A Midsummer Night's Dream Essay - A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vol. 82)

William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vol. 82)

Introduction

A Midsummer Night's Dream

One of Shakespeare's most popular plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream is believed to have been written in the early part of Shakespeare's career, sometime between 1594 and 1596. The title places the action of the play on the eve of the summer solstice, which folklore marks as the time of fairies—a time ripe for magic and adventure. The play 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, led by Bottom the weaver, also inhabit the play and enhance its comedic effects. Although the plot seems whimsical and amusing and the play ends happily, many critics argue against examining the play on simply a comedic level, noting that the unnerving twists and turns of the plot often veer toward tragedy. Critical commentary on A Midsummer Night's Dream has tended to focus on Shakespeare's views on the nature of love, the meaning and purpose of art and imagination, the reconciliation of discordant dramatic elements, and the role of perception, illusion, and ambiguity in the play.

Character studies of A Midsummer Night's Dream have included analyses of both the human and non-human characters. Lou Agnes Reynolds and Paul Sawyer (1959) examine Titania's four fairy servants—Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth—and contend that they represent the healing properties of folk medicine and the importance of folklore practices in forging a connection between the natural and supernatural world. Urban Morén (2000) argues that the fairy Puck is a representative of sexuality in A Midsummer Night's Dream and points to the distinctive meanings of his name in the text of the play to support this analysis. Jeffrey D. Frame (1999) also explores the sexuality expressed in the play and focuses on the voyeurism of the characters. Frame suggests that the voyeuristic actions of the male and female characters in the play constitute maneuvers for power over one another. Diana Akers Rhoads (1985) examines the role of Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Rhoads maintains that Shakespeare portrayed Theseus as both an ideal ruler and a ruler who lacks the ability to understand love in order to highlight the incompatibility of “desire and politics.”

Although A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the most frequently performed of Shakespeare's works, staging the play presents a challenge to many directors as they attempt to meet its disparate demands: the play is filled with music and dance, peopled by fantastical creatures, and infused with a delicate balance of comic and tragic elements. Some directors view these varied elements as an invitation to experiment with the theatrical traditions of the play. Bruce Weber (2002), reviewing the 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Richard Jones, praises Jones's unique and nightmarish take on the play, which was performed entirely in black and white and was “willfully unattractive, drained of color and demonic in spirit.” The critic notes that the director created a kind of “anti-Midsummer Night's Dream” that confounded expectations. By contrast, Douglas McQueen-Thomson (2000) gives a negative review of director Elke Neidhardt's dark interpretation of the play for the Bell Shakespeare Company's 2000 production. McQueen-Thomson argues that the production's “unrelieved austerity and frostiness” produced a “tired disjointedness rather than original coherence.” Heather Neill (2002) reviews another unique take on the play, Mike Alfreds's 2002 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, noting that the director highlighted the “dream” aspect of the play by dressing the cast in pyjamas and negligees. Kenneth S. Rothwell reviews Michael Hoffman's 1999 star-studded film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which he praises as a visual masterpiece. Rothwell points out that Hoffman focused his attention on the character of Nick Bottom, even providing him with a nagging wife, and lauds Kevin Kline's ability to turn the cartoonish character of Bottom into “a living, breathing, and very vulnerable, human being.”

Critics are also interested in A Midsummer Night's Dream's representation of Elizabethan England, especially the traditions of court marriage. Paul A. Olson (1957) suggests that the play was intended to serve as a guidebook for married aristocratic couples and, by extension, for a moral society. According to David Wiles (1988), the play was historically part of an “aristocratic carnival” used to celebrate weddings in upper-class society. In a 1993 essay, Wiles asserts that play is effectively an epithalamium, or poem in honor of marriage. Other scholars have examined such issues as the play's incorporation of imagination, social issues, and politics. For example, Anne Barton (1974) comments on A Midsummer Night's Dream's “preoccupation with the idea of imagination” and contends that the products of imagination, including “dreams, the illusions of love, poetry and plays,” are central to the play. Deborah Baker Wyrick (1982) explores the symbolism associated with the ass motif in A Midsummer Night's Dream and examines how the word “ass” is used to create a complex code that is the key to many of the play's themes. Theodore B. Leinwand (1986) studies the conflict between social classes in the play and notes how this conflict influences the actions of the characters. Lastly, Maurice Hunt (2000-01) alleges that A Midsummer Night's Dream functions as a cryptic allegory that criticizes Elizabeth I and calls attention to the problem of securing a successor to her throne.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Ruth Nevo (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Nevo, Ruth. “Fancy's Images.” In William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 57-72. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1980, Nevo contends that A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of Shakespeare's original inventions—“a complex and witty exploration of the infirmities and frailties and deficiencies and possibilities of the imaginative faculty itself.”]

A Midsummer Night's Dream is best seen,” says G. K. Hunter, “as a lyric divertissement … Shakespeare has lavished his art on the separate excellencies of the different parts, but has not sought...

(The entire section is 5567 words.)

Davis Mikics (essay date fall 1998)

SOURCE: Mikics, Davis. “Poetry and Politics in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Raritan 18, no. 2 (fall 1998): 99-119.

[In the following essay, Mikics examines the dichotomy between poetry and politics in A Midsummer Night's Dream and contends that Shakespeare makes a claim “for poetry in the face of power.”]

James Nohrnberg begins his vast summa of Spenser and Renaissance poetics, The Analogy of the Faerie Queene, with a line from Pico: “He who cannot attract Pan, approaches Proteus in vain.” For a long time Renaissance studies wrestled Proteus, trying to whip the various energies of the era into encyclopedic shape. But new historicism, the...

(The entire section is 7451 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Lou Agnes Reynolds and Paul Sawyer (essay date autumn 1959)

SOURCE: Reynolds, Lou Agnes, and Paul Sawyer. “Folk Medicine and the Four Fairies of A Midsummer-Night's Dream.Shakespeare Quarterly 10, no. 4 (autumn 1959): 513-21.

[In the following essay, Reynolds and Sawyer examine Titania's four fairy servants in A Midsummer Night's Dream—Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth—and contend that their presence represents the healing properties of folk medicine as well as its role in establishing a connection between the natural and supernatural world.]

To the Elizabethans no subject, apart from love, was more appropriate to Midsummer's Night than folk medicine; or conversely, at no time could a reference...

(The entire section is 4711 words.)

Diana Akers Rhoads (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Rhoads, Diana Akers. “A Midsummer Night's Dream: Shakespeare's Dramatic Solution to the Problems Poetry Poses for Politics.” In Shakespeare's Defense of Poetry: A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, pp. 49-60. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Inc., 1985.

[In the following essay, Rhoads contends that in A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare portrayed Theseus as both an ideal ruler and a ruler who lacks the ability to understand love in order to highlight the incompatibility of “desire and politics.”]

There are basically two critical attitudes towards Theseus. One sees him as a representative of reason and of rational...

(The entire section is 4158 words.)

Jeffrey D. Frame (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Frame, Jeffrey D. “‘Now will I to the chink, / To Spy …’: Scopophilia as Gender Sport in A Midsummer Night's Dream.The Upstart Crow 19 (1999): 50-61.

[In the following essay, Frame focuses on the voyeurism of the male and female characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream and suggests that the motif emphasizes the characters' maneuvers for power over one another.]

No other period in history seems to have given more attention to the socio-cultural concepts of “looking” and “listening” than the modern-postmodernist twentieth century, and for obvious reasons. From Freud and Lacan to Hitchcock and Foucault, one can observe an evolving...

(The entire section is 5086 words.)

Urban Morén (essay date September 2000)

SOURCE: Morén, Urban. “‘Antique Fable’ Epitomized by Puck.” English Language Notes 38, no. 1 (September 2000): 16-40.

[In the following essay, Morén contends that Puck is a representative of sexuality in A Midsummer Night's Dream and examines the distinctive meanings of the word “Puck” in the text of the play in order to support this claim.]

The application of a “digressive” approach to A Midsummer Night's Dream1 has made it possible to unearth Shakespeare's standpoint in one of the play's central issues. Thus several cruces, notably, “‘Puck's name’ … bear no barm … ‘tailor’ cries … cough … loffe,”...

(The entire section is 9914 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

Douglas McQueen-Thomson (review date August 2000)

SOURCE: McQueen-Thomson, Douglas. “A Disturbing Dream.” Arena Magazine (August 2000): 53.

[McQueen-Thomson reviews the Bell Shakespeare Company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Elke Neidhardt, arguing that the play's “unrelieved austerity and frostiness” produced a “tired disjointedness rather than original coherence.”]

What kind of grim pessimism drives designers these days into drab colour schemes of grey and silver? Whatever the answer, the Bell Shakespeare Company's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was cold, sterile and very grey. Often imagined as a play about enchantment and wondrous fantasy, this...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

Kenneth S. Rothwell (review date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Rothwell, Kenneth S. “Shakespeare Goes Digital.” Cineaste 25, no. 3 (summer 2000): 150.

[In the following review of Michael Hoffman's 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Rothwell praises the film as a visual masterpiece and lauds Kevin Kline's ability to turn the cartoonish character of Bottom into “a living, breathing, and very vulnerable, human being.”]

The opening credits of Michael Hoffman's A Midsummer Night's Dream (“Based on the play by William Shakespeare”) situate the action around the year 1900 in Monte Athena in Tuscany, Italy, one of those fabulous Italian hilltop towns but not exactly the Athens of...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

Heather Neill (review date 21 June 2002)

SOURCE: Neill, Heather. “Tales from the Bathroom.” Times Educational Supplement 4486 (21 June 2002): 14.

[In the following review of Mike Alfreds's 2002 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, Neill notes the director's highlighting of the “dream” aspect of the play by dressing the cast in pyjamas and negligees.]

Mike Alfreds, the director of this production, has chosen to concentrate on the word “dream” in the title and has his entire cast dressed in pyjamas and negligees.

The props have a whiff of the bathroom—a loo roll for Peter Quince's scroll of names when the Mechanicals turn up for...

(The entire section is 372 words.)

Bruce Weber (review date 28 June 2002)

SOURCE: Weber, Bruce. “The Once Dreamy Woods Now Have Big, Bad Wolves.” The New York Times (28 June 2002): B3; E3.

[In the following review of the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2002 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Richard Jones, Weber notes that Jones's unique and nightmarish take on the play created a kind of “anti-Midsummer Night's Dream” that confounded expectations.]

School's out, which is a good thing as far as the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is concerned. We wouldn't want any unsuspecting English teachers shepherding their sophomores into the Shubert Theater here in...

(The entire section is 1102 words.)

Criticism: Themes

Paul A. Olson (essay date June 1957)

SOURCE: Olson, Paul A. “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage.” ELH 24, no. 2 (June 1957): 95-119.

[In the following essay, Olson suggests that A Midsummer Night's Dream was intended to serve as a guidebook for married aristocratic couples and, by extension, for a moral society.]

The opinion that A Midsummer Night's Dream is largely a shimmering fabric of “moonlight, with a touch of moonshine”1 has become stock among students of Shakespeare. One rephrases habitual insights concerning gossamer and magic whenever one treats of the work. But there is more to the play than a dream. The efforts of historical...

(The entire section is 9749 words.)

Anne Barton (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Barton, Anne. “The Synthesizing Impulse of A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 7-13. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1974, Barton comments on A Midsummer Night's Dream's “preoccupation with the idea of imagination” and contends that the products of imagination, including “dreams, the illusions of love, poetry and plays,” are central to the play.]

A Midsummer Night's Dream was first printed in a quarto edition in 1600. The comedy was first mentioned by Meres in 1598, but 1595-96 is usually accepted as...

(The entire section is 2504 words.)

Deborah Baker Wyrick (essay date winter 1982)

SOURCE: Wyrick, Deborah Baker. “The Ass Motif in The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream.Shakespeare Quarterly 33, no. 4 (winter 1982): 432-48.

[In the following essay, Wyrick explores the symbolism associated with the ass motif in A Midsummer Night's Dream and examines how the word “ass” is used to create a complex code that is the key to many of the play's themes.]

One of the most ubiquitous epithets in Shakespearean drama is “ass.” Since it carries the primary significance of an ignorant fellow, a perverse fool, or a conceited dolt, the word can be counted upon to stimulate audience laughter.1 The frequency of...

(The entire section is 8448 words.)

Theodore B. Leinwand (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Leinwand, Theodore B. “‘I Believe We Must Leave the Killing out’: Deference and Accommodation in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In A Midsummer Night's Dream: Critical Essays, edited by Dorothea Kehler, pp. 145-64. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1986, Leinwand examines the conflict between social classes in A Midsummer Night's Dream and discusses its influence on the actions of the characters.]

No sooner has the artisan weaver Bottom begun to speak with the fairy queen Titania than he takes the occasion to “gleek.”1 Observing that “reason and love keep little company...

(The entire section is 7739 words.)

David Wiles (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Wiles, David. “The Carnivalesque in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In Shakespeare and Carnival after Bakhtin, edited by Ronald Knowles, pp. 61-82. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1998.

[In the following essay, Wiles examines the festive and carnivalesque elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream. According to the critic, the play was historically part of an “aristocratic carnival” used to celebrate weddings in upper-class society.]

Carnival theory did not begin with Bakhtin, and we shall understand Bakhtin's position more clearly if we set it against classical theories of carnival.1 From the Greek world the most important...

(The entire section is 8211 words.)

Marie A. Plasse (essay date February 1992)

SOURCE: Plasse, Marie A. “The Human Body as Performance Medium in Shakespeare: Some Theoretical Suggestions from A Midsummer Night's Dream.College Literature 19, no. 1 (February 1992): 28-47.

[In the following essay, Plasse discusses the human body as a performance medium that conveys the various themes expressed in A Midsummer Night's Dream.]

It seemed to embody and realize conceptions which had hitherto assumed no distinct shape. But dearly do we pay all our life afterwards for this juvenile pleasure, this sense of distinctness. When the novelty is past, we find to our cost that, instead of realizing an idea, we have only materialized...

(The entire section is 9369 words.)

David Wiles (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Wiles, David. “A Midsummer Night's Dream as Epithalamium.” In Shakespeare's Almanac: A Midsummer Night's Dream: Marriage and the Elizabethan Calendar, pp. 114-25. Cambridge, Mass.: D. S. Brewer, 1993.

[In the following essay, Wiles asserts that A Midsummer Night's Dream is effectively an epithalamium—a poem in honor of marriage.]

The closing speeches of A Midsummer Night's Dream constitute the kind of finale that we would expect to find at the end of a wedding masque. No other play by Shakespeare ends quite like it. Love's Labour's Lost and The Tempest celebrate a betrothal, not a wedding. In As You Like...

(The entire section is 5372 words.)

Maurice Hunt (essay date winter 2000-01)

SOURCE: Hunt, Maurice. “A Speculative Political Allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Comparative Drama 34, no. 4 (winter 2000-01): 423-53.

[In the following essay, Hunt alleges that A Midsummer Night's Dream functions as a cryptic allegory that criticizes Elizabeth I and the problem of securing a successor to her throne.]

Every so often commentators on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream quote Bottom's judgment on his own “most rare vision” of the Fairy Queen—“Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream” (4.1.203-4)—with tongue-in-cheek reference to their own interpretive efforts.1 Given the frequency...

(The entire section is 11369 words.)

Sharon Hamilton (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Hamilton, Sharon. “Daughters Who Rebel: Hermia (A Midsummer Night's Dream), Jessica (The Merchant of Venice), and Desdemona (Othello).” In Shakespeare's Daughters, pp. 38-42. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Hamilton analyzes the father-daughter conflict between Egeus and Hermia in a A Midsummer Night's Dream.]

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the father-daughter conflict is presented in its simplest terms. Old Egeus sounds his character note at his first appearance. He comes in “full of vexation … with complaint / Against [his] child” (I.i.22-23). The reason is suggested in the...

(The entire section is 2051 words.)

Further Reading

CRITICISM

Holloway, Julia Bolton. “Apuleius and Midsummer Night's Dream: Bottom's Metamorphoses.” In Tales Within Tales: Apuleius Through Time, edited by Constance S. Wright and Julia Bolton Holloway, pp. 123-37. New York: AMS Press, 2000.

Suggests that Shakespeare's use of enchantment and dreams in A Midsummer Night's Dream mirrors the struggle of the psyche in society and illustrates the complexity of the human condition.

Howard, Skiles. “Hands, Feet, and Bottoms: Decentering the Cosmic Dance in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Shakespeare Quarterly 44, no. 3 (autumn 1993): 325-42.

Focuses...

(The entire section is 320 words.)