The history of Shakespeare adaptation for the screen is long and diverse. It has crossed spatial, lingual and generic boundaries. Were the World Mine (Tom Gustafson, 2008) is not an exception. It incorporates Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a romantic musical about a gay teenage boy called Timothy who struggles with and ultimately changes the homophobic community of his American hometown by discovering Shakespeare’s magic when he takes on the role of Puck in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Critic Valeria Traub noted that especially in his comedies Shakespeare tested, bend and questioned the boundaries of social and erotic norms (1992, p.17). This article will argue that in Tom Gustafson’s film Were the World Mine, Shakespeare and his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream provide the space and force for social change towards tolerance and acceptance within Timothy’s narrow minded and homophobic hometown.
On a first level Were the World Mine adapts the figure of Shakespeare himself. He appears from two different perspectives. One is represented by Timothy’s English teacher Miss Tebbit, who decided to stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Timothy’s all boys high school. As Matt Kozusko noted Miss Tebbit’s Shakespeare is one of enlightenment. His lyrical 400-year-old language is not easily understood, but Miss Tebbit becomes his “surrogate” on earth when she teaches her class and above all Timothy to understand those beautiful lines (2012, p. 173). As early as in the first shot of Miss Tebbit, she is aligned with Shakespeare: we see her stand in front of the black board writing down lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream such as “The course of true love never did run smooth” (I.i). Moreover, a white marble bust of Shakespeare on her desk “observes” her students and a calendar image of the ass-headed Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream hangs on the wall to her right. She is framed by Shakespeare. He and Miss Tebbit are on one side when it comes to teaching a lesson in tolerance and “awaken and empower what’s within” as she keeps saying to Timothy. Like a talisman the Shakespeare bust reappears throughout the auditions and rehearsals by the teachers side while she works towards and succeeds in establishing Shakespeare’s promise of “enlightenment, revelation and vindication” (Kozusko, 2012, p.175).
The opposing view on Shakespeare is represented by the town. It is established in the first reference to Shakespeare as “Shakesqueer crap” by one of Timthy’s classmates in the changing rooms. They, in accordance with American popular culture, associate Shakespeare and the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not only with theatre but with queerness (Silverstone, 2014, p. 319). In their perception, there is an opposition between the masculine world of rugby with clear rules and the queer, ancient and difficult fairy world of Shakespeare (Kozusko, 2012, p. 172). This opposition is characterised in a confrontation between Miss Tebbit representing Shakespeare − once again with his bust by her side − and Coach Driskill and Dr. Bellinger, the headmaster of the school, who represent the masculine world of rugby. The two men are concerned about the play interfering with the performance of their boys as rugby players, because playing women in a Shakespeare play is “embarrassing them” as Driskill points out. However, Tebbit understands the core of the problem: Their efforts to distinguish clearly between “Shakesqueer” and the assumed heterosexual, masculine sports team stems from an insecurity about sexuality and masculinity. Ironically, while the production of the play goes ahead the “worst fears not merely of the rugby coach but of the scripture-citing community” come true as Timothy’s/Puck’s love potion turns the whole rugby team into dancing, verse speaking homosexuals (Kozusko, 2012, p. 176). Yet, through this process of merging the two supposedly opposing worlds, Shakespeare and rugby or queerness and heterosexual masculinity, a new understanding of them appears. At the end of the film, Timothy and Jonathon, the star of the rugby team, are a couple and as such invited to the after show party held by one of the rugby players. The experience of “Shakesqueer” has brought about the enlightenment which Miss Tebbit’s Shakespeare has promised at the beginning. After seeing the world through Timothy’s eyes the community reaches a new definition of masculinity that allows an inclusion of homosexuality (Kozusko, 2012, p. 175-176).
However, it is not only the mere presence of Shakespeare and Shakespearean language that brings about the change in Timothy’s environment, but his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of the major patterns of the play is the wood, which is a space of escape for the young lovers from the restrictions of the Athenian court. The exclusion from Athenian society allows magic, experimentation and transformation of the self as well as the rules (Brooks, 1979, p. xcv; Moffat, 2004, p. 182; Jackson, 2014, p. 18). This can be matched with theories of the liminal phase. The term is derived from the study of rites of passage within the social sciences and denotes a period of transformation for an individual or a community coming about in a space or state of exclusion. Rites that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood are an example of a liminal phase (Turner, 1985, pp. 47-48). The transformative experiences of the characters in the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as the forest itself are liminal (Jackson, 2014, pp. 18-19). In Were the World Mine the staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Timothy’s dream sequences take over the liminal function of the forest as they create a homonormative alternative version of the town.
Led by Miss Tebbit Timothy enters the magical world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the liminal phase, “a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise.” (Turner, 1985, p. 48), through the words of Shakespeare. As he practices speaking Puck’s lines, “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth / In forty minutes” (II.i), the book suddenly lightens up, the words flicker, disappear, reassemble and eventually reveal the recipe for “Cupid’s Love Juice”, which is headlined “A Midsummer Night’s Dream / Remedies”. Shakespeare’s play becomes a promise of cure for the hostile world that surrounds Timothy. The next instruction of the book/Shakespeare for Timothy is to “Sing”. The song that follows begins with Bottom’s speech, highlighting Timothy’s position as an outcast and his determination for change:
I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me, to
fright me, if they could. But I will not stir from this
place, do what they can; I will walk up and down
here, and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not
Then the song turns into “a curious amalgamation of lines from the characters of Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, Puck, Oberon, and Titania in the playtext […]” (Patricia, 2014, p. 57). While Timothy sings, the walls of his bedroom open like gates and he enters a daydream. What follows is a camp and homoerotic musical scene featuring Timothy’s classmates as dancing fairies wearing elaborate glitter make-up, silver shorts and small black wings while Timothy and his crush Jonathon perform as a romantic couple in a field of pansies. The difference to earlier dream sequences is that the magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream crosses the boundaries of dream and stage as it enters reality in the form of a love potion squirting purple pansy that empowers Timothy (Patricia, 2014, p. 61). Now equipped with the pansy and the lacy wings of his Puck costume, Timothy sets out to make Jonathon love him and then turns his class mates and many of the inhabitants of his town into homosexuals. Visually Timothy’s dreams are aligned with the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream not only by the fairy theme and the text passages from the play but also by the reoccurring image of a stylised tree. The tree is a stage prop, too, and thus links the dream world and the play to the stage production of the real world of the film and blurs their boundaries as it transgresses the borders between them.
In his discussion of the liminal phase Turner notes that it is marked by “[u]ndoing, dissolution, decomposition [but] accompanied by processes of growth, transformation, and the reformulation of old elements in new patterns.” (1985, p. 49). In Were the World Mine the entrance into the liminal phase is denoted by an entrance into Shakespeare’s magical forest, whose power spreads from page to the stage into the world. This results in the dissolution of the rules of the heteronormative and homophobic society of Timothy’s hometown. Heteronormativity is exchanged for homonormativity providing queer happiness for Timothy and the enchanted, whereas the few remaining heterosexual characters such as Dr. Bellinger and Timothy’s mother Donna are utterly bewildered when they are pursued by love-struck subjects of the same sex (Silverstone, 2014, pp. 319-320). Within the liminal phase an alternative version of the town is created that inverts the norms and dissolves the heteronormative structure. Yet, something else is gained: Firstly, for Timothy as he is not an outsider anymore and can negotiate his relationship with Jonathon (Patricia, 2014, 47-48). Secondly, the community is taught a lesson in tolerance by being made to see through Timothy’s eyes. Instead of citing bible passages that forbid homosexuality − as some of them did earlier − they sing Shakespeare’s lines, “The course of true love never did run smooth” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I.i), understanding and acknowledging Timothy’s struggle in their community. The new concept of love and sexuality eventually includes homosexual love.
Although the liminal phase provides space for these explorations, it is limited and neophytes, subjects who undergo the transformation in the liminal phase, ultimately return into the sphere of society and its laws. They may have gained new insights and a better understanding, “but they have to become once more subject to custom and law.” (Turner, 1985, p. 51) So do the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the woods, they have confronted hidden aspects of themselves and their loved ones and adjusted their views. Yet, they return to the Athenian court to be married, in these new constellations, alongside Theseus and Hippolyta, which means that they “apply their new experience to living within the city once again […] reassuming the city's standards.” (Fender, 1968, p.33) Furthermore, not only the lovers have changed but Athens has been renewed as well (Moffat, 2004, p. 182) e.g. Egeus’ power over his daughter Hermia is overruled and Hermia can marry Lysander.
Critics have complained that Were the World Mine fails to be a truly satisfyingly queer film because Timothy reverses the spell and the town returns to heteronormativity (Silverstone, 2014, p. 321; Kozusko, 2012, p. 172). However, this return is a concession to the rules of the liminal phase and Shakespearean comedy. The lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream awake returned to their old selves, but with changed views and in a renewed Athens. And so do the people in Were the World Mine. The spell is reversed and they return to their heterosexual selves. Heteronormativity replaces homonormativity, but it does not include homophobia any more. The experience of an alternative world has changed the norms. Instead of being criticised, Donna is now complemented for having such a talented son. The Shakespeare-induced experience has renewed the town but Shakespearean comedy does not allow lasting radical changes and neither does Were the World Mine as it adapts the magic as well as the rules of the genre. (Kozusko, 2012, p.177)
The difference though between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Were the World Mine is that the lovers awake in the forest whereas the townspeople awake in the school theatre. The liminal experience of the town has been framed by Shakespeare-inspired dreams as well as Miss Tebbits imaginative production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It started with a rehearsal of the play and, true to the concept, it ends with the performance. The action in the reality of the film – of the enchanted lovers in the theatre – mirrors the action of the performance. After Shakespeare’s magic has been set loose again by Timothy singing Puck’s lines and applying “remedy” to the eyes of Jonathon/Lysander with the purple pansy, flashes of lightning appear in the theatre and it starts to rain. The rain lifts the spell from Timothy’s classmates and the rest of the town as they awake from their midsummer night’s dream blinking their eyes. Only by ending the play does Shakespeare’s power complete the transformation and re-establish order. (Kozusko, 2012, p. 177)
The fates of the characters in Gustafson’s adaptation are not only governed by the external intervention of Shakespearean language, images and genre rules, but the resolution is achieved by an explicit mirroring of the action on stage and in the auditorium adapting the plot in general terms. All the townspeople take on the role of the four lovers. There are, however, also characters in the film whose function and fate are more closely governed by the plotline of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of them is Timothy. Timothy travels through many characters in his personal midsummer night’s dream. He has been aligned to the ass-headed Bottom as he has been bullied by his class mates and takes on a couple of his lines. He also has been paralleled with Helena in his unrequited love for Jonathon, who holds the roles of both Demetrius to Timothy and Lysander within the stage production. Timothy’s main role, though, is that of Puck, bringing about chaos by wielding the purple pansy. Only that the chaos is homoerotic rather than heteroerotic as in the original play (Patricia, 2014, p. 63). When presenting Puck’s closing speech, Timothy speaks for the three versions of Puck he has played: in his dreams, on stage and in reality. He apologises for the chaos Puck has created among the lovers in the Athenian wood, as well as the chaos he has created among the townspeople by transferring the homonormative world of his dreams into the real world. By taking on the roles of characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Timothy − but also some of the minor characters – play along the rules set out by the play and drive the action forwards that allows for the transformation of the town.
Were the World Mine presents a multi-layered and beautiful adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It adapts the figure of Shakespeare himself, the text of the play, a colourful production of the play as a play within the film, the genre conventions of Shakespearean comedy and ultimately the plotlines of some of the characters. In all this diversity, there is one purpose that unites them all: the creation of a liminal space that allows for an escape from an intolerant society whose norms are exclusive rather than inclusive. This magical space takes on the function of the Shakespearean forest and aligning with the rules of liminality and Shakespearean comedy this space is limited – a return to order is inevitable. However, by the power of Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream the community in Were the World Mine reaches a new definition of love, sexuality and masculinity that includes homosexuality. The experience of the Shakespearean forest is a vehicle for change and so is the Shakespearean experience in Were the World Mine.
Were the World Mine (2008) dir. Tom Gustafson, USA.
Brooks, Harold F. (1979) “Introduction.” In: Brooks, Harold F. ed. A Midsummer Night's Dream. London, New York: Routledge, pp. xxi–cxliii.
Fender, Stephen (1968) Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night's Dream. London: Edward Arnold Publishers LTD.
Jackson, Russel (2014) Shakespeare and the English-speaking Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kozusko, Matt (2012) “Shakesqueer, the Movie. Were the World Mine and A Midsummer Night's Dream”. Shakespeare Survey 65, pp. 168–180.
Moffat, Laurel (2004) “The Woods as Heterotopia in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Studia Neophilologica 72 (2), pp. 182–187.
Patricia, Anthony Guy (2014) Through the Eyes of the Present. Screening the Male Homoerotics of Shakespearean Drama in Anglophone Cinema 1936 -2011. Dissertation. Nevada: UMI Dissertation Publishing.
Shakespeare, William (1979) “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In: Brooks, Harold F. ed. A Midsummer Night's Dream. London, New York: Routledge.
Silverstone, Catherine (2014) “Shakespeare, Cinema and Queer Adolescents. Unhappy Endings and Heartfelt Conclusions.” Shakespeare 10 (3), pp. 309–327.
Traub, Valerie (1992) Desire and Anxiety. Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. London, New York: Routledge.
Turner, Victor W. (1985) “Betwixt and Between. The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage.” In: Lehman, Arthur C. and Myers, James E. eds. Magic, Witchcraft and Religion. An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural. Palo Alto, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, pp. 46–55.
Words by Kathinka Engels