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An Atheist and a Christian

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In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus and Hippolyta open the fifth act in private conversation.

Hippolyta begins the conversation while musing about what she and Theseus have been hearing from the four lovers. She and Theseus had entered the forest that morning at sunrise to observe a May Day rite, and they had discovered the four lovers asleep on the ground. Since then, the lovers had been telling stories — how they came to be together, what had happened to them the night before — and the stories were strange.

Shakespeare wrote the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream around the year 1600, but the conversation of Theseus and Hippolyta could be overheard today, with an atheist speaking Theseus’ part, and a Christian, Hippolyta’s.

A copy follows. See what you think.

Note. I’m acknowledging here and immediately setting aside Theseus’ impending crack about Egyptian eyebrows. At the time A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written, the standard for more and more beautiful in England was more and more blonde — and leave it to the English to elevate the albino into the nonpareil of beauty. No offense intended to 1. the English, 2. beautiful albinos, or 3. any particular albino who happens to be, in point of fact, the nonpareil of beauty.

Hippolyta

’Tis strange my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.

Theseus

More strange than true. I never may believe

These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold:

That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

Such tricks hath strong imagination

That, if it would but apprehend some joy,

It comprehends some bringer of that joy.

Or in the night, imagining some fear,

How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Hippolyta

But all the story of the night told over,

And all their minds transfigured so together,

More witnesseth than fancy’s images

And grows to something of great constancy,

But, howsoever, strange and admirable.

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