Today marks the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, at 5:04 a.m. UT, the longest day of the year. In the planet's northernmost cities, the sun sets around 10 p.m. locally today (in Helsinki, sunset occurs at 10:50 p.m.), while in the southernmost cities, sunset is around 4 p.m. (Ushuaia's sunset occurs at 5:12 p.m. today) and Antarctica is shrouded in darkness.
Midsummer celebrations once culminated with the Christian feast day on June 24 (six months before Christmas) of the Nativity of John the Baptist. Before that, the solstice featured pre-Christian and pagan bonfire celebrations, which still occur and stretch back to Neolithic times.
Traditionally in northern climes, Midsummer is a season of dreams, illusions and enchantment, the pleasant side of delusion. Astrologer Rob Brezsny recently made a comment that suits the spirit of Shakespeare's famous comedy from the 1590s. Appearances are deceiving when it comes to love and magic. But part of the charm of this time of year is believing in those illusions, however briefly:
"I was often in love with something or someone," wrote Polish poet Czesław Miłosz. "I would fall in love with a monkey made of rags. With a plywood squirrel. With a botanical atlas. With an oriole. With a ferret. With the forest one sees to the right when riding in a cart. With human beings whose names still move me." Your task ... is to [s]ee how often you can feel adoration for unexpected characters and creatures. Be infatuated with curious objects . . . with snarky Internet memes . . . with fleeting phenomena like storms and swirling flocks of birds and candy spilled on the floor. Your mission is to supercharge your lust for life.
Shakespeare's Renaissance plot curiously combines Greek myths with northern European pagan folklore, as four lovers in the story elope into the woodlands and trespass into faerieland, a primordial realm of demoted angels, pagan deities, immortal hidden people, and elementals. On this night in particular, the king and queen of the realm, Oberon and Titania, are quarreling. Oberon's servant sprite, Puck, weaves through the forest, magically changing loves and minds so that no one can separate love from fantasy and dreams from reality. One Youtuber puts it in simplest terms: "Moral of the story: never fall asleep in the woods ... a fairy will turn you into a donkey and f-up your love life." Roles and loves are reversed, and everyone comes out better for it in the end.
The play's complicated plot never diminishes its charm: A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of Shakespeare's most popular and widely adapted pieces worldwide.
Above, see the very first film version of Shakespeare's play; it dates from 1909. Here, see A Midsummer Night's Dream, a 1935 American film, directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle, and starring Ian Hunter, James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, and Victor Jory.
The film uses Felix Mendelssohn's (1809-1847) music of the same name. The composer wrote the overture in 1826, when he was only 17 years old. The concluding scene, with Puck's speech by Mickey Rooney, from this film is below. A contrasting Gen X version from Dead Poets Society (1989) with Robert Sean Leonard is below that.
Puck. If we shadows have offended,
Think but this and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends. [Exit.
- --William Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V, Scene 1
Puck's final speech performed in Dead Poet's Society (1989) © Touchstone Pictures. Video Source: Youtube.