, the political stakes in the reinterpretation of tragedy into comedy are much lower than the stakes of an early modern audience member reinterpreting a play like Richard II as pro-usurpation. However, the function of this examination, and the function of all my discussions this month has been to interrogate the ways in which early modern drama addresses and complicates the role of the audience as an active and passive portion of the space of the theater. I began this month in the present day, examining the suggestion that audiences failing to properly interpret the ‘meaning of a play’ might in turn serve as a threat to the institution of the public theater. From there, I spoke to two similar discourses present in early modernity, each suggesting how various audiences’ differing interpretation of a play might have dire political consequences. I close then, on a more ‘productive’ moment of misinterpretation, wherein the audiences’ ability to reject the ‘meaning of a text’ is not imagined as an undesirable response. At the conclusion of this series of blogposts, I hope to have made visible the complex relationship early modern theater had with its own interpretative communities, and the ways in which many of those vexed relationships remain present in our own relationship with the artistic productions of the past.

[1] The rest of the key plot points have been wrapped up by the beginning of the fifth act.

[2] Hamlet III.ii.x14-x15. Of note here, Bottom does pride himself in his ability to play a tyrant, an attitude he attempts to comically transfer off the stage during rehearsal.

[3] A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.i.95-96.


“Dumbshows and Noise:” Hamlet and The Problem of Audience

[5-7 minute read]

During Act 3 of Hamlet, while preparing the travelling players for the evening’s performance, Hamlet provides the actor’s company with a lengthy speech concerning the proper methods of acting he would like them to employ. During the speech, he makes a note on clowns, saying “and let those that play/ your clowns speak no more than is set down for them;/for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to/ set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh/too.[1] Here, Hamlet urges caution to the players: their clown should speak only those words written upon the page, lest his frantic ad-libbing set the audience to laughter, and risk missing “some necessary/question of the play be then to be considered.”[2] This moment reminds the audience of how seriously Hamlet takes the theater and how he believes the supremacy of the page should define the worth of theatrical performance. Hamlet’s worry is that that clowns and fools pose a threat to the political power of drama. Given the political implications of Hamlet’s play, the worry here is that a particularly boisterous fool may risk causing the entire theatrical endeavor to come crashing down. Moving too far from the text, or otherwise reducing its importance as a single-authored object of reverence, threatens to rob it of its political weight, and reduce it to airy nothingness.

William KempeWilliam Kempe: Shakespeare’s first fool and likely the reason that this speech exists

Particularly key here is the sense that ‘some quantity of barren spectators’ will become wrapped up in the clown’s performance. Clowns were understood to be figures of the theater beloved by the commons; they were the wild antic-makers who, along with the jigs and songs that would accompany a public theatrical performance, successfully brought London’s poorer audiences into the theaters. This moment of directly – and assertively – attacking the figure of the fool is explicitly transformed into a jab at the kinds of audiences who would enjoy the labor of the clown and in turn, would rob the text of its dignity. Here, the assault on the fool is an instrument for critiquing the baser kinds of audiences who enjoyed the fools’ antics above the artistic merit of the tragic monologue. While Hamlet extends this beyond the antics of the clown (also critiquing players whose voices remind him of the town-crier), the thrust of the speech remains in the suggestion that the theater is a site of high art that must not be threatened by actors who would “split the ears of the groundlings, who/ for the most part are capable of nothing but/ inexplicable dumbshows and noise.”[3] A key component of this critique is misdirection; in other words, this critique emphasizes a playwright’s worry that his audience will fail to understand the gravity of the text, and will instead allow themselves to be enamored by disposable and unimportant moments that are not worthy of artistic labor. Within this speech, the antipathy towards the unwashed masses and their inability to properly relate to the artistic production of the theater is palpable, and framed through rhetoric reminiscent of critiques leveled against mass public audiences in virtually any contemporary moment.

This sense of the importance of the play is complicated by the performance Hamlet is discussing. While in the last few weeks we looked at texts that were assumed to have represented political leaders on stage, Hamlet’s intent is explicit, as he notes “the play’s the thing,/ wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”[4] Hamlet is certain of the play’s ability to foreground the reality of Denmark’s corruption, despite the incongruity separating The Murder of Gonzago from the text of Hamlet. Hamlet’s audience, both on the stage and in the theatre, is meant to understand that the goal of the play is to “hold a mirror up to nature[5] — and this in turn will reflect the rank villainy that has seeped into the Danish court. While Hamlet is not hoping that his play will stir a popular revolt,[6] he is assuming the play itself will have the power make the invisible sins lingering within the state visible, and furthermore, force a moment of confession and revelation to justify his act of regicide. His speech to the player kings also suggests a belief that if the play is not treated with the necessary reverence for the art form, it will be prone to fail. The stakes of this performance as so much greater than the enjoyment and applause of Hamlet’s hypothetical barren spectators, and so must be presented with the proper audience in mind.

While there is reason to be hesitant in ventriloquizing the voice of Shakespeare through Hamlet, it is worth considering the ways that this discourse was present during the period, and the ways in which Hamlet’s advice has become part and parcel with the discourse surrounding the theater in our contemporary world. As the theater has become a stable and lauded artistic institution, clowns and dumbshows in Shakespearean tragedies nevertheless remind us of their popular origins. As I noted in my first post this month, there was a sense among defenders of Julius Caesar (2017) that it was a case of audiences simply missing the “question of the play.” Those who then missed the question became like the lowly personages Hamlet critiques here, incapable or unwilling to grapple with the complexity of the dramatic representations put before them, and wasting energy in focusing on the wrong part of the text or performance. Though these complaints are not framed in the same language Hamlet proposes, the premise that underscores them remains worth considering. In our contemporary affirmation of the theater as weighty and serious art capable of enacting the kind of political labor early modern audiences feared, there is a danger that we have also affirmed Hamlet’s suggestion. Perhaps, this assertion also bolsters the belief that groundings, past and present, and their inability to fully understand the weight of artistic representation, act as a threat to the value of the theater as an institution. This becomes a highly contentious notion regarding who can enjoy the theater and what it means to ‘watch a play properly,’ lest we become the clown-loving audiences Hamlet chides. At its heart, these debates all return to the relationship between the theater and the general public, and this is the subject that I will explore in my final post this month.

[1] Hamlet III.ii.39-43.

[2] Ibid, 43-44.

[3] Ibid, 11-13.

[4] Hamlet, II.ii, 633-634.

[5] Hamlet, III.ii. 23.

[6] By contrast, Laertes does lead a popular revolt.

Slow and Steady Wins The Race (Unless You Prefer to “Spritz”): Debunking the Myth of Faster = Better (So You Can Feel Better About Yourself) (16 Oct. 2015)

In my first year of graduate school I discovered I was not as strong of a reader as I had fancied myself to be. I discovered the amount of pages to read every week was massive in comparison to undergrad, which wouldn’t be so bad if this were still high school English and I was reading Huckleberry Finn or watching the Leonardo DiCaprio adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.  But instead, I found myself hunkering down with texts like Derrida’s Of Grammatology. I’m not surprised that within the first few weeks of my first semester of graduate school I found myself pleading for help on Facebook.  I treated my peers like they were Google and stated simply and interrogatively: “It has taken me 4 hours to read 100 pages.  Is this normal? Help!”

Among the advice bestowed upon me was a solitary link to a website for Spritz – a new app designed to help the fledgling reader reach his/her peak reading performance levels using technology that surpasses traditional reading methods, which, though proven to work for thousands of years, are burdensome and as a result are becoming quickly outdated.  Spritz is designed to liberate the human eye by increasing the focalization of the “Optimal Recognition Point,” the magical spot in each word the brain encounters, registers, and then quickly obtains meaning before moving on to the next. As the Spritz website claims, it is the “saccade” – the movement of the eye that occurs as it moves from one word to the next – that slows down the reading process.  The algorithm is thus as follows: Reduce the “saccade” effect; increase your reading speed.


The Original Spritz. (Also a proven reading aid and arguably the more pleasurable.)

The app accomplishes this in an almost painfully obvious way.  Each word flashes on the screen sequentially, in keeping with a steady WPM that users set for themselves.  According to the website, “Removing eye movement associated with traditional reading methods not only reduces the number of times your eyes move, but also decreases the number of times your eyes pass over words for your brain to understand them. This makes Spritzing extremely efficient, precise, convenient and comfortable.”  I can see the meme now:  A photo of a disgruntled but glowing youth, hands clutching the side of her head and crumpling her hair in despair, the caption ruthlessly blaring: MOVING MY EYES IS SO UNCOMFORTABLE. I CAN FEEL THEM SPASMING, OR AM I JUST BLINKING? – #firstworldproblems. Now our eyeballs, relieved of the burden of moving from left to right, can do the work of reading without actually working, much in the same way we can now do the work of sit-ups with our “Belly Burner Weight Loss Belts” without ever having to move a muscle.

It’s a comparison worth making for more than a laugh: Spritz is advertised as “the best way to engage with content in the digital age” and the results it boasts are claims that warrant scrutinizing.  What is different about our “digital age” other than the fact that we prefer pixels to the paper page? We have our Nooks and iReaders, true enough, but does the digital version of Pride and Prejudice create the need to read faster simply because it’s digitized?

The creators of the app concede that there are other ways of improving one’s reading skills that have also been proven to work, but they require a lot of time, effort, and patience, unlike the magic of Spritz, which only requires less time, no effort, and seems to cater to the chronically impatient.  Increasing one’s deep knowledge within a field, for example, helps to increase reading speed.  But increasing deep knowledge is time-consuming because it requires reading, often books, and at the same measly WPM rate you can barely manage already, and therefore slowly, slower than the time it takes you to read a text message or scroll through Facebook status updates or invent a clever hashtag to your latest Sunday Selfie.


Just saying.

Scanning the reviews in Apple’s app store, I’ve found users who praise Spritz endlessly for the way it has allowed them to “keep up”––students in summer classes boast how efficiently they can speed through their reading rather than slog through it and what I suspect are businessmen are elated they’re able to “keep up with current company.” For these users at least, reading has been stripped of its former inherent pleasure and has instead become a taxing task endured for rewards extraneous to the act itself.  To me it smacks of Marx’s notion of the “objectification of labor,” which argues that “the worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates” (71). In other words, the more “stuff” produced creates value in the thing being produced––the commodity (the iPhone, the latte, the Netflix)––and its reciprocal effect is the “devaluation of the world of men,” or the people who do the producing, to the status of commodity too (The Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 71).  As a result, “labour’s product confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer” (71).

Although it’s important to keep in mind that Marx is speaking of industrialized labor in particular, this insight can also be applied to the phenomenon of Spritz: Instead of dealing with the deplorable conditions of factory labor directly, we are witnessing an era that is suffused in a highly increased value of the world of things and perhaps at the expense of what makes us human.  We too become commodities or “objects,” are asked to maximize our performance in order to prove ourselves valuable to our economy.  The fact that so many users cite their jobs in their reviews as the motivating factor behind their use of Spritz is a strong indicator of this. It isn’t for pleasure that they’re reading.  For many avid users, reading itself appears to either have been, continues to be, or become “something alien.”


The obvious retort to this post is “So what? What’s wrong with getting ahead? Aren’t you English grad students always griping about how no one ever really reads anymore?” The answer is equally as obvious: Reading faster will not make you wiser.  And as to the question of who should care, the answer should be everyone, given that the literacy rate in the United States hasn’t changed in the past ten years; 21% of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level while 19% of newly minted high school graduates can’t read period.  That statistic only accounts for illiteracy that admittedly are not Spritz’s demographic, which is precisely what makes its existence so vexing.  Apps like Spritz offer the promise of improvement for a) people who don’t really need it, who are at a level where they can improve on the relative literacy they’ve already achieved and b) partially distract from the real impediment––a lack of investment in the humanities, English especially, specifically at the primary and secondary level and in low-income neighborhoods perpetually given the educational short shrift, while at the same time c) promoting a mode of reading that encourages a lack of critical thinking by emphasizing reading more instead of reading better, not to mention d) the fact that this reflects an overall obsession in our culture with “more, more, more” instead of “better” in a crucial time and place in which the collective desire for better is exactly what we need.

On a personal level, I came to a realization that soothed my performance-obsessed conscience. It was not that I was incapable of reading faster and therefore was somehow deficient; it was that I believed in the joy of reading slowly so as to understand completely, and to the extent I resisted the app and what it stood for, and to the extent I came to be aware of what reading had now become––a product of my own labor––I began to understand my own alienation.

I’m told often that I have a tendency to over-read situations as a symptom of my overdeveloped critical thinking skills, and while this may be true in certain (usually romantic) situations, I have found it to usually be beneficial.  Like, for example, the time I found Spritz’s own study that supposedly proves the merits of the app, stating that reading comprehension using the app is “comparable” to that of traditional reading – roughly 82% of the text comprehended using traditional methods vs. 77% using Spritz.  77% could be construed as comparable to 82%, but only if you’re stretching it (or reading it on your Spritz app at 550 wpm).  That’s a 5% difference but, you know, only if you care to take the time to notice.

Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms.  When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.