A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vol. 82)


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.)