A Midsummer Night's Dream
For further information on the critical and stage history of A Midsummer Night's Dream, see SC, Volumes 3, 12, 29, 45, and 58.
One of Shakespeare's most popular plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream is often considered a lighthearted comedy. It traces the romantic escapades of four young Athenian lovers lost on a midsummer night in a forest ruled by fairies. The dreamlike events that occur in the enchanted wood are framed by court scenes dominated by Theseus, ruler of Athens. Another group of characters, designated as rustics, artisans, or mechanicals, and led by Bottom the weaver, inhabit the play and enhance its comedic effects. Despite the play's obvious comic design, a number of critics have also identified within A Midsummer Night's Dream darker undertones. Theseus refers to a war with the Amazons in which he conquered his wife Hippolyta, and Titania's interlude with Bottom, who has been transformed into a man with a donkey's head, is suggestive of bestiality. The play performed by the mechanicals, although staged in a hilarious and bumbling manner, is itself a tragedy. The resulting effect of the weaving of comic and tragic elements, the structure and characters supporting this effect, and the myths influencing the play's content have all become areas of modern critical scrutiny.
Bottom figures prominently in analyses of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Jan Kott (1987) focuses on Bottom's metamorphosis, contending that the perverse carnival atmosphere in the Bottom-Titania interludes contradicts theatrical conventions typically associated with masques and court entertainments. Kott concludes that while Shakespeare's depiction of Bottom's transformation allows for both light and serious readings of the play, either interpretation is fraught with contradiction. Philip C. McGuire (1989) examines the significance of Egeus, Hermia's father, to A Midsummer Night's Dream. McGuire focuses on Egeus's silence in Act IV, scene i, when Theseus states that he will overturn the Athenian law requiring that Hermia marry Demetrius, whom her father has chosen. McGuire notes that Egeus is silent at this point in both the Quarto and the Folio; however, at the wedding ceremony in Act V, the Folio specifies that Egeus is present whereas the Quarto does not. Given this textual discrepancy, McGuire speculates on how Egeus's silence should be interpreted, maintaining that it may indicate consent, perhaps even reconciliation with Hermia, or it may be interpreted as his withdrawal from Athenian society. In contrast to critics who have focused on the contentious elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Tom Clayton (1999) assesses the comedy's lighter aspects. Clayton downplays the bestial implications of the Bottom-Titania interlude and highlights the civil nature of the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta.
Many critics have argued that an examination of the relationship between the tragic and comic elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream is an important step to understanding the design of the play. While some scholars have attempted to demonstrate that the tragic and comic elements complement each other, Clifford Earl Ramsey (1977) underscores the distinct differences in their form and structure. Ramsey examines the scenic structure of the play, maintaining that it expresses diversity and opposition, and yet it also emphasizes harmony and integration. According to the critic, the scenic structure ultimately underscores the play's dual themes of the power of love and the power of imagination. Taking another approach, Richard H. Cox (1982) explores the way in which Shakespeare shaped his poetic imagination within the confines of comedy. Cox examines Shakespeare's comic treatment of the traditionally serious Theseus as well as the serious social subtext of the mechanicals' comic actions. Through these characters, Cox contends, Shakespeare didactically addressed weighty issues related to civic life within the framework of comedy. Similarly, Virgil Hutton (1985) explores the ways in which Shakespeare used comedy to camouflage the tragic content of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Hutton argues that Shakespeare raised religious and philosophical issues in the play, primarily in his treatment of the mechanicals, and outlines the ways in which the mechanicals' production of Pyramus and Thisby contrasts with the experiences of the lovers in the wood. Hutton demonstrates that the tragic world of Pyramus and Thisby resembles real life more than that of the dreamlike world of the four lovers. A. D. Nuttall (2000) traces the somber elements of A Midsummer Night's Dream to its mythic sources. Recounting the cruel depiction of Theseus in Greek myth, Nuttall demonstrates the careful, yet incomplete manner in which Shakespeare attempted to disguise Theseus's past. Furthermore, Nuttall reveals the dark background of the fairies and discusses the disturbing images evoked through Bottom's transformation and his interlude with Titania. Yet in his comic handling of Theseus, the fairies, and Bottom, Nuttall argues, Shakespeare offered a negotiation between comedy and tragedy, resulting in an exorcism of the fear evoked by the play's more sinister aspects.
The subtle balance of tragic and comic elements in the play presents significant challenges to modern directors of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Russell Jackson reviews a stage production of the play directed by Michael Boyd for the 1999-2000 season at Stratford-upon-Avon. Jackson analyzes the production's emphasis on the forest as the locus of sexuality, and comments on how the director deftly combined the sinister and comic elements of the play. The critic also praises Boyd's use of dance and movement in the production, noting that the dances evoked images of ancient fertility rites. Mark Thornton Burnett (2000) discusses two versions of the comedy directed by Adrian Noble, one a 1994-95 stage version, and the other Noble's 1996 film adaptation. While the staging achieved widespread critical acclaim, the film version received predominantly negative criticism. Burnett provides a reexamination of the film, concentrating on its style and “postmodern aspirations” and noting the way in which it successfully exploited and evoked childhood experience and children's stories. Many critics have assessed Michael Hoffman's 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. John Bemrose (1999) praises the performances of Kevin Kline as Bottom and Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania, but faults the film for interpreting the play in a modern and “tedious” Hollywood manner. Jim Welsh (1999) maintains that while Hoffman's film has its charm, it comes up lacking in both style and substance compared to the 1935 film by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle. In another mixed review, Richard Alleva (1999) censures Hoffman for reducing Shakespeare's conception of “multilayered emotionality” in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Alleva finds Pfeiffer's Titania to be “gracelessly spoken” and states that Kline's interpretation of Bottom transforms the weaver into an emotionally fragile clown of a man, although, Alleva adds, such a portrayal does work within the scope of Hoffman's film.
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