The works of Ashley Sanders are the stuff of legend. She attended the Lord’s University and majored in philosophy and English. You may recognize her name as the organizer of last year’s alternative commencement. She now works with Sunstone and has a formidable blog of her own that might contextualize some of her guest posts. Quoth Ashley: “I am going to Middlebury bread loaf school of English for a master’s, and applying for a masters in activism and social change at the University of Leeds.” Welcome to our new guest!
In my last few blogs at Project Deseret, I have been arguing for conscience as a birthright. But, as my friend George reminded me, “a defense of conscience must also answer the problem of deception”–more specifically, self-deception. He is right. Having created a post title that sounds like a cross between a Jane Austen novel and a Mormon tabloid, I will ply Shakespeare to reckon between perspicacity and perspective. An essay, in five acts.
Two weeks ago, I saw Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Pioneer Theatre Company. The next night, I went again. It was not just the puckish (literally) fairies and delightfully dim-witted tradesman that required my second patronage; it was that the play was not finished with me, and I could tell. There was something nagging in it, some mirthful, mouthing truth that walks behind the comedies, making faces at predicament. I have noticed the same nag in Much Ado About Nothing, and felt the grim version while reading the tragedies. What was it? I went back to find out.
If you don’t know the story of Midsummer Night’s Dream, you should read it. In the meantime, I’ll help you out: it’s about fairies hexing fairies and courtiers and queens falling for donkeys and everyone getting supremely deluded about who they actually love and what is actually real, while the unseen fairy Puck flies about, confusing everything and then trying to right it all again. The whole mess ends with a play-within-a-play, in which provincial tradesman perform a ‘great drama’ for amused courtiers. The tradesman’s play is, of course, the ultimate in buffoonery—people who think they are wise spewing clichés and otherwise overdoing things—and includes the arch-dupe Bottom, who refers to his stint as a donkey (another of Puck’s hexes) as a great vision that he can’t seem to match with words. The play is watched by patrons of the court, including several couples recently recovered from Puck’s love-hexes (which had caused them to fall in and out of love with each other several times). The patrons spend the tradesman’s play in mocking, delighted at the stupidity of the so-called actors and chortling over their attempts to ‘create’ reality in the form of an illusion: the illusory-real, a play.
The play ends with fairy Puck’s synopsis, which is fitting. After all, the whole comedy has consisted of people mocking people who appear to know less than they do, all the while being meta-mocked by the reality-fairies and the more-knowing of the play and audience. According to Shakespeare, then, the greatest buffoonery is not to be a tradesman, but to be a mocker. The greatest buffoonery is to believe that one has escaped the limitations of perspective and is operating according to reality. Thus, the disdainful courtiers are more stupid than the tradesman precisely because they think they are smarter. As an audience to buffoonery, they have forgotten that they are buffoons to the audience watching them.
Upon second viewing, I started to understand: the Old Bard was trying to teach me something about self-deception. And while Shakespeare isn’t exactly taking the discussions, his comedy should certainly start some, especially amongst religious people. And so, a story: about learning how to be Mormon from a man who never was.