October: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Japanese Language

In 1595 or 1596, William Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It first appeared in print in 1600. It has always been one of Shakespeare’s most loved plays, perfect for summer playing, a favourite for Regent’s Park and Central Park performance. It may have been commissioned by a noble family to celebrate a wedding. If so, we do not know whose wedding.

Actors call the play ‘Dream’, and the action of Dream focuses on four young people who spend a midsummer’s night falling in and out of love as they are made to dance to the rush of sexual attraction.  Their special madness is represented by the love juice conjured by the Fairy King, a juice that laid on sleeping eyelids ‘Will make or man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees’. Dream is a play in which imagination is in free play, allowing the fantasies of lovers to match those of poets and madmen. It is a play in which:

                    The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
                    Are of imagination all compact.

                         (A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 5, Scene 1)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream blends themes from Ovid, Apuleius, and Chaucer with stories from Shakespeare’s childhood. Most of the action takes place ‘in the wood, a league without the town’. That town is supposedly Athens. However, it is as easy to imagine the wood to be the Forest of Arden populated as it is by the spirits of English folktale, including Robin Goodfellow, and the fairies Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed:

ROBIN             How now, spirit! whither wander you?

FAIRY             Over hill, over dale,
                    Thorough bush, thorough brier,
                    Over park, over pale,
                    Thorough flood, thorough fire,
                    I do wander everywhere,
                    Swifter than the moon's sphere;
                    And I serve the fairy queen;
                    To dew her orbs upon the green.
                    The cowslips tall her pensioners be:
                    In their gold coats spots you see;
                    Those be rubies, fairy favours,
                    In those freckles live their savours:
                    I must go seek some dewdrops her,
                    And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear.
                    Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I'll be gone:
                    Our queen and all our elves come here anon.

                         (A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 2, Scene 1)

The stage direction above this dialogue reads: ‘Enter a Fairy at one door and Robin Goodfellow, a puck, at another’. In the modern text, it is labelled Act 2, Scene 1, but Shakespeare did not divide his plays into acts. He staged his plays as an unbroken sequence of scenes. One set of actors left the stage as another set entered, often all talking as they went and came.

The opening three scenes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream move between worlds. Scene 1 introduces a group of Athenian courtiers. Theseus, Duke of Athens, is planning the celebrations of his marriage to his captive queen, Hippolyta. Four young courtiers, beset by complications of love, plan secretly to take themselves to the wood. Scene 2 introduces a troupe of artisans, ‘rude mechanicals’. They are planning to stage a play to celebrate the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. They agree to rehearse secretly in the wood. Scene 3 introduces a band of spirits. They are in turmoil because of a rift between their king and queen. They scheme to bring about a reconciliation. The spirits inhabit the wood.

The wood represents the magical, the wild, the fertile, the night. The wood opens men and women to stirrings that they cannot control as they would hope to control them within the house, within the city. Homes and cities were locked at night. To be out of doors, to be outside the walls, was dangerous and exciting. Bad things could happen, but good things could happen, too. The wood is a dream space, and within it courtiers, mechanicals and fairies move fluently between the conscious and the unconscious realms. And, at the same, the audience is, in Bottom the Weaver’s word, ‘translated’.

Shakespeare creates a lilting, fairy language by way of a trochaic rhythm: ‘Over hill, over dale […] Over park, over pale’. The verse skips on feet of three syllables. But the spirits use iambic pentameters, too. ‘Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I'll be gone,’ the fairy says to Robin. Elizabethan fairies were not always miniature like Victorian fairies. They could be full-size. Their language could be adult, sexual, insulting. ‘Lob’ meant ‘yob’, and the fairy, who serves Queen Titania, further insults Robin, who serves King Oberon:

                    Either I mistake your shape and making quite
                    Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
                    Called Robin Goodfellow.

                         (A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 2, Scene 1)

Robin Goodfellow was a ‘puck’, a ‘hobgoblin’, a mischievous wood spirit who invaded homes and farms to upset milkmaids and housewives. ‘Puck’ is a folk word of obscure origin; it might come from Gaelic or Low German. The ‘hob’ in ‘hobgoblin’ comes from Rob or Robin, and the ‘goblin’ comes from Medieval French ‘gobelin’, a mischievous sprite.

Robin Goodfellow has nothing to do with the Greek countryside, but Shakespeare slips him into the Athenian wood as easily as he slips Quince the carpenter, a quintessentially Warwickshire man, into the Athenian street. By way of ‘imagination all compact’, Shakespeare produced what Coleridge called ‘that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.’

James R. Brandon talks about three Shakespeares: a Canonical Shakespeare, an Indigenous Shakespeare and an Intercultural Shakespeare, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been a vehicle for all three Shakespeares. Brandon is particularly interested in Shakespeare abroad and especially in the roles that Shakespeare has played in Asian cultures. The canonical Shakespeare is the Shakespeare of the Asian nineteenth-century universities where academics attempted to render Shakespeare into the classical form of their languages keeping as close to the original as they could. The indigenous Shakespeare is the Shakespeare of street performers and low theatre where Shakespeare was made a vehicle for every kind of excess and escape. The intercultural Shakespeare is the Shakespeare of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century university where activists co-opt Shakespeare to use him for overt ideological and political ends.

All three Shakespeares are found in India, but India has had a long relationship with Shakespeare. He was forced on the Indians, and, just as English has become one of the languages of India, so Shakespeare has become an Indian writer. Elsewhere in Asia the English were resisted. Especially in Japan, the English and their language were kept out. However, the English language made its intrusion into the Japanese world in 1853 when the American navy sailed into Tokyo harbour. Shakespeare followed in the wake of Commodore Perry’s ‘black ships’. 

English residents began playing Shakespeare as soon as they were allowed to settle in the treaty port of Yokohama. That was in the 1860s. Twenty years later, the Japanese began to play Shakespeare themselves. Ryuta Minami identifies several stages of the Japanese response. The first was seen in productions like Sakura-doki Zenino Yononaka, It's a World Where Money Counts for Everything. Shakespeare’s name for that play was The Merchant of Venice. The Japanese actors used kabuki’s ‘highly stylized song, mime, and dance’ to represent the Shakespearean characters. Kabuki-style productions were followed in the early 1900s by shimpa-style. They favoured melodramatic action and story with a political dimension that addressed Western democratic, communist and nationalist ideologies.

Kabuki and shimpa productions, says Ryuta Minami, led to Japanese experiments with Western realism. Realist stagings of The Merchant of Venice became popular along with those of Othello, and Hamlet.  And with an absolute break with traditional Japanese theatre, Shakespearean production brought women on stage. Shakespeare was undergoing fundamental translation, cultural and as well as linguistic. Nonetheless, classical adherence to the Shakespearean text was not shaken off until the American Occupation.

Beyond realism, a surrealist Shakespeare emerged, radicalized in the 1960s by the influence of the American productions of Jan Kott’s Little Theatre Movement and in the 1970s by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s visit to Tokyo. Anything and everything could be done. Shakespeare was liberated from both Japanese and Western classical formulas. It has been argued that a rapidly industrializing country found nothing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that taught anything useful about the West. The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet and King Lear were apparently more to the point. Nonetheless, Ryuta Minami lists numerous productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, initially an English residents performance in 1866, but with increasing numbers of productions in modern times.

In Japan in 2009, A Midsummer Night's Dream became Manatsu no yo no yume, Midsummer's Okinawan Dream. In this film, a Tokyo office worker named Yuriko ‘decides to give up big city life and return home to Yokatomi Island in Okinawa to avoid her unfaithful boyfriend, Atsushi. After meeting with the village chief, it’s discovered that Atsushi has followed her to the island. Soon Atsushi’s lover Rinka arrives, and matters get confused even further when an island spirit called Majiru begins spreading an extremely powerful love potion throughout the island.’ We can see where Midsummer's Okinawan Dream has come from and we can guess where it is going. Japan’s Shakespeare may have taken a longer time to move beyond the textbook and the university, but as in India so in Japan, Shakespeare lives outside his text.

‘Shakespeare,’ says Professor Yukari Yoshihara of the University of Tsukuba, ‘is “the flagship commodity” in the globalized cultural market.’ She fuses Shakespeare the man with Shakespeare the works so that Shakespeare becomes multiple. ‘Japanese pop “Shakespeares” proudly and assertively tacky’, Yoshihara says, ‘offer tributes to the great Bard.’ Shakespeare has become a transtextual, and not everyone is happy about that.

The global dominance of Shakespeare and his language is the subject of Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English. She writes at length (and in Japanese) about the damage that English is doing to all those language (and they might be all languages) that cannot resist its crushing weight. Mizumura presents herself as someone on the outside of the English language but that is not entirely the case.

Her editor and translator says: ‘Born in Tokyo in the 1950, Mizumura moved with her family to Long Island, New York, at the age of twelve. Even though she lived in the United States for the next two decades, she never came to feel quite at ease there, and she spent her teenage years yearning for home while absorbed in stories from a sixty-three-volume collection of modern Japanese literature - an experience that forever shaped her sensibilities about language and literature.’ Mizumura graduated from her Long Island high school and when on to complete a doctorate at Yale in French literature.

Mizumura knows what she is talking about, and she projects an anger, quite French in its kind, against Anglophone arrogance:  ‘Until just a while ago,’ she says, ‘Racine was a figure on a par with Shakespeare. But look where he is now. Most high school students in the world - which has now come to include the whole non-west as well - are probably familiar with the name of Shakespeare. But what about Racine?  Who is he?’ Mizumura fears that Racine is dropping off the world map. He is going to be reduced to the nothingness of Japan’s great writers. ‘What a shocking demise.'

Mizumura is right, but her real anxiety is not about what English is doing to French. It is about the damage that English is doing to Japanese. The English language has such momentum that it is invading the sensibility of the Japanese; it is turning young Japanese from their own writers and their own language. In addition, and this seems to be the source of her greatest distress, English and Shakespeare are making the Japanese doubt the beauty of Japanese script. And what she loves about Japanese script is its mixture of kanji, ideograms based on Chinese script, kana, ideograms based on syllabic kanji, and romaji, forms based on the Roman alphabet.

What for a Westerner appears to be a clumsy solution to a problem solved so efficiently by the alphabet is for Mizumura a subtle and exquisite vehicle of thought: ‘The shades of meaning that arise from using different sets of signs for different purposes occur whether the writing is done by brush in beautiful calligraphy or by ballpoint pen in a deplorably clumsy hand, whether it is set in Ming or sans-serif typeface.’

Mizumura points to a dimension of language missing in English. Would it, could it add to the beauty of A Midsummer Night’s Dream if it were rendered in a variety of ways of representing words? It is difficult to imagine that it would. Reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream in an ugly font or on cheap paper maybe distracting, even distressing, but that seems to be beside the point. But Mizumura has pointed to a joy that the reader of the English language and all alphabetically rendered languages cannot share. Do we, can we, miss what we cannot know?

Minae Mizumura is famous in Japan for her second novel, Shishôsetsu from left to right. A shishôsetsu is a confessional, autobiographical novel, called by the Japanese ‘an I-novel’. What was remarkable about Mizumura’s shishôsetsu was not so much its content but the way it was printed.  The phrase ‘from left to right’ is in English in the Japanese title, and it was the first Japanese book ever to be printed that way. It abandoned the traditional top-to-bottom ordering. Strange things have been done to the Western novel by Julio Cortazar and B. S. Johnson but nothing so radical as to change the orientation of the print.

Shishôsetsu from left to right might seem a capitulation to the impact of the West upon Japan. Mizumura says otherwise: ‘In both its content and its form, this novel most directly addresses the question: What does it mean to write in Japanese in this day and age? The Japanese word “shishôsetsu” refers to a fictionalized autobiographical work, and my novel is just that. It’s a story about a Japanese woman who left her native country as a girl and moved to the United States with her family. Instead of making the United States her new home, she turns her back on it.’

Mizumura introduces ways of thinking about language and poetry that contradict every response we have to the language of Shakespeare. Ravished as we are by the beauty of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is healthy to hear such a contrary view of its poetry.

Next Month’s English Project Language: In November we shall look at Richard III and the Madarin language.


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