Shakespeare and Hoffman:
A man of words and a man of vision
Michael Hoffman’s 1999 adaptation of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream received more acclaim then most adaptations previous to it. The well-known cast of actors, as well as the incredible visual effects used are the two most likely reasons for the film’s appeal to the masses. Even though the film’s casting and special effects brought people into the theaters to see the film, it isn’t what kept them there. Instead, fans and critics alike would have to agree that Hoffman’s adaptation was not only cleverly directed, but accurate to Mr. Shakespeare’s intentions in the original text. It is clear that Hoffman has done his homework.
Hoffman seems to concern himself and this production with two major themes. The ideas of universal power of love and universal power of art are easily conveyed to the audience, conveniently enough, by one character. In the text, Bottom appears to us as a boisterous man dedicated to a passion of theater that will never be a realization; whose move through the social ranks is only because of a spell cast on the goddess. In Hoffman’s adaptation, Bottom becomes the focal point, or rather our hero.
First of all, Hoffman cast veteran actor Kevin Kline in the role, a far stretch from what bottom is normally cast as. Bottom, as well as the other rude mechanicals, are normally character actors. They are commoners trying their hand at performing arts. Naturally, comic characters are cast with comic actors. Hoffman uses Klein’s impeccable use of the language and his renowned acting ability to make us see Bottom as a hero, the heart and soul of Shakespeare’s writing.
The first time we meet the mechanicals is after we are already introduced to our lovers and their strife. They meet to start rehearsing for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. We can start to see Hoffman’s idea of Universal power of art here, as Peter Quince passes out the parts. Already cast as the brave Pyramis in the lamentable tragedy of Pyramis and Thisby, Bottom strives to be seen in all the parts of the play.
BOTTOM -An I may hide my face, let me play Thisby too, I'll
speak in a monstrous little voice. 'Thisne,
Thisne;' 'Ah, Pyramus, lover dear! thy Thisby dear,
and lady dear!'
QUINCE No, no; you must play Pyramus: and, Flute, you Thisby.
BOTTOM Well, proceed.
QUINCE…: Snug, the joiner; you, the lion's part: and, I
hope, here is a play fitted.
SNUG Have you the lion's part written? pray you, if it
be, give it me, for I am slow of study.
QUINCE You may do it extempore, for it is nothing but roaring.
BOTTOM Let me play the lion too: I will roar, that I will
do any man's heart good to hear me; I will roar,
that I will make the duke say 'Let him roar again,
let him roar again.'
QUINCE An you should do it too terribly, you would fright
the duchess and the ladies, that they would shriek;
and that were enough to hang us all.
ALL That would hang us, every mother's son.
BOTTOM I grant you, friends, if that you should fright the
ladies out of their wits, they would have no more
discretion but to hang us: but I will aggravate my
voice so that I will roar you as gently as any
sucking dove; I will roar you an 'twere any
(Act I scene ii)
From the text, we can see that Bottom has a true love and passion for the performing arts, and wants nothing more then to ensure the success of this production. In Hoffman’s production, the focus is on Bottom as I’ve said before as the hero. It is important to point out two very important style notes of the performance. First of all costuming. The rude Mechanicals are all dressed in dark earthy browns and blacks, nothing fancy, just worn tweed. The cloths of the workingmen at the turn of the nineteenth century, the setting for Hoffman’s adaptation. Bottom however, is a striking contrast all in a white suite, Sunday clothing. This is probably a convention used to make bottom stand out from the rest of the mechanicals, and also heighten the embarrassment level at the end of the scene when an emphatic Bottom, reciting to the gathered crowd, becomes a mockery when two young boys poor a bucket of red wine over him. The second choice to be noted is having Bottom not only act for his fellow actors, but for the other people gathered in the center of town doing their daily business. Hoffman makes Bottom not only the focus of his friends, but of the town. Again, this makes it even more of an embarrassment for him when the pranksters pour the wine. Hoffman shows us the very human side of Bottom first. By showing Bottom’s strive for acceptance in as a higher citizen then he is, his passion for the arts, and his fall from his peak, just goes to show us that he isn’t a two dimensional character placed in the text for comic sake. He is in fact a human, capable of feeling and failing in the way that only humans can. This is important to note, because as we will examine later, Bottom is turned into an ass, the crudest of all animals. Hoffman wants to make sure we understand Bottom the man, so when he becomes physically less appealing to the eye, we can still see that he is in fact human.
Hoffman added an interesting component to Bottom’s character, that isn’t at all called for in the text. We see Bottom return to his home, his white suite stained with the red wine. He is in despair. As he sits on his bed to remove his shoes, a women steps in to join him. We are to assume that she is his wife, Mrs. Bottom. She looks at him, and shakes her head despairingly before she leaves. This only goes to show how easily Bottom is misunderstood. Hoffman shows us he is in fact capable of embarrassment. Hoffman added the wife character to show us even further down Bottom is then he shows. He realizes he is being made a mockery of throughout the town. Even his own wife is fed up with it. When he becomes the ass it is easy for him to accept this and use it because there isn’t anyone making fun of him. He is being loved for what he is, not looked to as something he can never be.
In the adaptation of the text, most of the lines of the lovers were either cut, or moved to a different place. Most of Bottom’s lines were not. Hoffman did this not only for a cinematic effect, but to shift the main focus away from the lovers romp in the woods, to Bottom, which isn’t the normal interpretation of the bard’s words. He also uses the time of day as a major force in the film. All the scenes in Athene Italy, the film’s setting, are in the daylight, while the scenes in bottoms house, as well as those in the forest are in the dark. It further separates us from the actual and the fantasy, and places Bottom into both realms, like a small child in their daily innocence.
In Act III scene I, we have the transformation of Bottom into an ass. Puck places the head of an ass onto bottom for his own sport, much like the children earlier who poured the wine all over Bottom. The underdog is always picked out. The costuming for Klein as an ass wasn’t exactly what we would have expected. Instead of gruesome and frightening, he appears to us as quite the endearing donkey, not even worth of being labeled an ass. Hoffman wants us to understand Titania’s love for him, even if it is only because of a spell from Oberon. He has a very sweet-faced Kline, still handsome and endearing, sharing the tender moments with our fairy queen. The forest setting is so lush and green, with vines and flowers. Like Bottom, it appears to us as Magical instead of real. This is where Hoffman brings in his second theme, that of the universal power of love. When you read the text, it’s difficult to imagine a handsome ass, or a fairy queen actually falling in love with one. It is a joke, brought about by Oberon and Puck, which is supposed to be vengeful towards Titania, and hurt the pride of Bottom. When watching Hoffman’s adaptation, you actually begin to believe that these are two creatures, who met and fell in love in the magically world of the forest. To prove to us that Bottom is in fact still human, Hoffman uses human magic. Bottom sees that the Fairies have acquired a phonograph, which they don’t understand how to use. They wear the bell as a hat and use the records for plates. Bottom shows them how to actually use it, showing them that their magic isn’t the only type that exists. Here, Titania’s love for him grows. Hoffman is trying to show us that love can came in all forms, and it can cross all boundaries, but it is like air, it is in all of us, and needed by all of us.
Hoffman uses beautiful cinematography to capture Bottom returning to his reality. The camera shows the record come to a stop. Then it zooms to pulleys, that appear to be attached to the bed where Bottom lies. Then suddenly, it is light, Bottom is no longer an ass. He wakes upon the ground, his cart near, and recalls the events of his sleep.
BOTTOM -[Awaking] When my cue comes, call me, and I will
answer: my next is, 'Most fair Pyramus.' Heigh-ho!
Peter Quince! Flute, the bellows-mender! Snout,
the tinker! Starveling! God's my life, stolen
hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was--there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was,--and
methought I had,--but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of
this dream: it shall be called Bottom's Dream,
because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the
latter end of a play, before the duke:
peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall
sing it at her death.
During this speech, Bottom has found a nest, that has a tiny crown inside of it, like the one he wore upon his head in what he believes was a dream. “Man is but an ass…” Bottom says. Hoffman has been trying to show this to us the entire time, by having the children and townspeople mock Bottom, his wife not understand him. It’s only in the fairy world, when he is an ass, that people don’t act that way. If Bottom appeared to Titania as a human, he very possibly could have been mocked in the fairy world. But as an ass physically, he is a symbol to everything that he isn’t in actuality. Puck says in an earlier scene “what fools these mortals be.” It’s as if in this context, Bottom is immortal, for he is the least foolish of them all.
Bottom returns home in the second scene of act four. In the text it appears that his fellow mechanicals are more concerned they will not be able to perform then with Bottom’s whereabouts. However, Hoffman gives love into these men for their friend. They are very concerned about him. When Bottom enters, it becomes a celebration. Once again, Hoffman is showing the theme of the universal power of love, this time through men of the same sex, and creatures of the same species for that matter.
For the first time, Hoffman really stretches the text in Act IV. As it is writ, the performance is not a success, rather it’s a mockery. They mechanicals are laughed at, and dismissed. Hoffman however, say this as an opportunity to prove that men are in fact asses. The prologue given by Peter Quince is omitted. This probably because it makes the play look like a failure before it begins, and since Hoffman wanted to convey s triumph by the lower class, he removed it. The play starts the same, Bottom is big and outdoes even himself, wall and moonshine are greeted in a crude manner, and Flute as Thisby of course is laughed at, because he is in a wig, dress and speaking in a high voice as a women would. Lion however, is held tenderly by the women, because Hoffman portrays Snug the joiner as being touched. He is innocent, and there fore the women and the men hold no contempt toward him. They instead embrace him. When Bottom dies, twice, the reaction is how Shakespeare probably intended it. That of laughter and jouqularity, but Thisby’s death is a different matter. This is where Hoffman brings together his themes of Universal power of love and the universal power of art. After attempting his speech twice in a high voice, flute drops to his own. The women start to take in what he is saying. Flute is remembering and using his experience when he thought just earlier this day that Bottom had truly died. About four lines in, he removes his wig. This is when all the couples start to see and realize that love truly conquers all. It has absolutely no boundaries or limits. It is silent as Thisby dies. Hoffman cuts the following dialogue between Theseus and Hippolyta that make musings of the performance, for it would otherwise contradict the moment he had just captured. The mechanicals are dismissed, with honors. They are seen celebrating their success.
One final topper Hoffman took to convey to us his theme of universal love and make us believe that the love between Bottom and Titania was real was by having them meet again, once the spell was removed, and Bottom was no longer an ass. First upon entry to the palace, Bottom sees a statue of the goddess, which he walks up to and touches the face of. He isn’t at the moment sure why it is familiar to him. Once he returns to his home after the celebration with the rest of the mechanicals, he removes the fairy crown from his pocket. Passing by the window, he notices what look a little like fire flies outside. One of them however is bigger and brighter then the rest. It hovers in the air as if looking at him while the others dance around it. After about five seconds, the whole menagerie flies away. We are to assume this is Titania bidding him fair well.
When we look at any performance, weather on stage or in film, that is based on Shakespeare’s text, we have got to count on visual aides to help us understand what is being said. The language is beautiful, though difficult to understand. Hoffman works with Shakespeare as if the man wee still alive and Collaborating with him on the project. As Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet was a triumph in making movies out of Shakespeare, Hoffman’s version of A Midsummer Nights Dream took us even a step further to embracing the words of the master.
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