By David G Anderson
Anamorphism is a technique used by contemporary and Renaissance artists. It is a perspectival device that portrays one image when looked at straight on, and another when viewed at an angle. Perhaps the most famous such painting is Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.” Viewed from straight on, one sees the familiar two Frenchmen with sundry objects between them. Below them is an object that is indistinguishable, a blur that is possibly a grayish painter’s pallet on end. If the viewer moves to his right and then glances down and to his left a skull with its empty eyes appears where the grayish blur once was. It is a shock to see such an object but is completely memento mori, addressing death with the odd sensation of being-seen-seeing. (Here’s a link to the painting: https://markmeynell.wordpress.com//?s=the+ambassadors).
According to James L. Calderwood in Twayne’s New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perspective gives clarity and will enhance what is being viewed, “the way Socrates looked at everything, according to Aristophanes, with a ‘sidelong glance’ that presumably discerned what could not be seen from straight on” (Plato: The Collected Dialogues, p. 221).
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lovers in the woods all seem to have a mirror before them. Looking at Lysander we see Demetrius mirrored. The same is true with Hermia and Helena. “This mirror viewing reflects something more general in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, something that calls on both characters and audience to practice a kind of Socratic sidelong glance that might be called the anamorphic gaze” (Calderwood 49).
Anamorphism in a play? “Shakespeare does something similar to Holbein by creating a linear version of anamorphosis, converting the painting into a play which the audience sees from three different perspectives. . . . First he gives us a straight-on look at Athens, then shifts our perspective by obliging us to consider the night in the forest, then brings Athens back in the third panel and says, ‘Look again’. The anamorphic effect arises from the fact that fairyland, though not exactly a blurry skull at the base of Theseus’ palace, is a kind of crazed mirror of the Athenian world” (Ibid 49–50).
The opening scene reveals Theseus mandating a law which everyone, even Hermia and Lysander, accepts but no one likes with the exception of Egeus, Hermia’s father. This is what Pascal calls the “Mystic basis of authority, the fact that authority is often honored simply because it exists, and continues to exist simply because it is honored (Pascal’s Pensees 67). Thus, Hermia must marry Demetrius, face death, or join the nunnery. Of course, the practical application of this pronouncement is that most of the cast must venture into the forest of Athens.
So how does Theseus unconditionally cast aside this law in act 4? He tosses aside his first ruling with surprising ease, “Egeus, I will overbear your will” (4.1.178). “In freeing Hermia and Lysander from le nom du pere, Theseus also frees himself. . . . The name-of-the-father resides in the law itself, and to repudiate the law, if only in a particular instance, is to deny the total dominion . . . and expose it as a self-serving construction of patriarchal culture. To see this however, Theseus must position himself differently, taking a sidelong Socratic glance at the law” (alderwood 69), a law that was “irrevocable” in scene 1.
A further explanation might be in invoking another anamorphic angle. Let’s examine Shakespeare's device of doubling the roles of Theseus and Hippolyta with Oberon and Titania— “Shakespeare's, because this practice, which has become almost automatic . . . issues from the playwright as much as it does from inventive directors” (Ibid 50). In he Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 1993 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sheridan Crist and Leslie Brott who played Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania respectively, had their initial costume change right on stage, thereby eliminating any doubt as to the doubling of the parts. “The effect of this doubling is that the actors are visual puns” (Ibid 50). In the opening scene, we accept the actors the director has assigned to play the parts of Theseus and Hippolyta. The stretching of our imaginations occurs when these same actors appear as Oberon and Titania, in the bodies we have mentally assigned to Theseus and Hippolyta. There are those otherworldly images of their counterparts. Since the actors have memorized the lines for both parts, they automatically have insight to the other character. We learn in act 2 that these four characters have known each other for quite some time.
Oberon : Tarry, rash wanton: am not I thy lord?
Titania: Then I must be thy lady; but I know
When thou hast stolen away from fairy-land,
And in the shape of Corin sat all day,
Playing on pipes of corn and versing love,
To amorous Phyllida. Why art thou here,
Came from the farthest steep of India,
But that, forsooth, the bouncing Amazon
Your buskined mistress and your warrior love,
To Theseus must be wedded? And you come
To give their bed joy and prosperity.
Oberon: How canst thou thus, for shame, Titania
Glance at my credit with Hippolyta,
Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?
Didst thou not lead him through the glimmering night
From Perigenia, whom thou ravished?
And make him with fair Aegle break his faith,
With Ariadne and Antiopa? (2.1.63–80)
Elliot Krieger provides that sidelong glance rather than the front on view: “The suggestion of an erotic connection between the rulers of the fairy world and the rulers of Athens transforms the fairies into spiritual manifestations of the sexual drives of Theseus and Hippolyta: Titania represents in the realm of the spirit Theseus's physical desire, held in abeyance during the four-day interval before the wedding, for Hippolyta; Oberon represents Hippolyta's desire for Theseus. The destructive jealousy with which Oberon and Titania confront each other replaces, then, the injury, and the actual martial opposition between their two races, with which Theseus ‘wooed’ Hippolyta” (A Marxist Study of Shakespeare’s Comedies, p. 56). ”Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword,/ And won thy love doing thee injuries” (1.1.17–18).
The Amazons were known for their ferocity; they would not suckle their sons, and often they were slain at birth to perpetuate the feminine hierarchy. So how does Theseus sleep at night despite Hippolyta’s rather tame initial speech? How has she inwardly processed the unpleasantries of Hermia’s plight? Is she now questioning her decisions? Theseus takes note for he responds, “Come, my Hippolyta./ What cheer, my love” (1.1.122). Hippolyta keeps the cards close to her vest and remains an enigma to us and Theseus.
A straight on view of the battle over the changeling boy appears when Titania is purposely making Oberon jealous with a possession denied him. Oberon demands the child as a symbol of Titania’s submission and love. A sidelong glance, though, portrays something much deeper with Titania. Her tale is of the mother who was a vot’ress from India “But she, being mortal, of that boy did die” (2.1.35). Titania in this instance becomes a stepmother, “but also does what immortals occasionally do, envy humans. . . . Titania’s desire focuses on that specific feature of humans that marks their greatest lack. Creatures that give birth must die” (Calderwood 57). Titania wants to experience all of motherhood, pregnancy included.
An examination of kings, fairyland kings included, shows that they are very adept at commanding, demanding, reprimanding, and sometimes even forgiving. The quality of mercy within Oberon is in inverse proportion to humiliating Titania. “Still, Titania’s disgrace, reflected in the flouriets’ weeping eyes, moves him to pity; and if pity depends on taking the perspective of others, then Oberon’s own vision has been modified for the better” (Ibid 65). “Her dotage now I do begin to pity” (4.1.45).
When Theseus marked “The best in this kind are but shadows . . . if imagination amend them” (5.1.216–218), he refers to plays and plays immersed in imagination, and perhaps he is anticipating Puck’s “If we shadows have offended” (5.1.418). Imaginably the lovers are a metaphor for Shakespeare’s audiences who secretly desire to revel away the night in the forest of Athens. This play is fantasy, its art is an illusion as we’ve anamorphically experienced, “no more yielding but a dream” (5.1.423). Consider an actor playing Bottom playing the part of Pyramus, being admired by the actor playing Hippolyta. Perchance we have been seen—seeing art that has shadowed the dream world. “It seems to me/That yet we sleep, we dream” (4.1.195).