Unleash the Beast!

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Our resident Dramaturg Dr. Philippa Kelly asks:


The moment Bottom gets entangled as the object of Titania’s passion, he’s transformed into an ass (‘Oh Bottom, thou art translated.’) Does passion ‘translate’ people into their beastly selves, blunting their reason at the service of their bodies? Is this why Helena tells Demetrius repeatedly that she’ll be his dog? Across the spectrum of Shakespeare’s plays, he does often ask the question: what does sexuality makes of us? Iago talks of Othello and Desdemona making ‘the beast with two backs.’ In Twelfth Night the Duke says of Olivia: ‘That instant was I turn’d into a hart;/And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,/E’er since pursue me.’ In Measure for Measure, Angelo paints sexuality as a carrion-causing corruption – not the companion to virtue, but its beastly degradation. ‘Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight’, the lusts of the body are the subject of uneasy confusion. What is passion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? It might make us dogs and asses – but it also enables human beings to become something quite ‘other’ than themselves. What are we, as Hamlet would famously ask, if our purpose be but to sleep and feed? Love is not just an entanglement or an engrossment – it is also one of the most beautiful acts of human surrender.

– Philippa Kelly

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