“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.


“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him:” Shakespeare and the Politics of Interpretation

[5-7 minute read]

During my last month writing for Metathesis, I talked about the contemporary desire to find political meaning in Shakespeare’s plays. Then in June, Shakespeare in the Park staged a performance of Julius Caesar in which the actor playing Caesar consciously invoked the image of President Trump, mimicking his vocal affectation and his mannerisms. This performance was met with public backlash, as voices responded with anger at the idea of a publicly funded art institution staging the assassination of the sitting President. As someone who studies early modern drama, it was a surreal moment to see the nation spend a few days in the middle of Summer having a conversation focused on how to properly interpret Act 3 of Julius Caesar. For a moment in June 2017, the text of a play from 1599 about the death of a Roman Consul in 44 BC was at the heart of a public debate over the relationship between art and politics.

Image 1Per the performance, this was a Caesar who could stab a man on fifth avenue and not lose a supporter.

Most surprising to me was the outpouring of reactions to the controversy that framed it as one over interpretations of the play. These responses attempted to announce, as clearly as possible, that Julius Caesar is not a play that endorses political violence – and they were built upon textual arguments and close-readings.[1] These responses, from sources like The Guardian and The New York Times to The AV Club and The Atlantic, centered on the idea that a sufficiently skillful reading of the text of Julius Caesar would clear up any confusion over whether or not the production supported the actions of the Roman conspirators. By extension, this assumption meant a skillful reading would also appropriately address – and perhaps deflate – any anger of what the play was perceived to say about President Trump. For these responses, the portion of the public angry about the performance was simply missing the point of the play, or as Atlantic frames it, it was a case of “[m]isplaced [o]utrage.” The Guardian piece brings in Stephen Greenblatt to explain how dissenters are missing “the point of the play.” Even the statement by the theater itself is built partially on this premise, stating “Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save.” Invoking the authorial voice of Shakespeare alongside their own production decisions, the statement reads as not only a defense of artistic integrity, but also a pointed claim: at the heart of the controversy is a misreading of Julius Caesar.

Now, these responses also seem intent on producing a singular interpretative lens through which to view the play. These readings gloss over the idea that while one can read Julius Caesar as a play that is deeply skeptical about the conspiratorial action of figures like Cassius and Brutus, it can also be read as a play in which a demagogue exploits a mob of Roman citizens and preys upon their anger and resentment to compel them to destructive violence. This notably includes a scene in which the mob tears a poet to shreds because they dislike his verses, an equally prescient interpretation. However, for me, the fascinating aspect of these responses lies less in the specific interpretations that they provide for Julius Caesar, and more in the underlying assumption that the entire ordeal stemmed from a debate over the textual meaning of Act 3 of Julius Caesar, with the accompanying suggestion that this would be cleared up through the authoritative voices of individuals who were simply better readers. This move signals an important divide in how the various voices in the conversation conceptualize the place of the stage (and other arts) in public discourse. Shakespeare, these responses seem to imply, is more in danger of being misread than anything else. The political undercurrents of the play are not dangerous; rather, the possibility that they will be misunderstood is dangerous and that must be warded against.

Central to this conversation is the implication that the theater is a site of political tension and that the interpretation of this tension can be, and often is, a deeply political act. This is certainly not a new debate. For another examination of the relationship between theater and the present administration, see Ashley O’Mara’s Persuasive Performance: Theater and Conversion. Tensions surrounding the theater and the role of drama in the Anglophonic world date back to the foundation of the first public theaters and in my next post, I’m going to explore how debates over the place of the theater in public political life have evolved since Shakespeare’s work were first performed on the London stage.

[1] Putting my own personal interpretative cards on the table: Julius Caesar is not a play that endorses political violence. Also, it should be noted that the original story that generated anger around the performance neglected to mention that the play in question was Julius Caesar.

Evan Hixon is a third-year Ph.D. student in the English Department. His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations. His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

A row of stage crew and actors in eighteenth-century-style costumes stands on a stage; an actor stands in front of them reading from a small piece of paper; the shadowed heads of audience members are visible in the foreground.]

Persuasive Performance: Theater and Conversion

“We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us.” — Brandon Victor Dixen

On the Friday night after our first full day of the Early Modern Theatre and Conversion symposium, I did quite possibly the most patriotic thing I’ve ever done: from my hotel room near the Capitol Building, I spent an hour calling my representatives in support of the Affordable Care Act and against Jeff Sessions, and turned on the original cast recording of Hamilton.

At the same time, in our nation’s original capital, New York City, a very special performance of Hamilton was underway — the performance attended by the recently-declared Vice-President Elect Mike Pence. There, in the Richard Rodgers Theater, was everybody’s least favorite advocate of gay “conversion” therapy. Theater, and conversion.

The coincidence wasn’t lost on any of us attending the symposium. I spent the night constantly refreshing my Twitter feed, watching the NYC audience react emotionally — applauding when Rory O’Malley’s King George sang “Do you know how hard it is to rule?” in Pence’s direction, chanting “Immigrants: we get the job done” with the cast, and cheering when Brandon Victor Dixon’s Aaron Burr implored Pence to “uphold our American values, and work on behalf of all of us.” Other colleagues watched the outraged and troubling reaction from Trump and Pence (respectively) on loop in the morning news in the hotel exercise room. Back at the Folger, we started the next day with the Conversion Project’s Stephen Wittek (McGill) reminding us of the increasing importance and timeliness of our research on the peculiar power of theater — its ability to bind together strangers in a common visceral experience and convert their hearts.

Theater is a powerful phenomenon, both for the Early Moderns and for us today. It combines words and flesh live on the stage to lead an audience through a physically unmediated and very immediate communal experience. Because of its power to affect and effect, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theater was heavily regulated. Anti-theatrical commentators like William Prynne and Philip Stubbes argued that theater’s ability to create lifelike verisimilitude in representing the murder of kings and the seduction of maidens helped stir audience members to wrath and lust, leading them to commit acts of treason and to join after-show orgies. Elizabeth I wasn’t quite as suspicious of theater as these writers, but she still ensured that a limited number of performances licenses were distributed to cautiously censored texts, preventing audiences from getting too many ideas about regicide or, crucially, schismatic beliefs.

Representation of Christianity — whether of biblical narratives or of wedding rites — was outright forbidden on the Early Modern English stage. Partly, this was meant to suppress the performance of mystery plays: once involving entire towns in their production as an act of worship, they were made illegal as too idolatrous or just too Catholic to allow lest they facilitate communities’ ideological schism from the Church of England. Partly, representation of the thing on the stage was thought to make possible the thing itself in the real world. If Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was reported to conjure real demons at one of its performances, performing England’s Catholic past threatened to make that ideological past the reality of the present. As religious-studies scholar Torrance Kirby (McGill) observed in his paper on the rhetorical theater of St. Paul’s Cathedral sermons, by the turn of the seventeenth century, one’s religion was no longer determined by “sacrament” or heritage, but rather one’s susceptibility to a “culture of persuasion.” The theater was too powerful a persuader to remain unregulated if the crown wanted the Church of England to remain the church of state.

Perhaps, when Trump demanded that addresses like the Hamilton cast’s “not happen” and Pence intimated that the theater wasn’t an “appropriate venue” for Dixon’s speech, their subconsciouses understood that theatrical power to persuade; perhaps that’s why they would have theater censored in their respective ways. But for those of us who value free speech and the powerful world of (in Dixon’s words) “different colors, creeds and orientations” that the production of Hamilton imagines, the theater is one especially important setting that will still endeavor to convert hearts in the new administration.

Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.

Machiavelli’s “Small Volume”: The Legacy of the Stage Machiavel (29 April 2016)

“Bearing in mind all the matters previously discussed, I ask myself whether the present time is appropriate for welcoming a new ruler in Italy, and whether there is matter that provides an opportunity for a few-seeing and able man to mold it into a form that will bring honour to him and its inhabitants.”


As we’ve been considering the seemingly timeless quality of the figure of the stage Machiavel, it is worth remembering that the archetype is drawn from a series of highly specific moments in history.   The quote at the top of the page reminds us that Machiavelli is writing during a period of intense civil unrest in Italy, following a major foreign invasion and the dissolution of a number of seemingly stable governments and it was written as a gift for a single man—Lorenzo de’ Medici.[1]  Even so, while English audiences found themselves largely disinterested with Machiavelli’s specific appeals to Italian cultural history or his interest in the maintenance of armies and auxiliaries, there was something about the Florentine that caught fire in the cultural imagination of England.  Through stage representations, his political ideas were spread to a population that would have otherwise had little access to them,[2] and the staging tropes that helped to disseminate a basic overview of Machiavellian thought have remained with us ever since.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at popular representations of Machiavellian politics with an eye turned towards the ways in which contemporary audiences share the same fascination with Machiavelli that defined early modern representations.  For the last 400 years, Anglophonic audiences have been fascinated by attempts to understand Machiavelli’s political beliefs, and I have only touched upon a small sample of the most popular contemporary representations.  The goal here has been less to say anything about Machiavelli’s actual politics than to examine the process by which cultural understandings of those politics end up in our popular fiction.  The stage Machiavel offers an interesting case study for examining the ways in which popular representations of political philosophy can make those theories more accessible and the ways in which those same representations can participate in shaping public discourse concerning those theories.   While printers would eventually receive license to legally print The Prince in England, decades of being represented as a ruthless stage villain certainly colored the reading practices of English audiences.

This in turned has dramatically impacted our cultural perception of virtually everything connected to Machiavelli.  Period fiction set during the early 16th century frequently turns to him as a ready-made villain in the same way that Christopher Marlowe utilized Machiavelli to introduce The Jew of Malta.[3]  He has appeared as a character in texts ranging from Showtime’s The Borgias to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II.

Machaivelli%2c The Borgias

Machiavelli in The Borgias

Just as his name became shorthand for a duplicitous schemer, his person has entered into the stable of stock historical villains.  Just as stage representations of Machiavellianism would brand any act that was remotely morally questionable as Machiavellian, modern pop culture representations label any act of political scheming as inherently connected to Machiavellian thought.  Even though the characters that I examined in the last few weeks of posts frequently display a number of profoundly non-Machiavellian beliefs,[4] the image of the stage Machiavel still informs the way in which we understand those characters.

In closing up my month of blog posts, I hope to have demonstrated the ways in which the tropes of the early modern stage have remained with us throughout the past five centuries.  In the wake of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it becomes worth considering the ways in which it isn’t simply the texts of the early modern theatre that have stuck in our imaginations.  While we certainly imagine Machiavellianism differently than audiences did in the 16th century, many of the same questions and concerns still exist in the fiction that we create.  We may not be interested in the complex history of English kingship that exists in The History of Henry IV part 1, but we do still have an investment in the questions that the play asks about how a ruler should act.  While representations of Machiavellianism are not the only entry point into understanding the continuities that exist between early modern and contemporary practices of representation, the stage Machiavel does provide a fairly clear example of an early modern stage trope that continues to capture our imagination well into the 21st century.

[1] The Prince was not published until 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death.

[2] The Prince could not be legally published in England during the 16th century and literacy rates were fairly low.

[3] This habit of making Machiavelli a central character in narratives about 16th century Florence dates back to the mid-19th century at the latest, as George Eliot’s Romola features extended cameos by a pre-Prince Machiavelli.

[4] I noted last week that Machiavelli would likely have hated Frank Underwood for being a self-invested conspirator.  Beyond this, Cersei Lannister would likely be chided for her absolute disregard for the opinions of the populace and the fact that so few people actual trust Peytr Baelish suggests that he lacks the fox-like qualities that Machiavelli lauds in his schemers.

Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Hated, Feared and Loved: Popular Representations of Nicollò Machiavelli (8 April 2016)

“A controversy has risen about this: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or vice versa.  My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

-Nicollò Machiavelli

The word Machiavellian, denoting a duplicitous schemer or an unscrupulous politician entered into the English language in 1566,[1] decades before a formal English translation of Machiavelli’s most famous work, The Prince, would be legally available for the general population.


Picured: An unscrupulous politician


In England, Machiavelli’s reputation proceeded him and this led to a tremendous interest in the early modern consciousness concerning exactly how his more controversial ideas should be handled.  He became the era’s go-to reference point for political duplicity, amoral scheming and atheism.  Historical villains were rechristened as followers of the Florentine and an entire theatrical archetype was invented to leverage an emerging public discourse which framed anything associated with Nicollò as a ready-made symbol of evil.


Richard III, as understood by Tudor propaganda

This series of blogposts intends to examine not only the historic and literary history of representations of Machiavellianism, but also more contemporary representations and discourses, which remain closely connected to many of the same rhetorical movements and ideas that informed 16th century repudiations of Machiavelli.   While we may not have the same relationship to the Florentine as Elizabethan audiences did, we still express many of the same doubts and fears about men and morality that Machiavelli ignited in the early part of the 16th century.

Early modern representations of Machiavelli took the worst excerpts they could draw from The Prince and ran with them.  Marlowe, Shakespeare, Kyd, and countless other dramatists exploited the public fear of the Machiavellian image to construct dozens of scheming political climbers that would populate some their most famous plays.  Villains such as Claudius, Iago, Edmund and Richard III would become closely tied to the image of the Machivel. Tapping into a cluster of fears among English play goers, early modern representations of Machiavellianism tended to emphasis its amorality, its belief in justified cruelty and its connection to Southern Europe.[2]  While some of these writers may have had some amount of sympathy for elements of Machiavelli’s politics, when invoking the man himself, few popular representations of Machiavellianism offered any sympathy or nuance.   In the early days of representation, the figure of the Machiavel had lived up to his prodigious reputation.

Despite a long history of being transformed into a symbol of unrepentant villainy and amorality, Machiavelli still seems to inhabit a special place in our consciousness.  The word attached to his name still possesses tremendous currency, as we use it to discuss any number of politicians,[3] fictional characters,[4] sports personalities,[5] among countless others.  Further, in a political environment which sees increasing public support coalescing behind anti-establishment rhetoric and campaigning, here understood to represent politicians who don’t outwardly appear to ‘treat politics as a game,’ or who appeal to a sense of honesty and integrity that implicitly suggests that this integrity represents a break from the norm, a sizable population seems to be looking at modern institutions with the same wary eyes with which Machiavelli’s philosophical detractors wished to view their own world in the waning years of the 16th century.   Part of the fear that early modern audiences saw in Machiavelli was in his suggestion that politics was a game of misdirection and manipulation, a place where liars and cheaters stood above moral men.  As a result, Machiavelli was never far from the political fiction of his time, and the last four centuries seem to have done little to remove him from our imaginations.

One need to look no further than the recent resurgence of political thrillers to see that this suspicion still underlies a section of our popular culture in much the same way that it informed the popular culture of early modern England.  Richard III, the deformed usurper of Shakespeare’s The History of Henry VI Part III, who wishes to “set the murderous Machiavel to school,” (III.ii.193), bares more than a passing resemblance to modern popular figures such as Frank Underwood or Petyr Baelish,[6] whose political machinations drive the plots of their respective series.


As political schemers, intent on raising themselves through the ranks by whatever means necessary, figures like Baelish and Underwood are cut from the same cloth that gave Anglophonic culture villains like Iago and Lorenzo.  While the pop culture Machiavel is still villainous, there is some newfound pleasure to be found in watching the devious and duplicitous anti-heroes maneuver their way into power.  The popularity of series that make explicit their Machiavellian theme suggests that there exists a disconnect between the way that audiences are conceptualizing real world politics and the way that we choose to stage and consume fiction about politics.   The next in this series of posts will look in greater detail at a few case studies to examine how Machiavellian political thought is being fictionalized in contemporary popular culture.

[1] “Machiavellian, n. and adj.”. OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 05, 2016).

[2] Despite being framed by writers as an atheist, Machiavelli is frequently connected to the other big early modern fear coming out of Italy, the Catholic Church.

[3] Virtually every candidate in the 2016 primary cycle has been compared to or compared against Machiavelli in some capacity.



[6] Between the Lannisters, Tyrells, Martells and Lords Baylish and Varys, the political subplot of HBO’s Game of Thrones could best be described as a contest between a dozen Machivels trying to out maneuver one another.

Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.