A Midsummer Night's Dream Essay - A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vol. 70)

William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vol. 70)


A Midsummer Night's Dream

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

Tom Clayton (essay date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 12168 words.)

Gail Kern Paster and Skiles Howard (essay date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 3644 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Jan Kott (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 15208 words.)

Philip C. McGuire (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 5855 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

John Bemrose (review date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 715 words.)

Richard Alleva (review date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 1264 words.)

Jim Welsh (review date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 1191 words.)

Russell Jackson (review date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 1849 words.)

Mark Thornton Burnett (essay date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 5310 words.)

Criticism: Themes

James A. S. McPeek (essay date 1972)

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...

(The entire section is 6110 words.)

Clifford Earl Ramsey (essay date 1977)

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...

(The entire section is 7557 words.)

Richard H. Cox (essay date 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 13721 words.)

Virgil Hutton (essay date 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 6323 words.)

A. D. Nuttall (essay date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 6898 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 418 words.)