[Clemen provides a general introduction to A Midsummer Night's Dream, identifying and analyzing the play's historical background, language, themes, dramatic structure, characterization, and literary significance. Remarking that the transitory nature of love is the principal theme of the play, this critic praises Shakespeare's masterful use of language, particularly images representing the contrast of light and darkness, to suggest the atmosphere of a fantastic dream world. Shakespeare's language, Clemen maintains, is not only remarkably visual but also possesses a certain musical quality, clearly discerned in repetitive patterns of sounds and effects. Not only is A Midsummer Night's Dream a great comedy, the critic concludes, but it also offers, using the device of the play-within-the-play, profound insights into the limitations of dramatic art.]
A study of Shakespeare's development as a dramatic artist shows that one of his supreme achievements during his "middle period" consists in combining heterogeneous elements in a single play. The dramas of Shakespeare's predecessors all exist on a smaller scale, mostly adhering to one particular type and keeping within more limited resources of style and subject matter. However, even in his very first comedies, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, and Love's Labor's Lost, we see Shakespeare widening the scope of the dramatic genre to which...
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Gender and Sex Roles
Shirley Nelson Garner
[Describing A Midsummer Night's Dream as similar to a fertility rite, Garner discusses the sexual, psychological, and social implications of Shakespeare's comedy. More than a simple celebration of erotic love, the play, Garner maintains, reflects certain attitudes characteristic of male-dominated societies. For example, a woman's entire existence, particularly her sexual and emotional life, is controlled by a powerful male figure, as illustrated by Egeus's almost incestuous possessiveness toward his daughter Hermia. Further, the extent of a woman's sexual and emotional freedom, Garner argues, is determined by male desire. Thus conventional heterosexual love flourishes only if certain conditions, determined by the male protagonists, are satisfied. For example, a woman must sever all her emotional ties with other women to assuage her husband's fears of possible rejection. As Garner concludes, "the male characters think they can keep their women only if they divide and conquer them. Only then will Jack have Jill; only then will their world flourish."]
More than any of Shakespeare's comedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream resembles a fertility rite, for the sterile world that Titania depicts at the beginning of Act II is transformed and the play concludes with high celebration, ritual blessing, and the promise of regeneration. Though this pattern is easily apparent and has often been observed, the social and sexual...
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Between Fantasy and Reality
George A. Bonnard
[In his discussion of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bonnard's principal thesis is that the worlds, fantastic and mundane, represented in the play, exist apart from each other, never meeting at any given point. The inhabitants of the fairy world, the critic explains, are indeed ethereal in the sense that they lack true feelings and intelligence. But the dream world, Bonnard argues, although beyond the mortals' comprehension, nevertheless strongly influences the entire realm of ordinary life. Although separated by a veritable social chasm, the Athenian aristocrats and the common players are all vulnerable to Oberon's power by the very nature of their humanity. Yet this fairy kingdom is essentially a dream which appears whenever reason goes to sleep. Such illusions and dreams, Bonnard remarks, can be dangerous if they block our perception of reality, but there they nevertheless perform an important function in life, as the playwright eloquently demonstrates.]
Shakespeare, as we all know, loved to bring together in the same play a variety of diverse and even incongruous elements. Of none of his plays is this truer than of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It would be difficult to imagine a more fantastic combination of heterogeneous elements drawn from all kinds of sources. Chaucer gave him Theseus and Hippolyta and suggested the festivities that marked their wedding, as well as the idea of connecting with the story of the...
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Language and Poetry
Mark Van Doren
[The immense expanses created by Shakespeare's extraordinary poetic imagination, Van Doren affirms, are vast enough to house the fairy realms and the world of ordinary reality, including all the peculiar manifestations of either place. The critic then examines the dramatist's ability to describe the separate and often quite dissimilar regions of the play's universe by drawing on the rich resources of poetry. Particularly in the supernatural sphere, Shakespeare's descriptions reach a remarkable geographic precision and undeniable suggestiveness. Referring to the playwright's depiction of both worlds, Van Doren further observes that the "poetry of the play is dominated by the words moon and water." As a result of their enormous allusive potential, these images engender an entire network of interlocking symbols which greatly enrich the text. In Van Doren's opinion, this fundamental poetic symbolism affects the entire universe of the play. "Moon," Van Doren concludes, "water, and wetflowers conspire to extend the world of A Midsummer Night's Dream until it is as large as all imaginable life. That is why the play is both so natural and so mysterious."]
A Midsummer Night's Dream shines like Romeo and Juliet in darkness, but shines merrily. Lysander, one of the two nonentities who are its heroes, complains at the beginning about the brevity of love's course, and sums up his complaint with a line which would not be...
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[Frye traces the literary sources of Shakespeare's play, with particular emphasis on Classical—Greek and Roman—and early Elizabethan comedy. According to Frye, Shakespeare does not follow classical models closely, but relies instead on his English predecessors, especially in the treatment of supernatural elements. The critic then touches upon possible flattering references to Queen Elizabeth I in A Midsummer Night's Dream, explaining that the references are purely textual, and that none of the characters can be associated with the monarch. Frye also comments on the title of the play, observing that, as the medieval calendar had only three seasons, the eve of May Day, when the action of the comedy takes place, really is the middle of the summer, since that season starts in March. 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.]
Elizabethan literature began as a provincial development of a Continent-centred literature, and it's full of imitations and translations from French, Italian and Latin. But the dramatists practically had to rediscover drama, as soon as, early in Elizabeth's reign, theatres...
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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 conscious; 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, the critic remarks, is also a kind of comical everyman, a character symbolizing the irrepressible comical genius of humankind. Finally, he is also a poet, "wearing the head of an ass as we all must do at such moments, the beloved of an exquisite immortal ... 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 dream left to wonder." Bottom's journey through the supernatural realm epitomizes "the destiny of poets, who are themselves also weavers."]
On any reasonable chronology of Shakespeare's plays, Bottom is the first of his great comic figures. Once we are through the door of Peter Quince's house, when all the company is assembled there, we are at last in the presence of one of the foolish Immortals; we come to celebrate a staggering feat of parturition, for here, newly created, is a droll as big as a hill. Before...
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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." The similarity of the characters' shortcomings, the critic continues, reflects an ambiguous interchangeability from one figure to the next that contributes to the confusion of the comic entanglement in the Athenian wood. According to Boas, another pair of lovers—Oberon and Titania—add a dimension of rivalry and jealousy to love and relationships in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The result of the fairy couples' quarreling, the critic condends, is Oberon's "masterpiece of revenge" when he magically transforms Bottom into an ass and makes him the object of Titania's affection. The critic also explores the "Pyramus and Thisbe" episode (Act V, scene i), asserting that the play-within-the-play not only parodies love relationships in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but also the stage conventions...
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