A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vol. 29)
A Midsummer Night's Dream
See also, A Midsummer Night's Dream Criticism and Volumes 58 and 82.
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...
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The Supernatural And The Imagination
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 possible to be too cautious; studies of Shakespeare's philosophical and psychological preoccupations have in the past dealt almost exclusively with the tragedies and histories. Such exclusion inevitably leaves the impression that the comedies are somehow thoughtless. More recently, plays like Troilus and Cressida have been shown to have serious content, but such content, it is usually suggested, exists at the expense of comic potential. Troilus is rich in ideas, at least as rich as Hamlet, but it is not very funny, and these two facts are often treated as if they illustrated some inexorable aesthetic law. Thus, the funnier comedies are still widely felt to be trivial in content, and a comparison between, say, As You...
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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.
—The Dynamics of Literary Response (1968)
What could be more imaginary than a dream of a dream of a dream? Yet Hermia's dream is just that in A Midsummer Night's Dream. She dreams but later decides she was dreaming that she dreamed. Then, at the very end of the play, we, the audience, are told: "You have but slumb'red here"; we dreamed that she dreamed that she dreamed.
A dream of a dream of a dream—surely this is what the comedy means when it tells how:
… as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.
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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 Shakespeare's Creation: The Language of Magic and Play, pp. 97-116. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1975.
Suggests that Shakespeare uses the interaction between the city and the fairy wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream to dramatize the harmony between rational and irrational behavior that is necessary in order to attain a balance of freedom and community in love.
Freeman, Barbara. "Dis/Figuring Power: Censorship and Representation in A Midsummer Night's Dream." In Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy, pp. 154-91. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Reads the play in terms of issues of censorship and self-censorship...
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