A Midsummer Night's Dream
A Midsummer Night's DreamINTRODUCTION
A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of William Shakespeare's earliest romantic comedies, and it has been considered one of his most successful and best-loved works throughout the centuries. It has spawned some of his most memorable and imitated characters, such as Puck, the fairy sprite with a penchant for mischief; and Bottom, a weaver who becomes such a ham when rehearsing with the local theater group that a magical spell is cast to give him the head of a donkey. Ever since the play was written in approximately 1595, there have been versions for the stage that have adapted Shakespeare's multiple plot lines, emphasizing one or another character or putting a minor theme out in front of the play. Shakespeare combined elements of stories that were well-known in his time, drawing from Roman poets and folk tales; it is a sign of his skill as a writer that echoes of this play can be heard in works throughout modern culture.
In writing A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare diverted from his custom of retelling a familiar story, instead weaving together diverse elements into a coherent and satisfying whole. There are two sets of lovers, two royal couples, tradesmen (or "Mechanicals") who are actors, and fairies who cannot be seen by any humans but one. A father disapproves of his daughter's romance, two men are put under magic spells to love the same woman, and a queen humbles herself by falling in love with a man who has the head of an ass. And the whole show ends with one of Shakespeare's funniest scenes, as the inept but well-meaning actors struggle to put on a serious play, in the process showing everything that Shakespeare thought was wrong with the theater. A Midsummer Night's Dream remains a thought-provoking meditation on love and perception, as well as a wonder for audiences worldwide.
Act 1, Scene 1
A Midsummer Night's Dream begins in the palace of Theseus, Duke of Athens, who is making arrangements to marry Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons. As they plan their wedding with Philostrate, who will be in charge of the ceremony, Egeus enters. He is an old man and has a petition to ask of the duke: Egeus has promised his daughter Hermia to a young man, Demetrius, but she wants to go against her father's wishes and marry Lysander, another young gentleman. In the ensuing discussion, Hermia points out that Demetrius can marry Helena, who is in love with him.
Theseus hears the case and determines that Hermia must follow her father's order and marry Demetrius. Hermia is given a choice: in four days, which happens to be the date of Theseus and Hippolyta's own wedding, she can either marry Demetrius, or she will have to go and live in a convent for the rest of her life, and remain a virgin forever. She chooses the convent but is given the following days to think about it.
When all of the others leave, Hermia and Lysander concoct a plan: they will sneak away from Athens the next night, to the house of Lysander's aunt out into the woods—beyond the duke's legal jurisdiction—and be married. They see Helena passing and tell her of their plans, to help her quit worrying about losing Demetrius. When they leave, Helena decides that she can use this information to capture Demetrius's loyalty, thinking that he will lose his interest in Hermia once he finds out how devious she is.
Act 1, Scene 2
In the cottage of Peter Quince, a group of local laborers is making plans to present a play called The Most Lamentable Comedy, and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby, which they intend to perform for the duke's marriage. As Quince assigns the roles to the workers and explains their basic functions in the play, he is frequently interrupted by Nick Bottom, the lead actor, who suggests ways to expand his part or ways that he can take over other parts in addition to his own: his enthusiasm is so great that at one point he suggests that he could play both Pyramus and Thisby, the two lovers of the play's title.
Once the parts are assigned, Quince tells the company to meet him the next night in the woods, about a mile out of town, so that they can rehearse without anyone watching them and stealing their secrets.
Act 2, Scene 1
The second act takes place in the woods outside of Athens. Puck and an unnamed fairy exchange gossip about Oberon, the king of the fairies, and his wife, Titania. Puck explains that Oberon is jealous because Titania is infatuated with her new attendant, a young man whom she stole from an Indian king. Oberon has tried to take the young orphan boy from her, but so far Titania has resisted.
Oberon and Titania, along with a throng of fairies, enter the clearing. She accuses him of having been unfaithful and having traveled to seduce women in foreign lands. She points out that Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, was his lover, and he counters that Titania was in love with Theseus. Titania points out how their ongoing arguments and mutual jealousy have brought ill weather to the world for months, and Oberon counters that things might be settled if she would just give him the young attendant to be his servant.
After she leaves, Oberon summons Puck and gives him an assignment. Oberon remembers once having seen Cupid, the god of love, shoot an arrow that fell on a flower, and he knows that that flower, the "love-in-idleness," can be used to make people fall in love. He plans to use this love spell on Titania when she is asleep; it will cause her to fall in love with the first person she sees upon waking up, thus helping her to lose interest in her young servant.
Demetrius and Helena enter the clearing, but Oberon, being a fairy, is invisible to them. Helena insists that Demetrius owes his love to her because she has revealed Hermia's scheme to marry Lysander instead of him, but Demetrius strides ahead of her, insisting that Helena makes him sick. As he keeps telling her to leave him alone, she keeps insisting that she will never stop loving him. As they walk offstage, Oberon notes that Helena will have Demetrius asking for her love in the end.
Act 2, Scene 2
In another part of the woods, Titania sits on her couch, surrounded by doting fairies. They sing her to sleep with a lullaby, and Oberon applies the flower petal to her eyes. Lysander and Hermia pass by this spot, discussing their upcoming marriage. Hermia insists that they must not sleep together until after they are married, so Lysander moves away from her before lying down.
Puck, having been instructed to apply the flower to a man in the woods dressed in typical Athenian clothes, thinks the sleeping Lysander is Demetrius. Oberon wanted Puck to apply the love spell to Demetrius while he slept, so that he would love Helena as much as she loves him; instead, Puck applies it to Lysander.
Demetrius arrives, with Helena still chasing him. When he breaks away from her, Helena stands and bemoans her inability to attract him. She finds Lysander on the ground and wakes him up, and the spell makes him fall instantly in love with her. As Lysander emphatically declares his love for her, Helena becomes suspicious, fearing that he is making fun of her.
Hermia awakens from a nightmare in which Lysander watched with a smile while a serpent ate her heart. She calls for him and finds him gone.
Act 3, Scene 1
Nearby, the artisans have found a clearing to rehearse their play. Bottom complains that the script has his character committing suicide with a sword, which, he says, the ladies in the audience will never accept: rather than omitting the suicide, his solution is to include a prologue to the play explaining that the character Pyramus, and not Bottom himself, will be killed. Quince agrees to write the prologue. They settle their concern over worrying the audience with the lion's appearance in a similar way, with a short speech to the audience explaining that it is not a real lion, but only Snug, the joiner, playing a part. To settle the problem of having to have moonlight and a brick wall on the stage, they decide to have actors play moonlight and the wall.
Puck shows up, unseen, feeling that the artisans are too close to the Fairy Queen's sleeping place. When Bottom goes offstage, Puck follows him and casts a spell on him. Bottom returns when his cue is spoken, but his head has been transformed into an ass's head. The other tradesmen run away in fear when they see him, but Bottom has no idea what is scaring them.
Titania wakes up and, seeing Bottom, immediately falls in love with him. She praises his beauty and his wisdom and refuses to allow him to leave the forest. She assigns a coterie of her fairies—Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed—to follow him and grant his every wish.
Act 3, Scene 2
Puck goes to Oberon and explains that he made Titania fall in love with the ass-headed monster, Bottom. Oberon is pleased, but then they see Demetrius and Hermia walk by. Puck recognizes Hermia as the woman from the couple he saw, but he warns that Demetrius is not the man he touched with the flower petal. Hermia, having found Lysander gone when she awoke, is afraid that Demetrius might have injured him, while he continues to proclaim his love for her until she runs away from him; then, he lays down on the ground to sleep.
Oberon, seeing that Demetrius has not fallen in love with Helena, concludes that the spell has made someone fall in love with the wrong person. He sends Puck off to bring Helena back to him. When Puck is gone, Oberon rubs the petal of the love-in-idleness on Demetrius, so that he will fall in love with Helena when she comes.
Helena approaches, followed by Lysander. He continues to proclaim his love for her, and she still thinks that he is mocking her. Demetrius awakens, sees Helena, and he proclaims his love for her too. With both men saying that they love her, Helena thinks that they are working together to make fun of her.
When Hermia returns, she goes to Lysander, having not seen him since the love spell affected him. He rejects her to focus his attention on Helena and tells Hermia that he hates her. Seeing how distressed Hermia looks, Helena concludes that she is a part of the conspiracy to mock her. The insults become so severe that Hermia moves toward Helena in a threatening gesture, and Helena, frightened, asks that they all just let her go.
Demetrius and Lysander decide to fight for Helena. They go off into the woods to find a clearing where there is enough room for their swords. Helena, afraid to be left alone with Hermia, goes off after them, and Hermia follows.
Oberon and Puck, who have been present but unseen all along, discuss how to rectify this situation. Oberon tells Puck to magically create a fog, so that he can lead the two men away from each other. When they fall asleep, he will have the opportunity to undo the spell that has been cast on Lysander, so that he will love Hermia again, though he plans to leave the spell on Demetrius. Puck notes that this has to be done quickly, before the sun comes up.
Puck carries out Oberon's plan: in the fog, he calls to Lysander in Demetrius's voice, and he calls to Demetrius in Lysander's voice, to keep them from finding each other and doing harm, until they fall asleep. Helena enters and falls asleep near Demetrius. Hermia enters and falls asleep near Lysander, and Puck puts the potion on Lysander's eyes that will free him from the love spell when he awakes.
Act 4, Scene 1
This scene opens with Titania still enthralled by donkey-headed Bottom. Because of the attention that the Fairy Queen is giving him, Bottom acts and speaks in ways that he believes are refined. He gives the fairies chores to do to please his whims. In general, Bottom is being an annoyance, but Titania continues to pronounce her love for him as they drop off to sleep.
Oberon and Puck enter, and Oberon, having been given the young attendant that he wanted from Titania, removes the love spell from her. She wakes, remembering her love for an ass as if it had been a dream. Oberon points out that the creature that she remembered was indeed real and then commands Puck to remove the ass head from Bottom. Oberon and Titania dance together and make plans to attend Theseus's wedding.
Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus, and others of the court arrive in the woods on a hunting trip. They come across Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, and Helena, who are still sleeping. As they wake, Demetrius and Lysander realize that there is no rivalry between them anymore because each has the woman that he loves. They recount the events of the following night, as far as they understand them, to Theseus and Hippolyta. All four are uncertain of the details of what happened—and in fact are uncertain about whether they are even fully awake yet.
When everybody leaves, Bottom wakes up, reciting his lines from the play. He too is uncertain about whether the events that he remembers are a dream. Because he has such an inflated ego, he plans to have Peter Quince write down the details of his dream as a ballad, which he can sing at the end of their play.
Act 4, Scene 2
Back at Quince's cottage, the tradesmen are assembled, and Snug enters with the news that the duke's wedding is over and that several other couples have been married at the same time. They are ready to begin but for their lead actor, Bottom, who has not been seen since the night before. When he does show up, it is to rush them along: the wedding feast has started, and the entertainment will be expected soon.
Act 5, Scene 1
Theseus and Hippolyta enter his palace as man and wife, followed by various lords and attendants. They talk to each other about the strange tales that the young lovers brought back from the forest before Lysander and Hermia and then Demetrius and Helena arrive, all newly married. Theseus asks Philostrate what entertainment there is for them to watch between dinner and bedtime. He gives Theseus a paper with singers and dancers and comic acts on it, but Theseus chooses the drama of Pyramus and Thisby first. Philostrate says that he saw the tradesmen rehearsing, and that, though it is a sad story, he never laughed so hard.
Quince enters to give the Prologue to the play. His words are doubletalk, a jumble of rhymes and repetition, as Theseus, Lysander, and Hippolyta point out when he leaves the stage.
The play begins, telling the story of Pyramus and Thisby, two young lovers who talk to each other through a hole in a garden wall until the time when they arrange to meet by moonlight at a tomb. When Thisby arrives at the tomb, a lion jumps out and frightens her: she runs away, dropping her cloak. When Pyramus arrives, he finds her bloody cloak, chewed by a lion, and assumes that she has been killed. In grief, he kills himself. She returns, finds him dead, and picks up his sword and kills herself.
As Philostrate predicted, the performance is awful, and yet somewhat touching in the way that the tradesmen are willing to attempt to do something that is so far beyond their competence. They have followed Bottom's suggestions, so that the wall that the young lovers speak through is played by a person, as is the moonlight, because they feel that the fact that the young lovers meet by moonlight is an important detail that must be rendered on the stage. When Snug comes on stage as the lion, he announces to the audience that he is not a real lion. Throughout the play, the members of the audience make wry comments to each other about the awkward dialog and the overacting. When the play is done, the court is given a choice between an epilogue and a dance, and Theseus chooses the dance. All of the members of the audience—Theseus and Hippolyta, Lysander and Hermia, and Demetrius and Helena—join them in dancing. As they dance, the scene lights dim, implying that they have all left and gone to bed.
Puck shows up, and then Oberon, Titania, and a host of fairies, all dancing. Oberon leads the supernatural creatures in dance and instructs his fairies to fan out throughout the duke's castle, spreading enchantment on the three couples, so that they will be fortunate and their eventual children will be born perfect and free of any physical imperfections.
Puck gives the Epilogue to A Midsummer Night's Dream, apologizing to anyone who might have been offended by the play and reminding those who did take offense that they might wake up and find that the play was just a dream.
Bottom is one of the most significant characters in the play and is widely considered to be one of Shakespeare's greatest creations. He is a weaver by trade but struggles to be the star player in the small theater company that he works with. As the play they are to perform, Pyramus and Thisby, is rehearsed, for instance, he is hyperactive in his involvement. He suggests that the solution to each of the problems that comes up would be for he himself to take on the various parts, in addition to the lead: this reaches its ridiculous extreme when he offers to play both lead parts.
- Felix Mendelssohn's 1826 score for A Midsummer Night's Dream is considered one of the noted composer's greatest triumphs, evoking the magical mood of Shakespeare's play. There are many versions available, as this music has been used for numerous productions of the play over the past two hundred years. A contemporary favorite is the 1995 recording by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa and narrated by Dame Judi Dench. It is available on compact disc from Deutsche Grammophon.
- A Midsummer Night's Dream was adapted as a film by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle in 1935. It stars James Cagney as Bottom, Mickey Rooney as Puck, Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, and Dick Powell as Lysander. It won two Academy Awards and was nominated for two more. The film, by Warner Bros., is available on videocassette.
- Archival footage of the Beatles acting out the tradesmen's presentation of the "Pyramus and Thisby" play on a 1964 program for the British Broadcasting System program called "Around the Beatles" captures the amateurish fun that Shakespeare intended. The scene lasts about seven minutes and can be downloaded from a number of Web sites, including Google Video, where it is found under the keywords "Midsummer Parody." It is also available on a 2003 DVD from Goodtimes Video called Fun with the Fab Four.
- A 1968 film of the play was done with the Royal Shakespeare Company. It included Diana Rigg as Helena, Helen Mirren as Hermia, Ian Holm as Puck, and Judi Dench as Titania. Water Bearer Films released a VHS version in 1998.
- Another Royal Shakespeare Company version of A Midsummer Night's Dream was filmed by the Arts Council of England and released into theaters in 1996. It has subsequently been released on VHS and DVD by Miramax Films. Alex Jennings played Oberon and Theseus, Lindsey Duncan played Hippolyta and Titania, and Finbar (Barry) Lynch played Puck. This version alters the original, with a role written for the young Indian changeling and modern elements such as light bulbs, bicycles, and umbrellas used in the set design.
- A star-studded cast led James Kerwin's 1999 film of the play: Kevin Klein plays Bottom, Stanley Tucci is Puck, Michelle Pfeiffer is Titania, Sophie Marceau is Hippolyta, and Christian Bale is Demetrius. This version transfers the action to Italy in the late nineteenth century. It is available on DVD and VHS from 20th Century Fox.
Bottom's self-importance earns him Puck's attention, which is why Puck decides that it would be appropriate to replace his head with the head of an ass. By the time Bottom realizes that he has been physically altered, the queen of the fairies, Titania, is madly in love with him, and she has ordered that her minions fulfill his every desire. Bottom takes advantage of the situation, so that even after he becomes aware of the change that has come to him, he does not mind how he looks.
Bottom is the one mortal character in the play who can see and hear the fairies. Because of this, and because of his enthusiasm about being involved in the play, critics have speculated that he might be Shakespeare's comment on the act of playwriting, with the writer visualizing imaginary creatures in the same way that Bottom does.
Cobweb is one of the fairies that Titania assigns to attend to Bottom after she has fallen in love with him.
At the beginning of the play, Demetrius, a young Athenian nobleman, is in love with Hermia, and he has her father's consent to marry her. However, Hermia loves Lysander instead. Demetrius once courted Helena but no longer favors her, despite her love for him. When she tries to help him by leading him to where Hermia and Lysander have run off together, she expects Demetrius to be grateful: instead, he tries to run from her, lose her in the woods, and leave her for the wild beasts to attack her. As much as he threatens to run away, she promises to follow.
Oberon, the king of the fairies, seeing how stubborn Demetrius is about Helena, arranges to have a love spell cast on him. From that point on, the love between Demetrius and Helena is presented as true love, right up to the point where they marry at the play's end.
Egeus is an old man of Athens. At the beginning of the play, he shows up at the court of Theseus to ask the duke to force his daughter Hermia to obey him and marry Demetrius. His point is that, as her father, he is entitled to select her husband. He suggests that her punishment, if she should refuse, should be death.
Near the end of the play, Egeus is with the hunting party, led by Theseus and Hippolyta, that finds the two young couples sleeping in the forest. He is outraged that Hermia attempted to run away with Lysander, despite the duke's earlier edict, but the duke makes Egeus realize that, since Demetrius is no longer interested in marrying her, there would be no harm done with a marriage between Hermia and Lysander.
Flute is a bellows-mender. He is one of the laborers who is planning a play in honor of Theseus's wedding. The role that he is assigned is Thisby, the female lead. He has delicate features and has just started to grow a beard, which he vainly thinks could inhibit his credibility in playing a woman's part.
Helena is a friend of Hermia, the daughter of "old Nedar," who is mentioned in the play but does not appear. She is described by the character notes as "tall and fair." She is often bitter throughout the play. At first, her bitterness is caused by the fact that Demetrius, who once courted her, is in love with Hermia and is engaged to marry her. He treats Helena with disregard and is cruel in his attempts to avoid her. To curry his favor, she tells Demetrius about Hermia's plan to run away with Lysander; instead of making him turn to her, however, this revelation makes Demetrius run away from her in pursuit of the fleeing couple.
When, under the power of a love spell, Lysander declares his love for her, Helena feels that she is the object of a practical joke. Her suspicion is intensified when the same love spell makes Demetrius fall in love with her too. When Hermia is angered about losing Lysander, Helena thinks that her anger is a part of the larger conspiracy to mock her. Her argument with Hermia becomes so bitter that she shies away, afraid that Hermia will hit her; in doing so, she makes remarks about Hermia's diminutive height that further enrage the latter woman.
After all four of the lovers have fallen asleep, Oberon undoes the love spell on Lysander but leaves the spell on Demetrius, so that he continues to love Helena, and they are married.
Hermia is a noblewoman of Athens. She is described as "short and dark." It is later revealed by Helena, who has been her friend since childhood, that Hermia had a violent temper when they were in school.
Her father has promised Hermia to Demetrius in marriage, but she is in love with Lysander. When her father, Egeus, asks the court to sentence her to death if she will not marry Demetrius, she is given the option of going into a convent and never marrying: resigned to her fate, she accepts, and is ready to enter the convent until Lysander offers to run away with her.
In the forest, a magic spell makes first Lysander and then Demetrius fall in love with Helena. Finding that both men who once doted on her have now abandoned her, Hermia becomes furious and accuses Helena of trickery, while Helena, surprised by the change in them, assumes that Hermia and the others are making fun of her. Afraid that Hermia will hit her, Helena notes that, although she is little, Hermia has always had a terrible temper. Hermia is even more enraged by the remark about her height. At the end of the play, when the love spell has been lifted from Lysander, he restates his love for Hermia, and the two marry.
Hippolyta is the queen of the Amazons, and she is engaged to marry Theseus, the Duke of Athens. In her first scene, she does not speak. Later, when she is in the forest with Theseus and a hunting party, she recalls a time that she was hunting with Hercules, the hero of Greek legend, in the woods of Crete. She remembers the baying of hunting hounds mixed with the roaring of the bear they had captured as one of the sweetest sounds she ever heard.
Lysander is a young nobleman of Athens. He is in love with Hermia, who is also in love with him. The problem is that her father is insisting that she marry Demetrius. After the duke requires Hermia to either marry Demetrius or go away into a convent, Lysander proposes that she run away with him to the forest, where, at the home of a maiden aunt, they can be married outside of the jurisdiction of Athenian law.
In the forest, Lysander tries to persuade Hermia to sleep with him, but she refuses to do so until they are married. While they are asleep some distance from one another, a spell is put on him, so that he wakes up in love with Hermia's friend Helena. When the two women argue, Lysander takes Helena's side in insulting his lover's diminutive height, telling Hermia, "Get you gone, you dwarf; / You minumus, of hind'ring knot-grass made; / You bead, you acorn." Later, after the spell is lifted from him, he and Hermia are married.
Moth is one of the fairies that Titania assigns to attend to Bottom after she has fallen in love with him.
Mustardseed is one of the fairies that Titania assigns to attend to Bottom after she has fallen in love with him.
Oberon is the king of the fairies and a driving force for the plot of this play. He is angry with his wife, Titania, because she is unwilling to turn over her young Indian servant boy to him, so he devises a scheme to punish her: he has Puck fetch a flower, the love-in-idleness, that has the power to make her fall in love with the first person, animal, or thing that she sees upon awakening. While executing this plan, he sees Helena following Demetrius, who refuses to return her love. Taking pity on her, he arranges to have the same love potion applied to Demetrius.
His plan against Titania goes even better than he had hoped, as she is humiliated by falling in love with a mortal, Bottom, who has magically been given the head of an ass: distracted, she gives Oberon the changeling boy with no quarrel. When he finds out that the plan to help Helena has gone awry because the wrong suitor was enchanted, he quickly thinks through further plots to set things aright. First, he has the correct suitor, Demetrius, fall in love with Helena, then he arranges to have the two men who are fighting for her love to be lured apart from each other, using a complex plot involving conjured fog and false voices, so that he can undo the spell on Lysander. His plan works perfectly, and everyone is happy in the end. After the three mortal couples marry, Oberon dispatches his fairies through their castle to put spells of good fortune on all of them.
Peaseblossom is one of the fairies that Titania assigns to attend to Bottom after she has fallen in love with him.
Philostrate is the master of revels. It is his job to arrange the marriage festivities when Theseus and Hippolyta are married. In act 5, when Theseus is trying to decide on some after-dinner entertainment, Philostrate tells him how hilarious the Pyramus and Thisby play is, even though the actors are trying to be serious, and his explanation convinces Theseus to call for the players.
Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow, is a fairy who enjoys trickery. He travels by night, changing his appearance: sometimes he might appear as a crab showing up unexpectedly in someone's drink, for instance, or a stool that jumps out of the way when someone is sitting down. Whatever he does, he does with mischief.
When Oberon tells Puck to put the love spell on Titania, he does so. On his way toward accomplishing his mission, however, he runs into Bottom and, finding him to be foolish, magically turns his head into an ass's head. He does seem to take his mission to enchant the man that Helena loves seriously, but he botches the job by applying the love potion to the wrong man, making Lysander, and not Demetrius, fall in love with her.
Later, Oberon's scheme to correct the situation between the lovers plays right to Puck's strengths. He conjures up a fog that makes everyone wander around without knowing where they are going, and then he tricks both Lysander and Demetrius, imitating first one voice and then the other, so that they will be lured in opposite directions and not harm each other by fighting over Helena. Puck is a troublemaker with no conscience, but Oberon knows how to use his particular skills for the cause of good.
Puck has the play's last speech, addressing the audience, telling them that if they found offense at anything they have seen then they can look at the whole experience as being nothing more than a dream.
Quince is the leader of the tradesmen who are planning to perform the play Pyramus and Thisby for Theseus's wedding. He has written the play and will be directing it, as well as playing the part of Thisby's father.
Snout is a tinker, a mender of household utensils such as pots and pans. He is one of the band of tradesmen planning the play for the duke's wedding. He is assigned the part of Pyramus's father.
A joiner by trade, Snug is one of the tradesmen planning the Pyramus and Thisby play. When he is assigned the part of a lion, he asks for a copy of the script early, admitting that he is a slow learner. He learns that the lion's part entails nothing but roaring.
Starveling, a tailor, is one of the tradesmen who is planning to take part in the play being planned for the duke's wedding. He is assigned to play Thisby's mother.
Theseus is the Duke of Athens, a powerful military and political figure. He is engaged to marry Hippolyta within four days. He won Hippolyta in battle but promises to make her love him.
When Egeus, a nobleman of Athens, comes to Theseus to ask that his daughter be sentenced to death if she does not obey his command and marry Demetrius, Theseus listens to the case being made by both sides before passing judgment. He lightens Hermia's sentence for disobedience by offering her the option of a lifetime in a convent. At the end of the play, when he finds that Demetrius is no longer interested in Hermia, he pronounces that everything is fine the way it is, and invites the two young couples to be married along with him.
After the wedding, Theseus decides to watch the tradesmen's play, having been told by Philostrate that they are funny without meaning to be. During the play, he jokes with the young noblemen and their wives about the performance.
Titania, the queen of the fairies, is married to Oberon. She is strong-headed, resisting his demand for a young servant whom she likes. She knows that he is unfaithful to her and brings that fact up against him in argument.
To soften her up, Oberon uses a potion to make Titania fall in love with the first person or animal she sees after waking up. She falls for Bottom, an overbearing, conceited weaver who is part of the company of tradesmen rehearsing a play in the forest. Earlier, Puck had used a magic spell to give Bottom the head of an ass. The tough, steely queen is gentle with the man she loves, giving him servants to attend to his every wish and expressing her concern for his slightest comfort, until the spell is removed.
After the events of the evening, harmony is restored to Titania and Oberon's relationship. She has given him the servant he wanted, and her gentle and loving ways toward Bottom appear to be transferred to her husband.
This play uses several different kinds of relationships to examine the nature of love and to raise questions of when love can be considered to be true.
The most stable relationship in the play is between the couple whose wedding anchors the plot: Theseus and Hippolyta. They are identified as having at one time been foes who are, when the play begins, headed toward marriage. Nothing in the course of the play offers any reason for distraction from their plan, and at the end they are indeed married and happy with each other.
The relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta is mirrored by that of another royal couple, Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies. At the beginning of the play, they have been married for some indeterminate amount of time, and their marriage seems to have run its course. They are locked in a bitter opposition, apparently over the possession of the young changeling boy, though that appears to be only the latest in a long string of battles throughout their marriage. Each is willing to do whatever is necessary to annoy and subvert the other: Titania refuses to sleep with Oberon, pointing out his past affairs, while he accuses her of being infatuated with Theseus (which she denies) and then puts a spell on her to make her fall in love with a monstrous fool. At the end of the play, her infatuation with Bottom has been lifted. Just as importantly, she is once more in love with Oberon, and he with her: the spell of the love-in-idleness flower has stirred in Titania the capacity for love in a way that keeps it going on its own even after the magic is removed. Seeing Titania able to love makes Oberon love her all over again.
Shakespeare uses the two young couples to show love as a much more volatile thing. Audiences are asked to accept the idea that the flower's magic could change Demetrius's affections so severely that he would abandon his interest in Hermia and fall completely in love with Helena. This is a reasonable proposition, given that Demetrius's infatuation with Hermia is unrequited and that he and Helena have a romantic history together. The play also proposes that Lysander would shift his affection from Hermia to Helena as well; this is a bit less likely, given the strong declarations of love that Lysander and Hermia make to each other, a commitment that sends them on the run from the law in order to stay together. The strangest result of the flower's magic is that Demetrius and Helena, drawn together by enchantment, stay together after the spell is removed from Demetrius. As part of the triple wedding at the end of the play, they are apparently as happy as other couples that came together through more organic means and stayed together despite adversity. In this, the play makes a statement about the capricious nature of true love: couples that once had little in common with each other can be bound together for life once they are smitten by love, while couples that have nothing to do with each other, like Bottom and Titania, can also find themselves brought together by love.
As with most of Shakespeare's plays, particularly the comedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream relies on a clever, credible interplay between the intentions of the characters and blind chance. When Hermia and Lysander's plan to escape to the forest is complicated by the appearance of Demetrius, for example, it is the natural outcome of Helena's own plan to show Demetrius how little Hermia cares for him; the plot is therefore moved forward by her intent. When Lysander subsequently falls in love with Helena, however, it is the result of sheer coincidence: Oberon did not know that there were two Athenian couples in the forest and therefore did not give Puck a detailed description of the man he wanted to receive the love spell, and Puck happened to spot Lysander first. Similarly, when Puck casts the love spell over Titania, he is enacting Oberon's plot, but the fact that she would happen to fall in love with the vain, boorish Bottom, whose features Puck has recently altered, is simply a matter of chance.
Since A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy, the chance occurrences that complicate the plot lead to better results than anyone could have orchestrated. As Oberon notes after learning that his wife is in love with a man with the head of an ass, "This falls out better than I could devise." In the end, the chance events serve to make their victims more appreciative of ordinary, stable reality. Demetrius is far less likely to take Helena for granted after having nearly fought for her affection, and Titania is clearly better off with a king than with an ass.
This play is centered around authority figures and their struggles to impose their authority on those under them in the social order, which is a common theme in comedy. The first instance of undermined authority occurs in the first scene, when Egeus comes to the court of Theseus to complain that his daughter refuses to obey him: this slight to his ego is so great that he would rather see Hermia put to death than allow her to claim her independence. "As she is mine, I may dispose of her," he explains. Theseus, the highest authority figure in the mortal world in this play, is more familiar with the idea of distributing justice to those beneath him, and so his suggested punishment is less extreme. He offers Hermia a choice: if she does not want to marry Demetrius and does not want to be executed, she can go to the convent and remain a virgin for the rest of her life.
Egeus's offense at having his authority challenged is mirrored by Oberon. Whatever differences Oberon and Titania have had throughout their long marriage, the event that makes him move against her in this play is her refusal to obey him and give up her changeling boy. Shakespeare never even shows the boy onstage, indicating that he is not very important to the story. The true point of the grievance is that Oberon believes Titania should be obedient to him.
In the end, the disputes between those in authority and those they should control are settled with good humor. Theseus is willing to forget about Hermia's disobedience as soon as he sees that Demetrius is no longer interested in her anyway. Egeus, who from the start was more interested in obedience than in the reason for disobeying, is more hesitant about forgiving her, but he gives in. Oberon receives his changeling boy and is happy that Titania has come around to his thinking. The Duke of Athens has lower nobles married alongside of him, and commoners provide the wedding entertainment. Finally, Oberon dances both with his wife and with his subjects.
Hubris is the sense that one is more important and powerful than one is. It is a key element in many dramas, whether they are tragedies or comedies: a character who oversteps his or her own abilities is likely to set uncontrollable events into motion.
In this play, Bottom is more than just a braggart. He actually believes that he, a weaver, can act each part of the play out—several at once if necessary—and that audiences will be delighted. He feels that the death of his character onstage would drive the women in the audience into despair, because they would think that he died, not just his character. Even the royal figures in the play do not think as much of their own importance as Bottom thinks of his. His reward for such insolence is supposed to be the humiliation of having his head turned into the head of an ass, but Shakespeare reverses that embarrassment. Instead of being penalized for his pride, as foolish, hubristic characters often are, Bottom is seduced by a beautiful woman and given a court of beings with supernatural powers to do his bidding.
In this play, Bottom and the other tradesmen prepare and perform a play for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. This sort of short play, called an "interlude," was traditionally performed between the acts of a longer play and was sometimes performed, along with other forms of entertainment, at a royal wedding, as Pyramus and Thisby is in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Oberon uses a flower that he calls the "love-in-idleness" to cast a love spell on Titania: the flower is currently known as the pansy. Research other folk methods used to create a love spell and write a cookbook for people who wish to bewitch others.
- As a class, rewrite the story of Pyramus and Thisby so that you can present it to another class without looking as foolish as the players in this play are made to seem. Use details from Ovid's Metamorphosis, which Shakespeare may have used as a source for his version of the story, if you need to.
- Demetrius courted and abandoned Helena, and she pursued him. When he falls in love with her, she thinks he is joking and tries to escape him. Write a letter from either Demetrius or Helena to an advice column, explaining one of these romantic predicaments, and then write a response explaining whether it is an exercise in futility or a sign of true understanding to stick to a lover once one has been rejected.
- The 1999 movie Shakespeare in Love provides a fictionalized version of the playwright's life around the time that he wrote this play. Watch it and make a list of elements from this movie that might have been inspired by reading A Midsummer Night's Dream; explain the reasons for your choices.
- In their version of Pyramus and Thisby, the tradesmen assign actors to play the parts that are usually just represented by inanimate objects. Choose a play that has a prominent prop and give that prop dialogue. Perform a staged reading for the class.
- Listen to a recording of composer Felix Mendelssohn's orchestra music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. Keep a running tally, judging each track in terms of whether or not the music made you think differently about the scene it depicts.
This has led critics over the centuries to speculate that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream for private performance at the wedding of some noble. This conclusion is supported by the way that the play shows its bridegroom, Theseus, as a wise and beloved ruler; the placement of characters from antiquity, Theseus and Hippolyta, as the play's center; and the way that it invokes the world of fairies, which were associated with weddings by the Elizabethans—the people, like Shakespeare, who lived during the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Other critics have countered this theory, though, by pointing out several details that one would never associate with the wedding ceremony. For one thing, Shakespeare's play, at three hours long, is no interlude: it would require more concentration than revelers at a ceremony generally care to exert. For another, the bridal characters—Hippolyta, Hermia, and Helena—are not the sorts of flattering portraits that one would want to present to a bride on the day of her wedding. In general, critics have pointed out that the tone of the play relies on parody and ridicule, which are bound to offend someone at an occasion that can be both joyous and solemn.
Most contemporary scholars do agree that the play was commissioned for some royal occasion, but their inability to specify the occasion has left open the possibility to explore alternate explanations for Shakespeare's particular blend of romance, magic, and farce.
Levels of Reality
One of the elements that has kept audiences captivated by A Midsummer Night's Dream over the centuries is its deft way of mixing together different levels of reality. Not only is the real world combined with the supernatural, but the pending wedding ceremony provides the opportunity to mix different social strata together in a way that would never occur in real life.
The fairies in this play live in the real world but are invisible to the eyes of mortals, with the exception of Nick Bottom. This is useful as a stage technique, allowing characters to stand onstage and talk to each other without the awareness of others, and it helps as a narrative technique, because believing it helps audiences believe in the wide-spanning reality of the play. Usually, the fairies are played by actors costumed with wings, an innovation that helped establish the common image of fairies that rules the popular imagination today.
The real, social world of Athens is divided into three levels: the court, the nobles, and the tradesmen. Each level can be considered a different form of reality because the characters who inhabit it view the world in different ways.
The worldview of Theseus and Hippolyta, for example, is marked by benevolence. Hippolyta does not want to take part in mocking the tradesmen; Theseus feels that honor could be done to their poor effort by paying them attention. The two couples of nobles in this play view the world as young lovers do: as changing from one day to the next. The tradesmen are boisterous and yet serious about trying to do something for which they are seriously underqualified. Any one of these social views would set a distinct tone for a play, but Shakespeare has them interact, bringing the nobles into Theseus's court, then the tradesmen into the lovers' unsupervised wood, then the tradesmen into the court. Tying the varieties of styles together is the romance of Titania and Bottom, the most elegant and the most base of characters: if Shakespeare can make their coupling believable, then the rest of the varied tones in the play can easily exist together.
Historians often point out that audiences of Shakespeare's time were socially mixed: while theaters had padded seats, where well-heeled patrons could relax comfortably during the performance, they also allowed in a standing-room crowd referred to as the "groundlings." The groundlings would have paid a penny, which was a considerable amount in the sixteenth century, almost a day's wages, for the opportunity to stand at the front of the room. There were other areas, galleries that were less crowded, where one could sit or stand, but they cost a penny more. The audiences in these areas of the crowd would have been laborers, much like those who make up the acting company in A Midsummer Night's Dream: weavers, tailors, tinkers, carpenters, and so forth. In the comfortable seats situated on the main floor would have been the rich patrons who could afford to pay a half a crown.
The diversity of the Elizabethan crowd thus was reflected on the stage during A Midsummer Night's Dream, which presents workers and nobles living their separate lives but then brought together for a night of theater. This diversity is also reflected in the play's varied tones, which range from the coarse joke of having a queen fall for a man with an ass's head to the compassion of the wise ruler to the gentleness of young lovers trying to hold onto each other while circumstances pull them apart.
Theseus and Hippolyta
Shakespeare based the royal couple at the center of this drama on a couple that had already existed for centuries by the time Shakespeare used it, in the legends handed down from the ancient Greeks. The Theseus of Greek legend was the son of one of the first kings of Athens, Aegeus. He was also supposed to have had the blood of Poseidon, the god of the seas, in his parentage, making him half god and half mortal. Aegeus fathered him with Aethra, his mother, at the town of Troezen, south of Athens, and then returned to Athens before the child was born. When he reached adulthood, Theseus went to find his father, proving himself to be a brave hero in the process. Among his adventures were the slaying of the Minotaur in the maze where the youth of Athens had been trapped, and being trapped himself in the underworld by Hades until he was rescued by Hercules, who was there on the last of the twelve labors he had to do as penance for having killed his wife and children.
Hippolyta was the queen of the Amazons, a mythical nation of female warriors located in what is now Turkey. In some versions of Greek mythology, Hercules was assigned, as one of his twelve labors, to steal the girdle from Hippolyta, but she fell in love with him and gave it to him instead. A battle between the Amazons and the Athenians ensued when rumor spread that Hercules was trying to kidnap Hippolyta. The Amazons were defeated. Hercules raped Hippolyta, but then he gave her to his friend Theseus to marry. Some versions have this marriage ending with Hippolyta dying during childbirth, while others simply say that Theseus left her; most of the stories go on from there to talk about Theseus and his life with his second wife, Phaedra.
Most scholars conclude that the Theseus and Hippolyta of Shakespeare's play have more to do with the characters of the same name in "The Knight's Tale," the first of the stories in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, written around the 1384–85. Chaucer's story has Theseus, Duke of ancient Athens, marrying Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, after defeating her in battle. He then attacks the neighboring kingdom of Thebes because the ruler there, Creon, has refused to allow those who died in the battle to be properly buried. Most of the story centers on two cousins who have been imprisoned by Theseus who fall in love with Hippolyta's sister, Emily. When they are free, the two friends fight each other in the woods until Theseus comes upon them and decrees that they should fight formally in a tournament for the woman's hand. Although the royal decree is similar in style to the way that Theseus pronounces judgment on Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the outcome in The Canterbury Tales is more bittersweet: the victor of the fight is crushed by his own horse and with his dying breath wishes his cousin to have the woman for whom they have both been fighting. In Chaucer's version, one of the young knights, Arcita, is freed from prison first, but he returns to the palace as a courtesan, using the name "Philostrate," which Shakespeare used for the master of the revels to Theseus.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1595: Shakespeare is the first playwright to present fairies onstage as small people with wings.
Today: In part influenced by illustrations of A Midsummer Night's Dream that have appeared in different published versions throughout the years, there is a standard fantasy concept of what fairies look like; even as iconic an image as Disney's Tinkerbell (from Peter Pan) owes its origin to this play.
- 1595: Shakespeare can count on his audience to be familiar with a story from the Roman poet Ovid, and so can utilize background references to the story of Pyramus and Thisby to shade his viewers' interpretation of the play's main story.
Today: Few contemporary viewers are familiar with Ovid, but many do recognize allusions to Shakespearean characters, such as Puck or Bottom, when they occur in modern books and movies.
- 1595: A company of local tradesmen can band together to put on an amateur production to celebrate the wedding of the duke they serve.
Today: A formal event would certainly hire professional entertainers; still, there are many amateur and community companies around to give nonprofessional actors and directors a place to be involved in the theater.
- 1595: Bottom is a humorous character because he brags about his abilities, even though audiences can see that he is not a very talented actor.
Today: The same standards of humor and humility hold today: a character in a comedy who is boastful is likely to prove to be incompetent.
- 1595: All roles on the Elizabethan stage are played by men, an obstacle that actors have to overcome with stylized performances when portraying starry-eyed lovers.
Today: The uses of women for women's roles allows a performance of this play to be acted out more naturally, with more nuances implied and understated.
- 1595: Theater is attended by people of all social strata, so plays are written to appeal to the widest possible demographic segment.
Today: Theater is mostly attended by members of the upper class. Movies, which are a more accessible form of entertainment, are increasingly made for international audiences and therefore rely on sight gags and spectacle over dialog and characterization.
Shakespeare's fondness for using classical sources is even more apparent in his reworking of the material of the ancient story of Pyramus and Thisby, the young lovers who are the subject of the short play presented at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The source that he is most likely to have used for this tale is Ovid's Metamorphosis, which would have been a standard text of Elizabethan England and therefore well familiar to Shakespeare's audiences. Ovid was a Roman poet who lived from 43 b.c.e. to approximately 17 c.e. His works generally centered on the subject of love. The Metamorphosis, however, was his masterwork: an attempt to cover all of history, from creation to the reign of Julius Caesar, in one long narrative spanning fifteen books.
Also from Ovid came the name of the fairy queen, Titania. In traditional fairy tales, the queen of the fairies had no name. Shakespeare gave her the name that the Metamorphosis gave to Diana, the goddess of the hunt and childbirth. The connection between Shakespeare's and Ovid's uses of the name is that both characters are creatures of nature, residing in the forest.
From the very start, A Midsummer Night's Dream has been difficult for literary critics to evaluate. A great part of this difficulty stems from the fact that Shakespeare has brought together such distinct styles, which various productions over the centuries have freely edited or simplified. For example, the first known review of the play was actually of a production done on New Year's day, 1604, featuring Puck and called A Play of Robin Goodfellow. Other variations focused on the land of the fairies, or else put Bottom, a crowd pleaser, at the front. With so many versions around, even in the early years when the play was newly written, it is difficult for literary critics to know exactly what a writer saw on stage. Variations were not only edited from Shakespeare's original work but added songs and characters to round out the main story that each production chose as the feature.
This play is mentioned by Samuel Pepys, a civil servant whose diary is so thorough and descriptive of its times that it is studied in schools to this day. Pepys attended a performance on September 29, 1662, noting in his diary that this was a play that he had never seen before: "nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life." Pepys scholars note that he found the clowning, love, and fairy stories to be too simple for his sophisticated tastes.
Other writers, of course, understood and appreciated what Shakespeare had accomplished with this play. In 1817, William Hazlitt noted his regret that Shakespeare was often considered by foreigners to be a dour, serious writer, when in fact his fanciful side was plainly evident. "In the Midsummer Night's Dream alone, we should imagine, there is more sweetness and beauty of description than in the whole range of French poetry put together." By using this particular play as an example, Hazlitt demonstrated an appreciation of Shakespeare's comedies that had grown throughout the eighteenth century and reached fullest blossom in the late 1800s, in the Victorian Era.
The music that Felix Mendelssohn wrote for the play in 1843 has frequently been used since as a soundtrack, giving a light, airy mood that befits the story of love and magical forest dwellers. Throughout its history, A Midsummer Night's Dream has been as interesting to audiences for the elaborate production values as for Shakespeare's dialogue and structure, with each production raising the bar on how to cut from royal pageantry to woods to invisible fairies.
By the latter half of the twentieth century, critics, applying more psychological interpretations, found that the play hinted at darker things. One of the most influential readings of A Midsummer Night's Dream was the one done in 1964 by Polish critic Jan Kott, who is often referred to as having given the play more depth than was previously thought. James L. Calderwood explained Kott's emphasis on the romance between Bottom and Titania, in which Kott found "brutality and eroticism beneath the veneer of romantic love. Thus Titania's drug-induced infatuation with Bottom becomes for Kott a rapacious but liberating desire for animal love, mirrored less obviously by the other lovers."
Since Kott's criticism, productions of the play have focused more heavily on its sensuality and its theme of liberation from repression. Of these, one particular modern production—the one staged by Peter Brook in London in 1970—stands out as a presentation that changed the way that critics and audiences alike viewed the play. While previous productions were lavish, they also tended to be reverent and sterile, appealing to audiences' intellects as much as to their emotions. Brook's production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, by contrast, used no background but a white wall, but it added such unexpected and unconventional interpretations as acrobatics and trapeze artists to reinvigorate audiences' expectations. Since that groundbreaking production, which is still discussed to this day for its audacity, theater companies have felt free to offer a wide variety of interpretations, using any number of modern devices that have become available to explore the play's contemporary relevance.
Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature at two colleges. In this essay, he explains how the defining moment of A Midsummer Night's Dream is one that occurred before the first act, when Demetrius wooed Helena and then abandoned her.
Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream begins with Theseus, Duke of Athens, making plans with his fiancée, Hippolyta, for their upcoming wedding. It ends when that wedding is over, having gone off without a hitch, when the happy couple and two other contented couples have gone off to bed and a legion of fairies dances across their deserted wedding hall. Critics often point to the Theseus-Hippolyta relationship as the play's moral anchor, the thematic base that keeps audiences mindful of the bliss and stability that love can represent. It is seen as a reference point for comparing the other stories in the play too, even the stories that spin between anger, heartache, farce, and sex.
The fact that Theseus and Hippolyta spend so little time onstage is taken to be proof that they serve a higher function than the rest of the characters. They are kept pure in a way that the others are not: audiences spend less time wondering about their motivations than they do wondering about all of the play's other lovers. Being more abstract than the other major characters, they are better suited to serve a symbolic function. On his own, Theseus serves an integral function in the play's plot, acting as the wise ruler who sentences Hermia for disobeying her father. Together, Theseus and Hippolyta are often taken to stand for the grandeur of the royal wedding that ends the play.
Still, there are other elements that drive the plot and that give the play its overall identity. A Midsummer Night's Dream is about love, in the end, but throughout its presentation, it concerns itself with the opposite idea, exploring ways in which the concept of true and lasting love is just an illusion. In this sense, it isn't the steady relationship of Theseus and Hippolyta that signifies all that the play is about. Rather, its essence is captured in an event that occurred before the first act: Demetrius's rejection of Helena.
This is a shadowy event, merely alluded to in just five lines in the play's opening scene, as Lysander gives his defense for courting Hermia:
Demetrius, I'll avouch it to his head, 1
Made love to Nedar's daughter, Helena, 2
And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes 3
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry, 4
Upon this spotted and inconstant man. 5
This important point is mentioned almost in passing, and as soon as it has been mentioned, Shakespeare moves to push it back into the past where it came from. He diminishes its significance by having Theseus point out that he had heard of this and had meant to speak with Demetrius about it, but it had slipped his mind. There is not much more a playwright could do to trivialize an event than to say that it was not compelling enough to hold a character's attention until he could bring it up.
Audiences are therefore left to infer what the relationship between Demetrius and Helena was once like, and how it ended. Presumably, it ended when Demetrius took a liking to Helena's friend Hermia, but that much is never made explicit in the story. What is known, however, is quite enough to drive the play along, both structurally and thematically: without this past event that is only obliquely referred to, there would be no story.
It certainly is crucial to the plot. If Demetrius had not wooed Helena, she would not be as powerfully attracted to him as she is. She would not tell him of Hermia and Lysander's plan to steal off to the woods together, and she would not be dogging his heels when he goes off to find them. There are other elements in the play that exist independently of Helena and Demetrius and that could make up a play independent of those two young lovers, as playwrights over the centuries have proven when they have trimmed A Midsummer Night's Dream down by focusing on one of the other plot lines. Without them, Oberon would still want to take revenge on his wife Titania by having a love spell cast on her; the Mechanicals could still decide to go into the forest to rehearse their play in privacy; and Theseus and Hippolyta could still stumble upon the others when they come to the woods to hunt. Shakespeare could even have written a different process for Demetrius to find out that his fiancée is running away with another man, driving him off to the forest to find them. But the story of the young lovers would then end up as a love triangle, not a love rectangle. Their emotions and the results would have been more desperate and certainly less funny; it would be more appropriate to tragedy than to comedy. Someone would end up alone in the end.
The previous relationship between Demetrius and Helena is a mystery, but it is also all too obvious, the sort of thing that happens among young lovers a thousand times a day, in every corner of the globe. By withholding the details, Shakespeare turns what could have been, and probably was, a trivial event into something greater than itself.
Because the details are unknown, audiences have to make assumptions about what happened to their former relationship. Whether the answer is that Demetrius was never serious about Helena to begin with, or that he loved her at first but decided that he loved Hermia even more, or that he just drifted away from her on his own, the root cause of their breakup is always the same: love is fickle, always in motion, and ready to form or dissolve without much notice. This, in fact, is what makes Demetrius and Helena the ideal symbol for A Midsummer Night's Dream, which Peter G. Phialas characterizes as a play about "inconstancy in love."
In the course of the story, Shakespeare parodies love's inconsistencies with the plot device of the love-in-idleness flower, which is supposed to make those under its spell fall in love immediately and indiscriminately upon waking up. It is a silly, impractical conceit, something that would only have meaning or value for a person in a romantic comedy. How many uses can there be, after all, for a spell that would make someone fall in love with just anyone? Its effectiveness hinges upon being there while someone sleeps, and especially when that person wakes. Puck and Oberon actually do an outstanding job of directing the flower's random power in the play. They intend Lysander to fall in love with Helena, and it happens; they then direct the flower at Demetrius, and he falls in love with Helena, as planned. Titania's sudden affection for Bottom actually works out even better than planned: any of the common mortals would have served Oberon's purpose of humiliating her, and the fact that she falls for the most annoying boor of the bunch adds to her humiliation. Audiences, while aware of how well the application of the love spell worked out, are also aware that there was slim chance that things would work out as they did. Love can strike anyone, anywhere, a point that is illustrated by Demetrius's change of heart toward Helena, which is given as an original premise of this tale.
Helena's response to hearing Lysander, her rival's lover, declare his love for her, is outrage: she thinks that he is making this claim to mock her. When Demetrius claims that he loves her too, one might expect that she would be happy at last, given that she has been pursuing him for just this reason since that moment before the play began when he abandoned her. Her experience with Lysander has prepared her for defensiveness more than love, however. Her desperate need for Demetrius's affection is overshadowed by her fear of being made a fool, showing that even as strong a love as the one that propels her throughout the play can easily lose its momentum when greater concerns about self-image become involved. Her defensiveness comes from the same place in her as the anger that has Oberon and Titania at odds: nominally, they are fighting over the changeling boy, but the real problem is Oberon's insecurity because his wife will not obey his command.
And, just as Oberon and Titania's anger with each other has dissipated by the end of the
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Soon before or after completing A Midsummer Night's Dream—some sources say the same year—Shakespeare finished one of his greatest and most popular works, Romeo and Juliet. Rather than using Pyramus and Thisby within this work, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare used it this time as a source and inspiration for tragedy: the lovers are kept apart, meeting a fate similar to the one that befalls them in Ovid's version. Romeo and Juliet is considered one of the greatest tragedies in the English language.
- Ovid was considered one of Shakespeare's favorite authors. His Metamorphosis was translated into English in 1567 by Arthur Golding. The story of Pyramus and Thisby can be read in part 4 of that book, currently available in a Penguin Classics edition.
- Readers who have trouble understanding Shakespeare's language might want to read A. L. Rowse's 1984 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, written for University Press of America's "Contemporary Shakespeare" series. Rowse, a leading Shakespeare scholar, has rewritten the play: the scenes and characters are still the same, and the play is still in verse, but the archaic language has been updated and obscure references clarified, making it easier to read for the modern student.
- Sir Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queen was published in segments between 1590 and 1609: too late to be considered an influence on the writing of this play, it still reflects the Elizabethan preoccupation with the world of fairies and the chivalric ideals of knighthood. It is an extended political allegory about the bitter struggle between Catholics and Protestants. Currently, it is available from Penguin Classics.
- In his best-selling book The Shakespeare Wars, published by Random House in 2006, Ron Rosenbaum brings together all of the various controversies that are being argued about Shakespeare, his sources, and his times to this day.
- W. H. Auden was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. He was also an acclaimed literary scholar. His analysis of A Midsummer Night's Dream can be found in Lectures on Shakespeare, a collection of his lectures published in 2000.
- Shakespeare was undoubtedly influenced in writing the story of Bottom by reading The Golden Ass, a classic novel written in the second century c.e. by Roman writer Lucius Apuleius. The story concerns a young student of magic who has a spell cast upon him, transforming him into a donkey. A Penguin Classics edition, translated by E. J. J. Kennedy, is currently in print.
- The great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw reviewed an 1895 performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, finding fault with many of the staging decisions and explaining them with wit and clarity. His review can be found in Shaw On Shakespeare, a compilation published by E.P. Dutton & Co. in 1961.
- Peter Brook's 1970 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company was considered innovative at the time by its supporters, while its detractors characterized it an example of all that is wrong with modern theater. Decades later, its influence is still felt. David Selbourne's The Making of A Midsummer Night's Dream, published in Methuen in 1982, is a detailed account of how Brook worked out his concept, from the first rehearsal to the opening curtain.
play, so too has Helena's anger. As with the flower's spell, Shakespeare shows that moods alter after sleep, because emotions are only as real as dreams and have just as much lasting effect. Characters throughout the play constantly awaken to find a whole new world. In spite of this, though, the play ends up being a paean to consistency: Helena's pursuit of Demetrius turns out to be rewarded. Her love was not a foolish infatuation after all; her determination is a sign of her wisdom. The play's happy ending implies that Demetrius and Helena actually were meant to be together after all, despite the mistake he made before the first characters appeared onstage.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on A Midsummer Night's Dream, in Shakespeare For Students, Second Edition, Thomson Gale, 2007.
James L. Calderwood
In this brief excerpt, Calderwood examines the meaning of the forest in the play, specifically as it serves as a site of animalism, bestiality, and death. Only by confronting these dark elements, argues the critic, "can the lovers come to recognize the rough impulses that underlie and influence mature love."
In some respects A Midsummer Night's Dream seems a dramatization of Plato's statement about the Beast Within quoted in the last chapter—that when Reason sleeps the Wild Beast rouses itself and "in phantasy it will not shrink from intercourse with a mother or anyone else, man, god, or brute." The consummation of Bottom's assish courtship of the faery queen Titania is a fair representation of the wild beast fantasy: intercourse involving man, god[dess], and brute simultaneously. In view of the horror aroused by the crime of bestiality discussed earlier, this monstrous union should have released in Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience feelings of alarm and titillation. But it would take a sensitive soul indeed to run in fear from Bottom and Titania. Even so, the bestializing of sex in Bottom serves as a paradigm for the forest experience of the young lovers; he literalizes what is for them metaphoric. That is to say, once the lovers enter the forest they are repeatedly characterized by animal imagery that reflects and culminates in the Bottom-Titania episode. Helena pursues Demetrius like a "spaniel," a "dove," and a "hind," while he flees like "griffin" and a "tiger" (2.1); and she later becomes "ugly as a bear," a "monster" he runs from (2.2). Lysander shifts his affections from the "raven" Hermia to the "dove" Helena (2.2), later calling Hermia a "cat" and a "serpent" he will shake himself free of (3.2). No wonder Hermia awakens from a dream in which a "crawling serpent" was eating her heart away (2.2)—at which point she cries "Either death or [Lysander] I'll find immediately."
This animalizing of the lovers' experience seems a direct result of Oberon's humiliation of Titania:
What thou seest when thou dost wake,
Do it for thy true-love take,
Love and languish for his sake.
Be it ounce or cat or bear,
Pard or boar with bristled hair,
In thy eye that shall appear
When thou wak'st, it is thy dear.
Wake when some vile thing is near.
Then Enter Lysander and Hermia talking in Petrarchan accents and lying, not with one another, but chastely apart. Nevertheless, their experience is shadowed by that of Titania and Bottom. The lovers' comings and goings in various animalistic forms are the surface sublimations of the bestial intercourse between the faery queen and her liminal lover. While reason sleeps in Athens, Plato's Wild Beast wakes in the forest, with monstrous appetites.
In what sense is this a denial of death? In no sense: in fact it is just the reverse, a comic movement toward a loss of identity in the forests of death. The descent to animalism is merely one rung short of the descent to death. As such, the lovers' arboreal experience bears out Lysander's early remarks about the affinities of love and death. Love, he said, is always subject to "war, death, and sickness," always one blithe step away from devouring "jaws of darkness" and the "confusion [into which] quick bright things come" (1.1).
From this standpoint we might argue that the confusions of the forest are a comic version of Lear's storm: both represent all that reason and the court world repress. So, for that matter, does the play of Pyramus and Thisbe. What it depicts is the course of true love, which leads the unhappy pair to a bestial and ferocious Lion and thence through confusion to death: "Tongue, lose thy light; / Moon, take try flight. / Now die, die, die, die, die" (5.1). There but for the grace of genre goes Lear's "Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill" (4.6).
But of course no one will confuse this play with King Lear or take Snug the joiner's Lion for Richard III's wild boar. That is precisely the point. The repressed Beast Within, rapacious and murderous, the embodiment of all that deprives man of angelic status, emerges in this delightful comedy as a Bottom marvelous hairy about the face, and a Lion very gentle, of good conscience, and most anxious not to frighten the ladies. The Beast Within is allowed only a small roar and a little rage, and in the end must be sacrificed altogether. Thus it is almost allegorically appropriate that Theseus should come upon the lovers while hunting with Spartan hounds like those that once "bayed the bear" in Crete (4.1). Theseus's hounds bay the bear of ungoverned impulse in the lovers, their harmonious cries reflecting the harmony of love finally fashioned out of the cacophany of "derision": "When they next wake, all this derision / Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision" (3.2).
Thus as if by a wave of Plato's wand, the bearish beast fades into dream at the moment the lovers waken into the world of Theseus's reason. Only by repressing the beast of the forest can the lovers aspire to marriage in the palace. But only by unshackling and confronting the beast in the first place—by escaping from the harsh rational law of Athens and from the milder decorum of courtship—can the lovers come to recognize the rough impulses that underlie and influence mature love. Or as we would say now, the Ego must confront the Freudian Id or the Jungian shadow for the psyche to be maturely married. The price of this marriage, however, is a sacrificial repression of animalism and death, the banishment of the forest experience into a mere "dream past the wit of [either lovers or Bottom] to say what dream it was." But repression is not extinction; the realignments of love that took place in the forest are sustained and ratified in Athens. Moreover, as part of a sacrificial quid pro quo between reason and impulse, if the beast that represents impulse at its worst is suppressed, so is the harsh Athenian law that represents reason at its worst. Through such sacrificial negotiations humans may sometimes find their way to the rational life without entirely forfeiting the liberating virtues of the imaginative vision.
Source: James L. Calderwood, "Sacrifice," in Shakespare and the Denial of Death, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987, pp. 65-67.
In his discussion of the fairy world, Frye identifies the poet's sources in Classical, Celtic, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon folklore and mythology. The dream world of the forest, Frye suggests, "has affinities with what we call the unconscious or subconscious part of the mind." And only this part of our mind, Frye concludes, holds the key to this wonderful and mysterious play.
Why is this play called A Midsummer Night's Dream? Apparently the main action in the fairy wood takes place on the eve of May Day; at any rate, when Theseus and Hippolyta enter with the rising sun, they discover the four lovers, and Theseus says:
No doubt they rose up early to observe
The rite of May.
[IV. i. 132-33]
We call the time of the summer solstice, in the third week of June, "midsummer," although in our calendars it's the beginning of summer. That's because originally there were only three seasons, summer, autumn and winter: summer then included spring and began in March. A thirteenth-century song begins "sumer is i-cumen in," generally modernized, to keep the metre, as "summer is a-coming in," but it doesn't mean that: it means "spring is here." The Christian calendar finally established the celebration of the birth of Christ at the winter solstice, and made a summer solstice date (June 24) the feast day of John the Baptist. This arrangement, according to the Fathers, symbolized John's remark in the Gospels on beholding Christ: "He must increase, but I must decrease." Christmas Eve was a beneficent time, when evil spirits had no power; St. John's Eve was perhaps more ambiguous, and there was a common phrase, "midsummer madness," used by Olivia in Twelfth Night, a play named after the opposite end of the year. Still, it was a time when spirits of nature, whether benevolent or malignant, might be supposed to be abroad.
There were also two other haunted "eves," of the first of November and of the first of May. These take us back to a still earlier time, when animals were brought in from the pasture at the beginning of winter, with a slaughter of those that couldn't be kept to feed, and when they were let out again at the beginning of spring. The first of these survives in our Hallowe'en, but May Day eve is no longer thought of much as a spooky time, although in Germany, where it was called "Walpurgis night," the tradition that witches held an assembly on a mountain at that time lasted much longer, and comes into Goethe's Faust. In Faust the scene with the witches is followed by something called "The Golden Wedding of Oberon and Titania," which has nothing to do with Shakespeare's play, but perhaps indicates a connection in Goethe's mind between it and the first of May.
In Shakespeare's time, as Theseus's remark indicates, the main emphasis on the first of May fell on a sunrise service greeting the day with songs. All the emphasis was on hope and cheerfulness. Shakespeare evidently doesn't want to force a specific date on us: it may be May Day eve, but all we can be sure of is that it's later than St. Valentine's Day in mid-February, the day when traditionally the birds start copulating, and we could have guessed that anyway. The general idea is that we have gone through the kind of night when spirits are powerful but not necessarily malevolent. Evil spirits, as we learn from the opening scene of Hamlet, are forced to disappear at dawn, and the fact that this is also true of the Ghost of Hamlet's father sows a terrible doubt in Hamlet's mind. Here we have Puck, or more accurately Robin Goodfellow the puck. Pucks were a category of spirits who were often sinister, and the Puck of this play is clearly mischievous. But we are expressly told by Oberon that the fairies of whom he's the king are "spirits of another sort" [III. ii. 388], not evil and not restricted to darkness.
So the title of the play simply emphasizes the difference between the two worlds of the action, the waking world of Theseus's court and the fairy world of Oberon. Let's go back to the three parts of the comic action: the opening situation hostile to true love, the middle part of dissolving identities, and the final resolution. The first part contains a threat of possible death to Hermia. Similar threats are found in other Shakespeare comedies: in The Comedy of Errors a death sentence hangs over a central character until nearly the end of the play. This comic structure fits inside a pattern of death, disappearance and return that's far wider in scope than theatrical comedy. We find it even in the central story of Christianity, with its Friday of death, Saturday of disappearance and Sunday of return. Scholars who have studied this pattern in religion, mythology and legend think it derives from observing the moon waning, then disappearing, then reappearing as a new moon.
At the opening Theseus and Hippolyta have agreed to hold their wedding at the next new moon, now four days off. They speak of four days, although the rhetorical structure runs in threes: Hippolyta is wooed, won and wed "With pomp, with triumph and with revelling" [I. i. 19]. (This reading depends also on a reasonable, if not certain, emendation: "new" for "now" in the tenth line.) Theseus compares his impatience to the comedy situation of a young man waiting for someone older to die and leave him money. The Quince company discover from an almanac that there will be moonshine on the night that they will be performing, but apparently there is not enough, and so they introduce a character called Moonshine. His appearance touches off a very curious reprise of the opening dialogue. Hippolyta says "I am aweary of this moon: would he would change!" [V. i. 251], and Theseus answers that he seems to be on the wane, "but yet, in courtesy … we must stay the time" [V. i. 254-55]. It's as though this ghastly play contains in miniature, and caricature, the themes of separation, postponement, and confusions of reality and fantasy that have organized the play surrounding it.
According to the indications in the text, the night in the wood should be a moonless night, but in fact there are so many references to the moon that it seems to be still there, even though obscured by clouds. It seems that this wood is a fairyland with its own laws of time and space, a world where Oberon has just blown in from India and where Puck can put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes. So it's not hard to accept such a world as an antipodal one, like the world of dreams itself, which, although we make it fit into our waking-time schedules, still keeps to its own quite different rhythms. A curious image of Hermia's involving the moon has echoes of this; she's protesting that she will never believe Lysander unfaithful:
I'll believe as soon
This whole earth may be bored, and that the moon
May through the centre creep, and so displease
Her brother's noontide with th'Antipodes.
[III. ii. 52-5]
A modern reader might think of the opening of "The Walrus and the Carpenter." The moon, in any case, seems to have a good deal to do with both worlds. In the opening scene Lysander speaks of Demetrius as "this spotted and inconstant man" [I. i. 110], using two common epithets for the moon, and in the last act Theseus speaks of "the lunatic, the lover and the poet" [V. i. 7], where "lunatic" has its full Elizabethan force of "moonstruck."
The inhabitants of the wood-world are the creatures of legend and folk tale and mythology and abandoned belief. Theseus regards them as projections of the human imagination, and as having a purely subjective existence. The trouble is that we don't know the extent of our own minds, or what's in that mental world that we half create and half perceive … The tiny fairies that wait on Bottom—Mustardseed and Peaseblossom and the rest—come from Celtic fairy lore, as does the Queen Mab of Mercutio's speech [in Romeo and Juliet], who also had tiny fairies in her train. Robin Goodfellow is more Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic. His propitiatory name, "Goodfellow," indicates that he could be dangerous, and his fairy friend says that one of his amusements is to "Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm" [II. i. 39]. A famous book a little later than Shakespeare, Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, mentions fire spirits who mislead travellers with illusions, and says "We commonly call them pucks." The fairy world clearly would not do as a democracy: there has to be a king in charge like Oberon, who will see that Puck's rather primitive sense of humour doesn't get too far out of line.
The gods and other beings of Classical mythology belong in the same half-subjective, half-autonomous world. I've spoken of the popularity of Ovid's Metamorphoses for poets: this, in Ovid's opening words, is a collection of stories of "bodies changed to new forms." Another famous Classical metamorphosis is the story of Apuleius about a man turned into an ass by enchantment, and of course this theme enters the present play when Bottom is, as Quince says, "translated." In Classical mythology one central figure was the goddess that Robert Graves,… calls the "white goddess" or the "triple will." This goddess had three forms: one in heaven, where she was the goddess of the moon and was called Phoebe or Cynthia or Luna; one on earth, where she was Diana, the virgin huntress of the forest, called Titania once in Ovid; and one below the earth, where she was the witch-goddess Hecate. Puck speaks of "Hecate's triple team" at the end of the play. References to Diana and Cynthia by the poets of the time usually involved some allusion to the virgin queen Elizabeth (they always ignored Hecate in such contexts). As I said, the Queen seems to be alluded to here, but in a way that kicks her upstairs, so to speak: she's on a level far above all the "lunatic" goings-on below.
Titania in this play is not Diana: Diana and her moon are in Theseus's world, and stand for the sterility that awaits Hermia if she disobeys her father, when she will have to become Diana's nun, "Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon" [I. i. 73]. The wood of this play is erotic, not virginal: Puck is contemptuous of Lysander's lying so far away from Hermia, not realizing that this was just Hermia being maidenly. According to Oberon, Cupid was an inhabitant of this wood, and had shot his erotic arrow at the "imperial votaress," but it glanced off her and fell on a white flower, turning it red. The parabola taken by this arrow outlines the play's world, so to speak: the action takes place under this red and white arch. One common type of Classical myth deals with a "dying god," as he's called now, a male figure who is killed when still a youth, and whose blood stains a white flower and turns it red or purple. Shakespeare had written the story of one of these gods in his narrative poem "Venus and Adonis," where he makes a good deal of the stained flower:
No flower was nigh, no grass, herb, leaf, or weed,
But stole his blood and seem'd with him to bleed.
The story of Pyramus and This be is another such story: Pyramus's blood stains the mulberry and turns it red. In Ovid's account, when Pyramus stabs himself the blood spurts out in an arc on the flower. This may be where Shakespeare got the image that he puts to such very different use.
Early in the play we come upon Oberon and Titania quarrelling over the custody of a human boy, and we are told that because of their quarrel the weather has been unusually foul. The implication is that the fairies are spirits of the elements, and that nature and human life are related in many ways that are hidden from ordinary consciousness. But it seems clear that Titania does not have the authority that she thinks she has: Oberon puts her under the spell of having to fall in love with Bottom with his ass's head, and rescues the boy for his own male entourage. There are other signs that Titania is a possessive and entangling spirit—she says to Bottom:
Out of this wood do not desire to go;
Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.
[III. i. 152-53]
The relationship of Oberon and Titania forms a counterpoint with that of Theseus and Hippolyta in the other world. It appears that Titania has been a kind of guardian spirit to Hippolyta and Oberon to Theseus. Theseus gives every sign of settling down into a solidly married man, now that he has subdued the most formidable woman in the world, the Queen of the Amazons. But his record before that was a very bad one, with rapes and desertions in it: even as late as T.S. Eliot we read about his "perjured sails." Oberon blames his waywardness on Titania's influence, and Titania's denial does not sound very convincing. Oberon's ascendancy over Titania, and Theseus's over Hippolyta, seem to symbolize some aspect of the emerging comic resolution.
Each world has a kind of music, or perhaps rather "harmony," that is characteristic of it. That of the fairy wood is represented by the song of the mermaid described by Oberon to Puck. This is a music that commands the elements of the "sublunary" world below the moon; it quiets the sea, but there is a hint of a lurking danger in it, a siren's magic call that draws some of the stars out of their proper spheres in heaven, as witches according to tradition can call down the moon. There is danger everywhere in that world for mortals who stay there too long and listen to too much of its music. When the sun rises and Theseus and Hippolyta enter the wood, they talk about the noise of hounds in this and other huntings. Hippolyta says:
never did I hear
Such gallant chiding; for, besides the groves,
The Skies, the fountains, every region near
Seem'd all one mutual cry; I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.
[IV. i. 114-18]
It would not occur to us to describe a cry of hounds as a kind of symphony orchestra, but then we do not have the mystique of a Renaissance prince about hunting. Both forms of music fall far short of the supreme harmony of the spheres described in the fifth act of The Merchant of Venice: Oberon might know something about that, but not Puck, who can't see the "imperial votaress." Neither, probably, could Theseus.
So the wood-world has affinities with what we call the unconscious or subconscious part of the mind: a part below the reason's encounter with objective reality, and yet connected with the hidden creative powers of the mind. Left to Puck or even Titania, it's a world of illusion, random desires and shifting identities. With Oberon in charge, it becomes the world in which those profound choices are made that decide the course of life, and also … the world from which inspiration comes to the poet. The lovers wake up still dazed with metamorphosis; as Demetrius says:
These things seem small and undistinguishable,
Like far-off mountains turned into clouds.
[IV. i. 186-87]
But the comic crystallization has taken place, and for the fifth act we go back to Theseus's court to sort out the various things that have come out of the wood.
Theseus takes a very rational and common-sense view of the lovers' story, but he makes it clear that the world of the wood is the world of the poet as well as the lover and the lunatic. His very remarkable speech uses the words "apprehend" and "comprehend" each twice. In the ordinary world we apprehend with our senses and comprehend with our reason; what the poet apprehends are moods or emotions, like joy, and what he uses for comprehension is some story or character to account for the emotion:
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy
[V. i. 18-20]
Theseus is here using the word "imagination" in its common Elizabethan meaning, which we express by the word "imaginary," something alleged to be that isn't. In spite of himself, though, the word is taking on the more positive sense of our "imaginative," the sense of the creative power developed centuries later by [William] Blake and [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge. So far as I can make out from the OED [Oxford English Dictionary], this more positive sense of the word in English practically begins here. Hippolyta is shrewder and less defensive than Theseus, and what she says takes us a great deal further:
But all the story of the night, told over,
And all their minds transfigur'd so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable.
[V. i. 23-7]
Theseus doesn't believe their story, but Hippolyta sees that something has happened to them, whatever their story. The word "transfigured" means that there can be metamorphosis upward as well as downward, a creative transforming into a higher consciousness as well as the reduction from the conscious to the unconscious that we read about in Ovid. Besides, the story has a consistency to it that doesn't sound like the disjointed snatches of incoherent minds. If you want disjointing and incoherence, just listen to the play that's coming up. And yet the Quince play is a triumph of sanity in its way: it tells you that the roaring lion is only Snug the joiner, for example. It's practically a parody of Theseus's view of reality, with its "imagination" that takes a bush for a bear in the dark. There's a later exchange when Hippolyta complains that the play is silly, and Theseus says:
The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them
[V. i. 211-12]
Hippolyta retorts: "It must be your imagination, then, and not theirs." Here "imagination" has definitely swung over to meaning something positive and creative. What Hippolyta says implies that the audience has a creative role in every play; that's one reason why Puck, coming out for the Epilogue when the audience is supposed to applaud, repeats two of Theseus's words:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended.
[V. i. 423-24]
Theseus's imagination has "amended" the Quince play by accepting it, listening to it, and not making fun of the actors to their faces. Its merit as a play consists in dramatizing his own social position and improving what we'd now call his "image" as a gracious prince. In itself the play has no merit, except in being unintentionally funny. And if it has no merit, it has no authority. A play that did have authority, and depended on a poet's imagination as well, would raise the question that Theseus's remark seems to deny: the question of the difference between plays by Peter Quince and plays by William Shakespeare. Theseus would recognize the difference, of course, but in its social context, as an offering for his attention and applause, a Shakespeare play would be in the same position as the Quince play. That indicates how limited Theseus's world is, in the long run, a fact symbolized by his not knowing how much of his behaviour is guided by Oberon.
Which brings me to Bottom, the only mortal in the play who actually sees any of the fairies. One of the last things Bottom says in the play is rather puzzling: "the wall is down that parted their fathers" [V. i. 351]. Apparently he means the wall separating the hostile families of Pyramus and Thisbe. This wall seems to have attracted attention: after Snout the tinker, taking the part of Wall, leaves the stage, Theseus says, according to the Folio: "Now is the morall downe between the two neighbours" [cf. V. i. 207]. The New Arden editor reads "mural down," and other editors simply change to "wall down." The Quarto, just to be helpful, reads "moon used." Wall and Moonshine between them certainly confuse an already confused play. One wonders if the wall between the two worlds of Theseus and Oberon, the wall that Theseus is so sure is firmly in place, doesn't throw a shadow on these remarks.
Anyway, Bottom wakes up along with the lovers and makes one of the most extraordinary speeches in Shakespeare, which includes a very scrambled but still recognizable echo from the New Testament, and finally says he will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of his dream, and "it shall be called Bottom's Dream, because it hath no bottom" [IV. i. 215-16]. Like most of what Bottom says, this is absurd; like many absurdities in Shakespeare, it makes a lot of sense. Bottom does not know that he is anticipating by three centuries a remark of Freud: "every dream has a point at which it is unfathomable; a link, as it were, with the unknown." When we come to King Lear, we shall suspect that it takes a madman to see into the heart of tragedy, and perhaps it takes a fool or clown, who habitually breathes the atmosphere of absurdity and paradox, to see into the heart of comedy. "Man," says Bottom, "is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream" [IV. i. 206-07]. But it was Bottom the ass who had the dream, not Bottom the weaver, who is already forgetting it. He will never see his Titania again, nor even remember that she had once loved him, or doted on him, to use Friar Laurence's distinction [in Romeo and Juliet]. But he has been closer to the centre of this wonderful and mysterious play than any other of its characters, and it no longer matters that Puck thinks him a fool or that Titania loathes his asinine face.
Frances A. Yates
Yates discusses the origins of Shakespeare's fairy world, arguing that the "Elizabethan fairies are not … manifestations of folk or popular tradition." According to this critic, the characters inhabiting the dream world of Shakespeare's play stem from either Arthurian legend or the Christian variant of Cabala, a Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures based on the mystical value of words.
Shakespearean fairies are related to the Fairy Queen [in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen] through their loyalty and through their fervent defence of chastity … They are defenders of chastity, of a chaste queen and her pure knighthood. They are enjoined to perform a white magic to safeguard her and her order of knighthood from evil influences.
These Elizabethan fairies are not, I believe, manifestations of folk or popular tradition. Their origins are literary and religious, in Arthurian legend and in the white magic of Christian Cabala. The use of fairy imagery in the queen cult was begun in the Accession Day Tilts [jousts], and relates to the chivalric imagery of the Tilts. As taken up by Spenser in The Faerie Queene, the fairy imagery was Arthurian and chivalric, and also an expression of pure white magic, a Christian Cabalist magic.
The Shakespearean fairies emanate from a similar atmosphere; they glorify a pure knighthood serving the queen and her imperial reform. To read Shakespeare's fairy scenes without reference to the contemporary build-up of the Virgin Queen as the representative of pure religion is to miss their purpose as an affirmation of adherence to the Spenserian point of view, a very serious purpose disguised in fantasy.
The supreme expression of the Shakespearean fairyland is A Midsummer Night's Dream. This play was first printed in 1600; it was probably written for a private performance at a wedding, perhaps in 1595 or thereabouts.
This magical play about enchanted lovers is set in a world of night and moonlight, where fairies serve a fairy king and queen. Into the magic texture is woven a significant portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Oberon, the fairy king, describes how he once saw Cupid, all armed, flying between the cold moon and the earth:
A certain aim he took
At a fair vestal, throned by the West
And loos'd his love shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts.
But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft
Quench'd in the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon,
And the imperial votaress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy free.
[II. i. 157-64]
Shakespeare's picture of Elizabeth as a Vestal Virgin, a chaste Moon who defeats the assaults of Cupid, an 'imperial votaress', is a brilliant summing up of the cult of Elizabeth as the representative of imperial reform. A well-known portrait of Elizabeth presents the imagery in visual form. Elizabeth holds a sieve, emblem of the chastity of a Vestal Virgin; behind her rises the column of empire; the globe beside her shows the British Isles surrounded by shipping, alluding to her enthronement 'in the West'. It is a portrait of the Virgin of imperial reform, of which Shakespeare gives a verbal picture in the lines just quoted, using the same imagery.
[Both] the 'Sieve' portrait and Shakespeare's word-picture in the Dream are Triumphs of Chastity … and the triumph refers both to purity in public life and in private life, to Elizabeth both in her public role as the representative of pure imperial reform, and in her private role as a chaste lady. It is exactly in such a role that Spenser presents Elizabeth, so he tells Raleigh in the letter to him published with The Faerie Queene. As Gloriana she is a most royal queen or empress, as Belphoebe she is a most chaste and beautiful lady. Shakespeare's word-picture presents Gloriana-Belphoebe, the Virgin of pure Empire, enthroned by the West, the chaste lady who triumphs over Cupid.
The appearance in the sky of the Dream of this Spenserian vision strikes the key-note of the magical-musical moonlight of the play. The moon is Cynthia, the Virgin Queen, and the words 'the chaste beams of the watery moon' might also allude to Walter Raleigh's cult of her as Cynthia. Puns on 'Walter', pronounced 'Water', were usual in referring to Raleigh. Spenser was following Raleigh, so he says, in the 'Luna' book of The Faerie Queene. Hence the allusions of the Shakespearean lines would be both to Elizabeth as Spenser's Gloriana-Belphoebe, and also to Raleigh's cult of her as Cynthia, adopted by Spenser.
Thus the complex phenomenon which floats in the night sky of the Dream relates the play to the Spenserian dream-world, the Spenserian magical cult of the Imperial Virgin, with its undercurrent of Christian Cabala.
Source: Frances A. Yates, "Shakespearean Fairies, Witches, Melancholy: King Lear and the Demons," in The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, Ark Paperbacks, 1983, pp. 147-57.
J. B. Priestley
Priestley identifies Bottom as "the most substantial figure" in A Midsummer Night's Dream, describing him as earthy, quick-witted, and emphasizing his ability to laugh at the inhabitants of the fairy world. Bottom's humor, Priestley asserts, is not fully consious; rather, he symbolizes a peculiarly English variety of a man of the people: ignorant, uncouth, but a brilliantly perceptive and profound humorist, ever ready to castigate the foibles of his fellow human beings, or, for that matter, supernatural creatures.
Bottom is easily the most substantial figure in the piece. This is not saying a great deal, because A Midsummer Night's Dream has all the character of a dream; its action is ruled by caprice and moonlit madness; its personages appear to be under the spell of visions or to walk and talk in their sleep; its background is shadowy and shifting, sometimes breaking into absolute loveliness, purple and dark green and heavy with the night scent of flowers, but always something broken, inconsequent, suddenly glimpsed as the moon's radiance frees itself for a little space from cloud and foliage; and the whole play, with its frequent talk of visions, dreams, imagination, antique fables and fairy toys, glides past like some lovely hallucination, a masque of strange shadows and voices heard in the night. The characters are on three different levels. There are first the immortals, who have nothing earthy in their composition and are hardly to be distinguished from the quivering leaves and the mist of hyacinths, tiny creatures spun out of cobwebs and moonshine. Then there are the wandering lovers, all poetry and imagination, driven hither and thither by their passionate moods. Lastly there is Bottom (and with him, of course, his companions), who is neither a flickering elf nor a bewildered passionate lover, but a man of this world, comfortably housed in flesh, a personage of some note among the artisans of Athens and, we have no doubt, in spite of certain unmistakable signs of temperament in him, a worthy dependable householder. We suspect that he has, somewhere in the background, a shrewish wife who spends her time alternately seeing through her husband and being taken in by him, for he is essentially one of those large, heavy-faced, somewhat vain and patronising men, not without either humour or imagination, who always induce in women alternating moods of irritation and adoration. Among his fellow artisans, Bottom is clearly the ladies' man, the gallant. He it is who shows himself sensitive to the delicacy of the sex in the matter of the killing and the lion, and we feel that his insistence upon a prologue, "a device to make all well" [III. i. 16], is only the result of his delicacy and chivalry. Snout and Starveling, who hasten to agree with him, are simply a pair of whimpering poltroons, who have really no stomach for swords and killing and raging melodrama and are afraid of the consequences if they should startle the audience. But Bottom, we feel, has true sensibility and in his own company is the champion of the sex; he knows that it is a most dreadful thing to bring in the lion, that most fearful wild-fowl, among ladies, and his sketch of the prologue has in it the true note of artful entreaty: "Ladies, or, Fair Ladies,—I would wish you,—or, I would request you,—or, I would entreat you,—not to fear, not to tremble: my life for yours [III. i. 39-42]". Such a speech points to both knowledge of the sex and long practice, and given friendly circumstances, the speaker might be a very dangerous man. We should like to see Bottom making love among his own kind; the result would have startled some of his critics. As it is, we only see him, crowned with an ass's head, suddenly transformed into the paramour of the queen of the fairies, and even in a situation so unexpected, so remote from his previous experience, he acquits himself, as we shall see, very creditably. What would happen if one of the gentlemen who call friend Bottom "gross, stupid, and ignorant," let us say the average professor of English literature, suddenly found himself in the arms of a very beautiful and very amorous fairy, even if his head were not discoverable by immediate sight but only by long acquaintance to be that of an ass? He would probably acquit himself no better than would Snout or Starveling in similar circumstances, and Shakespeare took care to wave away his Snouts and Starvelings and called the one man to that strange destiny, that "most rare vision" [IV. i. 205], who was worthy of the occasion. Bottom, as [William] Hazlitt said, is a character that has not had justice done him: he is "the most romantic of mechanics."
Against the background of the whole play, which is only so much gossamer and moonlight, the honest weaver appears anything but romantic, a piece of humorous, bewildered flesh, gross, earthy. He is a trades-unionist among butterflies, a ratepayer in Elfland. Seen thus, he is droll precisely because he is a most prosaic soul called to a most romantic destiny. But if we view him first among his own associates, we shall see that he is the only one of them who was fit to be "translated." Puck, who was responsible for the transformation, described him as "the shallowest thickskin of that barren sort" [III. ii. 13], the biggest fool in a company of fools; but Puck was no judge of character. Bottom, though he may be the biggest fool (and a big fool is no common person), is really the least shallow and thick-skinned of his group, in which he shows up as the romantic, the poetical, the imaginative man, who naturally takes command. We admit that he is conceited, but he is, in some measure, an artist, and artists are notoriously conceited. The company of such tailoring and bellows-mending souls would make any man of spirit conceited. Old Quince, who obviously owes his promotion to seniority and to nothing else, is nominally in charge of the revels, but the players have scarcely met together and Quince has scarcely had time to speak a word before it is clear that Bottom, and Bottom alone, is the leader. Quince ("Good Peter Quince" [I. ii. 8], as Bottom, with easy contempt and patronage, calls him) is nothing but a tool in the hands of the masterful weaver, who directs the whole proceedings, the calling of the roll of players, the description of the piece, the casting of the parts, and so forth, step by step. The other members of the company not having a glimmer of imagination, the artist among them, the man of temperament, takes charge. And he alone shows any enthusiasm for the drama itself, for the others are only concerned with pleasing the Duke; if they do badly, if they should, for example, frighten the ladies, they may be hanged, whereas if they do well, they may receive a little pension.
Once Bottom is metamorphosed, we no longer see him against the background of his fellow artisans but see him firmly set in the lovely moonlit world of the elves and fairies, a world so delicate that honeybags stolen from the bees serve for sweetmeats and the wings of painted butterflies pass for fans, and here among such airy creatures, Bottom, of course, is first glimpsed as something monstrous, gross, earthy. It would be bad enough even if he were there in his own proper person, but he is wearing an ass's head and presents to us the figure of a kind of comic monster. Moreover, he is loved at first sight by the beautiful Titania, who, with the frankness of an immortal, does not scruple to tell him so as soon as her eyes, peering through enchantments, are open. A man may have the best wit and the best person of any handicraftsman in Athens and yet shrink from the wizardries of such a night, being compelled to wear the head of an ass, deserted by his companions, conjured into fairyland, bewilderingly promoted into the paramour of the fairy queen and made the master of such elvish and microscopic attendants as Peas-blossom and Cobweb and Moth. But Bottom, as we have said, rises to the occasion, ass's head and all; not only does he not shrink and turn tail, not only does he accept the situation, he contrives to carry it off with an air; he not only rises to the occasion, he improves it. Now that all the whimsies under the midsummer moon are let loose and wild imagination has life dancing to its tune, this is not the time for the Bottom we have already seen, the imaginative, temperamental man, to come forward and dominate the scene, or else all hold upon reality is lost; that former Bottom must be kept in check, left to wonder and perhaps to play over to himself the lover and the lion; this is the moment for that other, honest Nick Bottom the weaver, the plain man who is something of a humorist, good solid flesh among all such flimsies and whimsies, madness and moonshine. Does the newly awakened lovely creature immediately confess that she is enamoured of him, then he carries it off bravely, with a mingled touch of wit, philosophy, and masculine complacency: "Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that: and yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days; the more the pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends. Nay, I can gleek upon occasion" [III. i. 142-46]. And we can see the ass's head tilted towards the overhanging branches, as he gives a guffaw at his "gleeking" and takes a strutting turn or two before this astonishing new mistress.
But nothing takes him by surprise in this sudden advancement. His tone is humorous and condescending, that of a solid complacent male among feminine fripperies. When his strange little servitors are introduced to him, the Duke himself could not carry it off better: "I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good Master Cobweb: if I cut my finger, I shall make bold with you"—then turning regally to the next: "Your name, honest gentleman?" Good Master Mustard-seed is commiserated with because "that same cowardly, giantlike ox-beef hath devoured many a gentleman of your House" [III. i. 182-93]: all are noticed and dispatched with the appropriate word; it is like a parody of an official reception. In the next scene, we discover him even more at his ease than before, lolling magnificently, embraced by his lady and surrounded by his devoted attendants, who are being given their various duties. "Monsieur Cobweb, good monsieur"—and indeed there was probably something very Gallic about this Cobweb—"get your weapons in your hand, and kill me a red-hipp'd humble-bee on the top of a thistle; and, good monsieur, bring me the honey-bag. Do not fret yourself too much in the action, monsieur; and, good monsieur, have a care the honey-bag break not. I would be loth to have you overflown with a honey-bag, signior" [IV. i. 10-16]. Bottom is clearly making himself at home in Elfland; he is beginning to display a certain fastidiousness, making delicate choice of a "red-hipp'd humble-bee on the top of a thistle." And if Puck won the first trick with the love philtre and the ass's head, we are not sure that Bottom is not now winning the second, for every time he addresses one of his attendants he is scoring off Elfland and is proving himself a very waggish ass indeed. Even his remarks on the subject of music ("I have a reasonable good ear in music: let us have the tongs and the bones" [IV. i. 28-9]) and provender ("I could munch your good dry oats. Methinks I have a great desire to a bottle of hay: good hay, sweet hay, hath no fellow" [IV. i. 31-4]) have to our ears a certain consciously humorous smack, as if the speaker were not quite such an ass as he seems but were enjoying the situation in his own way, carrying the inimitable, if somewhat vulgar, manner of the great Bottom, pride of handicraftsmen, even into the heart of Faerie.
If he shows no surprise, however, and almost contrives to carry off the situation in the grand manner, we must remember that he, like Titania, is only dreaming beneath the moon-coloured honeysuckle and musk roses; the enamoured fairy and all her attendant sprites are to him only phantoms, bright from the playbox of the mind, there to be huddled away when a sudden puff of wind or a falling leaf brings the little drama to an end; and so he acts as we all act in dreams, who may ourselves be "translated" nightly by Puck and sent on the wildest adventures in elfin woods for all we know to the contrary. When Bottom awakes, yawning and stiff in the long grass, his sense of wonder blossoms gigantically, and the artist in him, he who would play the tyrant, the lover, the damsel, and the lion, leaps to life: "I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream,—past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream" [IV. i. 204-07]. So fiery and eager is that wonder and poetry in him which all the long hours at Athenian looms have not been able to wither away, as he stands crying in ecstasy in the greenwood, that we cannot be surprised that his style, which he very rightly endeavours to heighten for the occasion, should break down under the stress of it: "The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was" [IV. i. 211-14]. But no matter; the dramatic enthuasiast in him now takes command: Peter Quince (whom we did not suspect of authorship) shall write a ballad of this dream, to be called Bottom's Dream, and it shall be sung, by a newly resurrected Pyramus, at the end of the coming play; and off he goes, his head humming with plans, back to the town to put heart into his lads. There he plays Pyramus as Pyramus was never played before; takes charge of the whole company, does not scruple to answer a frivolous remark of the Duke's, and finally speaks the last word we hear from the handicraftsmen. We learn nothing more of him, but perhaps when the lovers were turning to their beds and the fairies were dancing in the glimmering light, Bottom, masterful, triumphant, was at Peter Quince's with the rest, sitting over a jug or two and setting his fellow players agape with his tale of the rare vision. There was a poet somewhere in this droll weaver and so he came to a poet's destiny, finding himself wearing the head of an ass (as we all must do at such moments), the beloved of an exquisite immortal, the master of Cobwebs and Peas-blossoms, coming to an hour's enchantment while the moon climbs a hand's-breadth up the sky—and then, all "stolen hence," the dream done and the dreamer left to wonder. Such is the destiny of poets, who are themselves also weavers.
It is a critical commonplace that these Athenian clowns are very English, just as the setting that frames them is exquisitely English; and it follows very naturally that the greatest of them is the most English. There is indeed no more insular figure in all Shakespeare's wide gallery than Bottom. A superficial examination of him will reveal all those traits that unfriendly critics of England and Englishmen have remarked for centuries. Thus, he is ignorant, conceited, domineering; he takes himself and his ridiculous concerns seriously and shows no lightness of touch; knowing perhaps the least, he yet talks the most, of all his company; he cannot understand that his strutting figure is the drollest sight under the sky, never for one instant realises that he is nothing but an ignorant buffoon; the soulless vulgarity of his conduct among the fairies smells rank in the nostrils of men of taste and delicacy of mind; in short, he is indeed the "shallowest thickskin of that barren sort" [III. ii. 13], lout-in-chief of a company of louts. But something more than a superficial examination will, as we have partly seen, dispose of much of this criticism, and will lead to the discovery in Bottom of traits that our friendly critics have remarked in us and that we ourselves know to be there. Bottom is very English in this, that he is something of a puzzle and an apparent contradiction. We have already marked the poetry and the artist in him, and we have only to stare at him a little longer to be in doubt about certain characteristics we took for granted. Is he entirely our butt or is he for at least part of the time solemnly taking us in and secretly laughing at us? Which of us has not visited some rural tap-room and found there, wedged in a corner, a large, round-faced, wide-mouthed fellow, the local oracle; and, having listened to some of his pronouncements, have laughed in our sleeves at his ignorance, dogmatism, and conceit; and yet, after staying a little longer and staring at the creature's large, solemn face, a face perilously close to vacuity, have noticed in it certain momentary twinkles and creases that have suddenly left us a little dubious about our hasty conclusions? And then it has dawned upon us that the fellow is, in his own way, which is not ours nor one to which we are accustomed, a humorist, and that somewhere behind that immobile and almost vacuous front, he has been enjoying us, laughing at us, just as we have been enjoying him and laughing at him. It is an experience that should make us pause before we pass judgment upon Bottom, who is the first cousin of all such queer characters, rich and ripe personages who are to be found, chiefly in hostelries but now and then carrying a bag of tools or flourishing a paint-brush, in almost every corner of this England, which is itself brimmed with puzzling contradictions, a strange mixture of the heavy butt and the conscious humorist. Bottom is worlds away from the fully conscious humour of a Falstaff, but we cannot have followed him from Peter Quince's house to the arms of Titania and seen him in Bank Holiday humour with his Cobwebs and Mustard-seeds, without noticing that he is something more than a rustic target. He is English, and he is conceited, ignorant, dogmatic, and asinine, but there stirs within him, as there does within his fellow workmen even now, a poet and humorist, waiting for the midsummer moon. And lastly, he is not dead, he has not left us, for I saw him myself, some years ago, and he had the rank of corporal and was gloriously at ease in a tumbledown estaminet near Amiens [in As You Like It], and there he was playing the tyrant, the lover, and the lion all at once, and Sergeant Quince and Privates Snug and Starveling were there with him. They were paying for his beer and I suspect that they were waiting, though obviously waiting in vain, to hear him cry once more: "Enough; hold or cut bow-strings" [I. ii. 111].
Source: J. B. Priestley, "Bully Bottom," in The English Comic Characters, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1931, pp. 1-19.
Frederick S. Boas
Boas considers the various groups of lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream, arguing that Shakespeare's characterization of the couples is more whimsical than serious. The critic first examines Theseus and Hippolyta's relationship, maintaining that although the playwright illustrates Theseus as a brave soldier who wins Hippolyta with his sword, the Greek ruler ultimately displays a practicality that exhibits no grasp of aesthetic beauty. In addition, Boas notes that in contrast to the generally serene fortunes of Theseus and Hippolyta, the young lovers—Lysander, Hermia, Helena, and Demetrius—are "a troubled lot" due to their "purely human failings."
In its main plot [A Midsummer Night's Dream] is akin to The Comedy of Errors, for in both cases a humorous entanglement is created out of mistakes. Already, however, Shakespere shows his extraordinary skill in devising variations upon a given theme, for here the mistakes are those of a night and not of a day, and instead of being external to the mind are internal … As in The Comedy of Errors, also, the scene is nominally laid amid classical surroundings, but the whole atmosphere of the play is essentially English and Elizabethan.
Thus Theseus, whose marriage with Hippolyta forms the setting of the story, is no Athenian 'duke,' but a great Tudor noble. He is a brave soldier, who has wooed his bride with his sword, and, strenuous even in his pleasures, he is up with the dawn on May-morning, and out in the woods, that his love may hear the music of his hounds, 'matched in mouth like bells' [IV. i. 123], as they are uncoupled for the hunt. He is a true Tudor lord also in his taste for the drama, as shown in his request for masques and dances wherewith to celebrate his marriage. He exhibits the gracious spirit common to all Shakespeare's leaders of men in choosing, against the advice of his Master of the Revels, the entertainment prepared by Bottom and his fellows:
I will hear that play
For never anything can be amiss
When simpleness and duty tender it;
[V. i. 81-3]
and though tickled by the absurdities of the performance, he checks more than once the petulant criticisms of Hippolyta, and assures the actors at the close, with a courteous double-entendre, that their play has been 'very notably discharged' [V. I. 360-61]. But it has been urged that Theseus shows the limitations of nature which are found in Shakespere's men of action. Though dramatic performances serve to while away the time, even at their best they are to him 'but shadows,' and it is he who dismisses the tale of what the lovers have experienced in the wood as 'fairy toys,' and is thus led on to the famous declaration that
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact. [V. i. 7-8]
Only the practical common-sense Theseus, it has been said, would think of comparing the poet or lover to the lunatic, and Shakespere, by putting such words into his mouth, shows by a side-stroke that the man of action fails to appreciate the idealist nature. But such an inference from the passage is hazardous: there is a sense in which Theseus' statement is true, for the artist and the lover do collide, like the madman, with what 'cool reason' chooses to term the realities of life. The eloquent ring of the words is scarcely suggestive of dramatic irony, while the description of the poet's pen as giving to 'airy nothing a local habitation and a name' [V. i. 16-17], applies with curious exactness to Shakespere's own method in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Contrasted with the serene fortunes of Theseus and Hippolyta is the troubled lot of humbler lovers, due, in its origin, to purely human failings. The fickle Demetrius has shifted his affections from Helena to Hermia, whose father Egeus favours the match, but Hermia is constant to Lysander, while Helena still 'dotes in idolatry' [I. i. 109] upon her inconstant wooer. The Athenian law as expounded by Theseus … enforces upon Hermia obedience to her father's wishes on pain of death or perpetual maidenhood. But Lysander suggests escape to a classical 'Gretna Green,' seven leagues from the town, where the sharp Athenian law does not run, and fixes a trysting-place for the following night within the neighbouring wood. That Hermia should reveal the secret to Helena, and that she in her turn should put Demetrius on the fugitive's track, merely to 'have his sight thither and back again' [I. i. 251], is a transparently clumsy device for concentrating the four lovers on a single spot, which betrays the hand of the immature playwright. Within the wood the power of human motive is suspended for that of enchantment, and at a touch of Puck's magic herb, Lysander and Demetrius are 'translated,' and ready to cross swords for the love of the erewhile flouted Helena. Thus all things befall preposterously, and reason holds as little sway over action as in a dream, though it is surely overstrained to find … a definitely allegorical significance in the comic entanglement, the more so that the dramatic execution is at this point somewhat crude. Lysander and Demetrius are little more than lay figures, and the only difference between Helena and Hermia is that the latter is shorter of stature, and has a vixenish temper, of which she gives a violent display in the unseemly quarrel scene. But at last, by Oberon's command Dian's bud undoes on the eyes of Lysander the work of Cupid's flower, and the close of the period of enchantment is broadly and effectively marked by the inrush at dawn of exuberant, palpable life in the shape of Theseus' hunting party, whose horns and 'halloes' reawaken the sleepers to everyday realities. But, as in The Errors, out of the confusions of the moment is born an abiding result. Demetrius is henceforward true to Helena: the caprice of magic has redressed the caprice of passion, and the lovers return to Athens 'with league whose date till death shall never end' [III. ii. 373].
Deep reflective power and subtle insight into character came slowly to Shakespere, as to lesser men, but fancy has its flowering season in youth, and never has it shimmered with a more delicate and iridescent bloom than the fairy-world of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Through woodland vistas, where the Maymoon struggles with the dusk, elf-land opens into sight, ethereal, impalpable, spun out of gossamer and dew, and yet strangely consistent and credible. For this kingdom of shadows reproduces in miniature the structure of human society. Here, as on earth, there are royal rulers, with courts, ministers, warriors, jesters, and, in fine, all the pomp and circumstance of mortal sovereignty. And what plausibility there is in every detail, worked out with an unfaltering instinct for just and delicate gradation! In this realm of the microscopic an acorn-cup is a place of shelter, and a cast snake-skin, or the leathern wing of a rear-mouse, an ample coat: the night tapers are honey-bags of humble-bees lit at the glow-worm's eyes, and the fairy chorus, to whom the third part of a moment is a measurable portion of time, charm from the side of their sleeping mistress such terrible monsters as blindworms, spiders, and beetles black. Over these tiny creatures morality has no sway: theirs is a delicious sense life, a revel of epicurean joy in nature's sweets and beauties. To dance 'by paved fountain or by rushy brook' [II. i. 84], to rest on banks canopied with flowers, to feed on apricoks and grapes, and mulberries, to tread the groves till the 'eastern gate all firey red' [III. ii. 391] turns the green sea into gold—such are the delights which make up their round of existence. In Puck, 'the lob of spirits,' this merry temper takes a more roguish form, a gusto in the topsy-turvy, in the things that befall preposterously, and an elfin glee in gulling mortals according to their folly. With his zest for knavish pranks, for mocking practical jokes upon 'gossips' and 'wisest aunts,' this merry wanderer of the night is indeed a spirit different in sort from the ethereal dream fairies, and it is natural that Oberon's vision of Cupid all armed should be hid from his gross sight. Moonlight and woodland have for him no spell of beauty, but they form a congenial sphere in which to play the game of mystification and cross-purposes. Thus his very unlikeness to the other shadows marks him out as the ally and henchman of Oberon in his quarrel with the fairy queen and her court. For the love troubles of mortals have their miniature counterpart in the jealousy of the elfin royal pair, springing in the main, as befits their nature, from an aesthetic rivalry for the possession of a lovely Indian boy, though by an ingenious touch, which unites the natural and supernatural realms, a further incitement is the undue favour with which Oberon regards the 'bouncing Amazon' Hippolyta, balanced by Titania's attachment to Theseus. And as the human wooers are beguiled by the power of Cupid's magic herb, the fairy queen is in like manner victimized. But with correct instinct Shakespere makes her deception far the more extravagant. Fairyland is the world of perennial surprise, and it must be a glaringly fantastic incongruity that arrests attention there. But the most exciting canons of improbability are satisfied when Titania, whose very being is spun out of light and air and dew, fastens her affections upon the unpurged 'mortal grossness' of Bottom, upon humanity with its asinine attributes focused and gathered to a head. To attack his queen in her essential nature, to make her whose only food is beauty lavish her endearments upon a misshapen monster, is a masterpiece of revenge on Oberon's part. And so persuasive is the art of the dramatist that our pity is challenged for Titania's infatuation, with its pathetically reckless squandering of pearls before swine, and thus we hail with joy her release from her dotage, her reconciliation with Oberon, and the end of jars in fairyland, celebrated with elfin ritual of dance and song.
In designedly aggressive contrast to the dwellers in the shadow world is the crew of hempen homespuns headed by sweet bully Bottom. Among the many forms of genius there is to be reckoned the asinine variety, which wins for a man the cordial recognition of his supremacy among fools, and of this Bottom is a choice type. In the preparation of the Interlude in honour of the Duke's marriage, though Quince is nominally the manager, Bottom, through the force of his commanding personality, is throughout the directing spirit. His brother craftsmen have some doubts about their qualifications for heroic roles, but this protean actor and critic is ready for any and every part, from lion to lady, and is by universal consent selected as jeune premier [lead player] of the company in the character of Pyramus, 'a most lovely gentleman-like man.' Bereft of his services, the comedy, it is admitted on all hands, cannot go forward: 'it is not possible: you have not a man in all Athens able to discharge Pyramus but he' [IV. ii. 7-8]. Fostered by such hero-worship, Bottom's egregious self-complacency develops to the point where his metamorphosis at the hands of Puck seems merely an exquisitely fitting climax to a natural process of evolution. And even when thus 'translated,' he retains his versatile faculty of adapting himself to any part; the amorous advances of Titania in no wise disturb his equanimity, and he is quite at ease with Peaseblossom and Cobweb. A sublime self-satisfaction may triumph in situations where the most delicate tact or the most sympathetic intelligence would be nonplussed.
But Shakespere, in introducing his crew of patches into his fairy drama, had an aim beyond satirizing fussy egotism or securing an effect of broad comic relief. It is a peculiarity of his dramatic method to produce variations upon a single theme in the different portions of a play. Love's Labour's Lost is an instance of this, and A Midsummer Night's Dream is further illustration, though of a less obvious kind. For in the rehearsal and setting forth of their comedy, Bottom and his friends enter a debateable domain, which, like that of the fairies, hovers round the solid work-a-day world, and yet is not of it. There is a point of view from which life may be regarded as the reality of which art, and in especial dramatic art, is the 'shadow,' the very word used by Theseus in relation to the workmen's play. Thus in their grotesque devices and makeshifts these rude mechanicals are really facing the question of the relation of shadow to substance, the immemorial question of realism in art and on the stage. The classical maxim that 'Medea shall not kill her children in sight of the audience' [Horace, in his Ars Poetica] lest the feelings of the spectators should be harrowed beyond endurance, finds a burlesque echo in Bottom's solicitude lest the ladies should be terrified by the drawing of Pyramus' sword, or the entrance of so fearful a wildfowl as your lion. Hence the necessity for a prologue to say that Pyramus is not killed indeed, and for the apparition of half Snug the joiner's face through the lion's neck, and his announcement that he is not come hither as a lion, but is 'a man as other men are' [III. i. 44]. Scenery presents further difficulties, but here, as there is no risk of wounding delicate susceptibilities, realism is given full rein. The moon herself is pressed into the service, but owing to her capricious nature, she is given an understudy in the person of Starveling carrying a bush of thorns and a lanthorn. It is only the hypercriticism of the Philistine Theseus that finds fault with this arrangement on the score that the man should be put into the lanthorn. 'How is it else the man in the moon?' [V. i. 247-48].
The 'tedious belief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisbe,' [V. i. 56-7], is more elaborated specimen of those plays within plays, of which Shakespere had already given a sketch in Love's Labour's Lost, and for which he retained a fondness in all stages of his career. It is a burlesque upon the dramas of the day, in which classical subjects were handled with utter want of dignity, and with incongruous extravagance of style. The jingling metres, the mania for alliteration, the farfetched and fantastic epithets, the meaningless invocations, the wearisome repetition of emphatic words, are all ridiculed with a boisterous glee, which was an implicit warrant that, when the young dramatist should hereafter turn to tragic or classical themes, his own work would be free from such disfiguring affectations, or, at worst, would take from them only a superficial taint. And, indeed, what potency of future triumphs on the very summits of dramatic art lay already revealed in the genius which out of an incidental entertainment could frame the complex and gorgeous pagentry of A Midsummer Night's Dream; and which, when denied, by the necessities of the occasion, an ethical motive, could fail back for inspiration on an enchanting metaphysic, not of the schools but of the stage, whose contrasts of shadow and reality are shot, now in threads of gossamer lightness, now in homelier and coarser fibre, into the web and woof of this unique hymeneal masque.
Source: Frederick S. Boas, "Shakespeare's Poems: The Early Period of Comedy," in Shakespeare and His Predecessors, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902, pp. 158-96.
Calderwood, James L., A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twayne, 1992, p. xxii.
Hazlitt, William, in Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream; A Casebook, edited by Antony Price, Macmillan, 1983, p. 32, originally published in Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, 1817.
Pepys, Samuel, in Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream; A Casebook, edited by Antony Price, Macmillan, 1983, p. 25, originally published in The Diary of Samuel Pepys, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, Penguin, 1970.
Phialas, Peter G., Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies: The Development of Their Form and Meaning, University of North Carolina Press, 1966, p. 105.
Shakespeare, William, A Midsummer-Night's Dream, Cambridge University Press, 1964.
Barber, C. L., "May Games and Metamorphoses on a Midsummer Night," in Shakespeare's Festive Comedies, Princeton University Press, 1959, pp. 119-62.
The pageantry that an Elizabethan audience would have been familiar with is explained in Barber's essay, with concentration on the magic that a festival situation evoked in such audiences and the ways in which various characters symbolize the epochs in normal life.
Bryant, J. A., Jr., "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Shakespeare & the Uses of Comedy, University of Kentucky Press, 1986, pp. 57-80.
Bryant's explanation of the play centers around the historical context of Roman comedies and social oppositions.
Girard, René "Myth and Ritual in A Midsummer Night's Dream," in William Shakespeare: Comedies and Romances, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, pp. 227-46.
This essay looks at the play from social and psychological perspectives, with a strong focus on the two pairs of young lovers at the center of the action.
Halio, Jay L., A Midsummer Night's Dream, Manchester University Press, 1994.
Halio's book is part of Manchester University's "Shakespeare in Performance" series. It follows the history of performances of this play, from their very earliest in Shakespeare's time to the controversial re-imaginings that took place at the end of the twentieth century.
Rudd, Niall, "Pyramus and Thisby in Shakespeare and Ovid," in Shakespeare's Ovid: The Metamorphosis in the Plays and Poems, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 113-25.
Rudd gives a detailed dissection of the similarities and differences between Shakespeare's telling of the classic story in A Midsummer Night's Dream and the version by Ovid that it was based upon.
Scragg, Leah, "Plays within Plays," in Discovering Shakespeare's Meaning: An Introduction to the Study of Shakespeare's Dramatic Structures, Longman Press, 1994, pp. 86-113.
This chapter from Scragg's book looks at the "Pyramus and Thisby" play, comparing it to examples from other Shakespeare works and showing how the playwright controlled the audience's sense of reality throughout the performance.