A Midsummer Night's Dream
Critical interest in A Midsummer Night's Dream has been strong since the early years of the nineteenth century. Early critics were particularly concerned with the play's structure, with its portrayal of romantic love, and with what it might reveal of Shakespeare's thoughts on the importance of the imagination in the creation and the appreciation of art. In the latter part of the twentieth century, critics have perceived more complex intellectual questions at issue in the play, focusing on issues of perception and ambiguity, the ambivalent nature of sexual desire, and relationships between gender and the exercise of power.
In a lecture delivered in Vienna in 1808, German scholar August Wilhelm Schlegel became the first to perceive in the play a carefully woven unity of disparate elements. Schlegel, who argued that the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta constitutes the framework of the play's dramatic action, also saw the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude as an integral part of the play's design. Late in the century, Denton J. Snider observed that the structure of the play is based on interrelationships among three distinct worlds, the "real" world of Athens, the imaginary world of the fairy wood, and the world of art represented in the mechanicals' production of Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare's combination of contrasting elements in the play continued to be a focus of interest throughout the twentieth century. In a general overview of the play published in 1986, Robert Ornstein suggested that A Midsummer Night's Dream marks Shakespeare's mastery of dramatic structure. Peter Hollindale (1992) examined both the play's sequential development and its overall structure in terms of their relationship to the play's meaning.
While the imaginative qualities of A Midsummer Night's Dream appealed to the Romantic critics of the early nineteenth century, many—including William Hazlitt (1817) and William Maginn (1837)—felt it relied too heavily upon imaginary elements to be convincingly staged, a view that has since been disproved by numerous successful stage productions. The role of the imagination and art in the play continued to be a critical concern throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Maginn, Charles Knight (1849), Snider, and others fastened on Theseus's comments on poets and the theater as indications of Shakespeare's views on the role of the artist and the importance of the audience's imaginative participation to the success of a dramatic work. In the latter part of the twentieth century, critics focused increasingly on self-reflexive or metadramatic elements in the play, particularly with regard to issues of perception, illusion, and ambiguity. In an essay published in 1966 as part of his book-length study of A Midsummer Night's Dream, David P. Young argued that the world of dreams and magic represented by the fairies plays a key role in Shakespeare's exploration of the relationship between art and reality. In his 1971 study Shakespearean Metadrama, James L. Calderwood viewed Oberon as a "playwright within the play" and proposed that Shakespeare deliberately shifts and blurs "the borders between dream, drama, and waking reality" to indicate the possibility that each realm may overlap the others and to alter our perception of each. Marjorie B. Garber (1974) and Garrett Stewart (1981) also discussed the relationship between dream and drama in the play, while Norman N. Holland (1979) explored the applicability of psychoanalytic identity theory to an understanding of the play's metadramatic implications. An awareness of the play as metadrama also informs a 1983 essay by Louis Adrian Montrose in which he argued that the play actively explores its role as both a creation and a creator of its culture.
Central to the role of the imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream is its use of magic, fairy lore, and classical mythology. A tendency to view the play's fairy characters as childlike, benign, and primarily ornamental has gradually given way to more complex responses, of which an early instance can be found in the disturbing illustrations of the play created by the painter Henry Fuseli late in the eighteenth century. A particularly dark evaluation of the fairy world was put forward by Jan Kott (1964), who characterized the fairies as diabolical agents. T. Walter Herbert (1977), on the other hand, argued that Shakespeare's audience would have perceived the fairies as mischievous rather than evil, while William Empson, in an essay published posthumously in 1994, suggested that they are presented as inherently neither diabolical nor angelic, but as "middle spirits" intensely involved in human affairs.
The play's use of supernatural elements is also central to its treatment of the theme of love. A minor concern in nineteenth-century evaluations of the play, this has become a dominant issue in twentieth-century readings. Through the 1950s, critics were generally divided between those who maintained that Shakespeare was parodying the imaginative, unrealistic passion of the young Athenians and praising the ideal union of Theseus and Hippolyta, and those who claimed that he regarded Theseus's philosophy of reason as limiting and that he promoted instead a healthy, responsible imagination as necessary for love's fulfillment. Both of these interpretations were challenged by the views of Kott, who argued that a brutal eroticismlay at the heart of the play. René Girard (1979) also emphasized the darker aspects of love in A Midsummer Night's Dream, suggesting that Shakespeare uses the conventions of romantic love and mythology to expose the operation of desire as inherently violent and destructive of individuality. Other recent critics, while rejecting the extreme darkness of Kott's view, have taken note of Shakespeare's ambivalent portrayal of love and sexual desire. David Bevington (1975) examined the playwright's use of contrasting dark and comic elements in the play, particularly the tension between sexual desire and restraint. In an analysis of Hermia's dream, Norman Holland suggested that the anxieties revealed by this dream reflect the play's portrayal of desire as at once loving and cruel. Jay Halio (1990) argued that Shakespeare's repeated use of language that evokes disorder and discord continually reminds the audience of the darker aspects of love and undermines the play's comic tone. Examining the play's references to the Theseus myth, Peter Holland (1994) viewed these references as a source of shadowy echoes of brutality and sexual exploitation.
Several critics have focused on the play's portrayal of its female characters and related questions of gender and power. Placing the play in the context of Elizabethan sexual politics, Montrose related its dramatic action to male ambivalence about the presence of a powerful female on the throne of England, contending that while the play overtly pays homage to the Queen, in its overall structure it subverts female power and reaffirms male ascendancy. Mark Taylor (1991) perceived important differences in the ways the young lovers deal with sexual desire and related these differences to differing social pressures on men and women.
A further issue that has been revisited in recent years is the view, still accepted by many critics, that A Midsummer Night's Dream was originally written to be performed at the celebration of an aristocratic wedding. In a 1991 article, Stanley Wells reviewed recent scholarship that casts doubt on this theory. He also commended a closer inter-relationship of criticism and theatrical performance that he perceived developing from the mid-1970s onward. Wells cited in particular an essay by Philip McGuire (1985) that called attention to the considerable latitude the text allows a director in interpreting the role of Hippolyta and explored the impact of various modern interpretations of the role on the play's overall meaning.