A Midsummer Night's Dream A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vol. 29)
by William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's Dream book cover
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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 98,080 words.)