Puck, Oberon, and Gay Representation: Creating Cohesion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This week I wanted to take a break from the tragedy analysis. Of course, it feels more potent to make dramatic roles more accessible, but re-approaching comedic roles can do just as much if not more to normalize minority or ostracized groups of people. Non-Shakespeare case in point: Bridesmaids normalized women, The IT Crowd normalized black nerds (you go, Richard Ayoade!), so on so forth. I’ve got a few ideas about a couple of the comedies, but for our inaugural comedy analysis, I wanted to go with my favorite of the genre: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Anita Louise as Titania in 1935. Photo via janwillemsen on flickr.

Now, I say it’s my favorite of the genre—it might be more accurate to say it’s my favorite of all Shakespeare’s works. The extraordinarily beautiful Anita Louise as Titania in 1935 is my phone wallpaper.I wrote about my experience with the play in an essay that got me into my university’s honors college. When I found out my sister would be portraying Hermia in a production in Chicago last summer, I cried a little. I have part of a shelf dedicated to “comfort movies” by my desk—on that shelf, a DVD of The Globe’s 2013 production of Midsummer. That production is the one I would like to discuss (and praise) today.

I have been teased throughout school for seeing LGBT subtext in anything I can get my hands on, and I grabbed Puck and Oberon’s relationship right away. Puck defers to Oberon, but at the same time, there’s not quite a sense of subservience in it; he’s playful with the king, and the way Oberon refers to certain shared moments in their past makes it seem like they were companions more than master and servant. For proof, see 2.1.519, the beginning of their conversation: Oberon refers to “my gentle Puck” (indicating intimacy!) and when he gives Puck directions to fetch a flower, Puck playfully answers that he’ll “put a girdle around the earth in forty minutes”. It certainly sounds more friendly than a king and his servant, and I latched onto that and refused to let go.

The comfort movie corner with Dominic Dromgoole’s production of Midsummer.

Thankfully, director Dominic Dromgoole seemed to have the same notion, for at the risk of sounding indulgent and millennial, the 2013 Globe production is deeply, gloriously gay. John Light’s Oberon makes any excuse to touch Matthew Tennyson; Tennyson’s Puck gestures flamboyantly and has no issues being manhandled by Oberon. It helps that Tennyson looks like he’s about a hundred pounds soaking wet while Light is a bellowing man built like a mountain, and thus moments of tenderness are far more pronounced. But this isn’t just an indulgence for the LGBT community (though it would be fine if it was). Building a relationship between Puck and Oberon also rounds out the comedic atmosphere more.

Oberon is one of the least comedic characters of the play: he’s domineering and aggressive, and while he incites the plot that leads to some of the greatest comedy, he does it with dark motivations and without ever really being funny himself. John Light’s hypermasculine presence and brooding glare do nothing to help him in that regard. In a way, he then risks being the only non-funny character in a play meant to be funny. In Dromgoole’s production, it is his interactions with Puck that integrate him into the comedy, and therefore make the character make sense within the context of the play. (It just doesn’t do to have a stick in the mud in a Shakespearean comedy!) When Puck starts delivering some sass, Light’s Oberon wears an unamused expression that inspires a giggle or two. While spying on the lovers in the forest, Puck rides on Oberon’s shoulders, and they hide behind twigs to disguise themselves as a tree—truly one of the funniest parts of the play. (For fourteen minutes’ worth of these kinds of interaction, click here.) So Puck’s intimacy with Oberon is what brings Oberon from intimidating to personable (no small challenge), and therefore makes the whole ensemble a matching set of funny folks.

Could you play Oberon and Puck platonically? Absolutely—that’s been done for hundreds of years, and it’s been just dandy. But considering just how easy it would be to angle them a little less straight, and how that softens Oberon’s sharp edges, I can’t see any reason why you wouldn’t. Dromgoole pulled it off brilliantly, and I think that set a great standard. Midsummer is a comedy of follies, but like so many of the comedies, its final message is a hopeful outlook on love. If I can find one more place in the play to fit that in—by the Bard, I will.