Dr. Loretta Clayton
Queerness as Magic: Puck as the Transformative Agent in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is largely a work of romantic comedy which was written for a 17th-century audience by William Shakespeare. Its fantastical elements largely serve to deliver a ribald upset of the status quo and an endearing promotion of marriage based upon “true love” as the better course. But through re-interpretation of numerous events within the play in tandem with modern discourses on gender and sexuality, the play takes on a newer, more subversive hue. The play is most exhibitive of gender and sexuality as volatile structures which are largely defined and falsely structured by the status quo, and offers a strong suggestion to the act of queering as an experience of adjusting the expectations of the status quo and redefining the normative. Such a queering is initiated by a character who stands to gain the most from this upset state, and the society at large benefits from a better understanding, a normalization, of the “queer” and “unseemly” which is just as necessary in the modern era as it was in Elizabethan England.
In his understanding of the play, Green attempts to apply his own queer-oriented analysis of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a manner which re-reads the passing dialogue and behavior of the characters in tandem with subsequent and modern applications of similar language and behavior which would be best, or very differently, understood from a modern LGBT audience’s perspective. Within the statements and dispositions of Helena, Hermia, Nick Bottom and Puck, he finds “the limitations, slippages and anxieties of the carnival” world in a manner which is most relevant to addressing or even challenging gender and sexual norms (Green 371).
Green explains that the overall tone of the play largely cedes to a notion of heteronormativity, whereby the imperative expectation of heterosexuality, no matter the level of mere homosociality present at any one time in the narrative, largely wins out. But those moments of homosociality or of full-on “disruption,” such as Titania’s unaware tryst with the donkey-headed Nick Bottom or Nick’s abstract sense of comedy, challenge such an imperative. Green also derives a portion of his analysis from plumbing the size and shape of the dialogical “holes” which are left by characters, such as Hermia’s relationship with Helena, as opportunities for queer exploration. Green also repurposes “sodomy” (used in earlier history as a catch-all term for non-vaginal sexual intercourse) as a critique or send-up of the untenable nature of the expectations of female behavior held by males in both the human and fairy societies.
.Because his analysis takes into account the difficulty in interpretation of such parallel reading of the material, one is more likely to assume that only a significant revision of the work could lead to a more obvious inclusion, and a greater inclusion overall, of queer identity in the work. It is in this sense that Green looks toward the character of Puck, the most behaviorally-disruptive of the characters even while operating under constraints, as the one who provides the greatest opportunity for the play’s “queering.” It is he who, through his magic, provides Nick Bottom with the donkey’s head (a “perverse” act in itself), one with whom Titania engages in a drug-addled romantic tryst in which she is allowed much of her own cognizance as to the conduct of her romance, ironically catching Oberon (who had given her the drug which was provided to him by Puck) off guard. Green states that “Puck is the very possibility of the perverse operating within yet against constraints, of pleasures beyond constraints […] the very constraints he has been sent to enforce” (Green 387). It is within Puck and the context of permitting disruptive attraction that Green finally finds the opening for queer questioning of heterosexist assumptions, and in this, Puck paves the way for easier queer-affirmative re-readings and revisions of the play.
It is along this line that quite a few adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream have repurposed Puck. Tom Gustafson’s 2008 musical fantasy film Were the World Mine depicts the plight of a private school student, Timothy, who is largely closeted about his homosexuality. Distraught by the bigotry in his town while being drawn to play the role of Puck in the school’s abridged staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he becomes illuminated to the ingredients of love-in-idleness, which he successfully concocts and sprays upon the faces of various persons in town. This causes disorder as most of those who have been sprayed become lovesick, often in an unrequited manner, for persons of the same sex, but Timothy returns the advances of Jonathan, one other male classmate and star athlete affected by the spray to express his own closeted attraction to Timothy. Once the disorder threatens to impact the staging of the play, his enigmatic theater teacher convinces Timothy to restore the free will of the townspeople at the premiere of the play in his role as Puck by dispersing a concoction which causes all in attendance to lose their lovesickness. After the play ends, however, Jonathan returns to kiss Timothy on the lips, signifying the truth of their love outside of any substance influence or lust (Were the World Mine).
Both works utilize a similar formula of narrative regarding gender norms, but the latter work reforms the narrative in order to accommodate same-sex coupling as a phenomenon which survives the queering. A default heterosexuality ultimately prevails, but not in a manner which is as pervasive or compulsory as it is in the original work. The characters are also placed on or over the edge of their threshold of tolerance, exposing all the characters in the gap between their “normal” and their “queer” behavior as the “fools” who initially lack a full understanding of those “queer” attractions, but become, over time, somewhat wise to the “whys” of such attraction, if not fully endeared to such mechanics. A few of the characters, however, become fully endeared, exhibiting a lingering understanding which was innately desired but previously misunderstood.
What also unifies the film with the play is the treatment of the “queerness” which Puck introduces to the characters through love-in-idleness. In both works, the queerness of non-heteronormativity is something which is built up behind the high threshold of tolerance held by the works’ characters, all of whom are representative of an existing status quo. It is utilized by Puck, the catalyst of queering, in the middle of the carnival atmosphere, in order to cause disruption within the status quo. This queerness is comparatively spent by the end of both works, as the disorder does not last for long, but the lingering effects reside in newer connections and understandings which are more affirmative of those aspects of life which were previously considered “perverse” and “unseemly”.
This approach repurposes queerness, by the fact of its rather large, generalized ascription to all possible “unseemly” things, to be a powerful and volatile property, one which, when applied, impacts the status quo within a class and affects its shared mental models by placing its members in previously-unexperienced positions. In both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Were the World Mine, Puck exercises his power in a manner which repurposes queerness as a limited property, one which only exists in an othered reality which is considered by the status quo of a class of people to be perverse and unseemly. Once he gains his fulfillment from the upset status quo, he is persuaded to reset it to much of its prior arrangement, with the “course of true love” having arguably become more sound, visible and uncomplicated for all characters as a result of the queer tumult.
This approach also repurposes queerness as a limited property, one which only exists in an othered reality which is considered by a class of people to be perverse and unseemly. After the carnival atmosphere largely dissipates, a sense of normality is restored, but with the previously-sanctioned attractions between characters being more or less normalized in the eyes of the status quo, which has had a walk in the shoes of the “queer”. This normalization necessarily strips any one aspect of its queerness within that class, and dynamically redefines the dimension of queerness and the status quo. Halperin remarks that “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant […it] demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative” (Halperin 62).
A queer reading of both works brings one to the question of the tools of queering, tools which both change the dimensions of the queer as well as the normal. From a queer perspective, a solid argument can be made for the masquerade, or “drag”, and its utility as a protective shield for harsh critique or zealous indulgence of contemporary mores and fashions by “unconventional” actors. Butler suggests that “[t]he critical promise of drag does not have to do with the proliferation of genders…but rather with the exposure of the failure of heterosexual regimes ever fully to legislate or contain their own ideals” (Butler 26).
Another solid argument can be made for the same masquerade as being a tool for the fulfillment of unfulfilled psychosexual fantasy, the cover of the mask becoming an embodiment of the intended range of characteristics and personality imparted to it by the wearer or the creator. In this argument, the wearer becomes “mounted” in one’s own self-sensed awareness of culpability by another personage who assumes control over how the wearer interacts with the world outside of the mask. This new, controlling personage ultimately pulls the wearer forward (against any pre-existing reservations held by the wearer) to a conclusion in which the motivating roots of the fantasy (and, indirectly, the reality) are exposed for all to see. True to the state of trance possession, this personage temporarily alters, or queers, the perspective of the possessed; Jowett observes that “the body itself, so to speak, becomes the ‘mask’ that clothes the identity of the spirit who now inhabits the body” which is “manipulated by the spirits that are temporarily incarnated in him” (Jowett 9). Love-in-idleness ultimately serves the role of this transformative spirit, seizing control of the human faculties and directing them to, or outright exploiting, repressed flirtations or styles of flirtation with the queer and “misgendered.” Jowett further notes that, in the trance state, “this radical and dramatic transformation is visible to all through the physical and psychological signs and symptoms of the trance state” (Jowett 9), an assessment which can be applied to all in the status quo who indirectly behold and inherit the effects of queering the culture.
It is ironic that queering is an action which does not result toward expanding the borders of the queer, but expanding the borders of the normative. This assimilative and integrative process of reform expands the expectations of normative behavior and cognition to account for the non-gender-conformative. Yet, the identification, understanding and eventual integration of the non-gender-conformative depletes that which is “queer” of its potency of societal foreboding, its oppositional and rebellious nature no longer as peripherally-influential upon the status quo’s definitions of acceptability. Those who and which are identified as “queer” are rehabilitated in the eyes of the status quo, their “queerness” now becoming accepted as assets rather than strikes. The magic of queering resides in its ability to be spent in decreasing quantities in its questioning and upsetting of borders of gender and sexuality, and creating a rhetorical opening for showing the non-comformative as normative and definable.
Finally, does Puck also become queered before the eyes of the reader? In his mistake of applying the elixir, he experiences his own expectations being reformed by the behavior of the persons affected by the drug, enjoying, rather than becoming bored at, the spectacle of “what fools these mortals be” (Shakespeare 3.2.110–115). He is an active member of the status quo who enacts such changes and enjoys such activities, indicating a distraction from the usual, normative business of his life as a fairy; he, however, serves the role of the court jester in the fairy court, the consummate “fool” who is crucially allowed to rhetorically challenge the authority of the monarch, meaning that his own description of mortals as “fools” can be taken as an endearment to their capacity to fundamentally question the status quo. The film builds upon this aspect of Puck to cast Timothy as one who is similarly distracted from the normative behavior of being a closeted student in a problematic environment, ultimately changing his own internal definition of normative behavior to include an open exploration of his sexuality’s dimensions.
In conclusion, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, through the action of the character Puck in upsetting the status quo, offers an opportunity for a reader to re-evaluate gender and sexual normativities, and modern adaptations which further exploit this opportunity are not too far removed from the outcome of the source material. The fantastical queering of the characters, the temporary placing of the characters on or across the status quo-influenced threshold of tolerance, allows them to see the world and themselves through the perspective of the “queer,” influencing them in their future relationship with those formerly-ostracized aspects or their allowance for expansion of the status quo’s dimensions. Modern LGBT-affirmative, less-gender-conformative adaptations of the play, as a result, are allowed the application of this queering, this transformative questioning of perspectives, to concerns of gender and sexuality which were not previously publicly broached in Shakespeare’s own time but which now demand to be addressed.
Butler, Judith. “Critically Queer”. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1.1 (1993): 17-32. Washington: Georgetown University. Martin Irvine, Georgetown University. Web. 10 Dec 2012.
Jowitt, Deborah. “Writing Beneath the Surface.” Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader. Eds. Ann Dils, Ann Cooper Albright. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001. 7-11. Google Books. Web. 10 Dec 2012.
Green, Douglas E. “Preposterous : Queer Theories and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. Dorothea Kehler. pp. 369 – 397. New York: Routledge. 2001. Print.
Halperin, David. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 62. 1997. Google Books. Web. 10 Dec 2012.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, n.d. Web. 10 Dec 2012.
Were the World Mine. Dir. Tom Gustafson. Perf. Tanner Cohen, Nathaniel David Becker, Zelda Williams, Wendy Robie, Jill Larson, Judy McLane. SPEAKproductions, 2008. Hulu. Hulu, Inc. Web. 10 Dec 2012.