A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vol. 70)
A Midsummer Night's Dream
For further information on the critical and stage history of A Midsummer Night's Dream, see SC, Volumes 3, 12, 29, 45, and 58.
One of Shakespeare's most popular plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream is often considered a lighthearted comedy. It traces the romantic escapades of four young Athenian lovers lost on a midsummer night in a forest ruled by fairies. The dreamlike events that occur in the enchanted wood are framed by court scenes dominated by Theseus, ruler of Athens. Another group of characters, designated as rustics, artisans, or mechanicals, and led by Bottom the weaver, inhabit the play and enhance its comedic effects. Despite the play's obvious comic design, a number of critics have also identified within A Midsummer Night's Dream darker undertones. Theseus refers to a war with the Amazons in which he conquered his wife Hippolyta, and Titania's interlude with Bottom, who has been transformed into a man with a donkey's head, is suggestive of bestiality. The play performed by the mechanicals, although staged in a hilarious and bumbling manner, is itself a tragedy. The resulting effect of the weaving of comic and tragic elements, the structure and characters supporting this effect, and the myths influencing the play's content have all become areas of modern critical scrutiny.
Bottom figures prominently in analyses of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Jan Kott (1987) focuses on Bottom's metamorphosis, contending that the perverse carnival atmosphere in the Bottom-Titania interludes contradicts theatrical conventions typically associated with masques and court entertainments. Kott concludes that while Shakespeare's depiction of Bottom's transformation allows for both light and serious readings of the play, either interpretation is fraught with contradiction. Philip C. McGuire (1989) examines the significance of Egeus, Hermia's father, to A Midsummer Night's Dream. McGuire focuses on Egeus's silence in Act IV, scene i, when Theseus states that he will overturn the Athenian law requiring that Hermia marry Demetrius, whom her father has chosen. McGuire notes that Egeus is silent at this point in both the Quarto and the Folio; however, at the wedding ceremony in Act V, the Folio specifies that Egeus is present whereas the Quarto does not. Given this textual discrepancy, McGuire speculates on how Egeus's silence should be interpreted, maintaining that it may indicate consent, perhaps even reconciliation with Hermia, or it may be interpreted as his withdrawal from Athenian society. In contrast to critics who have focused on the contentious elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Tom Clayton (1999) assesses the comedy's lighter aspects. Clayton downplays the bestial implications of the Bottom-Titania interlude and highlights the civil nature of the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta.
Many critics have argued that an examination of the relationship between the tragic and comic elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream is an important step to understanding the design of the play. While some scholars have attempted to demonstrate that the tragic and comic elements complement each other, Clifford Earl Ramsey (1977) underscores the distinct differences in their form and structure. Ramsey examines the scenic structure of the play, maintaining that it expresses diversity and opposition, and yet it also emphasizes harmony and integration. According to the critic, the scenic structure ultimately underscores the play's dual themes of the power of love and the power of imagination. Taking another approach, Richard H. Cox (1982) explores the way in which Shakespeare shaped his poetic imagination within the confines of comedy. Cox examines Shakespeare's comic treatment of the traditionally serious Theseus as well as the serious social subtext of the mechanicals' comic actions. Through these characters, Cox contends, Shakespeare didactically addressed weighty issues related to civic life within the framework of comedy. Similarly, Virgil Hutton (1985) explores the ways in which Shakespeare used comedy to camouflage the tragic content of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Hutton argues that Shakespeare raised religious and philosophical issues in the play, primarily in his treatment of the mechanicals, and outlines the ways in which the mechanicals' production of Pyramus and Thisby contrasts with the experiences of the lovers in the wood. Hutton demonstrates that the tragic world of Pyramus and Thisby resembles real life more than that of the dreamlike world of the four lovers. A. D. Nuttall (2000) traces the somber elements of A Midsummer Night's Dream to its mythic sources. Recounting the cruel depiction of Theseus in Greek myth, Nuttall demonstrates the careful, yet incomplete manner in which Shakespeare attempted to disguise Theseus's past. Furthermore, Nuttall reveals the dark background of the fairies and discusses the disturbing images evoked through Bottom's transformation and his interlude with Titania. Yet in his comic handling of Theseus, the fairies, and Bottom, Nuttall argues, Shakespeare offered a negotiation between comedy and tragedy, resulting in an exorcism of the fear evoked by the play's more sinister aspects.
The subtle balance of tragic and comic elements in the play presents significant challenges to modern directors of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Russell Jackson reviews a stage production of the play directed by Michael Boyd for the 1999-2000 season at Stratford-upon-Avon. Jackson analyzes the production's emphasis on the forest as the locus of sexuality, and comments on how the director deftly combined the sinister and comic elements of the play. The critic also praises Boyd's use of dance and movement in the production, noting that the dances evoked images of ancient fertility rites. Mark Thornton Burnett (2000) discusses two versions of the comedy directed by Adrian Noble, one a 1994-95 stage version, and the other Noble's 1996 film adaptation. While the staging achieved widespread critical acclaim, the film version received predominantly negative criticism. Burnett provides a reexamination of the film, concentrating on its style and “postmodern aspirations” and noting the way in which it successfully exploited and evoked childhood experience and children's stories. Many critics have assessed Michael Hoffman's 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. John Bemrose (1999) praises the performances of Kevin Kline as Bottom and Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania, but faults the film for interpreting the play in a modern and “tedious” Hollywood manner. Jim Welsh (1999) maintains that while Hoffman's film has its charm, it comes up lacking in both style and substance compared to the 1935 film by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle. In another mixed review, Richard Alleva (1999) censures Hoffman for reducing Shakespeare's conception of “multilayered emotionality” in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Alleva finds Pfeiffer's Titania to be “gracelessly spoken” and states that Kline's interpretation of Bottom transforms the weaver into an emotionally fragile clown of a man, although, Alleva adds, such a portrayal does work within the scope of Hoffman's film.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Clayton, Tom. “‘So quick bright things come to confusion’: or, What Else was A Midsummer Night's Dream About?”1 In Shakespeare: Text and Theater, edited by Lois Potter and Arthur F. Kinney, pp. 62-91. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Clayton highlights the brighter, more lighthearted aspects of A Midsummer Night's Dream, emphasizing the civilized and complementary features of the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta and downplaying the bestial connotation in the relationship between the transformed Bottom and Titania.]
In the now ancient history of Shakespeare's birth-quatercentenary year of 1964, it would not have been easy to find in the year's publications a pair of perspectives less alike than those of R. W. Dent,
Rather than being a foe to good living, poetic imagination can be its comfort and its guide, far “more yielding” than most dreams. Whether A Midsummer Night's Dream has an unplumbed “bottom” as well as its inescapable Bottom, I hesitate to say. But it provides us “a most rare vision,” one that offers us a disarmingly unpretentious defense of poetry by the greatest of England's poets;
and Jan Kott: “The Dream is the most erotic of Shakespeare's plays. In no other tragedy or comedy of his, except Troilus and...
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SOURCE: Paster, Gail Kern and Skiles Howard, eds. Introduction to A Midsummer Night's Dream: Texts and Contexts, edited by Gail Kern Paster and Skiles Howard, pp. 1-9. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.
[In the following essay, Paster and Howard survey the themes and central action of A Midsummer Night's Dream and provide a general review of critical trends.]
A Midsummer Night's Dream is enchanting, lyrical, and very funny. So say generations of readers and audiences captivated by the play's eclectic mingling of lovers, fairies, and artisan actors in an action filled with mythological allusions and moved by the combined power of love, magic, and self-conscious theatricality. Thematically, the play stands forth as a comedy about romantic desire and the trials of imagination. Its two central actions—the love chase of Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius and the encounter between a metamorphosed Bottom and the fairy queen Titania—symbolize the arbitrary power of lovers' imaginations to transform the beloved from just another human being into an incomparable individual. In its framing and subsidiary actions—the nuptial festivities of Theseus and Hippolyta and the artisans' hilarious rehearsal and performance of their version of “Pyramus and Thisbe”—the play extends its social reach to bring figures from classical legend together with humble (but aspiring) workingmen. In the...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: 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.
[In the following essay, Kott examines the significance of Bottom's metamorphosis in A Midsummer Night's Dream, particularly focusing on why Shakespeare alluded to both St. Paul and Apuleius in reference to Bottom's transformation.]
“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind” (1.1.234).1 This soliloquy of Helena's is part of a discourse on love and madness. Does desire also look with “the mind” and not with “the eyes”? Titania awakens from her dream, looks at the monster, and desires him. When Lysander and Demetrius awaken, they see only a girl's body and desire it. Is desire “blind” and love “seeing”? Or is love “blind” and desire “seeing”? “And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind” (1.1.235). Puck is the culprit in A Midsummer Night's Dream, for he awakens desire by dropping a love potion into the eyes of the sleeping lovers. In the poetic rhetoric of A Midsummer Night's Dream, “blind Cupid” is the agent of love. Are Puck and Cupid interchangeable?
Helena's soliloquy is recited by a young actress or, as in Elizabethan theater, by a boy...
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SOURCE: McGuire, Philip C. “Egeus and the Implications of Silence.” In Shakespeare and the Sense of Performance, edited by Marvin Thompson and Ruth Thompson, pp. 103-115. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, McGuire explores the ways in which Egeus's silence in Act IV, scene i has been interpreted by modern directors.]
One way to glimpse what the future might hold for performance-centered criticism of Shakespeare's plays is to ponder the challenges posed by a silence that occurs in act 4, scene 1 of A Midsummer Night's Dream, soon after Duke Theseus and his hunting party find the four young lovers asleep on the forest ground following their baffling experiences of the night before. Lysander, “Half sleep, half waking” (4.1.146),1 begins to explain that he and Hermia were fleeing “the peril of the Athenian law” (152) that sentences Hermia to death or to a life of perpetual chastity if she persists in refusing to marry the man her father has chosen to be her husband. Egeus, Hermia's father, interrupts, fiercely calling upon Theseus to apply the law most rigorously: “Enough, enough, my lord! you have enough. / I beg the law, the law, upon his head” (153-54).
During act 1, Theseus had warned Hermia that “the law of Athens” was something “Which by no means we may extenuate” (1.1.119-20). Now, however, after hearing...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Bemrose, John. “What Muddled Dreams May Come.” Maclean's 112, no. 20 (17 May 1999): 61.
[In the following review, Bemrose assesses the 1999 film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, starring Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer and directed by Michael Hoffman. Bemrose praises the performances of Kline as Bottom and Pfeiffer as Titania, but finds fault with the rest of the film, which seems to be, in Bemrose's opinion, a battle between a “tedious Hollywood costume drama” and an effort to remain true to Shakespeare's play.]
After Shakespeare in Love, Hamlet, Romeo + Juliet and all the other recent plunderings of Shakespeare, it was only a matter of time until someone got around to making a new version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. After all, it is the most perennially popular of Shakespeare's comedies, with a ready-made audience of millions who have studied it in school, or seen it acted in theatres great and small around the world. To watch Bottom, Puck and the quarrelling lovers is for many people like resuming an old friendship. Several cinematic versions have been made of the play: film audiences would seem to be ever-ripe ground for Shakespeare's intoxicating mix of romance and broad humour. And so A Midsummer Night's Dream hits the screen once more, ambitiously directed by Michael Hoffman and starring Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer.
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SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. Review of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Commonweal 126, no. 12 (18 June 1999): 20-1.
[In the following review, Alleva offers a mixed assessment of Michael Hoffman's 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The critic censures some of the actors' performances, most notably Michelle Pfeiffer's “gracelessly spoken performance” as Titania. Alleva further claims that while Kevin Kline reduces Bottom to an emotionally fragile clown, this approach works well in Hoffman's production.]
Judged by the film he has made from it, two elements of A Midsummer Night's Dream seem to have fascinated the director Michael Hoffman nearly to the exclusion of everything else in the play: the supernatural sylvan community ruled by Oberon and Titania, and the character of Bottom the weaver.
Up to the moment when the camera enters the forest, this production is a typical example of the cute modernization of Shakespeare. Instead of ancient Athens, Hoffman sets the story in an imaginary Tuscan town called Monte Athena at the turn of the century. Its ruler, Theseus, is no warrior hero but a harassed bureaucrat, and his bride-to-be, Hippolyta, is a bluestocking chafed by masculine traditions. The men wear boaters and the women corsets; bicycles and phonographs are important props; the music of Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi fills the soundtrack.
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SOURCE: Welsh, Jim. Review of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Literature/Film Quarterly 27, no. 2 (1999): 159-61.
[In the following review, Welsh compares Michael Hoffman's 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream to the 1935 Max Reinhardt-William Dieterle film production. The critic contends that the more recent version of the play is generally less compelling, despite the success of Calista Flockhart's Helena.]
Does Hollywood love Shakespeare, as some have suggested, or does Hollywood simply love Shakespeare in Love? John Madden's film was a surprise success, both at the box office and at the Academy Awards. Shakespeare in Love was made on a budget of $38 million and took in over $68 million in domestic revenues. Hollywood “loves” Shakespeare because Hollywood loves money, and Shakespeare in Love won the Oscar jackpot. Hence the current “Bard Boom” has little to do with the real Shakespeare and a whole lot to do with speculative greed.
In 1998 the much admired Shakespeare in Love put an appealing human face on the Droeshout engraving of the balding Bard, indulging in a biographical fantasy that made the Bard a sexy and energetic young lover who knew how to thrill with his quill. Call it the reinvention of Shakespeare, done with nimble dialogue and astonishing theatrical flourishes sufficient to dazzle the Motion Picture Academy....
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SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon: Summer and Winter, 1999-2000.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 2 (2000): 217-29.
[In the following review, Jackson comments on Michael Boyd's 1999-2000 stage production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Boyd discusses the production's emphasis on the sexuality of the forest and its inhabitants and its use of dance and movement as unifying elements within the play.]
In my previous report on Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon I wondered more in sorrow than in anger what kind of artistic policy the RSC might lay claim to.1 Whether or not in the course of the “Summer Festival Season” the company found a policy, they certainly acquired a stage, which may amount to the same thing. The 1500-seat proscenium-arch main house, with whose architecture directors and designers have struggled since it opened in 1932, was remodeled under the direction of the company's resident designer, Anthony Rowe. For the summer season the company installed a deep, elliptical platform stage, on which the principal action of each play was performed. The space upstage of the proscenium arch was relegated to providing background images or (for long stretches of some of the season's plays) simply closed off from view. In order to make the actors visible to spectators at the back of the topmost level, the new platform was higher than in previous attempts to...
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SOURCE: Burnett, Mark Thornton. “Impressions of Fantasy: Adrian Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In Shakespeare, Film, Fin de Siècle, edited by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray, pp. 73-101. London: Macmillan, 2000.
[In the following essay, Burnett discusses Adrian Noble's 1996 film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, noting that while Noble's 1994-95 Royal Shakespeare Company stage production of the play was lauded by critics, the film adaptation received primarily negative reviews. Burnett reevaluates the film, praising it as a reinvention of the comedy “for the millennium.”]
When Adrian Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of its 1994-5 Stratford-upon-Avon and touring programme, the production attracted widespread acclaim. Eminent critics joined to sing the praises of a ‘magnificent’, ‘notable’, ‘outstanding’, ‘stunning’ and ‘vibrant’ reinterpretation of Shakespeare's play.1 No doubt spurred on by this theatrical success, the RSC, in collaboration with Channel Four, quickly set about transferring the production to celluloid. The film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, again directed by Noble, was commercially released to a limited number of cinemas in 1996 and, in 1997, made its way to a TV showing and the video market. But the passage from stage to screen proved an...
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SOURCE: McPeek, James A. S. “The Psyche Myth and A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Shakespeare Quarterly 23, no. 1 (winter 1972): 69-79.
[In the following essay, McPeek explores Shakespeare's treatment of the Psyche myth in A Midsummer Night's Dream, contending that the play provides a mythic translation of the Psyche legend.]
In the phantasmagoria of A Midsummer Night's Dream scholars have discerned and analyzed the elements of several antique fables and fairy toys, but they seem largely to have neglected the curious and extensive relationship of this dreamworld to the story of Psyche and its matrix in Lucius Apuleius' Golden Ass. Many will concede that though Shakespeare may have known other stories about ass-headed men,1 Apuleius' account of his adventures affords the most likely source for Titania's infatuation with a monster, as well as for some other motifs, as Sister M. Generosa has shown.2 But the relationship of the Dream to the story of Psyche appears deeper than that of a series of casual resemblances, such as might be based on vague recollection.
If one looks below the texture of the language, which tends to obscure the outlines of the story, one finds remarkable similarity between many events of the myth and the main adventures of the drama. In effect, it may be urged that the fundamental pattern of the myth and the...
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SOURCE: Ramsey, Clifford Earl. “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In Homer to Brecht: The European Epic and Dramatic Traditions, edited by Michael Seidel and Edward Mendelson, pp. 214-37. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977.
[In the following essay, Ramsey examines the scenic structure in A Midsummer Night's Dream, maintaining that it expresses diversity and opposition, and yet it also emphasizes harmony and integration. According to the critic, the scenic structure ultimately underscores the play's dual themes of the power of love and the power of imagination.]
The history of interpretation, and misinterpretation, of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream demonstrates more strikingly than that of most works a deep truth of literary history: changes in critical fashion, changes in the theory of literature and in approaches to particular literary works, virtually alter those works themselves. Criticism shapes our fundamental responses to the works of art it contemplates. Whatever Iliad we hear, it surely is not the poem Homer sang.
In our time we have come increasingly to accept the idea, notably articulated by T. S. Eliot and Northrop Frye, that the “primary context” of any individual work of literature is other literature, that all literature—not just that we call neoclassical—is inherently and inescapably traditional. We are also beginning...
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SOURCE: Cox, Richard H. “Shakespeare: Poetic Understanding and Comic Action (A Weaver's Dream).” In The Artist and Political Vision, edited by Benjamin R. Barber and Michael J. Gargas McGrath, pp. 165-92. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1982.
[In the following essay, Cox examines the discordant nature of A Midsummer Night's Dream, asserting that in Shakespeare's comic treatment of Theseus, and in the serious undertones of his portrayal of the artisans and especially Bottom, the playwright used comedy to teach his audience serious lessons about civic life.]
… what hinders one to be merry and tell the truth? as good-natured teachers at first give cakes to their boys, that they may be willing to learn at first the rudiments.
… imitation is a kind of play, and not serious …
Political life generally is understood to be a serious matter. And in particular, founders of cities and regimes generally are understood to be serious men undertaking a supremely serious task: Lycurgus, Theseus, and Romulus, in the ancient world, and Washington, Lenin, and Hitler, in the modern world, are so regarded. How, then, are we to understand Shakespeare's playfulness in...
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SOURCE: Hutton, Virgil. “A Midsummer Night's Dream: Tragedy in Comic Disguise.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 25, no. 2 (spring 1985): 289-305.
[In the following essay, Hutton explores the religious and philosophical issues which he claims Shakespeare deliberately raised in A Midsummer Night's Dream.]
Even though the seriousness of A Midsummer Night's Dream has long been getting its due, T. Walter Herbert is the only critic to treat at length the metaphysical implications as the dominant concern of the play. A rapid survey of the criticism of the play reveals an early concentration on the theme of love, which, with Barber's rejection of love as the play's major motif, gradually yields to a stress on the theme of art (perhaps climaxing with Young's view of the play as Shakespeare's Ars Poetica), which in turn may, under the provocation of Herbert's study, shift to a probing of the play's metaphysical dimensions.1 Herbert opens an inviting prospect for critics by claiming to make statements not about Shakespeare's intentions but only about a contemporary spectator's reactions to the play. Through linking the theme of art with the metaphysical issues raised by Herbert, I will argue that Shakespeare did deliberately raise the philosophical and religious issues so perceptively pondered by Herbert's spectator.
Herbert's spectator sees two...
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SOURCE: Nuttall, A. D. “A Midsummer Night's Dream: Comedy as Apotrope of Myth.” Shakespeare Survey 53 (2000): 49-59.
[In the following essay, Nuttall contends that in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare used comedy to suppress, however incompletely, the darker aspects of the myths that influence the play.]
Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, And won thy love doing thee injuries. But I will wed thee in another key— With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.
Thus Theseus, benignly, to Hippolyta in the opening scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Everyone watching, in 1595 or 1596, would have known that the speaker was an important personage. He enters, splendidly dressed (we may be certain) and, according to the Folio stage direction, ‘with others’ (rightly interpreted by Theobald as implying a train of attendants). His speech contrives, within a small compass, to be stately. It at once receives from Egeus, a kind of underlining, a graceful, articulate equivalent of loyal (servile?) applause: ‘Happy be Theseus, our renowned Duke.’ Now we are clearly aware of the exact social status of Theseus, which is of course very high. The cadence of Egeus' words anticipates that of the courtier Amiens in As You Like it, ‘Happy is your grace’, after Duke Senior's similarly stately (if deeply implausible) speech on...
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Burns, Edward. “‘Two of both kinds makes up four’: The Human and the Mortal in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In ‘Divers toyes mengled’: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Culture, edited by Michel Bitot in collaboration with Roberta Mullini and Peter Happ, pp. 299-309. Tours: Publication de l'Université François Rabelais, 1996.
Discusses how rhetoric in relation to emotion and theatrical situation distinguishes the mortals and fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Lamb, Mary Ellen. “Taken by the Fairies: Fairy Practices and the Production of Popular Culture in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 3 (fall 2000): 277-312.
Argues that there are profound social and political implications inherent in Shakespeare's dramatic representation of the fairies, particularly Puck, in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Lowenthal, David. “The Portrait of Athens in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In Shakespeare's Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, pp. 77-88. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1996.
Demonstrates the ways in which Shakespeare portrayed Athens as the origin of democracy, philosophy, and drama in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Mahood, M. M. “A...
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