Study Guide

A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's Dream Essay - Criticism

Criticism

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Wolfgang Clemen
[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 these plays belong and introducing new elements taken over from other sections of the literary tradition of the past. A Midsummer Night's Dream, then, which must have been written about 1595, combines for the first time totally disparate worlds into one unified whole; the sharp contrasts brought together there would have destroyed the play's balance in the hands of any lesser playwright. For, indeed, it required Shakespeare's genius to bring together Bottom and Puck, the crude realism of the artisans and the exquisite delicacy of the fairy world, the stylized and pointed repartee of the Athenian lovers and the dignified manner of Theseus and Hippolyta. What we find are contrasts on many levels, exemplified by diversified means. Yet Shakespeare strikes an equilibrium between these contrasts, reconciling and fusing the discordant factors within the organic body of his comedy. A Midsummer Night's Dream, therefore, not only exhibits bold contrasts and divergent elements of plot, atmosphere, and character; it also illustrates the unifying power of the spirit of comedy and the poetic imagination. We further find that the play's unity is reinforced by a subtle technique of counterpoint and juxtaposition, a skillful contrasting of different strands of plot, and the creation of an atmosphere full of illusion, wonder, and strangeness, all of which facilitate the many transitions occurring during the course of the play.

Some facts about its origin and title may help us better to understand the particular nature of the play. A Midsummer Night's Dream is clearly related to the practices of midsummer night, the night before June 24, which was the date of St. John the Baptist's festival and hence connected with merry-making, various superstitions and folk customs, dances, pageants, and revels. More than any other night in the year, midsummer night suggested enchantment and witchcraft, something which Shakespeare has superbly embodied in his fairy world. To an Elizabethan audience, moreover, the play's title would have immediately called to mind the so-called "midsummer madness," which was a state of mind marked by a heightened readiness to believe in the delusions of the imagination that were thought to befall the minds of men after days of great summer heat. Thus, by means of his highly suggestive title, Shakespeare has firmly planted the dream-like action of his drama in the popular beliefs and customs of his time. Furthermore the title gives theatergoers and readers a clue as to how the work should be understood—namely, as an unrealistic creation of the imagination, a series of dream images containing all the contradictions and inconsistencies that dreams normally possess, but containing too their symbolic content Indeed, the dream-like character of what takes place is repeatedly alluded to. In Puck's epilogue, for instance, the audience themselves are explicitly addressed:

And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend ...
[V. i. 427-29]

In short, the play's title makes significant allusion to the nature and meaning of the work, though it makes no reference to the period of time during which the events of the drama occur. In fact, the action takes place between April 29 and May 1, the latter date, being that of May Day, demanding of course particular celebrations, and for that reason it is perhaps a suitable day for the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta.

Now the wedding of the princely pair is not only the destination of the action; it is also the occasion for which the play itself was written. A Midsummer Night's Dream was undoubtedly intended as a dramatic epithalamium [a bridal song] to celebrate the marriage of some aristocratic couple. (The attempts made to fix on a definite historical marriage, however, must remain conjectural.) Plays written for such festive occasions addressed themselves to an aristocratic audience. They were mostly performed on private stages rather than in public theaters and revealed an entirely different style of performance from the popular dramas. The relationship of A Midsummer Night's Dream to the court masque—something which Act V, Scene i, line 40 draws attention to—also comes in here. The masques formed a central part of the entertainments that were always given at court celebrations, and several noticeable features in A Midsummer Night's Dream clearly relate to the genre of the court masque. The music and dances, the appearance of fairy-like creatures possessed of supernatural qualities, the employment of motifs involving magic and metamorphosis, and the vigorous stylization and symmetrical structure of some parts do indeed remind one of the court masque. Finally, the scenes with Bottom, Quince, and company may be compared to the anti-masque, which formed the burlesque and realistic counterpart performed together with the masque itself.

In referring to the masque, one is only pointing out a single aspect of A Midsummer Night's Dream. We must also remember that Shakespeare has similarly taken over stylistic and formal elements from his own early comedies, popular drama, the romantic play, and the mythological dream plays of John Lyly. Shakespeare has tapped many sources, but he has nevertheless been able to create an original and independent form of drama that includes skillful organization of plot—involving the manipulation of three subplots that run parallel to one another—as well as a rich suffusion of the whole by both the atmosphere of nature and that of magic. Between a descriptive and retrospective kind of dramatic method and one that makes us see the process of things in action Shakespeare has struck a perfect sense of balance.

A study of the interrelation of the four plots reveals how their contrasts, juxtapositions, and dovetailing help to disclose the meaning of the drama. The play begins with a scene between Theseus and Hippolyta, who do not appear again until Act IV. In Act V their wedding is celebrated. The plot involving Theseus and Hippolyta can therefore be styled an "enveloping action" that provides the play with a definite framework and a firmly established temporal scaffolding; it stands outside the world of dream, enchantment, and love entanglements, suggesting the sphere of everyday reality out of which the events of the drama first develop and to which they then ultimately return. The section in Scene i with Egeus, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius relates the Theseus-Hippolyta plot to that of the lovers, for Theseus himself appears as arbitrator in the love dispute and it will be on his wedding day that the harsh verdict he passes on Hermia is to take effect, should she not have changed her mind by that date. This verdict is the cause of Hermia and Lysander's decision to flee into the wood near Athens, so that with this the events of the second and third acts have already been determined. The comic subplot, moreover, beginning in Scene ii with the gathering of the artisans to prepare themselves for rehearsal, is also announced in Scene i, insofar as we learn of the entertainments to be presented on Theseus' wedding day. Theseus' promise to woo Hippolyta "With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling" [I. i. 19] can also be understood as an allusion to the dramatic entertainments that are to come later. From the very beginning, then, our expectations are raised in connection with the wedding day, which is to bring with it the artisans' play, the decision regarding the love dispute between the Athenian couples, and the festive marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta.

If this were all that Shakespeare had given us, we would have had a comedy little different from his early ones. The plot connected with the fairies, however, with Oberon and Titania at its center, not only brings considerable complications into the course of the above-mentioned matters, but also adds to the whole drama a new feature that Shakespeare had never employed before. For the supernatural, which intervenes in the activities of the characters, turns their intentions upside down, and directs their actions. It is the fairies who are responsible for the confusion, and also for the final reconciliation, thus substituting enchantment and arbitrariness for the lovers' own responsibility and power of will. Yet these influences also have repercussions on the fairies themselves, because Titania thereby falls in love with the ass-headed Bottom.

Thus the world of the fairies is linked with that of the artisans, and we get those incomparably comic situations that are themselves the outcome of the fairies' intervention. Finally, a link between the plots dealing with the fairies and Theseus emerges in the conversation between Oberon and Titania in which the fairy rulers' earlier connections with Theseus and Hippolyta are recalled; and this is a moment that accelerates the pair's mutual jealousy and estrangement.

Since the fairies remain always invisible to the other members of the dramatis personae (only Bottom is ironically allowed the privilege of seeing Titania), and their deeds are accomplished without the knowledge of the other characters, Shakespeare has been able to achieve a highly dramatic effect of "double awareness." We as audience are aware of Puck's magic juice and therefore look forward with pleasure to what might develop. We know even more than the usually omniscient Oberon, who does not realize till some time later the confusion that Puck has caused by mistake. This error on Puck's part bears deeper significance, for it shows that even the fairies can err and that the influences they exert as supernatural agents in the play do not in the least answer to anything providential, but rather contain filaments of arbitrariness, self-deception, and folly.

An insight into the peculiar nature of the fairy world in A Midsummer Night's Dream helps us to understand the entire play, for although the fairies certainly possess supernatural qualities, they are nevertheless closely linked to the world of mankind and have their share of human frailties. Their capriciousness and irrationality, indicate which forces and qualities Shakespeare wanted us to see as conditioning and influencing human love relationships; for the haphazard and arbitrary game that love plays with the two Athenian couples appears as a projection of the irrationality, irresponsibility, and playfulness characterizing the nature of the fairies themselves. However, the fairies not only make other people behave in a way that corresponds, as it were, to their own fairy natures; they also strengthen and reinforce people's latent tendencies. Previous to the fairies' intervention, we learn from Demetrius that he has loved Helena before bestowing his affections on Hermia [I. i. 106-07, 242-43]; it is not for nothing that he is termed "spotted and inconstant man" [I. i. 110].

Shakespeare has interspersed his text with numerous illuminating hints referring to the fairies' peculiar traits of character and sphere of existence, so that we are able to get a vivid picture of the type of creatures they are. Although the world of the fairies exhibits several characteristics common to popular belief and folklore tradition, it is to a considerable extent a new creation of Shakespeare's own. This is particularly true when we think of Puck, whose descent from Robin Goodfellow or Hobgoblin, as he is called by one of the fairies when he first appears [II. i. 34,40], only accounts for one aspect of his being. If one examines the numerous statements that Puck utters about himself and that the other characters utter about him, one immediately realizes that Shakespeare has created a complex dramatic figure to whom is assigned a key position within the fabric of the play. Not only is Puck the comically rough and earth-bound goblin with his mischievous pranks, blunt speech, and intervention in day-to-day affairs; he is also a spirit closely linked with the elements, having command over supernatural powers and capable of moving at incredible speed. As "Oberon's jester" he is close to the fools of Shakespeare's later comedies, enjoying his own jests and possessing the gift of sharp, critical observation. Keeping this last point in mind, we see that Shakespeare has assigned him the role of spectator several times during the course of the play, and as such he comments on the action and aptly characterizes the people taking part. Hence it is he who, in view of the confusion he has caused among the lovers, cries out:

Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
[II.ii. 114-15]

Thus Puck becomes the interpreter of the play's dramatic situations and intermediary between stage and audience as he places himself at a distance from events that have depended on and been influenced by him, and to which in the epilogue, significantly spoken by him, he is able to look back, as from a higher vantage point. Indeed, it is remarkable how many motives determining the play's action derive from Puck, how many invisible wires he holds in his hand. Yet his interventions in the development of the plot are as much the result of a casual mood or mischievous whim as they are the result of premeditated instructions from his master, Oberon. This is shown, for instance, in the case of Bottom's transformation in the first scene of Act III. It is a paradox of the dramatic action that Oberon's well-meaning intention is turned into its opposite through Puck's mistake [Lysander, instead of Demetrius, is anointed with the magic herb], so that the activity of the supernatural forces seems to be largely conditioned by error and coincidence. Still, it is precisely this fickleness and inconstancy of fate that Puck acknowledges in his laconic answer to Oberon when the latter reproves him for the mistake: "Then fate o'errules ... "[in. ii. 92]. With these words Puck gives utterance to a basic motif in the drama.

It has often been stressed that in A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare wanted to portray the irrational nature of love, the shifting and unstable "fancy" that continually falls prey to illusion, regards itself as being playful and short-lived, and is accompanied by a certain irresponsibility; whereas in Romeo and Juliet, written during the same period, love appears in quite a different shape, as a fateful and all-consuming force making claims to absolute authority and demanding that the whole of the self be yielded up to it.

But Shakespeare makes clear to us in several ways that the love between the Athenian couples is not rooted in actuality. Puck's magic juice, operating as a supernatural medium, is of course only one of the means by which Shakespeare places the relationships of the four Athenian lovers outside of reality. The love entanglements occur during a night full of dreams and enchantment, of which only an imprecise picture afterward remains in the memory of those concerned. Furthermore, it is undoubtedly the poet's deliberate intention (contrary to his practice in other plays of the same period) that the lovers should be so weakly characterized that it is impossible for us to retain them in our memory as real and differentiated human beings. We may likewise take it for granted that their symmetrical grouping and their appearance in pairs is the result of conscious stylization on Shakespeare's part. And if the style of their dialogues, together with the handling of the verse, often seems to be flat, trite, and frankly silly, this neither signifies Shakespeare's lack of skill nor justifies the contention that passages have been left in from an earlier version of the same play. Rather it gives evidence that Shakespeare intended the four lovers to be just what they are, puppets and not fully realized characters. Even the spectator to those scenes of confusion in the wood soon has no idea where he is or who precisely is in love with whom.

Above all, however, the dream-like atmosphere of such scenes accentuates our feeling that the four lovers appear to be quite removed from any criteria applicable to reality. "The willing suspension of disbelief" that [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge designated as one of the poet's chief aims Shakespeare achieves by creating a world of illusion that manifests itself from the first scene onward. Dream world and reality merge imperceptibly, so that the persons concerned are not sure themselves in which sphere they move, nor whether what they have experienced has been imagination or truth. The idea that what has happened has been a dream, illusion, or "vision" is often expressed from various standpoints by the characters themselves. "Dream" is a key word in the drama, and the idea that everything is based on imagination is given frequent and subtle variation. The art with which Shakespeare shifts from the dream world to reality is unique. This is evident in the first scene of Act IV, where both the lovers and Bottom are depicted as awaking out of their dreams—a scene in which all four plots are brought together for the first time, whereby the mind of the spectator is made to see the boundaries separating them as being simultaneously nonexistent and yet firmly fixed. Finally, as if in a series of flashbacks, the incidents that have occurred during the night of dreams are lit up once again from a distance by means of Theseus' famous speech describing "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet" as being "of imagination all compact" [V. i. 7-8]. These words refer once more to that faculty which lies behind not only dreams, but the poet's own creations as well and under whose spell we, as spectators, have been kept during the whole course of the play; for we too have been enchanted, responding eagerly to the call of the poetry and accepting the play as an organism that conforms to its own rules, a world where strange and real things mingle in a curious way.

The illusion of a dream sequence scurrying past is also enhanced by a sense of the forward surge of time. Not only is the passing of night into morning given expression through the shifting movement of light and dark within a series of superb images and subtle allusions: the impatience and longing with which the different characters look forward to the future are perceptible from the very start, thus making time flow in an anticipatory way. Again, the language of the play is rich in images and expressions indicating quick movement, lightness, and transitoriness, thereby contributing to the over-all atmospheric impression. How delicately and accurately the play's particular atmosphere, together with its theme and leitmotifs, is rendered from the very beginning, an examination of the first scene of the play alone would show, although we can permit ourselves only a few observations here.

The very first exchange between Theseus and Hippolyta conveys to us a two-fold awareness of time, from the standpoint of which we contemplate a time span that culminates in the wedding day, the date of which is fixed immediately at the outset. This emerges when Hippolyta's "Four days will quickly steep themselves in night; / Four nights will quickly dream away the time" [L i. 6-8] is contrasted with Theseus' "... but, O, methinks, how slow / This old moon wanes!" [I. i. 3-4]. During this initial dialogue Shakespeare skillfully puts us in tune with the moonlit scenes that follow by means of Theseus' comparison of the "old moon" with "a stepdame, or a dowager / Long withering out a young man's revenue" [I. i. 4-6]. In this scene alone "moon" and "night" each occur five times, "dream" three times. The lines just quoted also suggest the aristocratic world of the court, where a part of the action is to take place. A further element is introduced when, immediately following, we read these instructions to Philostrate:

Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments,
Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth ...
[I. i. 13-14]

Yet the entry of Egeus immediately afterward, leading in his daughter Hermia and, "full of vexation," bringing accusations against Lysander because the latter "hath bewitched the bosom of (his) child" |cf. I. i. 22-3], ushers in the radically contrasting note of discord, deception, and trickery, something that is never missing in any Shakespearean comedy and is always present as an undercurrent In A Midsummer Night's Dream; for the final...

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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...

(The entire section is 7450 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 7731 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 2592 words.)

Mythological Background

Northrop Frye
[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...

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Bottom

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...

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The Lovers

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 entire section is 2713 words.)