A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespeare for Students)

Wolfgang Clemen
[Clemen provides a general introduction to A Midsummer Night's Dream, identifying and analyzing the play's historical background, language, themes, dramatic structure, characterization, and literary significance. Remarking that the transitory nature of love is the principal theme of the play, this critic praises Shakespeare's masterful use of language, particularly images representing the contrast of light and darkness, to suggest the atmosphere of a fantastic dream world. Shakespeare's language, Clemen maintains, is not only remarkably visual but also possesses a certain musical quality, clearly discerned in repetitive patterns of sounds and effects. Not only is A Midsummer Night's Dream a great comedy, the critic concludes, but it also offers, using the device of the play-within-the-play, profound insights into the limitations of dramatic art.]

A study of Shakespeare's development as a dramatic artist shows that one of his supreme achievements during his "middle period" consists in combining heterogeneous elements in a single play. The dramas of Shakespeare's predecessors all exist on a smaller scale, mostly adhering to one particular type and keeping within more limited resources of style and subject matter. However, even in his very first comedies, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, and Love's Labor's Lost, we see Shakespeare widening the scope of the dramatic genre to which these plays belong and introducing new elements taken over from other sections of the literary tradition of the past. A Midsummer Night's Dream, then, which must have been written about 1595, combines for the first time totally disparate worlds into one unified whole; the sharp contrasts brought together there would have destroyed the play's balance in the hands of any lesser playwright. For, indeed, it required Shakespeare's genius to bring together Bottom and Puck, the crude realism of the artisans and the exquisite delicacy of the fairy world, the stylized and pointed repartee of the Athenian lovers and the dignified manner of Theseus and Hippolyta. What we find are contrasts on many levels, exemplified by diversified means. Yet Shakespeare strikes an equilibrium between these contrasts, reconciling and fusing the discordant factors within the organic body of his comedy. A Midsummer Night's Dream, therefore, not only exhibits bold contrasts and divergent elements of plot, atmosphere, and character; it also illustrates the unifying power of the spirit of comedy and the poetic imagination. We further find that the play's unity is reinforced by a subtle technique of counterpoint and juxtaposition, a skillful contrasting of different strands of plot, and the creation of an atmosphere full of illusion, wonder, and strangeness, all of which facilitate the many transitions occurring during the course of the play.

Some facts about its origin and title may help us better to understand the particular nature of the play. A Midsummer Night's Dream is clearly related to the practices of midsummer night, the night before June 24, which was the date of St. John the Baptist's festival and hence connected with merry-making, various superstitions and folk customs, dances, pageants, and revels. More than any other night in the year, midsummer night suggested enchantment and witchcraft, something which Shakespeare has superbly embodied in his fairy world. To an Elizabethan audience, moreover, the play's title would have immediately called to mind the so-called "midsummer madness," which was a state of mind marked by a heightened readiness to believe in the delusions of the imagination that were thought to befall the minds of men after days of great summer heat. Thus, by means of his highly suggestive title, Shakespeare has firmly planted the dream-like action of his drama in the popular beliefs and customs of his time. Furthermore the title gives theatergoers and readers a clue as to how the work should be understood—namely, as an unrealistic...

(The entire section is 41,579 words.)