Philostrate in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

Have you ever planned entertainment for a major party, only to have all the options fail miserably? We'll learn about Philostrate's role as the Master of Revels in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'

Elizabethan Masters of Revels

In order to understand Philostrate's involvement in A Midsummer Night's Dream, we need to understand his professional role: Master of Revels for Theseus, Duke of Athens. During the Elizabethan Era (1558-1603), the Master of Revels was in charge of all theatrical productions at court. Outside the court, he could also censor public theater pieces, and he issued licenses to acting troupes (small companies of actors) who worked in rural areas. He was deputy to the Lord Chamberlain, or senior officer of the royal household, and managed the Revels Office. He had about three subordinate officers to help him organize and execute performances.

A reconstruction of an Elizabethan theater
A reconstruction of an Elizabethan theater

The Master of Revels held auditions with his officers and decided which acting troupes would perform at court. He also chose which plays they would perform and what kind of scenery and costumes they would use. He could even add or omit lines, passages, or entire scenes to and from the script.

In Shakespeare's day, theatrical performances were expensive, labor-intensive affairs. Much as Americans do blockbuster movies, the royal court valued quality productions. A well-funded official, the Master of Revels commissioned elaborate and 'high-tech' sets. Costumes were rich and intricate and were made of high-end materials such as satin, taffeta, velvet, and metallic cloths. However, the English civil war of 1642 ended this extravagant practice, since the new Puritan government closed all the theaters. Fortunately for Shakespeare, this happened long after his death in 1616. By 1737, the Office of Revels was eliminated completely.

Philostrate as a Humbug Master of Revels

Philostrate's specific task in the play is to arrange entertainment for Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding night and act as its master of ceremonies. This is no small feat to pull off for royal clients, and his work takes place 'behind the scenes' of the play's main plot. For this reason, we can think of Philostrate somewhat like we do the Wizard of Oz. However, he seems a bit of a 'humbug,' or fraud: like the Wizard, he doesn't seem to have things well under control.

An Elizabethan clown performing at a festive occasion
An Elizabethan clown performing at a festive occasion

When Theseus asks 'What revels are in hand?', Philostrate appears and gives the duke information on what kinds of performances are available. Yet, as Theseus points out, all of the options seem wildly inappropriate. The first is 'The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung By an Athenian eunuch to the harp.' Wedding receptions are not the best time to recount violent mythical or historical battles, and even this interesting-sounding tale would probably put everyone to sleep if it was sung to the sleepy strumming of a harp.

The 'riot of the tipsy Bacchanals' sounds a bit more fun, but again, involves the violent and unromantic 'Tearing (of) the Thracian singer in their rage.' The third option, the 'thrice three Muses mourning for the death Of Learning, late deceas'd in beggary' is probably the worst choice, since it contains both depressing and pedantic themes. What Master of Revels would choose any of these acts for a wedding reception?

When Theseus is understandably unimpressed with these options, Philostrate hesitantly mentions that a short play can be performed as a backup option. Like the Wizard of Oz, who tells Dorothy and her companions to 'pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,' Philostrate tries to dissuade Theseus from seeing it.

First, he discredits the script itself as 'tedious' and 'tragical' (again, not appropriate for a party). Next, he explains that the 'actors' are just workmen who 'never labor'd in their minds till now.' He says their unskilled performance will be a disaster, although he adds that 'when I saw (it) rehears'd, I must confess. . . more merry tears The passion of loud laughter never shed.' Given what we know about the power and funding available to the Master of Revels during the Elizabethan period, and given the number of regional acting troupes hoping to gain a royal audience during this time, why would Philostrate be forced to use workmen? It's surprising that he isn't fired outright at the end of the play.

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