Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Play’s the Things, Part 3

After reading my last post, my super-smart husband said, “Isn’t it interesting how the fake actor’s Prologue in Midsummer is similar to the real actor’s (Puck’s) Epilogue?” That is such an interesting observation that I decided it merited further inspection. Lo and behold, if you put the speeches side by side, the similarity is striking and the differences amusing. So I thought I’d share. The left column below is the speech delivered by “Peter Quince” before the mechanicals perform their comically tragic play-within-the-play to the newly married members of the court. On the right is the speech “Puck” delivers directly to the audience watching Shakespeare’s play.

Peter Quince’s Prologue
Puck’s Epilogue
If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think, we come not to offend,
But with good will. To show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning of our end.
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,
Consider then we come but in despite.
We do not come as minding to contest you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent you,
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;
The actors are at hand and by their show
You shall know all that you are like to know.
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

How are they similar? First, each speaker begins with a preemptive apology in case his fellows (1) end up offending or (2) have offended over the course of the evening. Each explains that, since no offense was intended, the audience should just (1) accept the players’ good intentions or (2) imagine that they, the audience members, have all been dreaming this whole time. Next, both speakers entreat their audiences to be forgiving, promising that such generosity will be repaid. Finally, both speakers remind the audience that (1) a play is about to begin or (2) a play is about to end. Noting this pattern suddenly makes me see profound significance in Peter Quince’s line “That is the true beginning of our end”—the beginning and the end are one and the same, all the world’s a stage, life and work and play are distinct and yet their boundaries are often difficult to discern, and so forth.
Another amusing factoid: Puck’s Epilogue, where he breaks the “fourth wall,” and talks to the “real” audience asking them to release him from his work, comes shortly after the audience in the play-within-the-play has politely declined the offer of an epilogue. At the end of the mechanicals’ play, Bottom as “Pyramus,” along with Flute as “Thisby,” are lying in a heap on the stage, dead.  Bottom, not wanting his moment in the spotlight to end, breaks character, jumps up, and offers “Will it please you to see the epilogue, or to hear a Bergomask dance between two of our company?” Theseus responds urgently, saying:
No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse.
Never excuse; for when the players are all
dead, there needs none to be blamed. Marry, if he
that writ it had played Pyramus and hanged himself
in Thisbe's garter, it would have been a fine
tragedy: and so it is, truly; and very notably
discharged. But come, your Bergomask: let your
epilogue alone.

Thus, right after the internal audience rejects the notion of an epilogue, the “real” audience is subjected to an epilogue.
About now you may again be scratching your chin, wondering, “How is she going to make this little rumination seem relevant to law practice?”
Well, perhaps, on this occasion, the failure to make a sound connection needs no excuse, for none would be accepted. Instead, we can pretend that this was nothing but a dream that ends, nevertheless, with raucous applause.


  1. Epilogue means to say in addition. The clear implication is that the first saying isn't enough, that it needs to supplemented by another saying, which as Jacques Derrida spent a lifetime pointing out, can end up supplanting the original.

    That is, I think, the whole history of law in the U.S.

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