A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vol. 58)
A Midsummer Night's Dream
See also A Midsummer Night's Dream Criticism (Volume 29), and Volumes 45, 82.
Believed to have been written circa 1594, A Midsummer Night's Dream follows the comic adventures of four lovers in a wood populated by fairies who are busy trying to sort out their own romantic differences. At times, the play's language and subject matter approach tragedy, but its ending, which features happy weddings for all the principal characters, solidifies the play's designation as comedy. These genre issues, as well as the play's language and structure, form the basis of much of the critical discussion of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The sexual escapades of the lovers, as well as the fairies, are also of critical interest. Other areas of scholarly debate include the play's concern with myth and ritual, and the problematic role of the changeling child.
Although designated as a comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, with its emphasis on the exploits of the four lovers, is often viewed as a romantic comedy. M. E. Comtois (1985) argues, however, that what the lovers contribute to the play is not romance, but farce. Comtois examines the comic role the characters play, particularly through the mistaken-assumption scenario, and states that it is only in the final act of the play that they function within the construct of romantic comedy. Helen Hackett (1997) studies the romantic and often tragic aspects of A Midsummer Night's Dream, particularly the allusions to the wrong paths the characters are tempted to take in the name of love, and the play's hidden threats of mortality. Hackett also discusses the “fortunate” happy ending, pointing out that the happy ending is in part derived from the play’s emphasis on the relatively new concept that marriage should be based on love.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is rife with sexual content. Vicki Shahly Hartman (1983) explores the play's sexual issues, observing that Theseus and Hippolyta represent mature heterosexual intimacy and proper gender identity. The incestuous desires of the parent figures Egeus and Titania, explains Hartman, contrast with the children of the play—including Bottom—who resist seduction in either an active or passive manner. Hartman emphasizes that the play is optimistic about “man's ability to answer the discord between societal restrictions and instinctual impulse with a ‘dream.’ …” The Bottom-Titania relationship is the focus of Bruce Thomas Boehrer's 1994 study of the bestiality in the play. Boehrer shows that in an effort to regain domestic harmony, Oberon places Titania in sexual bondage to a donkey. The play suggests, Boehrer argues, that human nature is threatened by “the bestial and/or female other” and must consequently be guarded against this threat. Jonathan Hall (1995) is more interested in the sexual politics, rather than the sexuality, of the play. Hall assesses the violence of the patriarchal order, which is represented by Theseus and dramatized in his conquering of Hippolyta, and in the choices—including death—with which he presents Hermia.
Issues concerning language and structure are of perpetual interest to Shakespearean scholars and A Midsummer Night's Dream offers a variety of avenues for study. Garrett Stewart (1981) discusses Bottom's “awakening speech” in Act IV, scene i. Stewart examines Bottom's insights regarding the relationship between dream and drama, and the language he uses to express his revelation. Robert F. Willson, Jr. (1981) is concerned with the way anticlimax is used as a structuring device in the play. Willson studies situations in which characters or events take a tragic turn, only to be undercut by speeches or other events. Critics have also analyzed the play's structure in its relation to ritual and myth. Anca Vlasopolos (1978) demonstrates the parallels between the ritual of Midsummer, or St. John's Day, and the play's structure. Vlasopolos observes that both the ritual and the play possess a dual—Christian and pagan—frame of reference and both encompass a night of “misrule” followed by a holy day. René Girard (1979) takes a different approach, focusing on the process by which the animal and metaphysical imagery in the play lead from the mimetic desire of the lovers to the creation of myth. Girard goes on to suggest that the play presents Shakespeare's generic theory of myth.
The changeling child, although he never appears on stage, plays a vital role in A Midsummer Night's Dream, as he is the impetus behind the chaos in the fairy world. Oberon commands Titania to yield the child to him and it is her refusal to do so that spurs Oberon to bewitch her into her infatuation with the ass-headed Bottom. William W. E. Slights (1988) observes that there is no resolution between Oberon and Titania regarding the changeling and argues that the child reflects the play's indeterminate nature and emphasizes the fact that no single or higher truth is solidified at the play's ending. The Freudian analysis of the changeling child presented by Bruce Clarke (1995) underscores the effect of the child on the “parents” Oberon and Titania. Clarke explains that the quarrelling between the King and Queen prevents their union, producing the separation wished for by the child. Clarke argues that Titania's refusal to relinquish the changeling fulfills the boy's oedipal desire.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Introduction to English Renaissance Comedy, Manchester University Press, 1999, pp. 46-69.
[In the following essay, Leggatt surveys the plot, themes, and characters of A Midsummer Night's Dream,emphasizing the wide dispersal of power and authority in the play.]
A Midsummer Night's Dream, like Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, is a creation of the public theatre. It was performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, around 1595 or 1596, at the Theatre in the northern suburb of Shore-ditch. Many scholars have speculated that it was also performed at, and perhaps commissioned for, an aristocratic wedding; for some the speculation amounts to a certainty, and the only problem is to determine which wedding. In fact there is not a shred of evidence, internal or external, to support this theory; it is a self-perpetuating tradition with no basis in fact.1 When we think of the play's original performance it is best to think not of an elegant occasion with a courtly audience in a candle-lit hall but of a normal afternoon in an outdoor playhouse (possibly a bit run-down: the Theatre was twenty years old by this time) with rulers, aristocrats, clowns and fairies exposed in daylight to an audience almost as miscellaneous as the play's cast of characters. Shakespeare was not, in the first instance, an entertainer to the court or the...
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Criticism: The Changeling
SOURCE: “The Changeling in A Dream,” in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 259-72.
[In the following essay, Slights contends that the changeling boy reflects the irresolution and indeterminancy of A Midsummer Night's Dream.]
Midway through the first scene of Act II in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon, King of the Fairies, begs “a little changeling boy” of Titania. She responds, “The fairy land buys not the child of me” (II.i.120, 122), and from this exchange—or non-exchange—follows a highly determined though minimally textualized custody battle.1 After a great deal has been done and said about the nature of love and marriage, and a quantity of flower juice has been squirted about, Oberon again “ask[s] of her her changeling child,” and “straight” Titania gives it to him (IV.i.59-60), not because the snaky scales of feminine insubordination have fallen from her eyes, but because Oberon has caused her to become infatuated with a very funny-looking local weaver who is also not her husband. The quarrel over the changeling boy is powerful but also peripheral, erratically described, and never properly resolved. These and similar anomalies in Shakespeare's treatment of the changeling boy make it difficult to see how the other characters, followed by a group of usually reliable critics, can say with such fierce...
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SOURCE: “The Gender of Metamorphosis,” in Allegories of Writing, State University of New York Press, 1995, pp. 113-48.
[In the following excerpt, Clarke offers a Freudian analysis of the changeling child and his significance to Oberon and Titania.]
Like the pharmakon that slips out of semantic control in the moralization of the Circe story, a similarly ambivalent trope—the “changeling boy”—decenters the daemonic action of A Midsummer Night's Dream. On the one hand, Shakespeare adorns his erotic comedy with a lyrical gamut of names of generated forms, signs of natural growth and abundance. This profuse texture is one reason why, on the surface, the play is so good-natured:
Oberon. I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine. There sleeps Titania. …
On the other hand, even good-natured mischief can be painful, as when Puck frightens Bottom's companions out of the woods, and his mock-horrific transformations out-proteus Proteus:
Puck. I'll follow you; I'll lead you about a round, Through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier. Sometime a horse I'll be, sometime a hound, A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire; And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and...
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SOURCE: “The Comedy of the Lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 15-25.
[In the following essay, Comtois asserts that the lovers' contribution to the play is primarily in the realm of farce.]
A predilection of older criticism to view the young lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream as romantic protagonists1 has given way to a general recognition of their comic function in more contemporary criticism.2 What should follow is the recognition that the play is not primarily about them, that they do not form a main plot, but that they are just one voice in a four part madrigal of the nobility, lovers, artisans and fairies.3 That voice, until the last act, has been so written as to provide at least as much comedy as is provided by the artisans. The lovers' on-going contribution is principally farce, a form which demands extreme contrast between surface and substance, form and content.4 It requires minimal individualization and maximum complication. Their scenes have been shaped by the playwright to provide what farce requires: a comic victim. Only in the fifth act do they have a function in the genre of romantic comedy. There they fulfill Northrup Frye's argument of comedy: lovers must live happily ever after to fulfill our necessary assumptions about human destiny.5 For the first...
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SOURCE: “Varieties of Love, Variations of Genre,” in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Northcote House Publishers Ltd, 1997, pp. 32-46.
[In the following essay, Hackett explores the way A Midsummer Night's Dream vascillates between tragic and comic possibilities.]
Comedy is above all the drama of love; the conventional marker of a comic happy ending is at least one marriage, founded on the mutual desire of the two partners. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, we get marriage three times over—four if we count the reunion of Oberon and Titania—emphatically confirming that what we have witnessed is a comedy. It is a play where ‘Jack shall have Jill, / Naught shall go ill’ (III. ii. 461-2), forming an outright contrast to another comedy by Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost (1594-5), composed not long before A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which the nuptials of another four couples are deferred and ‘Our wooing doth not end like an old play: / Jack hath not Gill’ (V. ii. 874-5). Whereas in Love's Labour's Lost Shakespeare experiments with disruption of the conventional marriage-ending, the Dream ends precisely like an old play, and takes pleasure in convention and a sense of ritual.
Part of the sense of happiness at this play's ending is created by its participation in the relatively new ideology that marriage should be predominantly based on love....
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Criticism: Language And Structure
SOURCE: “Shakespearean Dreamplay,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 44-69.
[In the following excerpt, Stewart examines Bottom's insights regarding the relationship between dream and drama, and the language he uses to express his revelation.]
“I have an exposition of sleep come upon me.”
“Your actions are my dreams.”
Passing the tests of New and then Myth Criticism, with their bias respectively toward close and deep reading, Shakespeare's plays have come of late into an epoch of supra-reading, which boasts its own exhilaration as well as its own excess.1 With the texts open before us, we are no longer asked to imagine the plays on the boards at the Globe, but rather staged in some obliquely lit metatheater, attended by its audience not just as a chosen drama but as the Idea of Drama. By treating their own formal properties as part of their business as dramatic action, however, Shakespeare's metaplays need not detour from human pertinence into ingrown wit. Art, raised to self-consciousness, can reroute its themes into life at an even deeper level, and our best access to this underlying psychological stratum is to recover close reading for the service of the supratextual, to see how language styles the action of the metadrama.
The focus of this...
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SOURCE: “The Chink in the Wall: Anticlimax and Dramatic Illusion in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Vol. 117, 1981, pp. 85-90.
[In the following essay, Willson asserts that Shakespeare uses anticlimax in A Midsummer Night's Dreamas a device that underlies the entire plot of the play.]
The device of anticlimax dominates A Midsummer Night's Dream. A more appropriate word is “undercutting”, since anticlimax is identified so closely with bathos, or the descent of sense into nonsense. While there are numerous examples of poetic anticlimax in the comedy, and of pure bathos as well (“Pyramus and Thisbe” stands as a poetaster's delight), I am more interested in situations in which speakers and events threaten to move toward tragedy but are undercut by other words or events. A Midsummer Night's Dream certainly does not exhibit the melodrama associated with tragicomedy—I am not arguing for early Beaumont and Fletcher here. But in this comedy Shakespeare was certainly experimenting with the aesthetic conventions of tragedy and comedy, testing the boundary that separates the two genres. We know that Shakespeare composed Romeo and Juliet at about the same time as A Midsummer Night's Dream, and that the plot of “Pyramus and Thisbe”, those star-crossed lovers of another era, resembles in striking ways that of Romeo and Juliet....
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Criticism: Ritual And Myth
SOURCE: “The Ritual of Midsummer: A Pattern for A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, 1978, pp. 21-29.
[In the following essay, Vlasopolos explores the parallels between the ritual of Midsummer, or St. John's Day, and the play's structure.]
Interpretations of A Midsummer Night's Dream have suffered from a hesitation or a downright refusal on the part of critics to consider the full significance of the ritual of Midsummer, or Saint John's Day, in Shakespeare's comedy. The play, like the ritual which informs its structure, maintains a dual frame of reference, Christian and pagan. Within this frame such seemingly unrelated subjects as the moon and dew imagery, the frequent reference to eyes, and the business of magic plants, particularly the peacemaking ‘Dians bud,’ become thematic components of the comic movement toward reconciliation of natural and lawful love. The lovers' progression from the night of misrule to the light of the holy day parallels the pagan nature of the Midsummer festival and its Christian conclusion. The fertility rite of Midsummer Eve draws the lovers at last into harmony with each other and with the natural world. The dawn of Saint John's Day brings about the lovers' integration into society and into the community of religion which sanctifies their union, assuring them and their issue a permanence beyond that of generation....
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SOURCE: “Myth and Ritual in Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, edited by Josué V. Harari, Cornell University Press, 1979, pp. 189-212.
[In the following essay, Girard studies the role that animal and metaphysical images in A Midsummer Night's Dream play in the process leading from mimetic desire to myth.]
I have considered, our whole life is like a Play: wherein every man, forgetful of himselfe, is in travaile with expression of another. Nay, wee so insist in imitating others, as wee cannot (when it is necessary) returne to ourselves: like Children, that imitate the vices of Stammerers so long, till at last they become such; and make the habit to another nature, as it is never forgotten.
—Ben Jonson, Timber of Discoveries
The opening scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream leads the audience to expect an ordinary comedy plot. Boy and girl love each other. A mean old father is trying to separate them, with the help of the highest authority in the land, Theseus, duke of Athens. Unless she gives up Lysander, Hermia will have no choice but death or the traditional convent. As soon as this formidable edict is proclaimed, the father figures depart, leaving the lovers to their own devices. They launch into a duet on...
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SOURCE: “Bestial Buggery in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in The Production of English Renaissance Culture, edited by David Lee Miller, Sharon O'Dair, and Harold Weber, Cornell University Press, 1994, pp. 123-150.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Boehrer claims that A Midsummer Night's Dreampresents bestiality as associated with the maintenance of domestic order. The social arrangements in the play, Boehrer states, presume that human nature must be policed since it is threatened by the bestial, and/or female, “other.”]
Although no one has paid much sustained attention to the fact, A Midsummer Night's Dream is patently about bestiality.1 On the most immediate level, Titania's animal passion for the asinine Bottom climaxes the play's fairy subplot. In the process, this passion tests the bounds of Elizabethan theatrical decorum; Titania leads Bottom to a bed of flowers, embraces and kisses him, and woos him with some of the play's most extravagantly sensuous verse:
Come sit thee down upon this flow'ry bed, While I thy amiable cheeks do coy, And stick musk-roses in thy sleek smooth head, And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.(2)
Oddly enough, this moist rhetoric emerges from an exercise in household discipline: Oberon's plot to drug his wife with an aphrodisiac and thereby reassert his own domestic...
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SOURCE: “A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Gentle Concord to the Oedipal Problem,” in American Imago, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 355-69.
[In the following essay, Hartman identifies oedipal conflict originating in the incestuous desires of Egeus as well as Titania, and maintains that the play optimistically presents the resolution of such conflict within the confines of the “dream.”]
A Midsummer Night's Dream was written in honor of the marriage between Countess Southampton and Sir Thomas Heneage, the Queen's advisor. It is thought the Countess married her knight for political protection when her son committed the dangerous faux pas of promising to marry powerful Lord Burghley's granddaughter and, four years later, obdurately refused the match. Young Southampton's peculiar reluctance to wed a comely, well-titled woman culminated in a well-documented scandal. Shakespeare, then the Southamptons' family poet, gamely transformed Heneage into politic, dignified Theseus, wizarded the headstrong countess into Hippolyta and set both above the antics of the lovers, the dissipations and quarrels of the fairies. But the graceful newlyweds only frame the play; within, tumble riotous scenes of deluded, mismatched lovers, of man turned ass. A Midsummer Night's Dream congratulates the royal couple on their mature equanimity but more directly addresses the evolution of such...
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SOURCE: “Sexual Politics in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, Associated University Presses, 1995, pp. 98-115.
[In the following essay, Hall examines the play's treatment of the potential violence inherent in the patriarchal order, represented in A Midsummer Night's Dream by Theseus.]
The sexual politics which sets up the dialectic of pleasure and anxiety in A Midsummer Night's Dream is surprisingly violent and frank for a work which still enjoys a reputation for sweet and harmless celebration of the free poetic imagination. In one sense, at least, this familiar sentimentalization is not wrong. The play is deeply concerned with power and poetry, not the sovereign power of poetry but the implications of poetry in sexual politics. The enabling context is the dark underside of the Petrarchan idealism through which Elizabethan court politics was conducted, for the entrusting of the patriarchal inheritance of Henry VIII and of the further centralization of royal power to a female monarch upset the “natural” order of things to an extraordinary degree. And it put the crisis management of sexual politics at the center of national concerns to an extent that has probably not been equaled since. In view of the fact that the court of Elizabeth was the scene of a perpetual inversion of patriarchal “normality,” it is...
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Clayton, Thomas. “‘Fie What a Question's That If Thou Wert Near a Lewd Interpreter’: The Wall Scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Shakespeare Studies 7 (1974): 101-13.
Argues that in the Wall scene (V.i. 154-204), “Pyramus” and “Thisbe” hold their secret conversation not between Wall's upheld fingers, as is traditionally staged, but between his legs.
Franke, Wolfgang. “The Logic of Double Entendre in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Philological Quarterly 58, No. 3 (Summer 1979): 282-97.
Studies characters' naïve use of sexual puns in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Hendricks, Margo. “‘Obscured by Dreams’: Race, Empire, and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Shakespeare Quarterly 47, No. 1 (Spring 1996): 37-60.
Explores the racial implications of the changeling boy's Indian ethnicity, maintaining that Shakespeare's play continues in the traditions of travel narratives in which India is portrayed as an exotic place to be conquered.
Kott, Jan. “The Bottom Translation,” in The Bottom Translation: Marlowe and Shakespeare and the Carnival Tradition, translated by Daniela Miedzyrzecka and Lillian Vallee, pp. 29-68. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1987.
Examines the similes and emblems that recur throughout the...
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