A Midsummer Night's Dream
Critical interest in A Midsummer Night's Dream has been strong since the early years of the nineteenth century. Early critics were particularly concerned with the play's structure, with its portrayal of romantic love, and with what it might reveal of Shakespeare's thoughts on the importance of the imagination in the creation and the appreciation of art. In the latter part of the twentieth century, critics have perceived more complex intellectual questions at issue in the play, focusing on issues of perception and ambiguity, the ambivalent nature of sexual desire, and relationships between gender and the exercise of power.
In a lecture delivered in Vienna in 1808, German scholar August Wilhelm Schlegel became the first to perceive in the play a carefully woven unity of disparate elements. Schlegel, who argued that the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta constitutes the framework of the play's dramatic action, also saw the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude as an integral part of the play's design. Late in the century, Denton J. Snider observed that the structure of the play is based on interrelationships among three distinct worlds, the "real" world of Athens, the imaginary world of the fairy wood, and the world of art represented in the mechanicals' production of Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare's combination of contrasting elements in the play continued to be a focus of interest throughout the twentieth century. In a general overview of the play published in 1986, Robert Ornstein suggested that A Midsummer Night's Dream marks Shakespeare's mastery of dramatic structure. Peter Hollindale (1992) examined both the play's sequential development and its overall structure in terms of their relationship to the play's meaning.
While the imaginative qualities of A Midsummer Night's Dream appealed to the Romantic critics of the early nineteenth century, many—including William Hazlitt (1817) and William Maginn (1837)—felt it relied too heavily upon imaginary elements to be convincingly staged, a view that has since been disproved by numerous successful stage productions. The role of the imagination and art in the play continued to be a critical concern throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Maginn, Charles Knight (1849), Snider, and others fastened on Theseus's comments on poets and the theater as indications of Shakespeare's views on the role of the artist and the importance of the audience's imaginative participation to the success of a dramatic work. In the latter part of the twentieth century, critics focused increasingly on self-reflexive or metadramatic elements in the play, particularly with regard to issues of perception, illusion, and ambiguity. In an essay published in 1966 as part of his book-length study of A Midsummer Night's Dream, David P. Young argued that the world of dreams and magic represented by the fairies plays a key role in Shakespeare's exploration of the relationship between art and reality. In his 1971 study Shakespearean Metadrama, James L. Calderwood viewed Oberon as a "playwright within the play" and proposed that Shakespeare deliberately shifts and blurs "the borders between dream, drama, and waking reality" to indicate the possibility that each realm may overlap the others and to alter our perception of each. Marjorie B. Garber (1974) and Garrett Stewart (1981) also discussed the relationship between dream and drama in the play, while Norman N. Holland (1979) explored the applicability of psychoanalytic identity theory to an understanding of the play's metadramatic implications. An awareness of the play as metadrama also informs a 1983 essay by Louis Adrian Montrose in which he argued that the play actively explores its role as both a creation and a creator of its culture.
Central to the role of the imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream is its use of magic, fairy lore, and classical mythology. A tendency to view the play's fairy characters as childlike, benign, and primarily ornamental has gradually given way to more complex responses, of which an early instance can be found in the disturbing illustrations of the play created by the painter Henry Fuseli late in the eighteenth century. A particularly dark evaluation of the fairy world was put forward by Jan Kott (1964), who characterized the fairies as diabolical agents. T. Walter Herbert (1977), on the other hand, argued that Shakespeare's audience would have perceived the fairies as mischievous rather than evil, while William Empson, in an essay published posthumously in 1994, suggested that they are presented as inherently neither diabolical nor angelic, but as "middle spirits" intensely involved in human affairs.
The play's use of supernatural elements is also central to its treatment of the theme of love. A minor concern in nineteenth-century evaluations of the play, this has become a dominant issue in twentieth-century readings. Through the 1950s, critics were generally divided between those who maintained that Shakespeare was parodying the imaginative, unrealistic passion of the young Athenians and praising the ideal union of Theseus and Hippolyta, and those who claimed that he regarded Theseus's philosophy of reason as limiting and that he promoted instead a healthy, responsible imagination as necessary for love's fulfillment. Both of these interpretations were challenged by the views of Kott, who argued that a brutal eroticismlay at the heart of the play. René Girard (1979) also emphasized the darker aspects of love in A Midsummer Night's Dream, suggesting that Shakespeare uses the conventions of romantic love and mythology to expose the operation of desire as inherently violent and destructive of individuality. Other recent critics, while rejecting the extreme darkness of Kott's view, have taken note of Shakespeare's ambivalent portrayal of love and sexual desire. David Bevington (1975) examined the playwright's use of contrasting dark and comic elements in the play, particularly the tension between sexual desire and restraint. In an analysis of Hermia's dream, Norman Holland suggested that the anxieties revealed by this dream reflect the play's portrayal of desire as at once loving and cruel. Jay Halio (1990) argued that Shakespeare's repeated use of language that evokes disorder and discord continually reminds the audience of the darker aspects of love and undermines the play's comic tone. Examining the play's references to the Theseus myth, Peter Holland (1994) viewed these references as a source of shadowy echoes of brutality and sexual exploitation.
Several critics have focused on the play's portrayal of its female characters and related questions of gender and power. Placing the play in the context of Elizabethan sexual politics, Montrose related its dramatic action to male ambivalence about the presence of a powerful female on the throne of England, contending that while the play overtly pays homage to the Queen, in its overall structure it subverts female power and reaffirms male ascendancy. Mark Taylor (1991) perceived important differences in the ways the young lovers deal with sexual desire and related these differences to differing social pressures on men and women.
A further issue that has been revisited in recent years is the view, still accepted by many critics, that A Midsummer Night's Dream was originally written to be performed at the celebration of an aristocratic wedding. In a 1991 article, Stanley Wells reviewed recent scholarship that casts doubt on this theory. He also commended a closer inter-relationship of criticism and theatrical performance that he perceived developing from the mid-1970s onward. Wells cited in particular an essay by Philip McGuire (1985) that called attention to the considerable latitude the text allows a director in interpreting the role of Hippolyta and explored the impact of various modern interpretations of the role on the play's overall meaning.
Robert Ornstein (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Shakespeare 's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery, University of Delaware Press, 1986, pp. 73-89.
[In the following excerpt, Ornstein identifies the "complex and perfectly assured dramatic structure" of A Midsummer Night's Dream as the principal element distinguishing it from Shakespeare's earlier comedies.]
If the only plays of Shakespeare that survived were the comedies written before A Dream, he would seem an interesting, gifted writer who failed to realize his potential as dramatist. The unfolding of his powers is evident in the early comedies, but with each artistic advance there is an apparent loss or setback, so that all the achievements are somewhat flawed if not uncertain. Love's Labor 's reaches beyond the Plautine farcing of Errors but lacks satisfying dramatic form. Two Gentlemen adds psychological complexity and subtle irony to romantic characterization but loses itself in a meandering and ultimately self-parodying plot. The Shrew is competent and malicious hackwork.
When Shakespeare's apprenticeship in comedy ended is a matter of personal judgment. Some critics find the characterizations of A Dream sketchy, except of course for Bottom, and think its flights of lyric poetry are a bit self-indulgent. They do not find in it the maturity and substance of The Merchant, Much Ado, and As You Like It. Others suggest that it is too rarified in sensibility to belong to the mainstream of his work and was probably written for a special audience. Although the Quarto announces the play as one that "hath been sundry times publicly acted," they hypothesize that it was commissioned for performance at a great wedding. No doubt A Dream would be more appropriate as a nuptial entertainment than Errors with its strain of marital discord, or Love's Labor's with its unfortunate title, and would be far more appropriate for a nuptial than The Shrew. Still, it has shortcomings as a hymeneal celebration. Any bridegroom would be pleased to identify himself with the noble Theseus and could therefore ignore Demetrius and Lysander's early wrangling and unseemly treatment of their future brides. A bride would have to have more of a sense of humor, however, to see Hippolyta, the bouncing Amazon, or Hermia or Helena as her counterpart. Both bride and groom might stir uneasily at the bitter quarreling of Titania and Oberon, who plans a nasty revenge on his refractory spouse. Of the bride's father in the play, Egeus, the less said the better. An aristocratic wedding is an occasion for high-sounding conventionalities, for the idealized (and flattering) abstractions of a court pageant or masque. As a wedding play, A Dream is too quirky and perhaps even risky. If some noble person took umbrage at what seemed to be a satiric mock, Shakespeare's company could have lost its fee. Humorlessness is the better part of artistic valor in aristocratic entertainments. Even today a production of A Dream may prove to be a risky aristic venture. If a director is eager for laughs, Bottom and his colleagues become buffoons, and the comedy of love in the forest scenes descends to a slapstick farce performed by antic puppets. Indeed, it is more likely that A Dream will be vulgarized in performance than that it will prove too ethereal for popular audiences.
It is a mistake to stress the delicate imaginings of A Dream when its characterizations, plotting, and humor are robust, and its true charm can be appreciated only by those who have a taste for very bad poetry. Compared to the mysteries of Prospero's island, the magic of the forest of Athens is homely and mundane. Puck is part mischievous child, part practical joker; Peaseblossom and Mustard Seed are a common garden variety of fairies. Rather than a play for the esoteric few, A Dream is the very kind of play that Bottom and his companions spent their pennies to see, and Shakespeare keeps reminding us through their earnest attempts to wrestle with problems of stagecraft that they are part of the drama-loving populace that supported the public theaters. Indeed, the comedy of their rehearsal scenes cries out for performance on the bare sunlit stage of a public playhouse, in which settings are evoked primarily by language and can be instantaneously altered, expanded, and shrunk through a magic at least as artful as Oberon's.
What sets A Dream apart from the earlier comedies is not so much its richly sensuous and evocative poetry, though that is new to the comedies, as its complex and perfectly assured dramatic structure. It is as if the problems of comedic form that defied solution in Love's Labor's and Two Gentlemen no longer seem to exist, or are, of a sudden, erased by an artistic inspiration that transcends logical calculations. A lesser dramatist would have retreated from the romantic extravagance of Two Gentlemen to a simpler, more tightly constructed comic plotting. Shakespeare takes the opposite tack, and by weaving together three separate but intersecting strands of action achieves an apparently effortless, harmonious design that can bear comparison with the splendid double plotting of 1 Henry IV. The earlier comedies expand the dimensions of Roman farce by mingling clowns and caricatures with romantic heroes and heroines. A Dream has the expansiveness of the later comedies that is created by the presence of multiple dramatic worlds; the interplay between the lovers, the fairies, and the rude mechanicals points toward the interplay between Venice and Belmont in The Merchant, Olivia's household and Orsino's in Twelfth Night.
By all the conventional rules of artistic decorum, the three worlds of A Dream cannot be part of the same dramatic universe. Theseus, mythic demigod and epic hero, should be battling minotaurs, not arbitrating a family dispute; the fleeing Athenian lovers should encounter Macedonian outlaws, Persian pirates, or Turks, not an English hobgoblin and the king of the fairies; and neither Theseus, nor the Athenian lovers should make the acquaintance of Bottom and his fellow artisans, who daydream of tragic art in their Cheapside shops and patronize the Theater, not the Theater of Dionysius. Beaumont will burlesque bourgeois taste for romance and melodrama in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Shakespeare does not allow us to patronize any of the characters in A Dream even though much of the comic effect of the play depends upon the incongruity of the high-flown passions they self-consciously express, either in their own person or in the role of Pyramus, Thisbe, and Wall. For nothing is exaggerated, nothing in the responses and behavior of the characters is made to seem ridiculous. If the comedy of A Dream depended on the transformation of personality by magical enchantment, Shakespeare, not Quince, would be the mechanical playwright. The chief source of delight is the refusal of those who are enchanted to change their customary way of behaving or even admit that they are enchanted despite the curious lengthening of Bottom's ears and the instantaneous reversals of Demetrius and Lysander's passions. Although their circumstances radically change, they remain stubbornly the same, their feet firmly planted on the floor even when the floor becomes the ceiling.
Lacking confidence in the high comedy of the forest scenes, directors sometimes play them as slapstick farce. This approach reduces the enchantment of Demetrius and Lysander to a tiresome gag of B-movies—the push-button hypnotic trance. In such films the hero is at one moment his ordinary self; the next moment a telephone rings or a special word is spoken and the shy retiring bank clerk becomes an irresistible lothario; an incompetent athlete, a superstar. Oberon's magic may alter the object of the heroes' affections or change Bottom's physiognamy, but it does not alter their essential natures. Despite Oberon's ministrations and manipulations, these characters never become marionettes, and since they are always in their right minds, they have no difficulty in rationalizing the irrational. Demetrius and Lysander are no more astonished by their changed desires than the lords of Navarre are dismayed to learn that they prefer love to monastic discipline. They know, as Orsino does, that men are not as steadfast in affection as women and that their quest for the ideal may require the jilting of one woman for another as they see more clearly into the neoplatonic mystery of love. If Proteus and Romeo can change loves, why cannot Demetrius abandon Helena for Hermia, and rediscover Helena, and think that all the time he is ascending the ladder of love? More innocent than Proteus and Valentine in their attitude toward women and romantic rivalry, they are not ambivalent about love; they do not speak cynically of the susceptibility of women to flattery or greed. Their rivalry is open and declared, not cunningly concealed and Machiavellian. Indeed, they treat one another in a gentlemanly way even when they would settle their rivalry with swords. They are ungentlemenly only to women, as Bertram will be in All's Well and Posthumus will be in Cymbeline. Behind the absurdity of the heroes' behavior in the forest is the ironic truth of male egotism in affairs of love and honor.
If the emphasis falls on the irrationality of love in A Dream, it does not follow that Shakespeare is advancing the cause of sobriety or moderation. What Theseus and Bottom say about reason and love is well said and eminently reasonable, as reasonable as Benvolio's attempt to restore Romeo's equanimity by proving to him that Rosaline is not the only fish in the sea. It is dangerous to make a god of love and folly to surrender to the melancholy of unrequited desire. The absoluteness of romantic passion can be tyrannical and destructive. Mischance, an ancient feud, and the passions of friends and foes all conspire against Romeo and Juliet. Ultimately, however, they are not victims of circumstance; they choose to die because they will not live without each other, because, as Donne would have it, they are "one another's all," and unless they may live in each other's arms they have no wish to breathe. What could be more senseless? Experience assures us that the misery of unrequited love fades and that people love and marry again after the deaths of beloved spouses. Yet the mystique of romantic passion insists that in this vast world there is only one Isolde for a Tristan, only one Romeo for a Juliet. Too sensible to credit such a view, Benvolio proves to Romeo that there are women in Verona more beautiful and desirable than Rosaline. He proves conclusively that Romeo's love melancholy can be cured, but his sensible remedy leads only to Juliet and a deeper emotional commitment that costs Romeo's life. If we are to set limits to the role of passion in our lives, we must also be willing to set limits to the role of common sense and reason because the ideal of love is absolute and unbending and defined as such in marriage vows that pledge eternal devotion. It is easy to smile at the irrationality of romantic yearnings, but there is something irrational also in the loyalty of Shakespeare's heroines to those who betray them or prove unworthy. At some point we must refuse to reason the need for love, refuse to measure out the appropriate emotional responses of those in love, and refuse to moralize the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, who are the victims of other characters' vanities, follies, and timidities, not of their own passions.
Since Hermia and Helena are equally fair and alike in gentleness and a capacity to love, there is no reason why Demetrius should abandon Helena to pursue Hermia; but then Demetrius and Lysander are so alike, there is no reason why Hermia detests the former and risks all to elope with the latter, despite the sharp penalty threatened by Athenian law. Still Shakespeare does not present the turmoil of the lovers as much ado about nothing, and he does not make their choices seem arbitrary or capricious. For if romantic love is blind, it is less blind and irrational than the obstinate insistence of an Egeus (or a Capulet) on choosing his daughter's husband despite her anguished objections. If anything, Egeus's choice of Demetrius is more irrational than Hermia's choice of Lysander because Demetrius has sullied his reputation by jilting Helena. The tyranny of Cupid is nothing compared to the tyranny of the ancient custom that allows a father to dispose of a daughter as chattel and thereby turn wedding vows into legalistic shams.
Since Hermia and Lysander thrill to the idea that they are star-crossed, we suspect that they will not suffer the tragic fates of the legendary lovers to whom they compare themselves. Like Bottom and Quince they have read tales like "Pyramus and Thisbe" and perhaps read Dido, Queen of Carthage (in translation), and they agree with the artisans that a bit of tragic calamity is the best beginning for a happy marriage. Although they bemoan their fates, they intend to live happily ever after. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, they have no need of a tragic chorus, because they gloss their own story in a high rhetorical vein:
Lysander. Ay me! for aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth;
But either it was different in blood—
Her. O cross! Too high to be enthrall'd to [low].
Lys. Or else misgraffed in respect of years—
Her. O spite! too old to be engag'd to young.
Lys. Or else it stood upon the choice of
Her. O hell, to choose love by another's eyes!
Lysander is not the worst of lyric poets; he can speak as eloquently of love's brevity as Romeo or Juliet because he shares their knowledge that love can be
momentany as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth;
And ere a man hath power to say "Behold!"
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.
Hermia is no less romantic but far less imaginative; she can turn a heartfelt vow into a classroom recitation. When Lysander asks her to join him in fleeing the severe law of Athens, she pledges
by Cupid's strongest bow,
By his best arrow with the golden head,
By the simplicity of Venus' doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
And by that fire which burn'd the Carthage
In that same place thou hast appointed me
To-morrow truly will I meet with thee.
No lawyer could make the contract of love more literal and specific; this is the very boiler-plate of passionate commitment. Bottom and Quince are even more literal-minded in their approach to the staging of tragic passion, but their yearning for romantic angst is as genuine as Hermia's, as genuine as the yearning of ordinary Elizabethans for tales of exotic adventure and plays filled with sound and fury. Quince was not born to write poetic tragedy any more than Bottom was born to act in it. They are not Marlowes or Burbages any more than Hermia and Lysander are Isolde and Tristan, and their longing for the heroic is therefore the source of a new kind of verbal comedy that is neither witty like the wordplay of Berowne and Rosaline, nor pedantic like the wordplay of Holofernes and Nathaniel. Bottom and Quince do not stumble over words because they are ignorant or out to impress their comrades. They misuse terms and figures of speech because they are out of their depths as dramatists and dramaturges. They are earnest rather than pompous in dealing with the mysteries of aesthetic terminology, and they approach the task of presenting high tragedy with the solemnity that Hermia and Lysander bring to the adventure of elopement.
In romance a jilted maiden is wreathed in a delicate, wistful pathos. She is vulnerable like Ophelia, her cheeks are wan and tear-stained, and she sings a plaintive willow song. Mariana of Measure for Measure is the only heroine of the comedies to conform to this romantic archetype. Helena, like Julia, Hero, and Helena of All's Well, is far more sturdy. She is too stubborn to accept rejection and has too strong a sense of herself to wilt before Demetrius's scorn. Refusing to abandon hope of regaining his love, she dedicates all thought and action to that goal. Although she dwells continually on her unhappy state, she is not self-pitying and she does not want to be pitied by others. She talks to herself about her situation the way tennis players talk to themselves when their game has slipped and they must regain concentration. She is not certain why she is losing but she knows she must not concede defeat, and she studies Hermia's success to see if she can pick up some useful hints. She is determined to understand what has happened, what cause in herself or Demetrius has made her the underdog. Ready to chase after Demetrius, she is too proud to beg for love and is inclined rather to accuse and scold him. She may be jealous of Hermia, who now has Demetrius's love, but she does not accuse her of stealing her fiancé. It is as if she long ago accepted the fact that Hermia was a bit more attractive and would always be the first one asked to dance. She does not wish that Hermia were less beautiful; she would simply like to be more fair. "Sickness is catching," she muses; "O, were favor so." She does not brood over her appearance, however, because she knows that through Athens she is thought as fair as Helena. Because jealousy is foreign to her nature and she is absorbed in her own problems, she does not seem to notice the feline pleasure Hermia takes in describing Demetrius's infatuation with her:
Her. I frown upon him; yet he loves me still.
Hel. O that your frowns would teach my smiles
Her. I give him curses; yet he gives me love.
Hel. O that my prayers could such affection
Her. The more I hate, the more he follows me!
Hel. The more I love, the more he hateth me.
Her. His folly, Helena, is no fault of mine.
Hel. None but your beauty; would that fault
If Helena were more calculating, she would keep silent about Hermia's elopement and be rid of her rival for good. But that would be to win the match by default; no, she must rush to tell Demetrius so as to have his thanks and the excuse to trail after him while he pursues the eloping lovers. Although she harps on her unhappy state, she does not enjoy it in any masochistic way, and she is quick to react to any imagined slight or mockery. Hermia expresses her prosaic nature in a detailed inventory of Cupid's armaments; Helena reveals her dogged approach to experience by subjecting the ancient myth of Cupid to modern scientific analysis in an attempt to determine why Demetrius dotes on Hermia. The answer, she concludes is that
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgment taste;
Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste.
So much for the mystery of love! Dan Cupid is clearly a public hazard on the road to marriage. She is equally adept at analyzing human psychology, with the aid of some deliciously flat-footed puns:
… ere Demetrius look'd on Hermia's eyne,
He hail'd down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolv'd, and show'rs of oaths did melt.
Helena has a gift of metaphor that is fatal to the poetic imagination. When Demetrius complains because she is following him in the forest, she explains:
You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel.
Lysander and Hermia speak of the accidents that can befall true love; Helena assumes that nothing is accidental; for every effect, there is a cause, whether the effect be Demetrius's swerving or Hermia's beauty:
Happy is Hermia, wheresoe'er she lies,
For she hath blessed and attractive eyes.
How came her eyes so bright? Not with salt
If so, my eyes are oft'ner wash'd than hers.
If favor is not catching, pedestrian wordplay seems to be. Exasperated by Helena's pursuit in the forest, Demetrius at last complains that he is "wode within this wood."
The matter-of-factness of the lovers is understandable; they are citizens of an Athens in which heroic adventures are no longer commonplace but belong to a mythic past that Theseus and Hippolyta have put behind them. The law that threatens Hermia should she disobey her father's wishes is a vestige of that mythic past, but one doubts that Egeus's paternal tyranny will have tragic consequences when there is a comic fussiness in the accusations he levels at Lysander:
Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her
And interchang'd love-tokens with my child;
Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung
With faining voice verses of faining love,
And stol'n the impression of her fantasy
With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds,
Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats.
Sweetmeats! Shall Hermia die the death or wither away in a convent because of Lysander's cunning sweetmeats? The conflict between love and statute seems to admit no reasonable compromise except Lysander's suggestion that Demetrius, who has Egeus's love, marry him.
Since Egeus's preference for Demetrius is as idiosyncratic as Hermia's preference for Lysander, the laws of Athens provide no solution to the seeming anarchy of passion; obedience to order and degree merely buttresses Egeus's obtuse willfulness. The mythic allusions in A Dream underline the terrifying force of sexual passion, which turned some gods into adulterous seducers and ravishers of innocence. The power of love to change the lives of mortals is the continuing mythic theme of Ovid's Metamorphoses. The wonder and fear that overwhelming passion evokes is recorded in the ancient legends of men and women enslaved by love potions and spells. Like Egeus, Brabantio is convinced that his daughter has been bewitched, and not long after we smile at Egeus's superstition, Oberon and Puck appear to make the fantasy of enchanted love a reality.
Despite Egeus's complaint, these moonlit enchantments are quite impossible in an Athens where Theseus, who ravished Perigenia and broke his faith with Aegles, Adriane, and Antiopa, is now a model of princely respectability. Properly raised, the maidens of Athens are chary of their reputations and expect their suitors to honor their virginal modesties. Although Lysander waxes amorous for a time, Hermia cools his ardor, and Demetrius's threat to ravish Helena is made out of exasperation, not lust. Primal natural passions do not make their claim in the dark forest because Athenian youth do not lie together under the greenwood tree or abandon themselves to desire in May or in midsummer. The forest of Athens is not a trysting place; it is a retreat for nature walks among the woodland flowers, a place to dream of elves who war with bees and reremice and sleep in flowers and discarded snake skins. The dark underside of nature in A Dream is nothing more than the delicate world of the fairies, who embody our age-old fear of the shadowy night and derive their being from winter tales repeated around the fire. Oberon and Titania are well bred, benign, and tolerant in their view of mortals, even though the former allows Puck's practical jokes. Oberon, when crossed by his wife, can be as blustering as any husband or father and capable of plotting a nasty revenge, but he is a romantic at heart who is sympathetic to the lovelorn Helena and offended by Demetrius's abuse of her.
Since Oberon cannot settle his own marital problems, it is not surprising that his intervention creates additional difficulties for the lovers. His herbal remedies are all-powerful but they are misapplied because Puck sensibly decides that Lysander, who sleeps apart from Hermia, is the nasty lack-love he seeks. Oberon's charms can make a sleeper adore the first person he sees when he awakes. They cannot, however, change anything essential in either a mortal or a fairy's nature. Titania's tenderness for the long-eared Bottom is natural in a woman who dared her husband's royal anger for the sake of a changeling child and the memory of the mortal woman who bore him. Lovers and rivals before they entered the forest, Lysander and Demetrius continue as such when enchanted; the magical drops do not make them forget their earlier loves, and they are perfectly aware of their sudden alterations of affection. Unperplexed, they rejoice in their new loves and justify their giddiness with hackneyed sophistries. They must be unfaithful to their former loves to be true to themselves because they know now that they did not really love before. Until the drops were placed in their eyes they did not see clearly. Oberon's magic does not make them inexcusably rude to Hermia; their desire to prove their devotion to Helena prompts that unchivalry, and the fever of competition makes them careless of all else, as they were in the opening scene, in which they insulted one another. Having ascended the neoplatonic ladder of love, they see clearly and rationally that all's fair in love and war and that the sensible thing to do is eliminate their rival in a duel. Ever the gentlemen, they are ready to protect Helena from Hermia's fingernails by brute force if necessary.
In itself, the joke of the love drops is limited and repetitious. Demetrius and Lysander imitate one another in their suddenly discovered eternal devotion to Helena, their facile rationalizations, and their romantic hyperboles. The richest comedy of the forest scenes lies in the heroines' attempts to make sense of the heroes' bizarre behavior. The comic situation resembles that of Errors in that Oberon's enchantments create for the lovers the supposes that confuse the twin brothers, except that Demetrius and Lysander find nothing strange in their new circumstance; and, unlike Adriana and Luciana, Hermia and Helena know that something is terribly amiss and do their best to fathom the muddle. There are shrill accusations, false surmises, and whirling swords in the Athenian forest as in the streets of Ephesus, but we delight now in Hermia and Helena's psychological responses rather than in Shakespeare's ingenious manipulation of his farcical situation. The more conventionally feminine of the heroines, Hermia will not let Lysander sleep near her in the forest. He suggests that one turf serve as pillow for them both: "One heart, one bed, two bosoms, one troth." "Nay, good Lysander," she replies, "For my sake, my dear, / Lie further off yet, do not lie so near." When she awakes to find Lysander gone and Demetrius present, she leaps to melo-dramatic conclusions, a tendency in those who have read too many tragical tales. If Demetrius has slain Lysander for her love, she says,
Being o'er shoes in blood, plunge in the deep,
And kill me too.
Where Hermia is ready to believe the worst of the well-shod Demetrius, Helena is not willing to accept the astonishing reality of Lysander's and Demetrius's sudden passion for her. She has grown accustomed to her underdog role with all the moral advantages it allows, and she is too sensible to believe that passions instantaneously alter; there must be a reason for the heroes' sudden attraction to her even as there had to be a reason for Demetrius's desertion of her for Hermia. When Lysander awakes to declare that reason leads him to her eyes, she wonders why she was born to this "keen mockery," why he flouts her female "insufficiency," why a lady "of one man refused, / Should of another therefore be abused." A loyal friend, she does not find Lysander's passion a sweet recompense for her rejection by Demetrius; instead she is appalled by his untruth to Hermia. When Demetrius leaps up to deify her with Marlovian hyperboles and invidious comparisons, she is convinced of their derision because she knows when men "superpraise [her] parts." The last piece of the puzzle slips into place for Helena when Hermia appears and is spurned by Lysander as one he hates. Now she knows that she is the victim of one of the cruel jokes school children play on one another. They have whispered in a corner and ganged up to make her miserable. It pains her to recall the days when she and Hermia were as one in all they felt and did.
… with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds,
Had been incorporate.
These innocent days are ended; sexual maturity has expelled them from the Eden of their girlhood into an adult world of rivalries, insecurities, and pain. Helena feelingly complains that her dear friend has set Lysander to praise her eyes and face and set Demetrius to call her "goddess, nymph, divine and rare, / Precious and celestial" so that they may wink and smirk at her when her back is turned. What could be more diabolical? To prove the truth of their affections, Demetrius and Lysander are ready to slay one another. Incredulous, Hermia asks what change is this in Lysander, her sweet love. "Thy love? Out tawny Tartar, out," the chivalric Lysander exclaims, "Out, loathed medicine! O hated potion, hence!" Now Hermia sees the light. She cannot blame her beloved Lysander for mistreating her. The fault must be Helena's, the "thief of love" who came by night and stole Lysander's heart. This accusation is the last straw for the aggrieved Helena, who turns on Hermia with "impatient answers" torn from her gentle tongue: "Fie, fie! You counterfeit, you puppet, you!" These unguarded words give away Helena's cunning game to Hermia, who realizes that her rival has won Lysander by the Machiavellian trick of comparing their heights.
And are you grown so high in his esteem,
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? Speak!
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach until thine eyes.
At last Helena begins to enjoy her enviable position; turning shy, defenseless maiden, she implores Lysander and Demetrius to protect her from this vixen who is dangerous though "something lower than myself," fierce in nature though "little." As the argument continues, Hermia's stature dwindles until she is hardly visible in the under-growth. "Get you gone, you dwarf," Lysander urges,
You minimus, of hind'ring knot-grass made;
You bead, you acorn!
The joke of Hermia's littleness was no doubt inspired in part by the actors in Shakespeare's company, one appreciably shorter than the other, who played women's roles. The comic quarrel does not depend, however, upon a real difference in height between actors because here as elsewhere in A Dream words magically affect the size and appearance of things. In English and Celtic folklore, fairies, elves, and goblins are not much smaller in stature than humans; they are perhaps childlike in manner but not diminutives. In A Dream the fairies are tiny creatures, a patent impossibility because they are played by actors of average height who speak of themselves as dwarfed by cowslips. Yet the drastic illusion holds because believing is seeing, and because on stage one need not nibble a mushroom to shrink in stature; Hermia dwindles to a mere bead once Helena and Lysander begin to slang her.
To say that a few words suffice to indicate setting, time, or season of year on Shakespeare's stage is not to say that audiences imagine rosy-fingered dawns when characters describe them, any more than readers of poetry "see" its "visual imagery." In the opening scene of Hamlet, the sentries say that they are cold and frightened keeping watch at midnight on the battlements of Elsinore, even as they challenge one another on a bare, sunlit stage. The power of dramatic illusion does not depend upon the ability of poetic language to persuade an audience that light is dark; it requires only that the characters be convinced of the reality of their dramatic circumstances and communicate that conviction through dialogue and stage business. If they do not recognize someone in disguise, the disguise is impenetrable even though accomplished by the flimsiest of means. Because Bottom and his companions are unimaginative, it does not occur to them to bring in moonlight the way Shakespeare does, through poetic allusion. They are as earnest about their stagecraft as the lovers are about their passions and more literal-minded. If the play calls for a wall, they will bring a wall on stage, and perhaps they are right to do so because they do not possess a professional actor's ability to make an imaginary wall real by stage gesture and action. They are not so prosaic, however, as to aim at mundane realism; they know that symbolism is native to art and are ready to enlist members of the company to play Moonlight and Wall. Such people, one thinks, should not be allowed on stage, and yet the stage is their natural habitat because only in a Shakespearean comedy will one find a joiner like Snug, who wants the lion's part writ out because he is slow of study. Their rehearsal scenes are at once a travesty of theatrical production and a celebration of the versatility of the public playhouses. The would-be actors walk out on a bare platform stage and tell themselves and the audience that they are in a forest. For lack of a theater in which to rehearse, they will pretend that a woodland clearing is a stage, and they will also pretend that the imaginary shrub Quince points out will serve as a tiring house from which to enter. Compared to these instantaneous metamorphoses, Oberon's spells are very limited in effect.
We need not eke out the imperfections of the rehearsal scenes with our thoughts because the dramatic situations are absolutely convincing in performance and any use of scenery would only blur the gentle humor of Shakespeare's comments on dramatic illusion. If Quince says that a stage is a forest and a greensward a stage, who will argue with him? If an actor says that he is small enough to sleep in a snakeskin, who will object that he is five feet six inches tall and perhaps a bit paunchy? It is Bottom's unshakable sense of the reality of his experience that equips him to enter into the fancifulness of Titania's world. Introduced to someone called Cobweb, he makes appropriate small talk. He does not wonder at his hairy ears and face and at his ungulate appetites; whatever is, is right. He does not worry over the Queen of the Fairies' sudden adoration as Helena wrestles with Lysander and Demetrius's yearning for her. He knows there is no accounting for the heart's desires, and he is too polite to question a lady's motives or refuse her attentions. His ease and graciousness in fairyland confirm the virtue of an innocent if prosaic sensibility. Although scholars sometimes assume that the best audience for Shakespeare would be learned and urbane auditors like themselves, Shakespeare would, I suspect, have rejoiced in audiences that could respond to stage illusion with something like Bottom's unspoiled simplicity.
Where Demetrius and Lysander are at times nasty to Hermia and Helena, Bottom and his colleagues are deeply concerned not to offend the ladies in their audience. The heroes strike chivalric postures, but Bottom is instinctively chivalric toward women: modest, tactful, thankful for small favors, he would not think of taking advantage of Titania's infatuation. She would shower him with luxuries; he would be happy with some oats, hay, and dried peas, and someone to scratch his hairy face. Inevitably he is friendly rather than amorous, for he is the kind of bachelor on whom all communities depend, one who is enthusiastic, energetic, knowledgeable, and free of evenings. The politician's gift of friendly solicitude that he demonstrates with Mustard Seed guarantees that he will sit some day on the county council and perhaps wear an alderman's...
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David P. Young (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: "Bottom's Dream," in Something of Great Constancy: The Art of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Yale University Press, 1966, pp. 111-66.
[In the following excerpt, Young argues that Shakespeare uses the dream motif and fairy magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream to explore philosophical and psychological ideas, focusing in particular on the relationship between nature and art.]
"Man is but an ass," says Bottom, "if he go about to expound this dream." That might serve as a warning to commentators. Serious discussions of comedy always take place near the precipice of academic fatuity. Nonetheless, it is...
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Norman N. Holland (essay date 1979)
SOURCE: "Hermia's Dream," in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
[Holland is an American educator and critic who employs a Freudian psychoanalytic approach to literature and emphasizes the subjective nature of our response to literature. In the following excerpt, originally published in 1979, he analyzes Hermia's dream in A Midsummer Night's Dream, relating it to the play's ambivalent treatment of love.
Literature is a dream dreamed for us.
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Calderwood, James L. A Midsummer Night's Dream. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992, 227 p.
Examines the play in light of the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, looking in particular at issues of male authority, desire, and personal identity.
Empson, William. "The Spirits of the 'Dream'." In William Empson: Essays on Renaissance Literature, edited by John Haffenden, pp. 226-48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Explores interactions between fairy and human characters in the play.
Farrell, Kirby. "A Rite to Bay the Bear: Creation and Community in A Midsummer Night's Dream." In...
(The entire section is 495 words.)