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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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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.


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Robert Ornstein (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Shakespeare 's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery, University of Delaware Press, 1986, pp. 73-89.

[In the following excerpt, Ornstein identifies the "complex and perfectly assured dramatic structure" of A Midsummer Night's Dream as the principal element distinguishing it from Shakespeare's earlier comedies.]

If the only plays of Shakespeare that survived were the comedies written before A Dream, he would seem an interesting, gifted writer who failed to realize his potential as dramatist. The unfolding of his powers is evident in the early comedies, but with each artistic advance there is an apparent loss or setback, so that all the achievements are somewhat flawed if not uncertain. Love's Labor 's reaches beyond the Plautine farcing of Errors but lacks satisfying dramatic form. Two Gentlemen adds psychological complexity and subtle irony to romantic characterization but loses itself in a meandering and ultimately self-parodying plot. The Shrew is competent and malicious hackwork.

When Shakespeare's apprenticeship in comedy ended is a matter of personal judgment. Some critics find the characterizations of A Dream sketchy, except of course for Bottom, and think its flights of lyric poetry are a bit self-indulgent. They do not find in it the maturity and substance of The Merchant, Much Ado, and As You Like It. Others suggest that it is too rarified in sensibility to belong to the mainstream of his work and was probably written for a special audience. Although the Quarto announces the play as one that "hath been sundry times publicly acted," they hypothesize that it was commissioned for performance at a great wedding. No doubt A Dream would be more appropriate as a nuptial entertainment than Errors with its strain of marital discord, or Love's Labor's with its unfortunate title, and would be far more appropriate for a nuptial than The Shrew. Still, it has shortcomings as a hymeneal celebration. Any bridegroom would be pleased to identify himself with the noble Theseus and could therefore ignore Demetrius and Lysander's early wrangling and unseemly treatment of their future brides. A bride would have to have more of a sense of humor, however, to see Hippolyta, the bouncing Amazon, or Hermia or Helena as her counterpart. Both bride and groom might stir uneasily at the bitter quarreling of Titania and Oberon, who plans a nasty revenge on his refractory spouse. Of the bride's father in the play, Egeus, the less said the better. An aristocratic wedding is an occasion for high-sounding conventionalities, for the idealized (and flattering) abstractions of a court pageant or masque. As a wedding play, A Dream is too quirky and perhaps even risky. If some noble person took umbrage at what seemed to be a satiric mock, Shakespeare's company could have lost its fee. Humorlessness is the better part of artistic valor in aristocratic entertainments. Even today a production of A Dream may prove to be a risky aristic venture. If a director is eager for laughs, Bottom and his colleagues become buffoons, and the comedy of love in the forest scenes descends to a slapstick farce performed by antic puppets. Indeed, it is more likely that A Dream will be vulgarized in performance than that it will prove too ethereal for popular audiences.

It is a mistake to stress the delicate imaginings of A Dream when its characterizations, plotting, and humor are robust, and its true charm can be appreciated only by those who have a taste for very bad poetry. Compared to the mysteries of Prospero's island, the magic of the forest of Athens is homely and mundane. Puck is part mischievous child, part practical joker; Peaseblossom and Mustard Seed are a common garden variety of fairies. Rather than a play for the esoteric few, A Dream is the very kind of play that Bottom and his companions spent their pennies to see, and Shakespeare keeps reminding us through their earnest attempts to wrestle with problems of stagecraft that they are part of the drama-loving populace that supported the public theaters. Indeed, the comedy of their rehearsal scenes cries out for performance on the bare sunlit stage of a public playhouse, in which settings are evoked primarily by language and can be instantaneously altered, expanded, and shrunk through a magic at least as artful as Oberon's.

What sets A Dream apart from the earlier comedies is not so much its richly sensuous and evocative poetry, though that is new to the comedies, as its complex and perfectly assured dramatic structure. It is as if the problems of comedic form that defied solution in Love's Labor's and Two Gentlemen no longer seem to exist, or are, of a sudden, erased by an artistic inspiration that transcends logical calculations. A lesser dramatist would have retreated from the romantic extravagance of Two Gentlemen to a simpler, more tightly constructed comic plotting. Shakespeare takes the opposite tack, and by weaving together three separate but intersecting strands of action achieves an apparently effortless, harmonious design that can bear comparison with the splendid double plotting of 1 Henry IV. The earlier comedies expand the dimensions of Roman farce by mingling clowns and caricatures with romantic heroes and heroines. A Dream has the expansiveness of the later comedies that is created by the presence of multiple dramatic worlds; the interplay between the lovers, the fairies, and the rude mechanicals points toward the interplay between Venice and Belmont in The Merchant, Olivia's household and Orsino's in Twelfth Night.

By all the conventional rules of artistic decorum, the three worlds of A Dream cannot be part of the same dramatic universe. Theseus, mythic demigod and epic hero, should be battling minotaurs, not arbitrating a family dispute; the fleeing Athenian lovers should encounter Macedonian outlaws, Persian pirates, or Turks, not an English hobgoblin and the king of the fairies; and neither Theseus, nor the Athenian lovers should make the acquaintance of Bottom and his fellow artisans, who daydream of tragic art in their Cheapside shops and patronize the Theater, not the Theater of Dionysius. Beaumont will burlesque bourgeois taste for romance and melodrama in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Shakespeare does not allow us to patronize any of the characters in A Dream even though much of the comic effect of the play depends upon the incongruity of the high-flown passions they self-consciously express, either in their own person or in the role of Pyramus, Thisbe, and Wall. For nothing is exaggerated, nothing in the responses and behavior of the characters is made to seem ridiculous. If the comedy of A Dream depended on the transformation of personality by magical enchantment, Shakespeare, not Quince, would be the mechanical playwright. The chief source of delight is the refusal of those who are enchanted to change their customary way of behaving or even admit that they are enchanted despite the curious lengthening of Bottom's ears and the instantaneous reversals of Demetrius and Lysander's passions. Although their circumstances radically change, they remain stubbornly the same, their feet firmly planted on the floor even when the floor becomes the ceiling.

Lacking confidence in the high comedy of the forest scenes, directors sometimes play them as slapstick farce. This approach reduces the enchantment of Demetrius and Lysander to a tiresome gag of B-movies—the push-button hypnotic trance. In such films the hero is at one moment his ordinary self; the next moment a telephone rings or a special word is spoken and the shy retiring bank clerk becomes an irresistible lothario; an incompetent athlete, a superstar. Oberon's magic may alter the object of the heroes' affections or change Bottom's physiognamy, but it does not alter their essential natures. Despite Oberon's ministrations and manipulations, these characters never become marionettes, and since they are always in their right minds, they have no difficulty in rationalizing the irrational. Demetrius and Lysander are no more astonished by their changed desires than the lords of Navarre are dismayed to learn that they prefer love to monastic discipline. They know, as Orsino does, that men are not as steadfast in affection as women and that their quest for the ideal may require the jilting of one woman for another as they see more clearly into the neoplatonic mystery of love. If Proteus and Romeo can change loves, why cannot Demetrius abandon Helena for Hermia, and rediscover Helena, and think that all the time he is ascending the ladder of love? More innocent than Proteus and Valentine in their attitude toward women and romantic rivalry, they are not ambivalent about love; they do not speak cynically of the susceptibility of women to flattery or greed. Their rivalry is open and declared, not cunningly concealed and Machiavellian. Indeed, they treat one another in a gentlemanly way even when they would settle their rivalry with swords. They are ungentlemenly only to women, as Bertram will be in All's Well and Posthumus will be in Cymbeline. Behind the absurdity of the heroes' behavior in the forest is the ironic truth of male egotism in affairs of love and honor.

If the emphasis falls on the irrationality of love in A Dream, it does not follow that Shakespeare is advancing the cause of sobriety or moderation. What Theseus and Bottom say about reason and love is well said and eminently reasonable, as reasonable as Benvolio's attempt to restore Romeo's equanimity by proving to him that Rosaline is not the only fish in the sea. It is dangerous to make a god of love and folly to surrender to the melancholy of unrequited desire. The absoluteness of romantic passion can be tyrannical and destructive. Mischance, an ancient feud, and the passions of friends and foes all conspire against Romeo and Juliet. Ultimately, however, they are not victims of circumstance; they choose to die because they will not live without each other, because, as Donne would have it, they are "one another's all," and unless they may live in each other's arms they have no wish to breathe. What could be more senseless? Experience assures us that the misery of unrequited love fades and that people love and marry again after the deaths of beloved spouses. Yet the mystique of romantic passion insists that in this vast world there is only one Isolde for a Tristan, only one Romeo for a Juliet. Too sensible to credit such a view, Benvolio proves to Romeo that there are women in Verona more beautiful and desirable than Rosaline. He proves conclusively that Romeo's love melancholy can be cured, but his sensible remedy leads only to Juliet and a deeper emotional commitment that costs Romeo's life. If we are to set limits to the role of passion in our lives, we must also be willing to set limits to the role of common sense and reason because the ideal of love is absolute and unbending and defined as such in marriage vows that pledge eternal devotion. It is easy to smile at the irrationality of romantic yearnings, but there is something irrational also in the loyalty of Shakespeare's heroines to those who betray them or prove unworthy. At some point we must refuse to reason the need for love, refuse to measure out the appropriate emotional responses of those in love, and refuse to moralize the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, who are the victims of other characters' vanities, follies, and timidities, not of their own passions.

Since Hermia and Helena are equally fair and alike in gentleness and a capacity to love, there is no reason why Demetrius should abandon Helena to pursue Hermia; but then Demetrius and Lysander are so alike, there is no reason why Hermia detests the former and risks all to elope with the latter, despite the sharp penalty threatened by Athenian law. Still Shakespeare does not present the turmoil of the lovers as much ado about nothing, and he does not make their choices seem arbitrary or capricious. For if romantic love is blind, it is less blind and irrational than the obstinate insistence of an Egeus (or a Capulet) on choosing his daughter's husband despite her anguished objections. If anything, Egeus's choice of Demetrius is more irrational than Hermia's choice of Lysander because Demetrius has sullied his reputation by jilting Helena. The tyranny of Cupid is nothing compared to the tyranny of the ancient custom that allows a father to dispose of a daughter as chattel and thereby turn wedding vows into legalistic shams.

Since Hermia and Lysander thrill to the idea that they are star-crossed, we suspect that they will not suffer the tragic fates of the legendary lovers to whom they compare themselves. Like Bottom and Quince they have read tales like "Pyramus and Thisbe" and perhaps read Dido, Queen of Carthage (in translation), and they agree with the artisans that a bit of tragic calamity is the best beginning for a happy marriage. Although they bemoan their fates, they intend to live happily ever after. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, they have no need of a tragic chorus, because they gloss their own story in a high rhetorical vein:

Lysander. Ay me! for aught that I could ever   read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth;
But either it was different in blood—
Her. O cross! Too high to be enthrall'd to [low].
Lys. Or else misgraffed in respect of years—
Her. O spite! too old to be engag'd to young.
Lys. Or else it stood upon the choice of
Her. O hell, to choose love by another's eyes!
                                             (1.1. 132-40)

Lysander is not the worst of lyric poets; he can speak as eloquently of love's brevity as Romeo or Juliet because he shares their knowledge that love can be

          momentany as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth;
And ere a man hath power to say "Behold!"
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.
                                   (1.1. 143-49)

Hermia is no less romantic but far less imaginative; she can turn a heartfelt vow into a classroom recitation. When Lysander asks her to join him in fleeing the severe law of Athens, she pledges

     by Cupid's strongest bow,
By his best arrow with the golden head,
By the simplicity of Venus' doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
And by that fire which burn'd the Carthage

In that same place thou hast appointed me
To-morrow truly will I meet with thee.
                                   (1.1. 169-78)

No lawyer could make the contract of love more literal and specific; this is the very boiler-plate of passionate commitment. Bottom and Quince are even more literal-minded in their approach to the staging of tragic passion, but their yearning for romantic angst is as genuine as Hermia's, as genuine as the yearning of ordinary Elizabethans for tales of exotic adventure and plays filled with sound and fury. Quince was not born to write poetic tragedy any more than Bottom was born to act in it. They are not Marlowes or Burbages any more than Hermia and Lysander are Isolde and Tristan, and their longing for the heroic is therefore the source of a new kind of verbal comedy that is neither witty like the wordplay of Berowne and Rosaline, nor pedantic like the wordplay of Holofernes and Nathaniel. Bottom and Quince do not stumble over words because they are ignorant or out to impress their comrades. They misuse terms and figures of speech because they are out of their depths as dramatists and dramaturges. They are earnest rather than pompous in dealing with the mysteries of aesthetic terminology, and they approach the task of presenting high tragedy with the solemnity that Hermia and Lysander bring to the adventure of elopement.

In romance a jilted maiden is wreathed in a delicate, wistful pathos. She is vulnerable like Ophelia, her cheeks are wan and tear-stained, and she sings a plaintive willow song. Mariana of Measure for Measure is the only heroine of the comedies to conform to this romantic archetype. Helena, like Julia, Hero, and Helena of All's Well, is far more sturdy. She is too stubborn to accept rejection and has too strong a sense of herself to wilt before Demetrius's scorn. Refusing to abandon hope of regaining his love, she dedicates all thought and action to that goal. Although she dwells continually on her unhappy state, she is not self-pitying and she does not want to be pitied by others. She talks to herself about her situation the way tennis players talk to themselves when their game has slipped and they must regain concentration. She is not certain why she is losing but she knows she must not concede defeat, and she studies Hermia's success to see if she can pick up some useful hints. She is determined to understand what has happened, what cause in herself or Demetrius has made her the underdog. Ready to chase after Demetrius, she is too proud to beg for love and is inclined rather to accuse and scold him. She may be jealous of Hermia, who now has Demetrius's love, but she does not accuse her of stealing her fiancé. It is as if she long ago accepted the fact that Hermia was a bit more attractive and would always be the first one asked to dance. She does not wish that Hermia were less beautiful; she would simply like to be more fair. "Sickness is catching," she muses; "O, were favor so." She does not brood over her appearance, however, because she knows that through Athens she is thought as fair as Helena. Because jealousy is foreign to her nature and she is absorbed in her own problems, she does not seem to notice the feline pleasure Hermia takes in describing Demetrius's infatuation with her:

Her. I frown upon him; yet he loves me still.
Hel. O that your frowns would teach my smiles
   such skill!
Her. I give him curses; yet he gives me love.
Hel. O that my prayers could such affection
Her. The more I hate, the more he follows me!
Hel. The more I love, the more he hateth me.
Her. His folly, Helena, is no fault of mine.
Hel. None but your beauty; would that fault
  were mine!
                                        (1.1. 194-201)

If Helena were more calculating, she would keep silent about Hermia's elopement and be rid of her rival for good. But that would be to win the match by default; no, she must rush to tell Demetrius so as to have his thanks and the excuse to trail after him while he pursues the eloping lovers. Although she harps on her unhappy state, she does not enjoy it in any masochistic way, and she is quick to react to any imagined slight or mockery. Hermia expresses her prosaic nature in a detailed inventory of Cupid's armaments; Helena reveals her dogged approach to experience by subjecting the ancient myth of Cupid to modern scientific analysis in an attempt to determine why Demetrius dotes on Hermia. The answer, she concludes is that

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgment taste;
Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste.
                                   (1.1. 232-37)

So much for the mystery of love! Dan Cupid is clearly a public hazard on the road to marriage. She is equally adept at analyzing human psychology, with the aid of some deliciously flat-footed puns:

… ere Demetrius look'd on Hermia's eyne,
He hail'd down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolv'd, and show'rs of oaths did melt.
                                                  (1.1. 242-45)

Helena has a gift of metaphor that is fatal to the poetic imagination. When Demetrius complains because she is following him in the forest, she explains:

You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel.
                                   (2.2. 195-97)

Lysander and Hermia speak of the accidents that can befall true love; Helena assumes that nothing is accidental; for every effect, there is a cause, whether the effect be Demetrius's swerving or Hermia's beauty:

Happy is Hermia, wheresoe'er she lies,
For she hath blessed and attractive eyes.
How came her eyes so bright? Not with salt
If so, my eyes are oft'ner wash'd than hers.
                                                   (2.2. 90-93)

If favor is not catching, pedestrian wordplay seems to be. Exasperated by Helena's pursuit in the forest, Demetrius at last complains that he is "wode within this wood."

The matter-of-factness of the lovers is understandable; they are citizens of an Athens in which heroic adventures are no longer commonplace but belong to a mythic past that Theseus and Hippolyta have put behind them. The law that threatens Hermia should she disobey her father's wishes is a vestige of that mythic past, but one doubts that Egeus's paternal tyranny will have tragic consequences when there is a comic fussiness in the accusations he levels at Lysander:

Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her
And interchang'd love-tokens with my child;
Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung
With faining voice verses of faining love,

And stol'n the impression of her fantasy
With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds,
Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats.
                                      (1.1. 28-34)

Sweetmeats! Shall Hermia die the death or wither away in a convent because of Lysander's cunning sweetmeats? The conflict between love and statute seems to admit no reasonable compromise except Lysander's suggestion that Demetrius, who has Egeus's love, marry him.

Since Egeus's preference for Demetrius is as idiosyncratic as Hermia's preference for Lysander, the laws of Athens provide no solution to the seeming anarchy of passion; obedience to order and degree merely buttresses Egeus's obtuse willfulness. The mythic allusions in A Dream underline the terrifying force of sexual passion, which turned some gods into adulterous seducers and ravishers of innocence. The power of love to change the lives of mortals is the continuing mythic theme of Ovid's Metamorphoses. The wonder and fear that overwhelming passion evokes is recorded in the ancient legends of men and women enslaved by love potions and spells. Like Egeus, Brabantio is convinced that his daughter has been bewitched, and not long after we smile at Egeus's superstition, Oberon and Puck appear to make the fantasy of enchanted love a reality.

Despite Egeus's complaint, these moonlit enchantments are quite impossible in an Athens where Theseus, who ravished Perigenia and broke his faith with Aegles, Adriane, and Antiopa, is now a model of princely respectability. Properly raised, the maidens of Athens are chary of their reputations and expect their suitors to honor their virginal modesties. Although Lysander waxes amorous for a time, Hermia cools his ardor, and Demetrius's threat to ravish Helena is made out of exasperation, not lust. Primal natural passions do not make their claim in the dark forest because Athenian youth do not lie together under the greenwood tree or abandon themselves to desire in May or in midsummer. The forest of Athens is not a trysting place; it is a retreat for nature walks among the woodland flowers, a place to dream of elves who war with bees and reremice and sleep in flowers and discarded snake skins. The dark underside of nature in A Dream is nothing more than the delicate world of the fairies, who embody our age-old fear of the shadowy night and derive their being from winter tales repeated around the fire. Oberon and Titania are well bred, benign, and tolerant in their view of mortals, even though the former allows Puck's practical jokes. Oberon, when crossed by his wife, can be as blustering as any husband or father and capable of plotting a nasty revenge, but he is a romantic at heart who is sympathetic to the lovelorn Helena and offended by Demetrius's abuse of her.

Since Oberon cannot settle his own marital problems, it is not surprising that his intervention creates additional difficulties for the lovers. His herbal remedies are all-powerful but they are misapplied because Puck sensibly decides that Lysander, who sleeps apart from Hermia, is the nasty lack-love he seeks. Oberon's charms can make a sleeper adore the first person he sees when he awakes. They cannot, however, change anything essential in either a mortal or a fairy's nature. Titania's tenderness for the long-eared Bottom is natural in a woman who dared her husband's royal anger for the sake of a changeling child and the memory of the mortal woman who bore him. Lovers and rivals before they entered the forest, Lysander and Demetrius continue as such when enchanted; the magical drops do not make them forget their earlier loves, and they are perfectly aware of their sudden alterations of affection. Unperplexed, they rejoice in their new loves and justify their giddiness with hackneyed sophistries. They must be unfaithful to their former loves to be true to themselves because they know now that they did not really love before. Until the drops were placed in their eyes they did not see clearly. Oberon's magic does not make them inexcusably rude to Hermia; their desire to prove their devotion to Helena prompts that unchivalry, and the fever of competition makes them careless of all else, as they were in the opening scene, in which they insulted one another. Having ascended the neoplatonic ladder of love, they see clearly and rationally that all's fair in love and war and that the sensible thing to do is eliminate their rival in a duel. Ever the gentlemen, they are ready to protect Helena from Hermia's fingernails by brute force if necessary.

In itself, the joke of the love drops is limited and repetitious. Demetrius and Lysander imitate one another in their suddenly discovered eternal devotion to Helena, their facile rationalizations, and their romantic hyperboles. The richest comedy of the forest scenes lies in the heroines' attempts to make sense of the heroes' bizarre behavior. The comic situation resembles that of Errors in that Oberon's enchantments create for the lovers the supposes that confuse the twin brothers, except that Demetrius and Lysander find nothing strange in their new circumstance; and, unlike Adriana and Luciana, Hermia and Helena know that something is terribly amiss and do their best to fathom the muddle. There are shrill accusations, false surmises, and whirling swords in the Athenian forest as in the streets of Ephesus, but we delight now in Hermia and Helena's psychological responses rather than in Shakespeare's ingenious manipulation of his farcical situation. The more conventionally feminine of the heroines, Hermia will not let Lysander sleep near her in the forest. He suggests that one turf serve as pillow for them both: "One heart, one bed, two bosoms, one troth." "Nay, good Lysander," she replies, "For my sake, my dear, / Lie further off yet, do not lie so near." When she awakes to find Lysander gone and Demetrius present, she leaps to melo-dramatic conclusions, a tendency in those who have read too many tragical tales. If Demetrius has slain Lysander for her love, she says,

Being o'er shoes in blood, plunge in the deep,
And kill me too.
                                                 (3.2. 48-49)

Where Hermia is ready to believe the worst of the well-shod Demetrius, Helena is not willing to accept the astonishing reality of Lysander's and Demetrius's sudden passion for her. She has grown accustomed to her underdog role with all the moral advantages it allows, and she is too sensible to believe that passions instantaneously alter; there must be a reason for the heroes' sudden attraction to her even as there had to be a reason for Demetrius's desertion of her for Hermia. When Lysander awakes to declare that reason leads him to her eyes, she wonders why she was born to this "keen mockery," why he flouts her female "insufficiency," why a lady "of one man refused, / Should of another therefore be abused." A loyal friend, she does not find Lysander's passion a sweet recompense for her rejection by Demetrius; instead she is appalled by his untruth to Hermia. When Demetrius leaps up to deify her with Marlovian hyperboles and invidious comparisons, she is convinced of their derision because she knows when men "superpraise [her] parts." The last piece of the puzzle slips into place for Helena when Hermia appears and is spurned by Lysander as one he hates. Now she knows that she is the victim of one of the cruel jokes school children play on one another. They have whispered in a corner and ganged up to make her miserable. It pains her to recall the days when she and Hermia were as one in all they felt and did.

… with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds,
Had been incorporate.
                                      (3.2. 204-8)

These innocent days are ended; sexual maturity has expelled them from the Eden of their girlhood into an adult world of rivalries, insecurities, and pain. Helena feelingly complains that her dear friend has set Lysander to praise her eyes and face and set Demetrius to call her "goddess, nymph, divine and rare, / Precious and celestial" so that they may wink and smirk at her when her back is turned. What could be more diabolical? To prove the truth of their affections, Demetrius and Lysander are ready to slay one another. Incredulous, Hermia asks what change is this in Lysander, her sweet love. "Thy love? Out tawny Tartar, out," the chivalric Lysander exclaims, "Out, loathed medicine! O hated potion, hence!" Now Hermia sees the light. She cannot blame her beloved Lysander for mistreating her. The fault must be Helena's, the "thief of love" who came by night and stole Lysander's heart. This accusation is the last straw for the aggrieved Helena, who turns on Hermia with "impatient answers" torn from her gentle tongue: "Fie, fie! You counterfeit, you puppet, you!" These unguarded words give away Helena's cunning game to Hermia, who realizes that her rival has won Lysander by the Machiavellian trick of comparing their heights.

And are you grown so high in his esteem,
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? Speak!
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach until thine eyes.
                                     (3.2. 294-98)

At last Helena begins to enjoy her enviable position; turning shy, defenseless maiden, she implores Lysander and Demetrius to protect her from this vixen who is dangerous though "something lower than myself," fierce in nature though "little." As the argument continues, Hermia's stature dwindles until she is hardly visible in the under-growth. "Get you gone, you dwarf," Lysander urges,

You minimus, of hind'ring knot-grass made;
You bead, you acorn!
                                              (3.2. 328-29)

The joke of Hermia's littleness was no doubt inspired in part by the actors in Shakespeare's company, one appreciably shorter than the other, who played women's roles. The comic quarrel does not depend, however, upon a real difference in height between actors because here as elsewhere in A Dream words magically affect the size and appearance of things. In English and Celtic folklore, fairies, elves, and goblins are not much smaller in stature than humans; they are perhaps childlike in manner but not diminutives. In A Dream the fairies are tiny creatures, a patent impossibility because they are played by actors of average height who speak of themselves as dwarfed by cowslips. Yet the drastic illusion holds because believing is seeing, and because on stage one need not nibble a mushroom to shrink in stature; Hermia dwindles to a mere bead once Helena and Lysander begin to slang her.

To say that a few words suffice to indicate setting, time, or season of year on Shakespeare's stage is not to say that audiences imagine rosy-fingered dawns when characters describe them, any more than readers of poetry "see" its "visual imagery." In the opening scene of Hamlet, the sentries say that they are cold and frightened keeping watch at midnight on the battlements of Elsinore, even as they challenge one another on a bare, sunlit stage. The power of dramatic illusion does not depend upon the ability of poetic language to persuade an audience that light is dark; it requires only that the characters be convinced of the reality of their dramatic circumstances and communicate that conviction through dialogue and stage business. If they do not recognize someone in disguise, the disguise is impenetrable even though accomplished by the flimsiest of means. Because Bottom and his companions are unimaginative, it does not occur to them to bring in moonlight the way Shakespeare does, through poetic allusion. They are as earnest about their stagecraft as the lovers are about their passions and more literal-minded. If the play calls for a wall, they will bring a wall on stage, and perhaps they are right to do so because they do not possess a professional actor's ability to make an imaginary wall real by stage gesture and action. They are not so prosaic, however, as to aim at mundane realism; they know that symbolism is native to art and are ready to enlist members of the company to play Moonlight and Wall. Such people, one thinks, should not be allowed on stage, and yet the stage is their natural habitat because only in a Shakespearean comedy will one find a joiner like Snug, who wants the lion's part writ out because he is slow of study. Their rehearsal scenes are at once a travesty of theatrical production and a celebration of the versatility of the public playhouses. The would-be actors walk out on a bare platform stage and tell themselves and the audience that they are in a forest. For lack of a theater in which to rehearse, they will pretend that a woodland clearing is a stage, and they will also pretend that the imaginary shrub Quince points out will serve as a tiring house from which to enter. Compared to these instantaneous metamorphoses, Oberon's spells are very limited in effect.

We need not eke out the imperfections of the rehearsal scenes with our thoughts because the dramatic situations are absolutely convincing in performance and any use of scenery would only blur the gentle humor of Shakespeare's comments on dramatic illusion. If Quince says that a stage is a forest and a greensward a stage, who will argue with him? If an actor says that he is small enough to sleep in a snakeskin, who will object that he is five feet six inches tall and perhaps a bit paunchy? It is Bottom's unshakable sense of the reality of his experience that equips him to enter into the fancifulness of Titania's world. Introduced to someone called Cobweb, he makes appropriate small talk. He does not wonder at his hairy ears and face and at his ungulate appetites; whatever is, is right. He does not worry over the Queen of the Fairies' sudden adoration as Helena wrestles with Lysander and Demetrius's yearning for her. He knows there is no accounting for the heart's desires, and he is too polite to question a lady's motives or refuse her attentions. His ease and graciousness in fairyland confirm the virtue of an innocent if prosaic sensibility. Although scholars sometimes assume that the best audience for Shakespeare would be learned and urbane auditors like themselves, Shakespeare would, I suspect, have rejoiced in audiences that could respond to stage illusion with something like Bottom's unspoiled simplicity.

Where Demetrius and Lysander are at times nasty to Hermia and Helena, Bottom and his colleagues are deeply concerned not to offend the ladies in their audience. The heroes strike chivalric postures, but Bottom is instinctively chivalric toward women: modest, tactful, thankful for small favors, he would not think of taking advantage of Titania's infatuation. She would shower him with luxuries; he would be happy with some oats, hay, and dried peas, and someone to scratch his hairy face. Inevitably he is friendly rather than amorous, for he is the kind of bachelor on whom all communities depend, one who is enthusiastic, energetic, knowledgeable, and free of evenings. The politician's gift of friendly solicitude that he demonstrates with Mustard Seed guarantees that he will sit some day on the county council and perhaps wear an alderman's robe.

Because of Bottom's unvarying good nature, Oberon's plan to humiliate Titania produces only sweetness and light. On the other hand, his attempts to dissolve the love triangle in the forest leads to greater animosity and unhappiness. Puck's mistaken applications of the love drops may be easily rectified; the jealousies and rivalries of the lovers can not, however, be amenable to chemical therapy. For if they were, love would be a joke in A Dream, and the romantic heroes and heroines stick figures who are manipulated for an audience's amusement. If all is to end well, Demetrius must discover that he loves Helena still despite the lure of rivalry with Lysander for Hermia's hand. Titania must also be reconciled with Oberon rather than humiliated by him. The reconciliation with Titania that Oberon describes to Puck is not what the heart desires. He does not regret the revenge he took and he does not seem more sensitive to the motives that prompted her stubbornness. He tells Puck that after he had taunted her for loving a monster, she begged his patience and gave up the child. He did not have to grow more understanding because she was prepared to submit to his authority. If this encounter were staged, it might leave an unpleasant aftertaste, but it is reported to us as a conclusion to a marital dispute that ends, as so many do, without explicit resolutions of issues and with unspoken recognitions.

The resolution of the lovers' difficulties is similarly understated. When morning comes, the anxious terrors of the night end; broad daylight brings the reassurance of familiar sights and sounds. Where Puck had led Demetrius and Lysander on confused chases through the dark forest, now Theseus and Hippolyta enjoy the healthy athleticism of a morning hunt. Where Oberon had elaborated his metaphysical conceits of dew-drenched flowers, Theseus now grows rhapsodic over his dewlapped, crooked-kneed hounds, whose ears sweep the ground and whose baying voices thrill his Amazonian bride more than any singing to a lute. She may not know what poetry or music is, but she knows what she likes. The lovers awake to find themselves changed by their experience in the woods; all else remains the same. Athens' law still gives Egeus the right to dispose of his daughter as he wills, and now his hand is strengthened by her unlawful flight with Lysander. He would have the law on Lysander's head and he would choose Demetrius as his son-in-law, but Demetrius announces that his love of Hermia has melted, dissolved away, and is remembered as "an idle gaud, / Which in my childhood I did dote upon." Now he has eyes again only for Helena. To prevent Egeus from any more sputtering, Theseus, who once let Demetrius's breath of faith to Helena slip his mind, corrects this oversight by allowing the lovers to choose their mates. In Athens, as in many other polities, the law is the law except when it is convenient for authorities to let slip a statute or two. If Theseus can suddenly reverse his edicts, Lysander can as suddenly return to Hermia once the love drops are removed from his eyes. Demetrius's change of heart is more ambiguous because it seems to be effected by Oberon's magic, and that is too facile. An audience must feel that Demetrius has come to realize the superficiality of his attraction to Hermia and the depth of his love of Helena. The thrill of rivalry with Lysander has been thoroughly chastened by a bad night in the forest, one which revealed that Lysander too could play the fool as a rivalrous suitor. Hermia, who was somewhat smug at the outset, has experienced the pain of rejection that Helena knew, and Helena's confidence in her attractiveness has been restored. All accusations, recriminations, and posturings ended in the peacefulness of sleep, the same sleep that claims Bottom as he lies in Titania's arms, his ears garlanded with flowers. The lovers do not remember what happened the night before, but the audience does and is prepared to accept the resolution that follows.

Unlike the sentimentalist, who believes that every grasping slumlord can be moved to generosity by a crippled child, Shakespeare offers his audience no sudden, miraculous uplifting of moral character—or none that is not subject to devastating irony. The lovers of A Dream need not suffer a sea-change (or forest-change) because Lysander's forthright confession of his elopement is admirable; Demetrius's honest perplexity about his renewed love for Helena is equally admirable and convincing, especially after all the blusterings and casuistries of the preceding night. The heroines need not say very much when they awake, because their affections never wavered. Since they do not remember their jealous quarrelings, they need not be reconciled to one another. It is as if the unspoken tensions of the love triangles, once acted out, have become as distant as the memory of an unhappy dream.

With the lovers happily paired off, nothing remains to be settled except the choice of dramatic entertainment for the wedding feast. "Pyramus and Thisbe" seems an impossible entry until the others are described: "'The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung / By an Athenian eunuch to the harp,'" and "'The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals, / Tearing the Thracian singer in their rage.'" It is amusing that Theseus, who steps forth as an expert on art and love, finds nothing indecorous in the subject matter of these nuptial entertainments; he rejects them as old hat, too familiar to be staged at another wedding. He has a firmer grasp on the question of artistic decorum than do the rude mechanicals, who feared to bring a lion on stage, but perhaps their respect for the power of illusion is closer to the mark than is Theseus's urbane skepticism about the lovers' brush with fantasy. What he says about lunatics and lovers is well said; he takes his stand against poetry in memorable verse. His dismissal of antique fables is a sly Shakespearean touch given the fact that he and Hippolyta owe their very existence to classical mythology. The desire to make sense of the world is native to our humanity; we are instinctively curious and unnerved by the illogical and unpredictable. Like Theseus, we would brush away the cobwebs of superstition and take a scientific approach to experience. Thus Helena sees the bizarre behavior of Demetrius and Lysander as a heartless attempt to humiliate her, and Bottom interprets his comrade's fear of his ass's head as an attempt to make an ass of him. His days of heroic adventure behind him, Theseus is not ready to credit tales of minotaurs or magical enchantments, for he knows how deceptive shadows can be in moonlight. His explanations make very good sense, but they are, in this instance, completely erroneous. He is so intent on scientific reasoning that he ignores the scientific evidence supporting the lovers' stories, which is palpable enough even for Hippolyta to grasp: namely, that the story of the night each separately tells "grows to something of great constancy." It may well be that the lovers have dreamed all that they dimly remember, but the dreams that we all share are intrinsic to our common experience as humans.

The final authority on epistemological questions is Bottom, not Theseus. His was the most remarkable adventure, and unlike the others he remembers what happened to him with some clarity. He does not question whether he wakes or sleeps; he knows what is real and what is unreal and will not be persuaded that his wonderful experience was a fantasy induced by indigestion or sleeping on damp ground. He also knows the cash value of bottomless dreams. Like Autolycus, and Stephano and Trinculo after him, he has enterpreneurial schemes to satisfy the popular yearning for the fabulous; he will have his share of fairy gold in the receipts from a puppet show and the sale of broadside ballads based on his dream. His gifts as impressario are confirmed by the production of "Pyramus and Thisbe," which also provides a definitive answer to the question of what play is best for a wedding feast. Undoubtedly the ideal choice is a romantic tragedy written and performed by earnest incompetents. The tedious brief comedy is a cathartic experience for playwrights as well as lovers, because it exorcises both the fear of tragic misunderstandings and the dramatist's recurring nightmare that his plays will be staged by actors who cannot even recite his lines correctly. The result is very decorous, however, for in muddling their speeches, the actors are true to Shakespeare's artistic intention. Indeed, their incompetence is triumphant because only by misreading every one of his lines is the Prologue able to achieve his ingenious, unforgettable rhymes. When Jonson transforms the legend of Hero and Leander into an obscene puppet motion at the close of Bartholomew Fair, he shows his contempt for his actors as well as his audience. When Quince's lines prove unwittingly obscene, they testify to his innocence as poet and play wright. Compared to the baiting of the actors in the Pageant of Worthies by the lords of Navarre, the comments on the play by Demetrius, Lysander, and Theseus are good-natured sport. Moreover, these players are not easily put out of their parts, for they have supreme confidence in their play, and Bottom, a patient dramaturge, explains the rationale of the company's artistic choices. While the men show off their satiric wit, Hermia and Helena are courteously silent. The humorless Hippolyta is a bit bored by most of the play but moved by Bottom's tragic apostrophe, which Theseus also admires, "This passion, and the death of a friend, would go near to make a man look sad."

The last words of the play belong to the fairies, whom Theseus assures us do not exist. Since Elizabethan wedding masques appeal to classical deities to bless the marital unions, it follows that English fairies will give the benediction to Athenian brides and grooms. The hope is that the children born of the marriages will be as lively and mischievous as Puck; the fear is that they may be defective, marred by blots of nature or marks prodigious, harelips and disfiguring moles. The dread possibility also exists that one of the women will die in childbirth as did the mother of Titania's changeling boy. Earlier in the play Oberon's spells gave Bottom a monstrous shape; now his spells are a defense against the birth deformities that make midwives cross themselves and whisper of witch-craft. Night can be a time, Theseus observes, when shadows confuse and terrify; it can also be a time when lovers go astray, or as in "Pyramus and Thisbe," when tragic misapprehensions take their toll. As A Dream concludes, however, night is a time when lovers enjoy the happy consummation their true affections deserve.

Although Oberon presides over the concluding scene of A Dream, Bottom is the chief fashioner of its harmony. He is the best of all possible weavers, a craftsman who intertwines the separate threads of the play by being equally at home among his usual companions, among the fairies, and in the ducal palace of Athens. His good nature is the emotional ballast of the plot and a continuing assurance that all will end well. His most immediate descendants are Dogberry and Verges, the non-pareil guardians of law and order in Messina. More distant relations are Bassanio, Benedick, Adam, the good Lafew, Pisanio, and Camillo, whose kindly natures never change and whose decency and loyalty sustain the belief that despite violent passion and reckless deeds, love and laughter will finally prevail.

Stanley Wells (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "A Midsummer Night's Dream Revisited," The Critical Survey, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1991, pp. 14-29.

[In the following excerpt, Wells reviews trends in critical reception of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the 1970s and 1980s, reaffirming his doubts that the play was originally written for a wedding and examining the relationship between recent literary criticism of the play and its performance history.]

The edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream which I edited for the New Penguin Shakespeare appeared in 1967. During that time it has been reprinted some twenty times and has sold well over 320,000 copies, which have certainly been used by many students and school children, and have formed the basis for a number of productions of the play, including the famous one by Peter Brook. It is, of course, like all other editions, gradually going out of date; and I hope it may be of interest to look at some of the more outstanding developments in the play's fortunes that have occurred since I prepared the edition, not simply in order, as it were, to bring its Introduction up to date, but also as a sample of the changes that can occur in attitudes to a Shakespeare play over a comparatively short period in its after-life. During this time there have been new editions, including two with detailed annotations—the new Arden (1979) edited by Harold F. Brooks, and the New Cambridge (1986), edited by R. A. Foakes—and one—the Oxford (1986)—with significant textual innovations. There have been new scholarly investigations; there has been much new criticism, including the first full-length book to be devoted to the play; there have been new offshoots, extending as far as Woody Allen's film A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy; and of course there have been many new productions of the play itself. A bibliography published in 1986 lists well over 1,500 items (including performances), most of them dating from 1940 to 1982; its authors, D. Allen Carroll and Gary Jay Williams, estimate that during this period 'There has been, on average, a published comment on the Dream (excluding reviews of productions) every ten days and a production of the play, by conservative estimate, every six weeks'.… It would be boring and unproductive to attempt a complete survey of all these developments; what I want to do is rather to select a variety of the most significant ones, and I will begin with investigations of the occasion of the play's first performance.

In 1967 many writers on A Midsummer Night's Dream accepted as orthodoxy the view that the play was written for a noble wedding, and that this supposed fact accounted for some of its features, especially the presence in the cast of an exceptional number of roles that might be played by children, and the epithalamic nature of its ending, with the fairies' blessing of the house in which three newly married couples have retired to bed. At least eleven court weddings, ranging in date from 1590 to 1600, have been suggested as the occasion for the play's first performance. (No one has discovered a triple wedding that might have been relevant.) In editing the play I felt it necessary to take this hypothesis seriously, for a number of reasons, most obviously that if we could establish for certain that the play was written for a particular wedding we should also establish for certain its date, about which also there has been much conjecture. This might seem to be of limited interest to the reader of a semi-popular edition, like the New Penguin, which was not intended primarily as a contribution to scholarship; but the wedding theory seemed of fundamental importance, above all because those who accepted it were inclined to under-rate the play as a result of it: there was an implication that because some of the play's features could be ascribed to the demands of the occasion its artistry was thereby the less. So I felt obliged to investigate evidence for the theory; and I was not convinced by what I found. In 1967 I wrote:

There is no outside evidence with any bearing on the matter. The theory has arisen from various features of the play itself. It is, certainly, much concerned with marriage; but so are many comedies. It ends with the fairies' blessing upon the married couples; but this is perfectly appropriate to Shakespeare's artistic scheme, and requires no other explanation … A Midsummer Night's Dream (like Love's Labour's Lost) appears to require an unusually large number of boy actors. Hippolyta, Hermia, Helena, Titania, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed would all have been boys' parts. Puck and Oberon too may have been played by boys or young men. But the title page of the first edition, printed in 1600, tells us that the play was 'sundry times publicly acted by the Right Honourable the Lord Chamberlain his servants'. If Shakespeare's company could at any time muster enough boys for public performances, we have no reason to doubt that it could do so from the start. Thus the suggestion that the roles of the fairies were intended to be taken by children of the hypothetical noble house seems purely whimsical. The stage directions of the first edition, which was probably printed from Shakespeare's manuscript, show no essential differences from those in his other plays; a direction such as 'Enter a Fairie at one doore, and Robin Goodfellow at another (II. 1.0) suggests that he had in mind the structure of the public theatres. Furthermore although noble weddings in Shakespeare's time were sometimes graced with formal entertainments, usually of the nature of a masque, the first play certainly known to have been written for such an occasion is Samuel Daniels's Hymen's Triumph. This was performed in 1614, some twenty years after the composition of A Midsummer Night's Dream. By this time the tradition of courtly entertainments had developed greatly; and Hymen's Triumph does not appear to have been played in a public theatre.

(New Penguin edition)

The scepticism expressed there has won converts. S. Schoenbaum, for instance, quotes this entire passage with approval in his William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1975); R. A. Foakes is distinctly sceptical of the wedding hypothesis in his New Cambridge edition; and in the opening chapter of a forthcoming stage history of the play, Gary Jay Williams will subject the theory to the most rigorous criticism it has so far received and conclude that there is nothing 'within the play that compels us to believe that it was created for a court wedding at which Elizabeth was present or any other wedding'. Nevertheless, the view persists and is given credence particularly by the attention paid to it in the influential new Arden edition of 1979, whose editor declares that 'Most scholars are agreed that the Dream was designed to grace a wedding in a noble household'; Stanley Wells is cited among 'The one or two sceptics'. I raise the matter here because of two contributions to scholarship which have a bearing on the matter. One is an article by William Ringler, 'The Number of Actors in Shakespeare's Early Plays', published in 1968 [in The Seventeenth-Century Stage] but not referred to by the Arden editor, which demonstrates that the fairies can be doubled with the mechanicals, and so weakens the argument that the play needs an exceptional number of boy players. It also raises the intriguing possibility that the fully grown male performers that Peter Brook was to use in his production in 1970, two years after Ringler's article appeared, were more authentic than has generally been supposed. The critical consequences of this doubling have been supported by Stephen Booth, who argues that it 'mirrors, underscores, and comments on the comically troublesome philosophic implications of the "doubling" of Flute, Snout, Starveling, and Snug—four "real" people—with Thisby, Wall, Moonshine and Lion—the complexly and variously unreal creatures they personify in the play staged within the fiction'.…

The Arden editor rules out a number of marriages proposed for the original performance of the play, and alights on the two favoured by E. K. Chambers: that between Elizabeth Vere and the Earl of Derby, on 26 January 1595, and that between Elizabeth Carey and Thomas Berkeley, over a year later—it took place on 19 February 1596. Each bride was among the many god-daughters of Queen Elizabeth. Harold Brooks favours the latter wedding—the one between Elizabeth Carey and Thomas Berkeley—on the grounds partly that the bride's grandfather, Henry Lord Hunsdon, was the Queen's Lord Chamberlain and patron of the company of actors to which Shakespeare belonged. This is beguilingly plausible; and one scholar has followed up the hypothesis with an article, entitled 'A Mid-summer Night's Dream and the Carey-Berkeley Wedding' (by Steven W. May, Renaissance Papers 1983, ed. A. Leigh Daneef and M. Thomas Hester, Raleigh, N.C., 1984, … ), arguing that the play is full of topical allusions to the Careys. But the danger of building on ill-constructed foundations is demonstrated in a brief, modest article by Marion Colthorpe, published in Notes and Queries, in which she draws on a contemporary history of the Berkeley family written by John Smyth, a contemporary of the bridegroom and a long-standing family retainer. It is clear from Smyth's account that the marriage was celebrated with no remarkable festivity, and certain that the Queen was not present.

In demonstrating that A Midsummer Night's Dream was not performed at the marriage regarded by the Arden editor as its most likely stimulus, Marion Colthorpe does not of course totally demolish the wedding play hypothesis; but she does diminish the evidence in its favour. When I look back on my own attitude over the years I find that I am still as sceptical as ever. It would take really hard evidence—external, documentary evidence—to convince me; and if such evidence turned up, it would require me to readjust my basic conception of Shakespeare as a professional playwright. At the same time I should be prepared to admit that my scepticism was provoked partly by a somewhat romantic attitude to the relationship between the author and his work such as has been questioned by much recent critical thought. I was anxious to see the play as the product of a single imagination. More recent criticism sees a more organic relationship between the play and the circumstances of its composition, as an emanation that is, of currents of thought and of social attitudes of which Shakespeare was a product as much as a cause. I do not deny the validity of such criticism; in particular, I think it is quite legitimate, and valuable, to relate the play to contemporary marriage customs, as has been done by Paul Olson [in ELH, 1957] and, more recently, by François Laroque in a paper in which he relates elements in the play to those of masque and antemasque as employed in both courtly and popular entertainments. Laroque remarks that 'il existe dans le texte même de A Midsummer Night's Dream tout un ensemble d'éléments qui servent á rappeler l'existence d'un cordon ombilical reliant la naissance de la comédie au contexte général des cérémonies nuptiales.' I can find this entirely acceptable while reiterating my conviction that even a play very profoundly concerned with marriage does not need to have been written for a marriage.

Proponents of the wedding-play theory have been apt to suppose that the text of the play as first printed, in the 'Fisher' quarto of 1600, incorporates revisions relating to its dual function as a play for both private and public performance. They do not, however, explain why the text incorporates also some of the revisions that, according to their hypothesis, would have been required for public performance. Dover Wilson's demonstration that Theseus's speech on the imagination at the opening of Act 5 incorporates additional lines written after the initial act of composition has been generally accepted, and the Complete Oxford edition offers a reconstruction of the passage as it was originally drafted. More contentious has been the suggestion that the quarto incorporates alternative endings. The theory is stated by Harold Brooks: 'If … the play was composed originally for a wedding in a noble household, there would hardly be a long delay before its revival on the public stage, when it is likely that the fairy masque would have to be omitted. Puck's epilogue presumably took its place, and it may be that the expansion in V.i. 1-83 was undertaken at that juncture, partly to help compensate for the shortening.' This strikes me as pure guesswork. In the first place, I see no reason why 'the fairy masque would have to be omitted' in public performance. It is fully integrated with the play's fiction. (Nor, properly speaking, is it a masque.) In this it is totally different from the only passage in the whole of Shakespeare's works which clearly does relate to a particular performance, the lines alluding to the festival of the order of the Garter in The Merry Wives of Windsor. There is no trace of these lines in the 'bad' quarto of that play, which appears to be based on actual performance, and they have regularly been omitted in later performances. Here, for once, Shakespeare was very much 'of an age'. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, on the other hand, the fairies' blessing on the house is found in both the quarto and the Folio texts, and has regularly been performed with no sense of redundancy or incongruity. Even in Benjamin Britten's opera, which reduces the play's lines by about 50 per cent, the episode is included and is the occasion for one of the most beautiful passages in twentieth-century opera.

Furthermore, there is general agreement that the first quarto of A Midsummer Night's Dream was printed from Shakespeare's own original manuscript. Brooks, writing on what he regards as the play's alternative endings, cites W. W. Greg's view 'There would be nothing surprising in finding both in the foul papers, and we should expect to find them in the order in which they were written', but this seems to me an extraordinary aberration on Greg's part. Though his statement has been cited in support of the wedding-play hypothesis, it appears not to have been subjected to scrutiny, nor do I believe it can withstand such scrutiny. For one thing, the 'fairy masque' has been anticipated at the moment of Oberon and Titania's reconciliation, when the fairy King says:

Now thou and I are new in amity
And will tomorrow solemnly
Dance in Duke Theseus' house triumphantly,
And bless it to all fair prosperity.

There is nothing in the quarto to suggest that these lines had been marked for omission when the play was performed in public playhouses. I find it difficult to believe that if Shakespeare in his original manuscript had been trying to provide simultaneously for both private and public performance he would simply have written an alternative ending for public performances which as it happens dovetails perfectly with that provided for private performance; nor do I think that the so-called alternative ending does in fact make the play more suitable for public performance. To my mind the play including the fairies' blessing would end baldly without Robin Goodfellow's epilogue, which is surely as suited to private as to public performance; and I think that this epilogue would come awkwardly after Oberon's final lines if the other supernatural figures, too, had not made a re-appearance. Furthermore, if the change had been made, I should have expected some sign of it to have been found in the Folio, which it is generally agreed was influenced by a prompt-book used in public performance.

It is in relation to the status of the text of the play printed in the 1623 Folio that attitudes have most drastically shifted during the past twenty years. It has generally been agreed that the Folio printers used a copy of a reprint of the quarto which had been annotated in consultation with a promptbook used by Shakespeare's company. Thus, for example, Foakes writes 'It looks very much … as though the Folio text was somewhat carelessly set up from a copy of Q2 that had been rather haphazardly corrected and expanded by an editor who was able to compare it with a manuscript marked up for use in the theatre'.… The Folio editor made several corrections to the dialogue (such as supplying a word accidentally omitted in the quarto, at 3.2.220) which most later editors have accepted, but he also made a number of other, more specifically theatrical, changes, which have customarily been dismissed but which are accepted in the Complete Oxford Shakespeare of 1986. Previous editors—including myself in 1967—preferred the quarto because it was closest to Shakespeare's first thoughts, but in recent years scholars (including me) have become more willing to concede that a playscript reaches full fruition only in the theatre, that Shakespeare was above all a man of the theatre working in the closest possible collaboration with a single company of actors, and that we may therefore reasonably pay heed to the evidence of how his texts were played in his own theatre, and print a version of the play which reflects changes made during the process of rehearsal and performance rather than, or as well as, one which reflects the dramatist's earlier, untested intentions.

There is a minor example of this in 3.1. Bottom and his companions are rehearsing their play. Robin Goodfellow (as I think he should properly be called, rather than 'Puck'), enters with the words 'What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here … ?' The Folio text has a duplicate entry for Robin some fifteen lines previously, as the mechanicals are discussing how to present moonshine. The Arden edition regards this as a straightforward error, but it is one that requires explanation since there was no need for the annotator to make any alteration to his copy. In my New Penguin edition I suggested that the entry may reflect Elizabethan stage practice in bringing Robin on stage to watch the mechanicals before he speaks, and R. A. Foakes agrees with this in his New Cambridge edition, but only the Complete Oxford edition goes so far as to mark an entrance for Robin at this point.

The most substantial Folio alteration affects the staging of the opening of the last act of the play.… The alterations remove a number of the lines from two different speakers and give them to two other speakers, and they cannot be accidental. Essentially they fall into two groups: thcfse that replace Philostrate by Egeus, and those that allocate to Lysander lines spoken in the quarto by Theseus. I will take the second first. In line 45 in the quarto text Theseus has a speech lasting seventeen lines in which he both reads the titles of the entertainments offered for his nuptial ceremony and comments on them. In the Folio this speech is shared between Lysander and Theseus: that is, Lysander reads the titles, and Theseus offers his comments. As Foakes says, 'This was perhaps an arrangement designed to make the passage more dramatic, and to give more involvement in the action to at least one of the lovers, who otherwise stand silent through the first part of the scene; possibly it was always played in this way.' Most editors have retreated to the safety of the quarto, as I did in my 1967 edition, but the Complete Oxford edition follows the Folio, and this seems to me right if we are to give priority to theatrical values. It seems undeniable that the change was made by Shakespeare's own company, and probable that it had his approval.

A more fundamental change in the same area of the play re-assigns most of the lines spoken in the quarto by Philostrate (who has a non-speaking role in the play's opening scene) to Egeus, father of Hermia. Again, the change is clearly deliberate. Philostrate remains in the scene to speak only lines 83 to 87; he could be implicitly included among the 'Lords' mentioned in the scene's opening direction, but it seems more likely that the annotator simply failed to cancel one of the quarto's speech prefixes and that these lines too should be spoken by Egeus. The theatrical and dramatic consequences of this change, which also is accepted in the Complete Oxford edition, are explored and defended in Barbara Hodgdon's article 'Gaining a Father: The Role of Egeus in the Quarto and the Folio', published in the same year as the Oxford edition. The usual assumption has been that the substitution of Egeus for Philostrate was designed to save an actor, and that it may have been made purely as a theatrical exigency. But the fact is that it does not save an actor: it would be difficult for a single actor to double Philostrate and Egeus in the play's opening scene, since only four to six lines separate Philostrate's exit from Egeus's entry; and in any case if the Folio's ascription of a few lines in the last scene to Philostrate is correct, separate actors are required for both Philostrate and Egeus. If, on the other hand, Philostrate in the last Act had been required to speak all the lines ascribed to him in the quarto, the role could still have been undertaken by the actor who had previously played Egeus since only one of the two characters would have been required to appear in the final Act. The simplest way of effecting an economy, if this had been required, would have been to alter the name of Philostrate in the play's opening episode; then the two roles could easily have been doubled with no need for the major surgery involved in transforming Philostrate to Egeus.

If we accept, as I think we must, that the last Act change of Philostrate to Egeus may have been made for artistic rather than for practical reasons, then our interpretation of certain aspects of the play, and particularly of the role of Egeus, must be altered. In the quarto, Egeus appears twice: in the opening scene, where he forbids Hermia to marry Lysander, and in the scene of the lovers' awakening, where he maintains his objection, only to be over-ruled by Theseus:

Egeus, I will overbear your will

The Folio offers opportunities to develop Egeus's attitude to Lysander. Egeus, it would seem, hands to Lysander the 'brief listing the wedding entertainments. As Barbara Hodgdon remarks [in The Review of English Studies, 1986], 'Either Lysander is reading over Egeus's shoulder or he takes, or snatches, the paper from Egeus. Whichever, the Folio text clearly gives Lysander an action to play, one which can show either that Lysander now has Egeus's approval or that … he uses this opportunity to deny Egeus's voice and assert his own … Either possibility recalls the tensions and accusations both at the play's opening and in 4.1 and, lightly, either heals or continues them.' There are, as Hodgdon also points out, further possibilities for theatrical exploration in the exit of Theseus and his train, which can suggest either that Egeus is reconciled to his daughter's marriage to Lysander or that he continues to oppose it. What is perhaps most interesting about the changes is that they extend the role of a character—Egeus—who is integral to the play's action at the expense only of one—Philostrate—who is peripheral to it.

Barbara Hodgdon's article is interesting partly because, it seems to me, its combination of bibliographical expertise with subtle thought about theatrical interpretation means that it could only have appeared within the last ten or fifteen years. Reinvestigation of the play's textual origins is associated with a rethinking of its theatrical possibilities not in post-Shakespearian adaptation but in relation to its text as originally written and as performed by Shakespeare's own company. This is a healthy sign. A similar concern activates a more purely critical study of the role of Hippolyta conducted by Philip McGuire in his book Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences, published in 1985.

McGuire points out that in the play's opening scene Hippolyta speaks only 4 1/2 lines—the ones beginning 'Four days will quickly steep themselves in night'—which form the second speech of the play. After this:

When Theseus says that, having conquered her in battle, he will now make her his wife 'in another key,/With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling', Hippolyta says nothing, and she maintains that silence the rest of the time she is onstage. The defeated Queen of the Amazons becomes a mute observer as the man who 'won' her love by doing her 'injuries' (line 17) rules that a young woman who is one of his subjects must die or live a life cloistered among women if she does not obey her father and enter into a marriage that she does not want …

McGuire's subsequent analysis of the scene is an admirable demonstration of the developing technique of performance criticism. First he examines the words of the text in the 'attempt to clarify the meanings and effects of [Hippolyta's] silence,' … paying particular attention to Theseus's and Hippolyta's disparate attitudes to time—Theseus comments 'how slow/ This old moon wanes', but for Hippolyta 'four days will quickly steep themselves in night…'. Though their opening exchange 'permits us to see their differences as facets of an underlying harmony', it can also, 'without distorting the words of Shakespeare's playtext, just as plausibly be taken as reflecting a conflict between Theseus and Hippolyta. If the nuptial hour approaches so slowly for Theseus because he desires it so much, then perhaps it approaches so quickly for Hippolyta, the newly conquered queen of a society of women who had long resisted male domination, precisely because she desires it so little.' The ambiguity cannot be resolved from the text; Hippolyta's silence 'is capable of having meanings and effects that are not fixed by those words and that take on distinct form and shape only during performances of the play'.

From this, McGuire goes on to examine from four specific productions 'the range of meanings and effects that Hippolyta's silence can generate without contradicting the words of Shakespeare's playtext'. His conclusion is that Shakespeare 'has assigned to those who perform A Mid-summer Night's Dream the power to give Hippolyta's silence shape and local habitation' and that 'the exercise of that power can bring forth from Hippolyta's silence meanings and effects that differ, sometimes profoundly, yet remain compatible with the words that Shakespeare did pen'. Hippolyta's silence means that the play can 'change significantly while retaining identity and coherence': for example, it can respond to the concerns of feminism 'because Hippolyta's silence allows for the possibility that she, like Hermia, does not submit to male authority'.

In this chapter, McGuire's approach is centred on the text, not on the author. He explores that text much as a theatre director might, and he is searching, not for evidence of authorial intention, but for evidence of the multiplicity of meaning that the unadapted text may legitimately yield. This approach is characteristic of modern 'theoretical' criticism, but the virtues of a more traditional approach are exemplified in a book that appeared in 1966, while my edition was in the press. David P. Young's Something of Great Constancy: The Art of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is, I believe, the first full-length book to be devoted to the play, and it is written with missionary zeal in an attempt to communicate the author's conviction that A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of Shakespeare's 'most important plays and a touchstone for the understanding and interpretation of others'. The book is valuable for excellent analysis of the play's style and structure and for a subtle discussion of its concern with dreams. But at the heart of the author's argument is his discussion of the part played by imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream and his concern 'to emphasize its significance as a source of our knowledge of Shakespeare's own attitude toward drama, poetry, and the imagination'. This attempt to see the play in relation to Shakespeare's own ideas about his art is related to an essay of my own, 'Shakespeare Without Sources', published in 1972, in which I discuss A Midsummer Night's Dream along with Love's Labour's Lost and The Tempest as plays in which Shakespeare is exploring his own artistic preoccupations.

Championing the play as an 'expression of contemporaneous intellectual issues' David Young declared a 'hope for productions of the play which do not treat it as a kind of Elizabethan Peter Pan'. The subsequent work of scholar-critics such as Barbara Hodgdon and Philip McGuire with a strong and serious interest in the play's theatrical realisation helps to bridge the gap between the study and the stage though I fear that the world of the theatre which for long mocked academics for lacking a sense of theatrical values, has been slow to profit from the ever-increasing interest that academics have taken in the theatre in recent years. But directors of A Midsummer Night's Dream have been treating the play with increased seriousness, re-examining well-worn traditions of performance, and sometimes even adopting textual variants. Bill Alexander's RSC production brought on Egeus instead of Philostrate in the last Act; so did John Caird's (1989), in which also the Hippolyta of the opening scene was a distinctly reluctant bride, visibly sympathising with Hermia, though fully reconciled to marriage after her experiences in the person of Titania in the forest. Productions both in the theatre and on film and television have continued to stimulate interest in the play, to spread enjoyment of it, to re-investigate its theatrical possibilities in ways that have often been related to those employed by academic critics and that have continued to stimulate this work, both consciously and unconsciously. When I wrote my Introduction to the play, its most historically significant production, at least in the twentieth century, seemed to be that of Harley Granville-Barker given at the Savoy Theatre, London, in 1914. I remarked that this production 'represented a thorough re-thinking of the play which effected a healthy clearance of conventional accretions … Since Granville-Barker's time the desire for simplicity of presentation has slowly won ground over the desire for visual elaboration.' With hindsight, this seems to represent an overly simplistic, evolutionary view. The pendulum has continued to swing, now in the direction of simplicity, now in that of elaboration. And of course there has been a production that has been as revolutionary, and controversial, in its time as GranvilleBarker's was in the early years of the century.

Peter Brook's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970 was characteristic of its time in being influenced by a piece of literary criticism, the chapter on the play in Jan Kott's book Shakespeare our Contemporary, which had appeared in a British translation in 1964, while I was working on my edition, but I ignored it both in my Introduction and in my list of 'Further Reading', doubtless for reasons which I expressed in a book published in 1970, where I wrote:

Jan Kott … has worked in the professional theatre as a producer, yet he can write about A Midsummer Night's Dream in terms that seem quite incapable of realization in theatrical terms. This is, he says in Shakespeare our Contemporary, 'the most erotic of Shakespeare's plays.' He imagines Titania's court consisting of old men and women, toothless and shaking, their mouths wet with saliva, who sniggeringly procure a monster for their mistress. He finds Oberon is determined that his Queen shall sleep with a beast of a kind which represents 'abundant sexual potency … Bottom is eventually transformed into an ass. But in this nightmarish summer night, the ass does not symbolise stupidity. Since antiquity and up to the Renaissance the ass was credited with the strongest sexual potency and among all the quadrupeds is supposed to have the longest and hardest phallus.'

And he goes on: 'I visualize Titania as a very tall, flat and fair girl, with long arms and legs, resembling the white Scandinavian girls I used to see in rue de la Harpe, or rue Huchette, walking and clinging tightly to negroes with faces grey or so black that they were almost indistinguishable from the night.' Kott finds it a matter of surprise that 'the scenes between Titania and Bottom transformed into an ass are often played for laughs in the theatre'. And I remarked that 'even the Pyramus and Thisbe scenes weigh heavily upon him … Kott … uses the play as a stimulus to his own imagination and, by selecting certain aspects of the text, produces a bizarre falsification of it'. There is a world of difference between McGuire's scrupulous re-examination of the text for meanings that are compatible with its dialogue and Kott's flights of fancy which, taking off from the text, rapidly leave it far behind.

In suggesting that Kott's vision of the play was 'incapable of realization in theatrical terms' I was, I now realise, underestimating the capacities of, for example, the German expressionist school of theatrical production, as may be seen merely from a glance at the illustrations to Maik Hamburger's article 'New Concepts of Staging A Midsummer Night's Dream' published in Shakespeare Survey 40 (1988).… And in failing to mention Kott's chapter I was shutting my eyes to a piece of essentially belle-lettrist criticism which, much as I continue to dislike it, has exerted a strong influence on thought about the play, for better and for worse, and by reaction as well as by agreement. Kott's sensationalist mode of writing, along with the fact that he had genuinely interesting things to say about some of Shakespeare's plays, caused his book to reach a wide audience. His chapter on A Midsummer Night's Dream provoked much comment. As D. Allen Carroll writes in the Garland Bibliography, it is 'the most distinctive piece on the play in our era', and though 'most critics have dismissed Kott's reading as wrong in its single-mindedness and urgency' yet 'Kott has made a difference. For a full decade some reaction to him was obligatory, and the result has been, on the whole, that we see more in the play than we saw before.' Kott has helped people to see that the play is not, as Derek Traversi had written in 1954, 'barely more than a delicate, tenuous piece of decoration' (a view which Traversi considerably modified after Kott's piece appeared), though my own feeling is that G. Wilson Knight had gone quite far enough in drawing attention to the sinister side of the fairy world in a seminal treatment of the play published in 1932 in his book The Shakespearian Tempest. This view had already reached the stage in George Devine's 1954 Stratford production, in which, as Richard David wrote, the director sought to emphasise the fairies' 'distinction from human kind, their strangeness, their remoteness from normality, and, with his designers, had seen as a symbol of this quality not the dainty midget, the tutu fairy, the decorative butterfly of recent tradition, but a bird, creature of freaks and passions that sometimes appear very like our own, and yet closer akin to the reptiles than to man' (Shakespeare Survey 8).

If George Devine anticipated Peter Brook in having 'decided that the conventional prettinesses were to be avoided at all costs,' … the time was not yet ripe for him. His production achieved nothing like the impact made by Peter Brook in his revolutionary and triumphant RSC production of 1970, which, opening in Stratford-upon-Avon, was seen also in New York, Boston, and London in 1971 and went on a world tour in 1972 to 1973. Brook's production was a consequence of the liberations of the 1960s; it was visibly influenced by Jan Kott's essay, but happily Brook is independent enough in his genius not simply to have transferred Kott's vision of the play to the stage but to have made selective and creative use of it. I shall not attempt here a detailed description or critique of the production, but I should like to make a few points about it which seem relevant to the play's continuing impact.

It is necessary first to remark that Brook used a complete, virtually unadapted text. The production was revolutionary not because of any textual adaptation but because of the attitudes that Brook took towards the text. To a certain extent it was—like Granville-Barker's production before it—a critique of, and a reaction against, earlier productions, and against the play's stage history in general. I mentioned earlier that Brook used fully-grown male performers for the fairies; and they were not prettified: one of them, indeed, was aggressively fat and hairy. This was a clear reaction against the use of charming child actors in these roles. Of course, it goes against the text's description of the fairy attendants: but, as I wrote in my New Penguin Introduction, even the smallest human actor could not impersonate these fairies on stage as they are represented in the dialogue; 'Shakespeare seems deliberately to draw attention to the discrepancies between what we see and what is described … the audience is required to use its imagination in order to make the play possible'.… Ringler's work on doubling suggests the possibility that the small fairies were played by grown actors in Shakespeare's time, and it is arguable that the demands that Brook made on our imaginations are more in line with Shakespeare's artistry than attempts to make the fairies correspond as closely as possible to the text's descriptions of them.

These adult fairies were involved in the most obviously Kottian moment of the production, which came just before for the interval. The moment is described by Roger Warren in his useful little book about the play in the 'Text and Performance' series:

Titania's 'Be kind and courteous' speech-song was repositioned to follow the dialogue between Bottom and the fairies, and her line 'To have my love to bed and to arise' was repeated at the end of the song, with 'arise' interpreted in such a way that the song could lead directly into a wild orgasmic conclusion. The fairies hoisted Bottom on to their shoulders; one of them thrust a muscular arm up between Bottom's legs like a grotesque phallus; Oberon swung on a rope across the stage, and the rest of the cast threw paper plates and streamers like confetti over Bottom and Titania as the Mendelssohn Wedding March blared out.

I have referred to this as a Kottian moment, and this is true of its sexual suggestiveness, pointing to a far more physical relationship between Bottom and Titania than the more idealised one that has traditionally been inferred from the text. But it was unKottian in its joyfulness: there was a theatrical elation about this moment in performance which was worlds away from the sordid vision of lust and prostitution presented by Kott.

The use of a snatch of Mendelssohn's Wedding March also made this a theatrically self-referential moment. Mendelssohn's marvellous overture and incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream have been associated with the play ever since they were composed in the first half of the nineteenth century, and they are ineradicably linked with the romantic style of presentation. Only such a style could sustain the use of a wedding march lasting over six minutes. Granville-Barker had deliberately broken with the tradition of using Mendelssohn's music in 1914, when he employed English folk songs. But in 1954, the year of George Devine's production, another elaborately nineteenth-century-style production using Mendelssohn's score and performed jointly by the Old Vic Company, the Sadler's Wells Ballet, and a full symphony orchestra was played in London and New York; and, of course, the wedding march has a life of its own in churches rather than in theatres. So Brook's use of it here was a complex one, in part cocking a snook at the romantic style of presentation, but also drawing on the joyful associations of the music to form a climax to the first part of his production.

The theatrical self-referentiality of Brook's production links it to a strain in criticism that has been much apparent in recent years in which the play has been seen as 'metatheatrical' in its mode, as a work in which Shakespeare is in part concerned with his own art and with the art of the theatre in general. This aspect of the production, or the critical mode that it reflects, may have influenced a later Stratford version of the play, directed by Ron Daniels in 1981, which set it in Victorian times, playing the woodland scenes 'not even in front of a Victorian representation of a wood, but on the deserted stage of a Victorian theatre at night, strewn with theatrical properties, including scenic flats with their wooden frames, not their painted sides, facing the audience'.… As Roger Warren writes [in Text and Performance: A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1983], some spectators 'enjoyed the performance out of a sense of nostalgia for traditional nineteenth-century stagings of the Dream', but more subtly Daniels appeared to be suggesting that we do better to acknowledge that our conception of the play is conditioned by its later stage history than to attempt to resist or exorcise this.

Even more influential on more recent stagings of the play has been Peter Brook's doubling of certain characters. Some of the doublings seemed to have no great interpretative significance, though I suppose that Philostrate's equation with Robin Goodfellow may have encouraged us to see both of them as Masters of court revels. More important was the doubling (not actually initiated by Brook) of Theseus with Oberon and of Hippolyta with Titania, as if to suggest that one of each pair is the alter ego of the other—or, as Roger Warren puts it, 'that the events in the wood represented the dark animal fantasies beneath the public front which Theseus and Hippolyta present to the world'.… The dispute about whether this double may have been intended by Shakespeare or carried out in his theatre is indicative both of the uncertain state of our knowledge of Elizabethan theatrical practice and of the attempts to explore the extent of our own ignorance by questioning the fundamental assumptions on which scholarly investigations have been based. William Ringler, writing a few years before Brook directed the play, had denied the possibility of this doubling on the grounds that as soon as the fairy King and Queen have left the stage after their reconciliation, Hippolyta has to re-enter with Theseus and his courtiers. This denial was based on the assumption that after leaving the stage in one persona, an actor needs a short period of time to recostume himself before re-entering in a fresh guise. But Peter Brook showed that the immediate transformation could be successfully effected simply by causing the actors who had walked up to doorways as Oberon and Titania to don cloaks, turn round, and immediately walk downstage again as Theseus and Hippolyta; so, as Stephen Booth writes, 'the entrance that caused Ringler to say that the kings and queens could not have been successfully doubled delighted audiences and also seemed to delight the two actors (who strode back through the doorway grinning in apparent triumph at the transparent theatricality of their physically minimal metamorphosis)'. Booth argues that 'most of our thinking about Elizabethan casting is still based on the assumed universality of Ibsenian practices', showing 'a narrowmindedness improbable in a century that accepted Charlie Chaplin as monochromatic, silent, twenty feet high, and flat.' …

The dispute about the theatrical authenticity of the doubling is paralleled by that about its aesthetic validity. For some critics, such as Stephen Booth, it is revelatory. Citing the passage in which Titania glances at Oberon's 'credit with Hippolyta', while he makes aspersions about Titania's 'love to Theseus', Booth finds that the lines 'suggest that they were written to capitalize on and intensify the effect of planned theatrical doubling'. But doesn't theatrical doubling run the risk of drawing the audience's attention to the resemblances between the characters at the expense of ironing out their differences? So John Russell Brown suggests, complaining that Brook's doubling operated 'as if the actors' task was to make what likeness exists between the pairs as obvious and inescapable as possible, and to minimize the very considerable differences'. To cite a parallel in which doubling (or trebling) would be possible only by using the trickery of film or television, everyone agrees that there are significant resemblances between the situations of Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras, but to have a single actor play the three roles would not necessarily be advantageous.

Although, as I have said, Brook's production has exerted considerable influence over later theatrical realisations of the play, it is characteristic of the way theatre works, and also symptomatic of the play's openness to variety of interpretation, that the next major British production, by John Barton at Stratford in 1977, did not adopt Brook's doubling and reverted to a generally more romantic style of presentation which also characterised the BBC's television version. The theatre operates partly by a process of action and reaction, and this is also true, to some degree, of criticism and even of scholarship. Though we may seek for certainties, we often have to rest content with provisional solutions, with ultimately unprovable hypotheses, and we may favour now one, now another. The text of A Midsummer Night's Dream is less than 2,200 lines long, but in writing those lines Shakespeare unconsciously created a generator for an astonishing quantity of human activity of many different kinds. I have indicated only a small amount of that activity during a period of little more than twenty years. Undoubtedly, more is yet to come. I do not want to be prophetic about the form that this activity will take. The text itself will shift slightly as the result of further editorial activity. There will certainly be more scholarship, more criticism, more productions, probably more derivative offshoots. What is most important is that what Shakespeare wrote will continue to give delight, to stimulate imagination and to satisfy imaginative needs in the theatre. If we study the text alone, we are like musicians studying a score. It can tell us much. But it is only in the theatre that the text achieves realisation, and only there that, however imperfectly, the visions of which Robin speaks in his epilogue can appear.

The Supernatural And The Imagination

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David P. Young (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Bottom's Dream," in Something of Great Constancy: The Art of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Yale University Press, 1966, pp. 111-66.

[In the following excerpt, Young argues that Shakespeare uses the dream motif and fairy magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream to explore philosophical and psychological ideas, focusing in particular on the relationship between nature and art.]

"Man is but an ass," says Bottom, "if he go about to expound this dream." That might serve as a warning to commentators. Serious discussions of comedy always take place near the precipice of academic fatuity. Nonetheless, it is possible to be too cautious; studies of Shakespeare's philosophical and psychological preoccupations have in the past dealt almost exclusively with the tragedies and histories. Such exclusion inevitably leaves the impression that the comedies are somehow thoughtless. More recently, plays like Troilus and Cressida have been shown to have serious content, but such content, it is usually suggested, exists at the expense of comic potential. Troilus is rich in ideas, at least as rich as Hamlet, but it is not very funny, and these two facts are often treated as if they illustrated some inexorable aesthetic law. Thus, the funnier comedies are still widely felt to be trivial in content, and a comparison between, say, As You Like It and Lear would strike most people as unprofitable and even absurd.

A Midsummer Night's Dream has suffered seriously from the charge of intellectual triviality. Those who dislike the play always attack it upon these grounds. Samuel Pepys stated their case succinctly:

1662, September 29:—To the King's Theatre, where we saw "Midsummer Night's Dream," which I had never seen before, not shall ever again, for it is the most insipid, ridiculous play, that ever I saw in my life.

Those who simply tolerate the play leave the same impression. An eighteenth-century editor called it "one of the wild and irregular Overflowings of this great Author's creative Imagination." This suggests that the play has interest, but sharply defines its limitations.

It is the admirers of Dream, however, who have in the past probably done it the greatest disservice, for they have found nothing to praise but its lightness, innocence, and fanciful gaiety; these qualities, by themselves, suggest brainlessness. Until recently, discussions of the play usually stressed grace, lyricism, and form and were unfortunately noticeable for the liberal use of adjectives like "gossamer" and "silken." Moreover, friends of the play would not have their darling violated by heavy-footed analysis. Witness the watchdog stance of J. O. Halliwell-Phillips:

What is absurdly termed aesthetic criticism is more out of place on this comedy than on any other of Shakespeare's plays. It deadens the "native woodnotes wild" that every reader of taste would desire to be left to their own influences. The Midsummer Night's Dream is too exquisite a composition to be dulled by the infliction of philosophical analysis.

Surely we have come to find more in this play than "native woodnotes wild" and the limitations they imply. Surely, too, we can begin to hope for productions of the play which do not treat it as a kind of Elizabethan Peter Pan. The stock reaction to fairies and magic is apt to be a childish one, but as we have begun to get over that in connection with The Tempest, so may we hope to do with A Midsummer Night's Dream.

I do not wish to present myself as a lone champion, rescuing an important play from neglect and misclassification. The trend of thought I have described has been for some time in the process of correction. Frank Kermode's suggestion [in Early Shakespeare, 1961] that the play is Shakespeare's best comedy is less astounding today than it would have been twenty years ago. The trilogy of "especially mythological plays in which Shakespeare is working intensively at the instrument of thought" discussed by Elizabeth Sewell [in The Orphic Voice, 1960] links the Dream with Lear and The Tempest in an especially illuminating way. With these and other encouragements, and with what I hope is the proper amount of caution, I go about to expound this dream.

My contention … is that the richness of interest of A Midsummer Night's Dream lies, in large part, in its expression of contemporaneous intellectual issues, issues which frequently take the form of oppositions. Some of these were of particular interest to the artist, more specifically to the Elizabethan playwright, but most were engaging all the thoughtful men of the late Renaissance. The problem of Shakespeare's specific intention, the degree of deliberation with which he approached these ideas, seems to me both insoluble and unprofitable, and I have sought to avoid it here by pointing out ideas which are indubitably present in the play and showing the ways in which they are analogous to the ideas which preoccupied Shakespeare's contemporaries. The reader may draw his own conclusions about how they got there. My own view, for that matter, holds that poetry is a form of thought, that it asks and tries to answer great questions, and that it is therefore not surprising that the work of a great artist, whether heavy tragedy or light comedy, should be found as rich and complex in its handling of ideas as the work of any other thinker.

This [essay] explores a technique of dramatic expression which should be explained at the outset, since it links the techniques of comedy with the possibility of intellectual content. In terms of comic method, it is the familiar process of reversal, the use of opposites to create amusement. If we recall any basic comic situation, we see how it works: dignity is subjected to indignity; the master is governed by the servant; stupidity triumphs over intelligence; and so forth. The comic vision is relative and skeptical. It insists that if one thing is true, its opposite may just as well be true, and it finds thousands of ways to demonstrate this. The Elizabethans were familiar with the technique and had at least two terms for it—"misrule" and "handy-dandy." Both words apply to the principle of reversal as an accepted process on a wide scale, and misrule, at least, suggests functions for it other than amusement.

If we apply the notion of reversal, or misrule, to the handling of ideas, we see how the artist can use it to force us into a temporary relativity of judgment and belief. He can balance opposing values and forces in a way that allows us to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to neither. Insofar as he is consistently comic, he will maintain this balance in every direction, reserving reconciliation and commitment for the ending. For the duration of the work, reason as a value will exist on equal terms with unreason as a value, order with disorder, and so forth. Moreover, it seems clear that the comic artist does not maintain his balances reluctantly, but from a conviction of their accuracy and Tightness. Prejudice, dogmatism, any excessive confidence in point of view are his natural targets, and the process of handy-dandy is his weapon. While this is hardly a complete account of the comic viewpoint, it will serve as an introduction to what seems to me an important Shakespearean working principle. Throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream, conventional Elizabethan dichotomies are presented in a way which undermines the assurance with which they were constructed and used by orthodox thinkers. The process, as I have suggested, is perfectly compatible with the comic mode.

"A most rare vision"—The Elizabethan sense of "dream" is close to our own, although more pejorative, since the Elizabethans attached little value to the subconscious.

Serious thinkers regarded the interpretation of dreams as a kind of superstition. Most dreams had purely physiological causes and could thus, as Bacon suggests, be easily explained:

The interpretation of natural dreams has been much labored; but mixed with numerous extravagancies. We shall here only observe of it, that at present it stands not upon its best foundation; which, that where the same thing happens from an internal cause, as also happens from an external one, there the external action passes into a dream. Thus the stomach may be oppressed by a gross internal vapor, as well as by an external weight; whence those who have the nightmare dream that a weight is laid upon them, with a great concurrence of circumstances.

(Advancement of Learning, Bk. IV, Chap. I)

In sleep, as [Robert] Burton points out, the outward senses are closed off and "the phantasy alone is free," leaving the mind no contact with reality. Thus, although the possibility of divine communication was always held out, dream experience was largely regarded as illusory. As [Thomas] Nashe put it:

A dreame is nothing els but a bubling scum or froath of the fancie, which the day hath left undigested; or an after feast made of the fragments of idle imaginations.

By analogy, any insubstantial and deceptive experience could be called a dream. The usage was derogatory. Shakespeare himself resorted to it frequently in just this sense. Tarquin admits to himself that the rape he is contemplating will be "a dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy" (Lucrece, 212). Margaret reminds Elizabeth that she is a "poor shadow, painted queen.… A dream of what thou wert, a breathe, a bubble" (Richard III, IV.4.83-88). Flavius notes that Timon has lived "in a dream of friendship" (Timon, IV.2.34). These uses of the word reflect the sensible contemporary attitude, summed up in Mercutio's definition:

             I talk of dreams;
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy;
Which is as thin of substance as the air,
And more inconstant than the wind.
                             (Romeo, I.4.96-100)

Corollary to the concept of dream as illusory experience is the idea that any knowledge connected with dreams is false and misleading. This is precisely Mercutio's point; he is warning Romeo not to trust the premonitions he has had in his dream. Again, by extension, any false knowledge could be called a dream, and any transition from misunderstanding to understanding, from delusion to truth, could be compared to the process of awakening. "Learn, good soul," says Richard to his queen:

To think our former state a happy dream;
From which awak'd, the truth of what we are
Shows us but this.
                                (Richard II, V.1.17-20)

Life itself, by extension, could be criticized as a dream. Chapman reflects the contemporary fondness for the image:

Man is a torch borne in the wind, a dream
But of a shadow, summ'd with all his substance.
                    (Bussy d'Ambois, I.1.19-20)

Prospero finds man and his life as insubstantial as dreams, and the "fantastical Duke of dark corners" seconds him:

     Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But as it were an after-dinner's sleep,
Dreaming on both.
             (Measure for Measure, III. 1.32-34)

The reader will note in these references to dreams a cluster of images—shadow, wind, breath, bubble, froth, torch—which were conventionally invoked to express the insubstantiality of dreams and dreamlike experience. To this group we may add "player" and "stage." The interesting but deceptive knowledge and experience of dreams were inevitably compared to the character and content of art by its detractors and, occasionally, by its defenders and practitioners as well. Images from the theater became synonyms for the unreal. Stephen Gosson could express his contempt for actors by pointing out that their battles, for instance, were merely occasions "to encounter a shadow, or conquere a paper monster." Francis Bacon could give poetry what he thought was its due by calling it

a thing sweet and varied, and that would be thought to have in it something divine; a character which dreams likewise affect. But now it is time for me to awake, and rising above the earth to wing my way through the clear air of Philosophy and the Sciences.

(Advancement of Learning, Bk. III, Chap. I)

The phrase "clear air" strengthens the metaphor, suggesting that poetry and dreams are inevitably grounded in a sort of murky night of the understanding. "Shadow," as used in connection with dreams, connoted obscurity as well as impalpability.

The artists themselves, in gestures of modesty and humility, were apt to emphasize the trivial and insubstantial nature of their work, often in order to escape serious criticism. Sidney's uneasy defense of poetry suggests that poets do not lie because they do not affirm anything. The distinction moves crucially close to the shadow—substance polarity. Lyly could thus protect himself by comparing his art to dreaming. In the prologue to The Woman in the Moon, he argues that the play is merely the product of his slumber, asking:

If many faults escape in her discourse,
Remember all is but a Poets dreame.

In the prologue to Sapho and Phao, he turns the idea toward the audience, entreating the queen:

that your Highnesse imagine your self to be in a deepe dreame, that staying the conclusion, in your rising your Majestie vouchsafe but to saye, And so you awakte.

Shakespeare, by titling his play a dream, resorts to the same convention, even if he is not willing to treat it as simply.

There was very little that was positive to balance against the widespread attitude toward dreams as illusory knowledge and experience. It was still considered possible, if not likely, that divine agency might make use of dreams to convey information or inspiration to human beings. Burton, recalling medieval practice, lists several kinds of dreams—"naturali, divine, demoniacall, &c."—but his interest in their possible value is half-hearted. He suggests that they vary "according to humours, diet, actions, objects, &c." and offers advice on how to avoid them. His attitude reflects a low ebb of scientific and philosophical interest in dreams.

In literary circles, however, some attention was still paid to the medieval literary form of the dream allegory or vision. Since we know that Shakespeare drew upon Chaucer's Legend of Good Women in A Midsummer Night's Dream, we can be sure that he was familiar with the dream vision as a device. His use of dream must therefore be linked to Chaucerian practice, suggesting a literary heritage in which the dream was a respectable source of knowledge, even when it was merely a means for introducing fantasy and allegory. Lyly had already made some use of the tradition; he introduced dreams within his plays which served either to convey allegorical information or to intensify thematic meaning. Endymion's long and emblematic dream does both. The same practice is represented in Shakespeare by Hermia's experience in the second act:

Help me, Lysander, help me! Do thy best
To pluck this crawling serpent from my breast!
Aye me, for pity! What a dream was here!
Lysander, look how I do quake with fear.
Methought a serpent eat my heart away,
And you sat smiling at his cruel prey.
Lysander! What, remov'd?

Hermia's dream, as the audience realizes, is an accurate, if symbolic, account of what has just happened and is therefore not just a dream in the sense that Hermia hopes it is. As one example of a "true" dream, it joins the complex system of dream experiences that constitutes the play.

Shakespeare's characteristic practice with something like the dreaming-waking polarity is to question both concepts, turning them against each other until they acquire a paradoxical relationship. Sometimes a single character is involved, like Christopher Sly, whose dilemma we enjoy because he is, in fact, both awake and dreaming:

Am I a lord? and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? or have I dream'd till now?
                            (Shrew, Ind.2.70-71)

More often the dreaming-waking confusion involves several characters and large portions of dramatic action. Perdita, after Polixenes has condemned her, draws the familiar contrast:

Of your own state take care. This dream of
Being now awake, I'll queen it no inch farther.
                           (Winter's Tale, IV.4.459-60)

What the audience knows, however, is the secret of Perdita's royalty. She does have a right to "queen it," and her waking state, which she thinks real, is more deceptive than her dream. The same kind of irony is illustrated in Mercutio's chiding of Romeo, cited above. For all his common sense, he is wrong, and Romeo is right to suspect that his foreboding dream has validity. Prince Hal's repudiation of Falstaff raises the same question:

How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell'd, so old, and so profane;
But being awak'd, I do despise my dream.
                               (2 Henry IV, V.5.52-55)

Hal's metaphor is convenient to the moment, but not entirely convincing. We are not sure that his experience of Falstaff can be dismissed as a dream, and we wonder whether his waking state will be, as he suggests, superior.

There can be no doubt of Cleopatra's intention when, after Antony's death, she sets out to defend dreams:

You laugh when boys or women tell their
Is't not your trick?
Dol.                 I understand not, madam.
Cleo. I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony—
O, such another sleep, that I might see
But such another man!
              (Antony and Cleopatra, V.2.74-78)

With Antony dead, Caesar's world has become real and Antony's a dream, but there is still no comparison between the two. Not only can Antony not be dismissed, he is, paradoxically, having vanished, superior to what remains and is real. After her famous speech on Antony's size and greatness, Cleopatra asks:

Think you there was or might be such a man
As this I dreamt of?
Dol.                      Gentle madam, no.
Cleo. You lie, up to the hearing of the gods!
But, if there be or ever were one such,
It's past the size of dreaming. Nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy; yet, t'imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.

All the conventional distinctions between fact and fantasy, shadow and substance, dreaming and waking, and art and nature are broken down here to make room in the historical imagination for Antony's greatness, exaggerated and insubstantial, but somehow more real than the living Caesar and all his imperial pretense. Cleopatra joins the long list of Shakespearen characters who lose their confidence in the easy dichotomies of the reasonable and practical world. For her, as for others, the concept of the dream as delusion undergoes ironic reversal.

The process of reversal is used throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream in connection with the dreaming-waking opposition. Most of the characters have an experience which they find difficult to classify except as dream, a means of dismissing it as unreal. Hermia's serpent dream, cited above, is the only example of an actual dream in the play, but it is merely the first in a series of experiences which are described as dreams. Titania is waked from sleep by Bottom, but she wakes into a dreamlike state in which she is decidedly not herself. She later calls her experience a "vision," suggesting that she has been asleep. When Bottom is pointed out to her, she recognizes that her dream has actually occurred.

The same cannot be said of the lovers. Oberon predicts correctly when he says:

When they next wake, all this derision
Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision.

Human knowledge is not equal to fairy knowledge, and it is not long before the lovers are ready to classify their adventures in the woods as dreams. Demetrius expresses a momentary doubt, but it is quickly resolved:

           Are you sure
That we are awake? It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream. Do not you think
The Duke was here, and bid us follow him?
Her. Yea, and my father.
Hel.                And Hippolyta.
Lys. And he did bid us follow to the temple.
Dem. Why then, we are awake. Let's follow
And by the way let us recount our dreams.
                                 (IV. 1.195-202)

When the dreams turn out to be remarkably similar, only Hippolyta wonders at the fact. Theseus expresses the commonsense attitude: what happened to the lovers is outside the realm of ordinary experience and explanation; therefore, it must be unreal, the insubstantial product of their dreaming fantasies.

It is Bottom who wakes up last. It is characteristic of the paradoxical atmosphere of the play that he should show the most respect for dreams and, as the stupidest character, come closest to the truth. Even if his dream is only a dream, it is far more important than ordinary experience:

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had.—But man is but a patch'd fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.

(IV. 1.203 ff.)

Here, where "dream" and "rare vision" are equated and the suggestion of an encounter with divinity is strengthened by a comically scrambled passage from the Bible, we are closer, amid our laughter, to the mystery of dream experience than at any other point in the play. Bottom's awe at this vision "past the wit of man" is enormously suggestive in terms of our normal contempt for the shadowy, irrational world of dreams, for, all things considered, he is right, and his healthy respect for his limitations gives him a more accurate sense of what has passed than is possessed either by the lovers or by Theseus. It is also significant that in his wordless confusion, in his discovery that his dream is not reportable by normal means, Bottom's instinct is to have it turned into art:

I will get Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream. It shall be call'd "Bottom's Dream," because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of our play, before the Duke.

(IV. 1.218-22)

The ballad is never performed, but the concept of the work of art as dream is picked up again in Puck's epilogue:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumb'red here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream.

If this were the only such reference in the play, it might be correct to take it as the conventional flourish of apology, making use of the commonplace metaphor of dream as false and trivial experience. But in the light of all the other events in the play, the statement cannot be read as serious, straightforward, or without irony. If we are willing to say that the play is a dream and, as a result, inconsequential, then we are no better than the characters we have just been laughing at. If we have learned anything from the play, we have learned to be wary of dismissing unusual experiences as meaningless dreams and of regarding dreams as yielding no significant knowledge. Puck's invitation must be heard or read in the light of these perceptions. It then becomes one more blow at the customary distinction between dream experience and waking experience.

Why does Shakespeare, at the last moment, choose to connect his art to the concept he has been turning over within the play? We have seen that the theatrical images had joined the group commonly associated with unreality and false knowledge. Thus, there is nothing unusual in the connection. As presented, it offers a lighthearted and glancing challenge to those who criticized the theater as a place where shadows acted out insubstantial and meaningless fancies and to serious thinkers who dismissed poetic knowledge as misleading and meaningless, "a dream of learning." Shakespeare's strategy is not to contradict these strictures, but to accept them, at first apparently on their own terms, but ultimately in order to show that those terms are meaningless. This is not to insist that Shakespeare believed in dreams or divinations or, for that matter, fairies. It is to suggest that he found them already in use as metaphors and turned them to his own purposes in order to express a comical and skeptical vision of human experience and to defend, not so much by assertion as by demonstration, the value of his art.…

"Formes such as never were"—Lysander, victim of the love-juice, wakens to fall in love with a startled Helena. Here are his first words of explanation:

Transparent Helena! Nature shows art,
That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart.

Lysander's use of the word "art," we may suppose, is an expression of his sense that there is something unusual about his sudden change of affection. But his chief emphasis is on the Tightness and propriety of his passion. This is his first glimpse of Helena in the woods, and he can only assume that the natural setting has revealed something that must have been true all along. The moonlight has made Helena "transparent," that is, both brilliantly attractive and exceptionally visible in her essence. In his next speech, Lysander will also invoke reason and maturity, but here it is nature herself who is summoned to justify his mild metamorphosis.

In a sense, of course, Lysander is right. Oberon's flower is remarkable but in no way unnatural. It represents "nature's art," white magic rather than black, not the product of demonic conjuration but simply a special sort of herb available to Oberon's particularly intimate knowledge of nature. Insofar as Oberon and Puck are represented as spirits with magical powers they are also seen, like Prospero's Ariel, as embodiments of natural forces, owing their powers to an art which extends the natural without in any way opposing it.

If Lysander, like the fairies who practice upon him, sees no particular conflict between nature and art, the terms themselves serve to evoke the world of Renaissance literary criticism and the debates that sprang from the repeated attempts to achieve common agreement in the interpretation of critics like Horace and Aristotle. It is a complex world indeed. The terms "nature" and "art" were used in discussions of science and reason, both of which were sometimes labeled "art," as well as in defenses of the instincts and passions (e.g. Montaigne's "naturali inclinations"). Even if we limit ourselves to the areas of aesthetic dispute, we must remember that "art" might be used to mean craft, ornament, impropriety, exaggeration, or the ability to express the Ideal, while "nature," on the other side, could stand for inspiration, simplicity, propriety, verisimilitude, or the relatively meaningless particular. And even when the terms are correctly paired and rightly understood, we stand in danger of losing ourselves in exceptional thickets of ambiguity. The Elizabethans, for instance, were almost always inclined to favor nature over art in theory at the same time that they elaborated a remarkable artificial tradition in practice. The pastoral mode is perhaps the best example of this kind of apparent contradiction. It contains such artificial praise of the natural and affects such an unconvincing dislike of the artificial that its case for naturalness and simplicity tends to evaporate, leaving only its charm and our almost reluctant enjoyment behind.

Shakespeare shows familiarity with the art-nature conflict as well as with the various means used to decide or resolve it. One of these is simply to declare in favor of art. "Heaven-bred poesy," as depicted by Proteus, enjoys a clear superiority:

For Orpheus' lute was strung with poets' sinews,
Whose golden touch could soften steel and
Make tigers tame, and huge leviathans
Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands.
                   (Two Gentlemen, III.2.78-81)

Here, art in its ideal expression has the power to alter the natural for its own purposes. The poet and painter in Timon, who seem to be figures of fun, touch on the same notion more modestly but no less assuredly:

It tutors nature: artificial strife
Lives in these touches, livelier than life.

Against this we must balance the Shakespearean suggestions that art and the artificial must be subjected to the natural. The whole of As You Like It is instructive in this regard, as are Hamlet's appeals to "the modesty of nature" and the Chorus' reminder to the audience in Henry V that they are "Minding true things by what their mock'ries be."

Most relevant to this study, however, are Shakespearean attempts to break down the art-nature dichotomy or dissolve it altogether. We have already examined, in connection with the topic of dreams, Cleopatra's conversation with Dolabella in the last act of Antony and Cleopatra. Here are her words again:

                  Nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy; yet, t'imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.

Nature is here represented as ordinarily inferior to fancy in its inventiveness but superior in its fabrication of Antony. Its triumph, moreover, makes of it an artist; it "imagines" Antony. Nature seems to win its rivalry with art by adopting the opponent's methods. The converse of this idea is touched on by Hamlet: the closer "The Mouse-trap" can come to the deed of the guilty creature watching it, the more potency and truth it contains as art. Art and nature, imitating one another, tend to merge.

A more direct attempt to resolve the opposition can be found in the famous conversation about flowers in The Winter's Tale. In a scene shot through with references to disguise and metamorphosis, Perdita objects to the artificial breeding of flowers and Polixenes answers in its defense:

Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean. So, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes …
                         This is an art
Which does mend nature—change it rather; but
The art itself is nature.

This is essentially Cicero's compromise, and it was familiar enough in the Renaissance not only in Italy through men like Speroni, but in Shakespeare's England, as Madelaine Doran has pointed out, through the good offices of George Puttenham. The final chapter of The Arte of English Poesie is a remarkably sensitive discussion of the whole question of artifice. Puttenham suggests a multiple and variable relationship between nature and art. Sometimes art is "an ayde and coadiutor" (as in gardening and medicine), sometimes an alterer and surmounter, sometimes "onely a bare immitatour," sometimes even "an encountrer and contrary to nature." This whole range is available to the poet; "it is not altogether with him as with the crafts man, nor altogether otherwise than with the crafts man":

But for that in our maker or Poet, which restes only in devise and issues from an excellent sharpe and quick invention, holpen by a cleare and bright phantasie and imagination, he is … even as nature her selfe working by her owne peculiar vertue and proper instinct and not by example or meditation or exercise as all other artificers do, is then most admired when he is most naturali and least artificiall.

Ben Jonson echoes these views in Timber when he says of poets and painters that

they both invent, feign, and devise many things, and accommodate all they invent to the use and service of Nature.… They both are born artificers, not made. Nature is more powerful in them than study.

Between the writing of these two passages, Elizabethan poets and dramatists had more or less achieved the ideal being expressed. They learned to subdue rhetoric in such a way that it did not call attention to itself, to employ artifice so that it seemed to complement rather than contend with the naural. As Hardin Craig says, "There is no longer any creaking of the machine." Shakespeare himself played the greatest role in this closing of the art—nature split. There seems no reason to doubt that he was conscious of this synthesis as a part of his artistic achievement. Again and again he dares to call attention to the issue as a means of dismissing it. Fabian, laughing at the trick played upon Malvolio, remarks:

If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.

(Twelfth Night, III.4.140)

The mention of the discrepancy between art and reality forestalls our criticism and strengthens our sense of their bond. And the artist's awareness of the problem makes us feel that he can be trusted to solve it.

The same sort of moment occurs at the end of Love's Labour's Lost, when Biron says:

Our wooing doth not end like an old play;
Jack hath not Gill. These ladies' courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.

This speech rescues the play from a genuine difficulty. On the one hand, we have sat through a very artificial sort of comedy and are relieved to see it end with the intrusion of reality. On the other hand, we are uneasy at the idea that nature is forcing itself upon art. Biron's observation is nearly our own and reminds us that we are still in the presence of artifice, an artifice which has the strength to call attention to itself, and that this same artifice has been brought remarkably close to the real, the natural. The gap disappears, and one comic marriage—the marriage of art and reality—takes place at the expense of some others. When the king reminds Biron that they have only a year to wait for their proper resolution, he answers, "That's too long for a play." This can be accompanied by a wink at the audience. The characters step out of their roles; the play remains.

How, we may now ask, is the art-nature dichotomy employed and resolved in A Midsummer Night's Dream? An appropriate place to begin is with our sense of nature in the play, a sense which, as was indicated earlier, is greater, richer, and more fully particularized than in any previous play. Nature's abundant presence in the scenes in the woods is clearly central both to the atmosphere in which the events of the play take place and to the playwright's expression of man's relationship with the natural world. In effect, the Dream takes up the topics of pastoralism while avoiding the compromising artificiality of the convention. The woods, it is true, are very artfully presented and filled with the mysterious and the bizarre by virtue of the presence of the fairies. But Shakespeare has carefully set up a strong crosscurrent of homely and realistic detail which serves to convince his audience that the woods are not merely literary, at least not literary in any conventional sense. This is the reason, of course, for the heavy doses of folklore in the play and for the companionship of Puck and Oberon. Nature and art can coexist here without any apparent discord, so that we forget to think of them separately. Oberon is mysterious, but his chief device for magic is the very familiar pansy. Titania is exotic, but her pensioners are merely cowslips. Puck harries the homespuns but admits himself that it is their own fear that makes senseless things appear to be hostile to them (III.2.28). Art shows nature so skillfully that it does in fact begin to seem, to return to Lysander's phrase, that nature shows art, that we are being shown not an "improbable fiction" but something which has always existed just beyond our notice. Our sense of the meaning and value of nature is both expanded and intensified.

It is tempting, in light of this, to connect Shakespeare's view of nature with those of Renaissance thinkers who saw it as boundless, mysterious, and beyond the reach and laws of reason. Pico and Bruno, for example, held such views, views which mark them as "romanticists of the Counter-Renaissance." For them, infinite nature was sacred, an aspect of the infinite God. One wonders whether such a view would produce a comedy like the Dream. More persuasive as a parallel is the naturalism of a man like Montaigne:

Such a naturalist as Montaigne shares this view of Nature as infinite, and believes that we know nothing of God's intent or functioning principles. But his Nature is not pantheistic; it is rather "neutralized." She is the indifferent mother of an infinite diversity and mutability, and her works are all equally good, all the children of her fertility in a world innocent of comprehensive systematizing and universal regulative principles of degree, vocation, etc. She is, if you will, Venus Geniatrix [sic], mother of instincts and senses, of biological motivation and uninhibited fertility. In addition to Montaigne, Lorenzo Valla and Rabelais had sung her praises; she is also celebrated in the primitivistic poetry of Ronsard and the young John Donne.

If Shakespeare and Montaigne share this view of nature, they are not always led to draw the same implications from it. Shakespeare cannot, like Montaigne, be called a primitivist, nor is his distrust of reason so extensive. He does not so much pull reason from its pedestal as move it over to make room for imagination and, by implication, art. The play makes us feel that sooner or later reason loses itself in nature just as the lovers are lost in the forest. While nature is not to be circumscribed by man, she is none the less essentially benevolent; natural instincts are to be trusted. Art's role must be to make the best possible use of the natural, as Theseus the hunter creates harmony in the western valley by matching the voices of his hounds. Man is always a better artist than he knows. And poetry, with its companions, mythology and folklore, perhaps may penetrate further into nature's mysteries than philosophy by nature of its affinity. As Montaigne himself says:

Have I not seene this divine saying in Plato, that Nature is nothing but an aenigmaticall poesie? As a man might say, an overshadowed and darke picture, entershining with an infinit varietie of false lights, to exercise our conjectures.

Poetry, less presumptuous than philosophy, mirrors this picture and comes closer to the truth.

I think this view of the nature-art relationship can be ascribed to Shakespeare with considerable assurance and can be found in Lear and The Winter's Tale as well, thus giving Shakespeare's thought more consistency and continuity than is sometimes granted by his commentators. If that claim seems excessive, we can at least observe the way in which the view of nature as "aenigmaticall poesie" has found its way into A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Almost every element points toward it. The lovers, silly and artificial before they leave the city, find themselves confronted in the woods with forces they do not begin to understand, forces which are at once within and outside them. Eventually, order is restored and they are purged of most of their strained and conventional characteristics and allowed a more natural harmony, but their limitations remain because they do not recognize the role that nature plays in their behavior. The foolish artisans, as aspiring illusionists, fare very badly for the same kind of reason. They do not understand how the natural and the artificial can be made to interact. Their attempts at verisimilitude are clearly unrealistic, and their artistic flights are disastrously divorced from their audience's sense of what is natural. Pyramus and Thisby's night in the woods is stiff with artifice and convention, approaching reality only at those moments when it fails as illusion. It helps here to remember that one sense of "natural" in Shakespeare is "foolish." As artists, the clowns are hopelessly natural; as naturals, delightfully mechanical. On a much higher level is Theseus, whose activities and pronouncements come to stand for a limited artifice in the midst of an unlimited nature, a respectable view that is far less comprehensive than the play that contains it, a contrast which makes the play both artful and natural in ways that Theseus would fail to understand.

Finally, there are those moments when the playwright, by way of expressing his confidence and winning our approbation, calls attention to his play as artifice. If we remember the passage from Love's Labour's Lost quoted just above, we will have a better understanding of Puck's words as he arranges the correct tableaux for the coming of dawn:

      Jack shall have Jill;
           Naught shall go ill;
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall
 be well.

This wooing will end like an old play. We are encouraged to make that observation even as we watch the arrangements being made. Throughout, Puck has been a kind of stage manager for us, with a vocabulary—"actor," "auditor," "sport," "fond pageant"—to match. As the one who has heightened our sense of the play as play, it is fitting that he should make the final gesture in the epilogue, speaking both as actor and character and inviting our participation in the dream and our applause as spectators. Art, when it does not pose as something else, is not afraid to call itself art because "the art itself is nature." Several oppositions are dealt with at once in such moments: that between art and nature as well as subsidiary distinctions such as feigning in poetry and truth in other forms of knowledge, and the illusion of the stage and the reality of the world. Such debates do not trouble this play. They are mentioned or touched upon as a means of strengthening and enriching what is in effect a self-vindicating art. This is Sidney's poet, who "dooth growe in effect another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or, quite a newe, formes such as never were in Nature." He is not nature's secretary or apprentice, but rather her partner, "hee goeth hand in hand with Nature".…

"I wot not by what power / But by some power it is"—Very little has been said thus far about one of the main elements of A Midsummer Night's Dream, its emphasis on change and transformation. Elizabeth Sewell has described the theme:

Forms in transformation—forms in nature and in the mind—are part of the Midsummer Night's Dream.… The two meet in Bottom's interlude with Titania: forms as operative powers in natural phenomena, and forms as instruments of the thinking mind. Behind these, however, the whole of nature is seen to be in movement. Everything is changing.

A glance at the exposition of the play will reveal how thoroughly its atmosphere is permeated with figures of change and metamorphosis. The opening lines inform us that Theseus and Hippolyta are awaiting a monthly transformation, the new moon, and the moon itself is hung before us as a familiar emblem of alteration. Hippolyta's response to her lover's impatience suggests a merging of day and night, light and darkness, and Theseus, taking her up, calls for the alteration of melancholy to merriment and war to love. Egeus enters with his complaint that Lysander has bewitched and transformed Hermia, "stol'n the impression of her fantasy" and "Turn'd her obedience … to stubborn harshness." Theseus reminds her that this power is reserved to her father, "To whom you are but as a form in wax," and she, in her spirited disputation of this, wonders at her own behavior: "I know not by what power I am made bold." Theseus, explaining her choices of punishment, draws a contrast between the static existence of the nun, removed from nature and hymning the suddenly "cold" and "fruitless" moon, and that of the rose "distill'd," existing in a world of change and procreation.

A few lines later, we learn that Demetrius has made Helena "dote" upon him, that he too can be characterized as changeable, "this spotted and inconstant man." The lovers, left alone, begin their duet on "the course of true love," and its fragility in this unstable world is linked to shadows, dreams, and "the lightning in the collied night." When Helena enters, we learn that she wishes to be literally "translated" into Hermia so as to regain Demetrius' affection, and her soliloquy takes fickleness as its subject:

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity

And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguil'd.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjur'd everywhere;
For ere Demetrius look'd on Hermia's eyne,
He hail'd down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolv'd, and show'rs of oaths did melt.

Here, as elsewhere, inconstancy and change are seen as analogues not only of unthinking and childish behavior, but of natural processes—hail, sunshine, the various states water assumes—as well. The effect is to suggest that what is true of fickle lovers and children is in fact characteristic of the whole world as we know it—reality, if you will. Later on, in the woods, as Oberon and Titania speak of the transformations of weather and landscape effected by their behavior, we find nothing extraordinary in their embodiment of the power of mutation. As extensions or essences of nature it is right that the fairies should alter their shapes, wander everywhere, quarrel over changelings, and alternately hinder and help the mortals. Puck in his many transformations is more natural than Bottom, who is the victim of a discrepancy between his metamorphic ambitions—to be a tyrant, a lover, a heroine, a lion, a nightingale—and his actual limitations. His only change will take place with Puck's assistance, and it will be, at that, merely an expression of his basic nature, a kind of purification that allows him, with the aid of Titania's change, to fumble through the lover's part until daybreak.

There are, in fact, two kinds of change in the play, two means suggested by which a person or a thing may be transfigured. The first is the alteration of characteristics, physical and otherwise, at the bidding of some powerful force: Puck becomes a stool; the pansy becomes a sacred and powerful herb; Bottom is changed to an ass. The second involves a character, object, or concept, through association or actual merging, with some opposite or unlike character or quality: love is turned to hate; nature becomes art; tragedy turns to comedy; Bottom is made the paramour of the fairy queen. The first sort of change, actual metamorphosis, seems at first glance more remarkable, but since it usually involves physical rather than essential transformation, it is actually less so. Bottom changed to an ass is but a short step, a revelation of inner qualities already familiar to us, while Bottom as the consort of Titania is a huge leap, so great that we feel he never truly makes it: just as the "marriage" is probably never consummated, so is the transformation incomplete.

Both metamorphosis, sudden individual change, and "marriage," the merging of apparent opposites, express the mutable and uncontainable nature of the play, although the second may have more lasting effects than the first. Lysander, who began by standing for "true love," undergoes two changes of affection during the night, but marriage to Hermia, the play suggests (although it does not insist), will offer a more permanent change and a greater stability. The ending catches all the characters, in proper comic fashion, in a swing toward constancy, but this is not the same as saying that their world has suddenly grown stable and reliable. In Athens there is order, but Athens is less permanent and less natural than the wild, changeable woods. The natural magic by which sudden alterations and gradual changes always exist as possibilities is itself the one great constant in the play.

In such a world, it is not difficult to see how Shakespeare has managed to question and even to resolve the opposites examined [here]. How are we to say with assurance what madness is when a sudden change in reality can make it sanity? How can we distinguish shadow from substance if they marry, interchange, and partake of each other? Knowledge, apparently, must drift with nature, adjusting itself to sudden transformations, and the poet, who steers through shifting appearances by analogies and correspondences, is a truer pilot than the philosopher with his heavy categorical anchors. Again it seems pertinent to invoke Montaigne as an eloquent parallel:

The world runnes all on wheeles. All things therein moove without intermission; yea the earth, the rockes of Caucasus, and the Pyramides of Egypt, both with the publike and their own motion. Constancy itself is nothing but a languishing and wavering dance. I cannot settle my object; it goeth so unquietly and staggering, with a natural drunkennesse.

The figure of the staggering drunkard used here belongs in the same category with the lunatic, lover, and poet so prematurely dismissed by Theseus. The room that whirls about him is a truer picture of the dance of matter than the sober man can know. The images which support Montaigne's arguments in such passages come from the same clusters which inform the poetry of the Dream:

In few, there is no constant existence, neither of our being, nor of the objects. And we, and our judgment, and all mortali things else do uncessantly rowle, turne, and passe away. Thus can nothing be certainely established, nor of the one, nor of the other, both the judgeing and the judged being in continuali alteration and motion. We have no communication with being; for every human nature is ever in the middle betweene being borne and dying; giving nothing of it selfe but an obscure apparence and shadow, and an uncertain and weake opinion. And if perhaps you fix your thought to take its being; it would be even, as if one should go about to graspe the water: for, how much the more he shal close and presse that, which by its own nature is ever gliding, so much the more he shal loose what he would hold and fasten.

Such a view calls reason into doubt and serves, by implication, to exalt the imagination, itself a metamorphic agent capable of grasping and expressing change:

Thus, seeing all things are subject to passe from one change to another; reason, which therein seeketh a real subsistence, findes her selfe deceived as unable to apprehend any thing subsistent or permanent; forsomuch as each thing either commeth to a being, and is not yet altogether; or beginneth to dy before it be borne.

Spotted and inconstant, elusive as water, nature slides by us as we watch or read the play, and the familiar categories by which we judge experience waver, alter, merge, and separate again before our eyes in a "languishing and wavering dance." It is a vision of inconstancy, but a coherent one, something, as Hippolyta reminds us, of great constancy.

The coherence and constancy are in the poet's art, and they spring from his consistent use of the metamorphic principle as a device not only for reflecting experience but for controlling it and expressing its unity. A metaphor, like a simile, discloses a relationship; unlike a simile, however, it presses forward to an identification, and, for a moment, an imaginative transformation takes place, a metamorphosis. One thing has become another, and the change has heuristic benefits; from it we derive meaning, pleasure, a sense of unity in the midst of diversity. The poet, at such moments, is seen as a conjurer or magician able to summon or alter forms at will, a master of a protean existence.

We are more accustomed to speak of this process in connection with poetry and the arts of language than with drama, but surely it is the very stuff of theatrical expression as well, of movement, dance, pantomime, the simplest mimicry. When we see a play, a wooden stage is transformed into something else—a woods, a palace, an island—and people whom we know are actors exchange their ordinary identities for others. Within the action of the drama are many more changes. A man who pretends to be a friend is an enemy; a fat knight pretends to be a robber, a king, a prince, a warrior; a sane man feigns madness. These metaphors move us from the particular to the universal by seeming to signify truths, basic correspondences which the world is always reen-acting.

If we think of drama in this way, as enacted metaphor, we can see that its poetry usually represents the culmination, the distilled expression in language of the meaningful identifications we have watched on the stage. Here are some familiar examples of such dramatic metaphors:

The art itself is nature.
I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony.
All the world's a stage.

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense.

I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of me.

The last of these is from our play. A closer examination of its context will reveal the process by which dramatic metaphors take shape.

Bottom is an ass. This metaphor is latent in his characterization from the start, and its dramatic value is achieved when it comes true, when it is acted out before us. The moment is accompanied by language that exploits the humor and explores the adequacy of the identification. Bottom's asininity lies in his perfect ignorance of his limitations and the concomitant absurdity of his pride and self-confidence. These qualities, at the moment of revelation, are maintained, even intensified:

Bot. Why do they run away? This is a knavery of them
to make me afeard.
Enter Snout
Snout. O Bottom, thou art chang'd! What do I see on
Bot. What do you see? You see an ass-head of your
own, do you?
                                          (Exit Snout)
                                          Enter Quince
  Quin. Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! Thou art
Bot. I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of
me; to fright me, if they could. But I will not stir
from this place, do what they can.
                     (III.1.115 f.)

The identification is achieved and maintained, and Bottom, the complete ass, is ready to move on into the next metaphor, the one the play has reiterated several times and will now enact most thoroughly: love is blind.

It might be noted that the correspondence between the successful play that is the Dream and the failure that is "Pyramus and Thisby" is maintained in this area too. The mechanicals are far too ambitious in their dramatic metaphors: men changed into walls and moons, a Thisby with a "monstrous little voice," a lion that roars like (here simile enters) a sucking dove or a nightingale. From these confusions they produce identifications which are not to be believed:

Sweet moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams.

These linguistic failures illustrate the dramatic failures, "hot ice and wondrous strange snow," inadequate metamorphoses which do not release meaning or energy and which even serve to destroy the primary metaphor of theatrical illusion.

The concept of metaphor as the very basis of drama and poetry, as "one of the vital and basic powers of human thinking, a power which works by means of a constant play in which the mind singles out and matches figures, perceived, invented, and inherited," is modern in its articulation. Renaissance theorists could conceive of figurative language only as decoration, never as substance. Even Puttenham, who stumbled into the correct defense of imagination by relating it to all useful activity, could not take the further step of exploring the value of the tropological modes of thought. Of "Ornament Poetical!" he wrote:

This ornament we speake of is given to it by figures and figurative speeches, which be the flowers as it were and coulours that a Poet setteth upon his language by arte, as the embroderer doth his tone and perle.

And there, for all intents and purposes, the matter rested. Occasionally, paging through the piles of literary disputation that came out of Italy, one catches hints of what poets have always intuitively known about their method, but they are only hints. Bulgarini, for example, saw that metaphor expressed an actual relationship and was in that sense "true," which led him to conclude that it had more to do with the intellect than with the suspect imagination:

The true form which is the essence of a metaphor is not some power of our mind, but rather the similitude and the conformity which is found between diverse things, and the intellect, not the fantasy, is what produces the metaphor, and words are the materials with which it is produced.

But this is as far as he goes with the notion. He is merely setting up a criterion against which he can criticize Dante for calling his poem a dream! For want of proper soil, the seed fails to take root.

The concepts of metamorphosis and mutability were not taken much further. A strain of mysticism did exist in the Renaissance which exalted the changing and variable qualities of man and nature. It was Pico who wrote, "He who cannot attract Pan, approaches Proteus in vain," and of whom Edgar Wind says:

In Pico's oration On the Dignity of Man, man's glory is derived from his mutability. The fact that his orbit of action is not fixed like that of angels or of animals, gives him the power to transform himself into whatever he chooses and become a mirror of the universe. He can vegetate like a plant, rage like a brute, dance like a star, reason like an angel, and surpass them all by withdrawing into the hidden centre of his own spirit where he may encounter the solitary darkness of God. "Who would not admire this chameleon?" … Mutability, in Pico's view, is the secret gate through which the universal invades the particular. Proteus persistently transforms himself because Pan is inherent in him.

This did not lead Pico, however, to a theory of poetry, nor do we find the other Neoplatonists developing the idea. Pico's disciple and nephew, Gianfrancesco, was "violently antipoetic in the best Neo-Platonic tradition."

It would have been difficult, in fact, was difficult for the admirers of Ovid to say just what they saw in him to respect and emulate. In fact, it has always been hard to answer the charge that Ovid is merely a superficial retailer of myth in the Metamorphoses, because anyone who makes it will not easily be persuaded that the concept of metamorphosis, Proteus in Pan, is central to an understanding of man and nature and their relationship, as well as an accurate paradigm of human thought. Ovid's most distinguished admirers have been fellow poets—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Rilke; they have not had to formulate theories to explain their attraction, since, as poets, its basis was immediately and instinctively clear to them. The following exchange in As You Like It is crucial to any understanding of Shakespeare's attitude:

Touch. I am here with thee and thy goats, as the
  most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among
  the Goths.
Jaques (aside). O knowledge ill-inhabited, worse
  than Jove in a thatch'd house!
Touch. When a man's verses cannot be
  understood, nor a man's good wit seconded
  with the forward child understanding, it strikes
  a man more dead than a great reckoning in a
  little room. Truly, I would the gods had made
  thee poetical.
Aud. I do not know what poetical is. Is it honest
  in deed and word? Is it a true thing?
Touch. No, truly; for the truest poetry is the
  most feigning, and lovers are given to poetry;
  and what they swear in poetry may be said, as
  lovers, they do feign.

Here is another dramatic metaphor, with Touchstone as the poet, Audrey as his audience, Jaques as a hidden and better audience, and "honest" Ovid, among the goats and Goths, a metaphor within a metaphor, as a kind of arche-type for the figure of the poet. The truth of the passage is self-demonstrative: Shakespeare's audience could not possibly have unraveled the puns, caught the reference to Marlowe, and understood the sense in which the truest poetry is the most feigning, as they watched the play. But the playwright's acceptance of the situation is good-humored, based on a thorough understanding of his art and the limitations of his audience. "Be it as it may be," says Touchstone, "I will marry thee." Those who still insist on Shakespeare's natural genius and his unselfconscious art, as if he were a kind of inspired booby, should be made to reread and explicate such passages until they recant. The mind that was capable of drawing together the diverse ideas and experiences of its age into dazzling organic wholes was also capable, here and elsewhere, of glancing briefly but directly at its methods of operation:

Shakespeare picks up precisely what Bacon wants to reject—poetry, theater, dreams, and shadows—with an immense respect for each, and presents through them a vision of his method, a mythological vision of the relationship between man's mind and the natural universe.

T. Walter Herbert (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Harmony and Instrumentation of Fairyland," in Oberon 's Mazéd World, Louisiana State University Press, 1977, pp. 27-50.

[In the following excerpt, Herbert investigates Elizabethan attitudes to the supernatural elements present in A Midsummer Night's Dream.]

When two actors tripped lightly onto a stage still thudding with the tread of Quince, Bottom, and their prose-speaking friends, we knew from the first line, which told us we were among spirits, that these are not ghosts, devils, or witches, because they do not frighten. Nor are they angels, because they do not invite reverence. They must be fairies. For a brief while, in a condition seldom experienced at a Shakespeare play, we did not know where on the green earth we were. England, perhaps? That we were on the earth was clear enough, for the First Fairy goes on feet, "Over hill, over dale." Details of the conflict agitating fairyland soon indicate that Robin and we are in the wood where the Athenian lovers and actors have planned to go.

Joseph Addison in Spectator 419 apparently means to praise Shakespeare when he decrees that any writer describing a supernatural realm "ought to be very well versed in legends and fables, antiquated romances, and the traditions of nurses and old women, that he may fall in with our natural prejudices, and humour those notions which we have imbibed in our infancy." Though we learned classical stories as well as these others in our childhood, Addison speaks well for us earlier Englishmen. But Shakespeare's fairies did more than revive early memories; they also teased at notions we struggled with in our adult years.

The small immortals are not limited by geography or time. They have connections in India—that vast mystery in the distant East—and they sound well informed about England. At the beginning they seemed as remote in space and time as a medieval memory of ancient Athens. But as I went deeper into the country of the mind where the fairies dwelt, I became involved in questions that reflected large questions then vexing London. A Midsummer Night's Dream invited everybody to a temporary escape from the workaday world. Yet it seemed to speak most directly to us who were ready to perceive old momentous threads warped into a new design, ready to laugh over follies like those in our own world, ready to be beguiled at length into self-inquiries.

Addison attributes to widespread superstition English authors' success in what Dryden calls "the fairy way of writing." But many who responded to stage spirits in the sixteenth century were steeped in naturalist postulates. As playgoers who must learn whatever they learn through actors, we were fortunate that our training enabled us to perceive invisible components of our environment—the forces of nature, the administration of accidents, the intuitions and motives of men—in anthropomorphic guise.

Your playwright Eugene O'Neill in The Emperor Jones brings "little formless fears" on stage. But such shapes, because they tend to behave like well-drilled abstractions, exercise the passions within a limited if useful range. How can they convey a determined man's power to control events? How can they appall the virtuous? How can they suggest our kinship (or lack of kinship) with the rest of nature, or make demands upon our sympathies? How can they perpetrate blunders, or deceive other characters? How can they dramatize the fearsome lure of human ambition? Or how, by acting upon whimsies, can they comment on our itch to ascribe causes to events which we still have not learned to predict? Shakespeare's apparitions in A Midsummer Night's Dream as well as later in Macbeth and The Tempest did these things in combinations that held mirrors up to moral realities. As provocative as paradoxes in men, they became instruments of our reason.

We acquiesced when fairyland bade us accept impossible adventures, but we sustained our awareness of actual men and the forces that shape actual behavior. We had a fellow feeling for Hermia when, benighted in a wood, she is suddenly, unexpectedly alone. We could see her plight through her own unsuperstitious eyes. Lysander—changing his mind, neglecting his responsibility, coveting another man's mistress, asserting his own virtue, and wanting to fight for his indefensible cause—recalled people we knew. Hermia's bewilderment at Lysander's behavior was familiar too, and Robin's cloud obscuring the moon-light resembled ordinary weather. What we found extraordinary was that for the moment we knew the unknowable: we knew why people and weather were what they were—at least this man, this maid, this cloud. Lysander and Hermia, the wood, the weather, and at length Bottom, Theseus, and all Athens—so we learned—lie within the jurisdiction of fairyland.

We learned a new and merry inflection for our voices when we recognized homely accidents as Robin's pranks, the sparkle of spring flowers as fairies' handiwork. In other circumstances when we saw lovers in trouble we thought of ill-sorted horoscopes, but when we saw that Helena and Bottom were loved quite beside the order of probability and propriety, we perceived there was trouble in fairyland.

The hierarchy of this far-from-perfect fairyland completes the model of a world where love stands a better chance than Lysander's philosophy can allow—a world where seasons of unmerited joy are intelligible. We took a quasicritical stance. We saw that at play's end Lysander's understanding is still one-sided. He has not begun to realize why things happen as they do in his world. We were different. Because we knew why, the knowledge made us wise—wise, alas, only for Lysander's world. We entertained the suspicion that our knowledge of our own actualities might be limited, like Lysander's.

When we met Robin Goodfellow, a fairy king named Oberon, and a queen named Titania, we felt at home in their new fairyland because we had memories from three different kinds of stories—those kept alive by oral telling, the romances, and the classics. We were unaware of the danger C. S. Lewis describes [in A Preface to Paradise Lost, 1961]: "There is … a special reason why mythical poetry ought not to attempt novelty in respect of its ingredients. What it does with the ingredients may be as novel as you please. But giants, dragons, paradises, gods, and the like are themselves the expression of certain basic elements in man's spiritual experience. In that sense they are more like words—the words of a language which speaks the else unspeakable—than they are like the people and places in a novel. To give them radically new characters is not so much original as ungrammatical."

The names Robin, Oberon, and Titania, if we may borrow Lewis' metaphor, announce the employment of a language with three borrowed vocabularies and a syntax based remotely on Olympian Greek. The syntax was not new in 1595, but by the time Descartes died in 1650 many educated people had deliberately relegated it to what they stupidly thought of as a barbarous past. It earned from Dr. Samuel Johnson (who surely had no joyful experiences with dreams, or renounced them when he donned his critical robes) the objurgation that in this fairyland as elsewhere Shakespeare combines diverse and historically incompatible "customs, institutions, and opinions … at the expense not only of likelihood but of possibility."

Since you are neither Pepys nor Dr. Johnson, since Newton's world does not utterly dominate your consciousness, the language is no more difficult for you than it was for most of us. Mixed ancestry in the new myth amused us as much as mixed ancestry in the new mortal characters. The Athenian fairyland unfolded before imaginations which, following St. Thomas Aquinas, had for generations reconciled (or confused) several non-Christian theologies.

As far back as Chaucer the Wife of Bath kept two kinds of fairies only dimly distinguished—if at all—in the remarkable mind that preferred fairies to friars. The "dayes of the Kyng Arthour," which she calls up, should be days of romantic fairies. For her tale your scholars have found literary analogues, and her changeable heroine's size remains constant: whatever particular form and complexion she adopts, the fairy lady, as in most romances, is large enough to love a man. But when the Wife wistfully lists the elf-queen and her "joly compaignye, the fayeryes, and the incubus," specifying their habitation in "halles, chambres, kichenes, boures, citees, burghes, castels, hye toures, thropes, bernes, shipnes, dayeryes, every bush, and every tree," she seems to be talking about the folk fairyland. Two hundred years after Chaucer, Madge's Old Wives Tale similarly owes debts to both literary romances and folk tales.

The classical element in the fairy mixture also appears as early as Chaucer and as late as Shakespeare's youth. According to Chaucer's Merchant, the "kyng of Fayerye" was Pluto. Reginald Scot remembered what must have been as exciting a household of servants as a child's heart could desire:

Our mothers' maids have so terrified us with an ugly devil having horns on his head, fire in his mouth, and a tail in his breech, eyes like a basin, fangs like a dog, claws like a bear, a skin like a Niger, and a voice roaring like a lion … and they have so fraied us with bull beggars, spirits, witches, urchins, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, Pans, fauns, sylens, Kit-with-the-Canstick, Tritons, centaurs, dwarfs, giants, imps, calcars, conjurors, nymphs, changelings, Incubus, Robin Goodfellow, the spoorne, the Mare, the Man in the Oak, the Hell wain, the Firedrake, the Puckle, Tom Thumb, Hobgoblin, Tom Tumbler, Boneless, and such other bugs, that we are afraid of our own shadows.

Thomas Keightley, who quoted Scot in the mid-nineteenth century, was still irked by the conglomeration. He says [in The Fairy Mythology, 1850]: "This appears to us to be rather a display of the author's learning than an actual enumeration of the objects of popular terror; for the maids hardly talked of Satyrs, Pans, etc." But Scot told the truth. The myths had lived in England long enough to enter an oral tradition accessible alike to scholars, domestics, and people like me.

Once free of Ovid's pages, Pan and the rest lost whatever decorum classical storytellers imposed on them. Thomas Nashe in Terrors of the Night describes the old immortals cavorting in their new fields of opportunity: "The Robin-good-fellows, elves, fairies, hobgoblins of our latter age, which idolatrous former days and the fantastical world of Greece ycleped Fawns, Satyrs, Dryades, and Hamadryades, did most of their merry pranks in the night. Then ground they malt, and had hempen shirts for their labours, danced in rounds in green meadows, pinched maids in their sleep that swept not their houses clean, and led poor travelers out of their way notoriously." When Fawn changed his name to Robin, Nashe tells us, he changed his habits.

Scot recognized that the immortals sometimes kept their classical names, as when he explains how their misbehaving mortal friends escaped whipping: "After they have delicately banqueted with the devil and the lady of the fairies; and have eaten up a fat ox, and emptied a butt of Malmsey, and a bin of bread at some noble man's house, in the dead of the night, nothing is missed of all this in the morning. For the lady Sibylla, Minerva, or Diana with a golden rod striketh the vessel and the bin, and they are fully replenished again."

Chaucer's readers felt no pain at hearing the folk fairies, the fairy ladies of romance, and Proserpina and Pluto all designated (without qualification) as fairies. We in Shakespeare's audience were more analytical; but informed by the firesides of two centuries, we knew what game to play when dreaming Bottom moves about in a realm that organizes diverse personalities—some as humbly conceived as Peaseblossom and Mustardseed and others with pedigrees in chivalric romances and classical myths.

Dr. Johnson speaks mainly for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as he objects to Shakespeare's mixed fairyland. Few supernatural hierarchies have ever been as cleanly definable as Johnson would like. Those that have developed into fairylands have lacked consistency in logic, in the personal morals of their deities, and in their demands on mortals. Sometimes a visit to fairyland brings sensual opportunity, sometimes grim trials of hardihood, sometimes both. One storyteller makes the folk fairyland terrifying, another makes it just boisterous. Fairy ladies in the romance tradition love Sir Launfal and Lord Thomas for no reason at all. Proserpyne and Pluto in the Merchant's Tale influence January and May, but Pluto means to expose an adultery that Proserpyne approves. Even ancient Olympus varies, depending on whether we read Homer or Ovid.

Inconsistent motivation behind forces that govern human affairs? Doesn't that smack of a gloomy wyrd or fate? Not necessarily. We were of Hamlet's persuasion. We could take satisfaction at any moment when we were not being whipped. Though some characters do get hurt in the worlds governed by the Olympians, the fairies of romance, and the folk fairies, some have happy stories. When we saw Shakespeare's Athenians subject to fallible, whimsical, and passionate deities, we were not provoked to unrelieved dread or to any other simple mood.

The fairies' names, sounding in the enchanted night, empaneled on the threshold of recognition unnumbered memories from our childhood listening and youthful reading. A selection of these memories, called up by events on stage, played in harmony and disharmony with them and imparted a rich cargo of qualities to the fairies—somewhat as, deep in an art song, the present music appealed to remembered themes.

The principal fairies come on stage in an interesting sequence. First English Robin Goodfellow, whose name means mischief. His mission, he claims, is laughter. Second, Oberon. Appropriately for a spirit from the romances, he means to decree the forms that define loving behavior and to insure that love, as he understands it, prevails. Titania arrives immediately after him. Her name and her discourse on weather suggest the cosmic forces animating the old Athenian world, the unruly order of the Titans' children. But for all her present wrath, the Olympian hegemony over nature and society appears less formidable when her small person represents it. She kills no Hector. We thus perceived a fairyland dreamed into unity out of three antecedent spirit realms.

Five named characters come from the English fairyland. We remembered Robin Goodfellow from childhood, knowing him also as the Puck, Hobgoblin, and the Lob of Fairies. But we had never before heard of fairies called Moth, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, and Mustardseed. As unmistakably English as Goodfellow, these names and the sprites who wear them imparted to the Athenian fairyland qualities that modified Robin's.

Robin confesses escapades appropriate to the "shrewde and knavish sprite" whose brittle laughter was sometimes reported in ostentatiously scared village whispers even later than the England of Good Queen Bess. Before Shakespeare, Goodfellow often sounded ironically threatening to English ears (especially very young ones) much as Eumenides, "the well disposed ones," sounded threatening to the Greeks. Calling furies by a right name was too dangerous. But Reginald Scot and the rest of us out-grew our mothers' maids. When we heard First Fairy identify Robin as "hee,/That frights the maidens of the Villageree" we recognized a bugaboo whose terrors were recorded in old, healed scars on our hearts.

First Fairy soon recalls more innocent pranks and cheerful incidents. Robin reassures the fairy and every audience that, in the rustic spirit Milton would later call jollity he will claim success when a crowd, including the object of his jest, "hould their hippes, and loffe, And waxen in their myrth." No playgoer could retain for this merry wanderer of the night any awe whatever. We could expect—with just enough uncertainty for sauce—that Robin's virtuoso mischief would let us say, "A merrier hower was never wasted."

To Hermia and her friends this Puck's doings will seem like accidents that exasperate poor wights in love. What he does to Bottom's friends will justify his worst reputation. Somewhat later, however, he gives Bottom a most rare vision, fit to be enshrined in a ballad, and busies himself to promote loving behavior among young mortals. He earns the right to be called Goodfellow honestly. Yet Robin cannot by himself convey the sweet woodwind timbre of English gaiety. He needs the help of Titania's bright attendants, delicate as their names, docile and obedient (at Titania's behest) even to Bottom.

The attendants' size told us that the new fairyland was not any well-known earlier fairyland. Even Tom Thumb is gigantic compared with Mustardseed. Olympians are Titanic. When a romance says nothing about height, its fairies stand about as tall as mortals. Fireside stories occasionally presented fairies in normal human proportions, but more often described them (as my friends who had seen them still did) in the size of young children. Fairies small enough to hide in acorn cups we recognized as an uncommon breed. Titania's attendants are extremely and contagiously diminutive. Though played by human actors, they and their superiors Oberon, Titania, and Robin all belong to a tiny race. Their stature is not precisely quantifiable, but many details betoken smallness, such as the reference to the "Cradle of the Fairy Queene" and the "little Changeling boy." Puck's darting speed and the mobility of the fairy court suggest hummingbirds more than falcons. Such gods provoke a twinkle, not a Roman thought.

Removal of terror dulled the edge of earnestness, much as minute angels dancing on needle points humanized scholastic awe. Any threat from tiny deities was tiny too. Oberon, Titania, and their retinue won the free-hearted laughter that belongs to the puppet show, to the sylphs of The Rape of the Lock, and to Gulliver's Lilliputians. Besides confirming the fairies' size, the names Moth, Cobweb, Peaseblossom, and Mustardseed suggested the condition of their souls.

Editorial earnestness has given you a strange problem over the name the Quarto spells Moth. Some years ago, now, Richard Grant White recorded that in 1595 moth was pronounced like mote, and said the fairy's name is properly Mote. Surely he knew that a luna moth is often lovely enough to suggest Titania's realm! Yet many editors agree with White and with Henry Cuningham who in the Arden edition prints Mote, saying, "I see nothing whatever to be gained by retention of the old spelling." I heard the word you spell Moth. I shall argue for Moth as a pretext for talking about qualities the fairies conferred on the Athenian fairyland—and still confer.

We noticed in the fairy names a reversal of Ovid's practice in Metamorphoses. Accounting for the exquisite malevolence of the spider, the beauty of the downward-looking narcissus, the smoothly muscular grace of the laurel, and the idiotic earnestness of the woodpecker, Ovid traces these humble forms to original higher beings. Arachne begins as a girl who weaves pictures in tapestry, and partly for recording the gods' lusty deeds but mainly for pretending to equal Pallas' skill, she ends as a spider; Narcissus begins as a demigod isolated by self-love; Daphne begins as a beauty and ends, because unwilling to accept the consequences of her attractiveness, as a tree; Picus begins as a king whose connubial devotion keeps him from yielding to Circe's charms, and she turns him into a bird unacceptable as husband or lover. The pity of it! We did not need Jaques' gift to suck melancholy out of Ovid's unfortunates. Contrariwise, things which in our England had souls vegetative or at most sensitive appear as divinities in Shakespeare's Athens. Cobweb is typical. He is both Cobweb and a cobweb. Bottom issuing orders to Cobweb is only a step less incongruous than Bottom as Pyramus issuing orders to Wall.

Titania's fairies provoked a laughter recalling untroubled May mornings. Their mortal forms had taught us in childhood to wonder at Nature's delicate skill: instead of the spider the cobweb, jeweled with dew; instead of the narcissus the peaseblossom, fruitful and bright; instead of the laurel the pungent mustardseed, whose promise Jesus praised; and instead of the woodpecker the moth, beautifying the enormous night.

Titania's court, however, has tongs and bones as well as woodwinds and viols. Bottom ignores the delicate images evoked by the fairies' names. He de-etherealizes Cobweb (whom he envisions fouled in honey), Peaseblossom (whom he associates with Mistress Squash), and Mustard-seed (who can make eyes water and not for pathos).

Moth rather than Mote is the right name for the fairy partly because Bottom says nothing about him. The obvious comment would rub against the grain of Titania's court. She reminded nobody of withered sedge. Bottom promising, if he cuts a finger, to make bold with Cobweb, is funny. Recalling calamities brought by "Gyant-like Oxbeef" on Mustardseed's kin, Bottom is still funny. He remains funny when he mentions an appetite for dried peas in Peaseblossom's presence. Nobody could sigh about putting a cobweb or mustard or peas to their country uses.

But what could Bottom have said about a moth that would not recall its fate near a candle? He would have dashed melancholy into the fairy court's bright joy. A mote troubling the eye would have generated as proper a witticism for Bottom as it later did for Hamlet. Lacking any joke on Moth, I was content to associate him with the fluttery beauty you pronounce moth.

As the name of Robin Goodfellow brought jocularity to fairyland and the names Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth qualified Robin's jests, all of them together said that Titania's court is tiny, not awesome; pretty, not gorgeous; sensitive, not sensual; solicitous, not earnest; kindly, not shrewd; responsive, not grave. The momentousness of this world was comparable to the momentousness of cottage gardens, wherein a great calamity is to cut a finger and a great achievement is to stanch its little bleeding. In such a world we London-ers—forgetting momentarily the hot passions stirred by such cosmic questions as whether a personality capable of being represented by a man born of a woman rules the heavens and the earth—could awake to cheerful wonder, could experience sympathetic pity without sympathetic terror.

We recognized in A Midsummer Night's Dream many things to remind us of the fairy romances, especially the situation that later intrigued John Keats—the fairy lady entertaining a wandering knight—and we noticed that the chief fairy's name invoked the romancers' special emphasis on love. We remembered Oberon's name from Lord Berners' translation of Huon of Bordeaux, from The Faerie Queene, from Robert Greene's James IV, and from dramatic entertainments no longer extant. It carried a chivalric rather than a rustic ambience, though in Huon Oberon was half the height of a man, like folk fairies.

Whilst the table of organization in Shakespeare's fairyland played games with the great Olympian model, the quality of fairyland's cosmic law, embodied in Oberon's personality, recalled elements of the romances—recalled the texture we had learned from the first part of The Romance of the Rose, the Knight's Tale, and the milder parts of Edmund Spenser. In Oberon's world love, linked with loyalty and patience, is the ordering force. When he prevails, nature and society function in health.

For minor as well as major dramatic reasons a fairy king served better than a fairy queen. Queenly though sovereignty looked in Elizabeth's England, everybody from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the journeyman over his ale was expected to genuflect before the principle of male authority.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is not explicitly Christian, but in 1595 Christians could tolerate an Oberon. He is a notably responsible spirit. In his extensive biography, Huon of Bordeaux, Oberon obeys God, makes stern moral demands on his protégé, and firmly supports the Church. In Shakespeare's play his name served (as Merlin's would not have) to signal his respectability.

Oberon invoked a domestic morality compatible with nesting and with cheerful babies. Where Olympian Jupiter ruled, fidelity was dangerous for men (as Picus learned) and no protection for lovely women. Chaucer's Pluto disapproves certain freedoms, but ineffectually, and most fairy romances deserve their reputation for bold bawdry. The folk fairies often account for irregular human behavior. But Huon's Oberon, more than even Spenser, is serious about family. A celestial king named Oberon can plausibly provide a right world for Hermia and Helena. When Oberon's will prevails, random disorder no longer troubles the Athenian world, no longer roughens the course of true love. Although A Midsummer Night's Dream invites laughter at prudery, as when Robin deplores the distance between sleeping Hermia and Lysander, it does not mock virtuous Hermia.

The fairy romances prepared us for qualities in Oberon's queen and for the flavor she brings to fairyland. A fairy lady is apt to be contentious. When she squares off with another nonhuman being, anyone from a giant to a husband, she is as often the victim of enchantment as she is the enchantress. In the intervals between her own affairs a fairy lady quite regularly, like Titania, takes a lively interest in other creatures' amatory adventures, including their marriages. Titania's servitors recall the fairy lady's traditional retinue, and they complement the amorous welcome she extends to her errant knight. They help her to mock the daydreams of any lad who like Malvolio imagines himself surrounded by luxuries and quick servants and adored by a rich and beautiful lady. The unspeakably fortunate guest in A Midsummer Night's Dream is Bottom.

Titania's great love scenes with Bottom derive as much of their exquisite comedy from the prior behavior of the mortal women as from romance conventions. Amazonian Hippolyta has capitulated only after war, and Hermia has insisted on the proprieties. Even man-chasing Helena could be stopped by apparent mockery. Nothing, for a while, daunts doting Titania.

Bottom fulfills his romance role in only one respect. When Titania praises his person and virtues, promises things appetizing, beautiful, comfortable, and flattering, makes her servants his servants, and invites him to her bed, he is no more astonished (until he wakes up) than Sir Launfal. In all other respects we found him embodying what was funny in citizen imitators of another stock figure—that is, the true, complete, gentle knight that simplifying imaginations made of good Sir Philip Sidney. To that ideal Bottom's demeanor refers—his modest air, his formal courtesy, his good humor when he makes his wishes known—strangely as these traits sort with an ass's head and a taste for peas, honey, oats, hay, and tongs and bones. His innocent requests played counterpoint to the hot demands earlier fairy hostesses could count on. When not Titania but Bottom purges mortal grossness, we remembered knightly vows. But we also remembered that many city men had teased our minds into musing that their absorption in business deprived them of a loving warmth, a warmth that seemed to us far indeed from grossness.

Bottom's purity as he chooses sleep reminded us of matters philosophical, social, and economic, and we shall deal with these later. But purity, playing against clichés about knights and romantic love, was wedded to the surface comedy. C. S. Lewis has somewhere jested that one cannot talk about decency without being indecent. Turn over the leaf, if you will, while for one long paragraph I talk about decency for those who can stand it. During the test of Bottom's chastity Oberon stands nearby. Despite our awareness that he and Robin had prepared the tableau and despite our conviction that only an addled mind could devise such an inducement to family discipline, we knew the fairy king for an attentive, loving, and demanding husband. We saw in Titania's guest no Midas, no youth panting for erotic adventure but a businessman whose aggressive energies respond to opportunities for a profit. But the ambiguity in Titania herself made the comic situation unique. We had accepted the play's invitation to see a Titania too small to seduce Bottom, while our physical eyes, looking at actors, contradicted that particular impossibility. Our memories told us fairies can do wonders, but the outrageous problem in quantification quite cooled whatever remained of the episode's erotic potential. We watched Titania wind Bottom in her arms and make happy fun of citizens, knights, romance queens, and of all dainty ladies who love the hairy Bottoms of the world, but carnality, the kind that charmed us in Romeo and Juliet, peeped out only to fly away in laughter. To all of us except men like Lear, no longer capable of a light heart, Bottom as serious candidate for fleshly lover of Titania was unthinkable.

By the time we saw Robin squeeze magic juice into Lysander's eyes we had already recognized the three major components of fairyland—folk, romance, and classical. Seeing at once through the eyes of characters from Athens and through our better-informed eyes, we were constructing in our imaginations a new mythic design to unify the new Athenian world.

Bottom and his friends come close to some of the facts of Athenian cosmic life. When they gather for rehearsal they see at first an ordinary landscape with trees—a green plot and a hawthorn brake—but when Bottom appears with the ass's head his friends recognize that they are haunted. They see the boisterously scary wood we had known as children, whether we heard the proper tales from our mothers' maids or from grandmothers. We saw the haunted wood and we saw more, because we knew in puckish detail what the mechanicals only vaguely guessed at.

When the wood becomes Titania's bower, Bottom does not recognize her as a fairy lady. But we did. Familiar as we were with romances, Bottom's obtuseness provoked in us an impulse to tell him how to respond to Titania. Our own superiority to Bottom thus beguiled us into playful sympathy with this make-believe fairy green, and so for the duration of the play we suspended our skeptical defenses against accepting the fairy world.

In the same way our reading in romances made us superior to Bottom, our knowledge of classical stories made us superior to Demetrius, Lysander, Helena, and Hermia, who behave according to familiar amorous and belligerent patterns but (unlike actual ancient and medieval people, and, of course, ourselves) have no inkling that nature, society, and their own individual impulses are governed by spiritual forces. We perceived in their Athens a structure wittily imitating the magnificent myth by which the inventors of Western intellect accounted for the human predicament years before they developed a naturalist philosophy. The name of Titania stirred many memories of that Olympian model.

Scholars in later years who assume that Titania must represent a single prior divinity understandably agree on Diana. After all, erudite King James, distinguishing among varieties of spirits, mentions a kind "which by the Gentiles was called Diana, and her wandering court, and amongst us was called the Phairie." The King tells a truth, but his comment does not tell the whole truth about Titania.

Since Titania signifies "Titan's daughter" or "descended from Titans," the name stirred a wealth of memories. All Olympians are progeny of Titans. Proserpyne, goddess of spring, flowers, and fruitfulness and queen of fayerye in Chaucer's Merchant's Tale, is granddaughter to the Titans Saturn and Rhea. Scot's and Nashe's lady sprites with Latin names, Mediterranean goddesses grown old in England without drying up, would answer to Titania. The Titan Prometheus by creating life made Titania fit any fairy lady whose exploits The Faerie Queene records, for all these owe their begetting to an encounter between Elfe and a Fay in the Garden of Adonis. Furthermore, Titania directly recalled Olympus in its heyday. English writers had kept the classics familiar, but it was especially through Ovid and Virgil that we negotiated our debt to the Greek imagination.

Ovid repeatedly alludes to his goddesses' Titan ancestry at moments when they are about to exercise power. He calls Diana Titania once, when she is taking the shower bath that Actaeon witnesses at frightful cost. He calls Pyrrha Titania when together with Deucalion she ponders Themis' strange prescription for repeopling the earth after the flood (I, 395). Vengeful Latona, Diana's mother, is Titania when she comes thirsty to the pool at the borders of Lycia (VI, 346). Circe is Titania when, scorned by monogamous Picus, she plans to render him unfit for even one bed (XIV, 382); and she is again Titania when she terrifies Macareus with tales of the sea (XIV, 438). However, Titania's normal personality does not merely sum up Olympian goddesses, any more than her enchanted personality merely replicates romance fairy ladies.

She led us to an appreciation of the organic structure of her world, which corresponds (often by reversal and diminution) to the world over which Juno was queen. In both worlds, natural and human components respond to pressures exerted by deities who are themselves loosely controlled by a heavenly society. Orderliness in the Olympian model shows clearest when contrasted with folk worlds animated by sprites more numerous than those Scot lists, each one as independent as Robin Goodfellow before Shakespeare subordinated him to Oberon. Folk worlds and romantic worlds making up the inchoate jumble that Dr. Johnson calls "Gothick" contribute generously to Titania's world, but submit to an intelligible pattern. Where the Puck is, there is forever English mirth. Where Oberon is, there is forever the perhaps mad decorum that English-speaking people traditionally deem appropriate to the formation of homes. Where Titania is, there is forever an unmechanical celestial order fit to account for a dream of an exciting and merry England.

In chain of command and function the new Athenian replicates the old Olympian society. At the top are a king (Oberon, Jupiter) and a queen (Titania, Juno) who sometimes quarrel. Subordinate deities include a messenger who does the king's bidding (Robin, Mercury). All deities, exerting sporadic influence on weather, flora, fauna, and people, enliven with variety the natural routines.

In the neo-Olympian component we noted modifications more startling than in components derived from folk and literary fairylands. Robin Goodfellow, mischievous before, is still mischievous. Oberon, earnest in Huon, is still earnest, and the fairy lady, who in romances enchantingly entertains knights, still enchantingly entertains. Classical myth employed merely for laughter and loving could have been imported equally intact. Instead, Titania inhabits a blithe new world.

The complex quality of this world came playfully to our understandings even when it commented on our philosophies and theologies, because we saw it set in a double contrast. Each aspect of Pyramus and Thisby's godless Babylonian world emphasized a hopeful aspect of the fairy world, and we found that each aspect of the fairy world came lightly to our minds because it reminded us of terror in a nature governed by the arrogant, grimly impulsive Olympians.

The gods in Shakespeare's Athenian world are far from Titanic. Whilst Titania's name proclaims fearful magnitude and power, she is heralded as so diminutive that when she appears on stage her rich anger, unlike Juno's, is funny. Attended always by Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth, she remained tiny in our imaginations. By the same incantations Oberon, though surely the tallest fairy, looms like a Jupiter only alongside Pease-blossom. From Ovid we remembered Semele's fate. When grateful Jupiter offers to grant any request, Semele asks to see him in the form and power he owns when he approaches Juno in her bedroom. Jupiter protests. Semele insists. Jupiter complies. His presence, brighter than the sun, vaporizes the rash girl. Oberon's presence hurts no-body. Mortals never so much as notice him.

If the old Olympians make man's condition in the world precarious because they are awesomely big and strong, they make it tragic because their deliberate actions, expressing hot passions, so often bring disaster, as Arachne, Daphne, Narcissus, and Picus, as well as Semele, learn. Io learns too. Jove finds her, loves her, and then to keep his spouse from catching him, changes the nymph into a cow. And Callisto learns. After Jove finds, loves, and leaves her, Juno changes her into a bear so unappetizing that her lover lofts her into the sky, a new constellation. Conditions are distressing for a while in the new Athens, but not because of divine malice. Robin's intentional pranks are frightening, but not horrendous, and both Oberon and Titania leave mortals better than they find them.

The Olympian world is peopled with monstrous shapes. Some are divine lovers, less condoling than Bottom thinks lovers should be. Saturn, Neptune, Phoebus, Bacchus, and of course Jove, confronted with a pretty problem, often solve it by adopting animal bodies. With the exception of Jove as swan, they perform the labor of love in menacing form: as bull, ram, hawk, or stallion. Among monsters other than gods, the one most vividly associated with the first Theseus is the Minotaur. Unlike centaurs and satyrs, his head is animal, the rest human. According to the familiar story, once every nine years Athens must send seven young men and seven young women for him to eat. Theseus accompanies the third and final shipment and, befriended by Ariadne, puts an abrupt end to the Minotaur's appetite.

The monster in Titania's world is Bottom. When resting in her arms he is no swan or hawk, no bull or stallion, but a harmless ass. He is not all ass. Like the Minotaur his head is animal and the rest still human, and his tactless words to Mustardseed and Peaseblossom kept us reminded of the Minotaur, emphasizing by contrast Bottom's unfearsome appetites. We laughed lightly over this world where the monster prefers sleep above seduction and for dinner prefers vegetables above a diet of lads and girls.

The old Olympians' jealousy and lust are troublesome enough to individuals. But weather affects multitudes. When the old gods give meaning to natural disasters the meaning is malevolence. At the beginning of the Metamorphoses Jove announces that the whole race of mankind has exhausted his patience, though the story suggests that an individual named Lycaon is the burr under his toga. Persuaded to refrain from using his ultimate weapon, he petulantly unleashes the dripping wind. After drowning farmers' crops, the rain keeps on till it destroys all men except Deucalion and his consort. In the foul weather story that Virgil's Aeneid tells and Marlowe's Dido retells, Jupiter provokes Juno's wrath when, as careless about conjugal fidelity as he is inconsiderate of the boy's welfare, he acquires and refuses to give up young Ganymede. Juno acts from a mixture of motives—prejudiced, vengeful, and murderous. She loves Carthage, fated to be destroyed by Trojan-descended Romans. She despises Ganymede; she remembers Paris (Alexandros), foolish enough to call Venus fairer; and she bitterly notices that both are Trojans, but out of her power. Available Trojans are Aeneas and his fellows. To liquidate them before they can spawn Romans, she pesters Aeolus until he buffets their ships with squalls.

As in Ovid and Virgil, bad temper among deities causes foul weather in Shakespeare's Athens. When the play opens, rains have ruined crops, killed cattle, muddied playing fields, and robbed mortals of their song; diseases abound, and seasons come in a wrong sequence. But not because any mortal has affronted Oberon or Titania, either personally or morally. The logic of causation within this world is the logic in a living body: trouble at one part precipitates trouble elsewhere. Titania says unhappily to Oberon:

This same progeny of evils,
Comes from our debate, from our dissention:
We are their Parents and originali.

The immortals can put a stop to the evils only by ending their own quarrel. In Titania's unhappiness lurks more hope for mortals than the old Greeks and Romans permitted themselves. Her solicitude is comprehensive. She grieves for people as much as for cattle, moon, and roses. She will not discontinue rebellion merely because it causes hardship, but she does miss the joy of the earth.

The episode ensuing from Juno's jealousy over a little boy provided a context we remembered when accounting for the delusions and outrageous actions of the males in Shakespeare's Athens, mortal and immortal. Juno's machinations illustrate the Olympians' propensity to make mad those whom they would destroy. Aeneas remains heroic, but once ashore after the storm, he falls into crazy behavior. His friend Achates says he sees with his mind rather than with his eyes (Dido, 326-27). In both Virgil's and Marlowe's versions, deities madden the women more than the men. Cupid at Venus' bidding makes Dido, against her plans and interest, fall helplessly in love with Aeneas. Marlowe adds other unrequited loves, so that eventually Dido's sister Anna is madly in love with Iarbus, who madly loves Dido, who madly loves Aeneas. When Aeneas leaves the country the other three commit suicide, the disastrous domino effect.

Not any god's or goddess' wrath but the same organic world structure that produces bad weather in the new Athens produces midsummer madness in all Athenian men—and no Athenian women. Beginning with Egeus' familial and Theseus' civic tyranny, the men behave unreasonably, but only until Oberon and Titania are reconciled. Our laughter over the merry-go-round of unrequited love, from Hermia to Lysander to Helena to Demetrius to Hermia, stood over against our memory of the tragic straight line in Marlowe. After Titania's reconciliation, we could not know whether her mood of obedience might change again. But while it lasts, Oberon and Titania's concord so orders the world that reason and love among mortals keep company as friendly as twins.

Oberon means to rule, but in the world he rules with Titania the lightnings of old Olympus have sharpened into sparkles. Though no Philip Sidney, Oberon is more civilized than Jupiter. His notions of wifely participation in decisions looked less enlightened than Stefano Guazzo's, but we who were brought up under Richard Mulcaster and such like theorists in education recognized that when Oberon sets out to end Titania's sentimental pampering and make the changeling boy "Knight of his traine," he has purposes more considerate than either Juno or Jupiter exhibits towards Ganymede.

Oberon covets Titania's love. When Titania twits him with Phillida, we remembered Juno's recurring problem with Jupiter's philandering. Juno is right about Jupiter, but Titania hilariously errs. She rails at Oberon for stealing away from fairyland and, in disguise as Corin, "Playing on pipes of corne, and versing love, / To amorous Phillida." To you moderns, even those with more than a little learning, Titania's accusation has sounded unambiguous. Corin and Phillida name conventional characters in pastoral poetry, and everybody knows what pastoral swains and wenches are forever doing or about to do. But in 1595 we had better information than Titania. The poem that first brought to England the names Corin and Phillida had often been reprinted since its appearance in Tottell's Miscellany. The title summarizes the argument: "Harpelus' complaint of Phillida's love bestowed on Corin, who loved her not, and denied him, that loved her." We remembered that though Phillida is indeed amorous, her Corin is no womanizing Jupiter but a huntsman as impervious to feminine temptation as Joseph or Hippolytus. "Corin he had hawks to lure," and there an end. Titania's accusation provides a glimpse of Oberon behaving as a faithful though not impressively wise husband might behave with a girl who has a crush on him. Juno berates a Jupiter who has committed adulteries, rapes, and worse insults. Titania reproaches an Oberon who has played the flute and quoted poetry. This is the Titania who, eagerly as Phillida, will love a Bottom impervious as Corin! Though we rejoiced in poetic retribution, we did not rejoice vindictively. It is hard to dislike Titania. Her love for Oberon and her midsummer tantrum are compatible with human lovers' long joys as well as their transient agonies.

Shakespeare's comic Athens has no counterpart for Hades or Satan or for any of those minions of Satan that King James of Scotland celebrated in his Daemonologie. The rhetorical device called paraleipsis enables a speaker to say what he is saying by denying that he will say it. A Midsummer Night's Dream denies nothing, but those of us who came expecting witches encountered what felt like a witty reversal of paraleipsis.

In 1595 not a few minds were fascinated by the hating world's dark Majesty and ready to smell him at the first hint of enchantment. Since they detected his brimstone scent whenever they encountered any wielders of super-natural power other than those certified by their own parsons, and since both witch lore and fairy lore had found nourishment in classical myth, it was hard to depict fairies without seeming to deal with witches. Many elements in the play suggested witches as well as fairies: the night, the moonlight, the May eve, the circling dance, references to Diana, the supernatural production of dream states, a man's assumption of an animal shape. A fairy lady was often identified with the chief witch when witches gathered in covens. And Robin Goodfellow's pre-Dream behavior was at least mildly devilish.

Spenser praises virtuous fairies, to be sure, making them anti-witch as well as anti-Papist. A Midsummer Night's Dream is not so explicit, but a sixteenth-century witch-hunter with any sense of humor, wherever he pursued the teasing evidence that might link Shakespeare's airy spirits to Hell, found his own witch lore itself persuading him to the contrary.

In the very beginning, when Egeus maintains that Lysander has bewitched Hermia with charms and conjurations, the charge is manifestly groundless. Whatever their origins, by 1595 Lysander's love-smitten rituals were only signs in a customary language of adoration and desire. Other witching interpretations were interdicted in more amusing ways.

Whereas witches—as well as Satan when he consorted with witches—were of human or heroic size, the Dream's fairies are small.

Whereas witches had a reputation for bad breath, possibly because of brimstone at home, Bottom attributes bad breath to other causes: "most deare Actors, eate no Onions, nor garlicke, for we are to utter sweete breath."

Whereas witches' hatreds were often held responsible for natural troubles, no malevolence lies behind bad weather in the Dream. Although Titania associated the moon with Hecate, the Greek goddess who had grown into an English witch, the Athenian moon influences the floods in the Virgilian and Ovidian way, and Titania's talk about the moon goddess as somebody other than herself absolves her from being Hecate. Further, when at the end Puck uses Hecate's name, it is "triple Hecate," a classical rather than a witching allusion.

Whereas thirteen was the favorite witch number (thirteen to a coven, for example), Oberon, Titania, Puck, and the four named fairies-in-waiting make up to seven. Seven was often a good, sometimes an anti-witch number.

Whereas witches were often females with power, upsetting the right sex order of supremacy, there is no doubt that, though Titania similarly offends, she is basically of the same race and religion as male Oberon, who loves her and eventually prevails. His reign means order, not disorder. St. Paul would approve.

Whereas to get what they wanted those who trafficked in witchcraft had to bargain with and acknowledge the chief witch or devil, people in the Dream (with the ambiguous exception of Bottom) get fairy blessings without asking, or even being aware of the bestowers.

Whereas when witches wore or conferred animal shapes, these were generally cat, crow, bear, goat, horse, stag, hare, or bull—Bottom is "translated" into an ass, an animal seldom chosen in witchcraft, and even so his translation is only from the neck up. Bottom's behavior runs counter to the lustful, dangerous, or ominous character of the commonplace witch animal, as it runs counter to the habits of Minotaur and satyr.

Above all, whereas witches were generally blamed for stillbirths, monstrous births, and at the very least birth-marks, Oberon's fairies guard the bridebeds so that children there conceived may be perfect, without blot.

Some playgoers, humorless and earnest, doubtless continued to think about witches. They saw a baleful Midsummer Night.

My friends and I, prone though we doubtless were to folly, self-righteousness, prejudice, and cruelty, were not irretrievably bigots. We were happy to dismiss witchcraft and give ourselves over to contemplation of other matters. We were willing to speculate about the anatomy of the spirit-influenced world, willing to explore possibilities other than hoary stereotypes. Absorbed in Shakespeare's play, we laughed at the fairies and the pseudo-Athenian mortals and their artificial world. When later reflection brought actual people into the target area of our laughter we did not mainly laugh at superstitious leaders like the King of Scotland, let alone humbler folk. We chose bigger game. We laughed at the limitations and pretensions of people like ourselves. With all our imperfections, we belonged to that fit audience in which you, O reader, find yourself thoroughly at home.

Ronald R. Macdonald (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "A Midsummer Night's Dream: Errant Eros and the Bottomless Dream," in William Shakespeare: The Comedies, Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 34-50.

[In the following excerpt, Macdonald examines ways in which A Midsummer Night's Dream plays on the interrelationship of illusion and reality, focusing in particular on Shakespeare's use of theatrical and literary conventions.]

In the middle of the seventeenth century the diarist Samuel Pepys noted that A Midsummer Night's Dream was "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life." Although this can hardly be taken as evidence of a unanimously held opinion or even of a consensus, it is probably a fair indication of the theatrical taste of Pepys's age, which favored the hard-edged, realistic milieu of London as the setting of comedy, rather than the exotic and fanciful places, the often outright never-never lands, in which Shakespeare preferred to set his comic plots. Restoration preferences may even reflect the ascendancy of Ben Jonson's literary stock, an author who took it upon himself in his comedies contemporary with Shakespeare's comedies and romances to censure the latter, sometimes rather harshly. As Jonson has a character say in the "Induction" to one of his most successful comedies, "[The author] is loth to make nature afraid in his plays, like those that beget Tales, Tempests, and such like drolleries, to mix his head with other men's heels, let the concupi-science of jigs and dances reign as strong as it will amongst you." If "Tales" and "Tempests" sound like inescapable allusions to Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, it is obvious that Jonson also felt the need to scold an audience that had recently embraced, apparently with considerable enthusiasm, "such like drolleries."

Jonson's strictures make it clear, among other things, that he disapproves of Shakespeare's apparent disregard for realism: making "nature afraid" can only refer to what Jonson understands metaphorically as nature's horror at the monstrous and fantastic features of Shakespearean comedy and romance. And yet a century and a half later we find the great Shakespearean critic Samuel Johnson saying in the "Preface" to his edition of Shakespeare's works, "Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour of manners and of life." Clearly we have to do with very different ideas and assumptions about what "nature" means, when one critic finds monstrosity everywhere and another "the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find."

The assumptions subtending this interesting contradiction are not at all easy to specify, and it is hardly my purpose in the present argument to attempt to do so. I will note, however, that any use of the term "nature" will involve anterior assumptions, and that to call something "natural" or "real" is emphatically not to place it beyond question or exempt it from discussion. The terms always beg a good many more questions than they answer, and for this very reason an examination of the problematics of the natural and the real lies at the heart of a great deal of Shakespeare's comic writing.

Perhaps Pepys's and even Ben Jonson's antipathy was based on what may seem to us now a serious misunderstanding of Shakespeare's attitude toward convention and the old stories and traditions he so often appropriated and remade in fashioning a play. If we assume, for example, that he simply took the conventions of fairy lore in A Midsummer Night's Dream at face value, that the play asks us to accept the existence of fairies as a natural fact for the duration of its action, then that play will very likely seem to us, in Pepys's words, "insipid" and "ridiculous," although such putative naïveté is precisely what recommended Shakespeare to many of his admirers in the high romantic period of the early nineteenth century. But our own century has become increasingly suspicious of a Shakespeare piping native woodnotes wild, that charming, if badly educated, primitive, whose "small Latin and less Greek" relieved him of the burdens of sophistication and delivered his audience from the vexatious inconvenience of having to think.

It seems, in fact, far more productive and ultimately far more interesting to assume that Shakespeare handled fairy lore with a high degree of awareness that such material was precisely a cultural production, perhaps a matter of naive belief for some, but hardly inevitably so, either for himself or anyone else. That assumption renders the text of A Midsummer Night's Dream as neither Ben Jonson's monstrosity nor Pepys's insipid ridiculousness nor Samuel Johnson's nature but as metaphor, the "as if" figure of playful possibility:

I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal;
And sometime lurk I in a gossip's bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob,
And on her withered dewlop pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And "tailor" cries, and falls into a cough.

Puck's account of himself should forestall any very simpleminded conception of a Shakespeare who believed in fairies. Puck is in these lines so clearly a figure projected from the folk imagination, a way of giving a quasi-human identity to and thus providing a reason for a series of random domestic mishaps, the unseen or disguised power that we still sometimes feel to be behind a daily world experienced as perverse, or for unexplained reasons resistant to or thwarting of our purposes. In short, Puck is a metaphor given a body on the stage. When minor accidents occur, when everything seems to go wrong, when we are having, as we say, "a bad day," it is as if a mischievous sprite named Robin Goodfellow (and his last name, like a number of actions imputed to him, hints that he is not fundamentally opposed to human endeavor) were at work unseen. It might be said that Puck is the imagination's way of domesticating and ordering the random.

I shall have occasion to note that Puck may be seen as a good deal more even than this, for in addition to being part of the thematic content of A Midsummer Night's Dream, he is as well part of its dramatic technique, certainly an engine of the plot, but also, with Oberon, onstage audience to a spectacle he himself has set in motion. And, as the lines quoted above foreshadow, he is the chief supernatural agency for turning potentially tragic events into comedy, just as on the human level Peter Quince's amateur theatrical company manages to turn the tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe into "very tragical mirth." It is surely significant that the hapless "aunt," who finds herself sitting on the floor to the amusement of all the company, including herself, has been in the process of "telling the saddest tale." Puck seems always to have some bearing on the generic status of occasions in which he intervenes, whether they are informal fireside gatherings or the kind of highly stylized courtly entertainment for which A Midsummer Night's Dream seems to have been originally designed.

This movement from the level of thematic content to the level of formal structure seems in principle reversible; that is, as theme is formalized so too form is thematized, and it becomes difficult to assign any given element unambiguously to one category or the other. But it is in virtue of the latter movement—from form to theme—that A Midsummer Night's Dream so often seems to turn on itself and its own workings, producing a meditation on its own status as a piece of theater and more largely on the institution of theater itself, its necessary conditions, and the role of its audience in establishing and maintaining those conditions. Such a high degree of reflexiveness is not altogether surprising in a play in which the bulk of the last act is devoted to a play-within-the-play, the theatrical representation of another theatrical representation, however uproariously inept and maladroit. Such reflexiveness will figure largely in the argument that follows, for being mindful of it is one of the surest ways of inoculating ourselves against the notion of Shakespeare the naif, the natural genius from Warwickshire, the untutored Bard whose pearls of wisdom are all the more valuable for being spontaneous.

Such modes of self-awareness about literary conventions and about the theater itself lead inevitably to another issue.… It is undoubtedly a mistake to speak of any fictional character as if he or she were a real person, a procedure that is bound to lead, sooner or later, to various kinds of counterfactual argument, including the nineteenth-century mania for discussing the girlhood of Shakespeare's heroines, Lady Macbeth's children, and various details of the private life of the tragic hero before he steps on stage. Without for a minute wishing to detract from his undoubted achievement, I may instance the characterological analysis of A. C. Bradley as the culmination of this remarkable cult of personality concerning what are, finally, not personalities at all, but fictive constructs.

Yet it is probably more tempting to commit this fallacy of character-as-personality when discussing Shakespeare's tragedies or histories than it is when discussing his comedies. Comic characters are already somewhat deprived of individuality by virtue of being so often based on types stemming from classical antiquity (e.g., the miles gloriosus or braggart soldier, the senex iratus or irrascible old man, the servus or tricky slave), and we thus frequently have the impression less of individual psychologies than of a set of roles, already in place prior to a particular play, being discharged in the given instance. Stage comedy as a genre is tailor-made to remind us of Aristotle's wisdom that in drama (though he is, of course, speaking of tragedies) role comes before character (ethos), and plot (muthos) comes before either.

Shakespeare seems to be aware of these issues to the point where he exploits them for comic effect and dramatizes the process of an individual trying to assert himself and emerge from the web of language and tradition that is his defining matrix. Nowhere are Shakespeare's comic characters more typical than when they attempt this emergence, however, and nowhere are their speeches more replete with citations of the comic and romantic traditions in general than when they protest the absolute uniqueness of their feelings, for it just so happens that protestations about the uniqueness of love are one of the most conventional elements of romantic comedy. In declaring your uniqueness you end up sounding exactly like a veritable parade of other characters from the tradition, all of whom sound exactly like one another. In comedy the conventional will out, and there is little anyone can do to suppress it.

This paradoxical and often very funny effect of convention returning in the very act of repudiating it extends to plot, or plots, as well. If we think of the action of romantic comedy as the attempt on the part of a marginal and subject figure (typically a youth) to rewrite the plot of a central and authoritative figure (typically a father or ruler), then it is clear that in A Midsummer Night's Dream Lysander's scheme in the first scene to circumvent the will of Egeus (backed up by Theseus and the Athenian law concerning the father's right to dispose of his daughter as he sees fit) is an attempt to impose a plot or scenario more consistent with individual desire. And yet the lovers' flight from the tyrannical (and conventional) law of Athens delivers them all unwittingly into the power of another set of plotters, Oberon and Puck, who arrange, after some misfires, the happy ending traditionally associated with romantic comedy, a happy ending, we note, no less arbitrary than the strict law it displaces. The movement of the play is evidently not from tyranny to freedom, from the constraints of culture in Athens to the liberty of nature in the woods outside the city, but from one form of tyranny to another, the latter, perhaps, experienced as more benign and acceptable than the former, but still a tyranny in the sense of a determining convention nonetheless.

Here is a sample of the dialogue leading up to Lysander's disclosure of his scheme for fleeing Athens:

Lys. Ay me! for aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth;
But either it was different in blood—
Her. O cross! too high to be enthrall'd to low.
Lys. Or else misgraffed in respect of years—
Her. O spite! too old to be engag'd to young.
Lys. Or else it stood upon the choice of
Her. O hell, to choose love by another's eyes!

This remarkable little duet is not really calculated to make us sympathize deeply with lovers' travails, for it formally exemplifies in its artificial and stagey way the very constraint it otherwise protests. We may even suspect that these lovers are rather enjoying their plight, indulging themselves in their own sense of suffering and affliction. By the logic implied here, if the course of love were to run smoothly, then it would not be true love, and thus the lovers actually derive a sense of their own authenticity from the very obstacles that stand in their way. But this is not to make true love a unique emotion arising from the inner life of two unique individuals, but to assimilate it to a conventional pattern, to say that our particular love is true and unique precisely because it is like the love we read about in "tale or history"—an odd procedure at best for one supposedly asserting himself. We are given good cause to wonder about that free life Lysander envisions for himself and Hermia beyond the Athenian pale.

Undoubtedly the words to stress in Lysander's first speech in the passage above are "read," "tale," and "history." They mark out the specifically literary territory from which he draws his examples and remind us that in this instance we have a case not of art imitating life, but of life imitating art, during which process the human beings in question acquire precisely the typicality they otherwise reject. While believing that they are engaging in an action peculiar to themselves, Lysander and Hermia are actually acting out without realizing it an ancient repertoire of the behavior of literary lovers, repeated over the centuries by countless lovers in countless romances. And so saturated is the speech of the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream with the kind of language we associate with the romance tradition, so bound does their behavior seem by the codes of the same tradition (the resistance to paternal authority, the schemes to circumvent various "blocking characters," and the like) that they may well come to seem the effects of that tradition and that language, rather than individual human beings initiating speech and action in their own right.

By this route we arrive at a view of dramatic character rather different from the one implied by Bradleian characterological analysis. For if comic characters are effects of a certain kind of language rather than individual people, we will be less tempted to probe their psyches and rather more drawn to investigating their interactions, the kinds of larger patterns they form, the sorts of poetic idioms they share, not the idiolects that insist on the differences among them. Furthermore, we may notice that the principle of interchangeability implicit in the diachronic comparison of Shakespeare's lovers with other lovers in the comic and romance traditions is replicated in the synchronic context of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Hermia and Helena, Lysander and Demetrius are notoriously difficult to distinguish, and even after an extraordinarily attentive reading we may experience some difficulty in specifying just who has been smitten by whom at any given stage in the action. This inability may not be altogether a weakness of readers but a genuine textual effect, deliberately planned and carefully fostered by a Shakespeare determined to blur or erase all kinds of boundaries we normally take as given and natural, including the boundaries between one self and another, or, to put the matter more broadly, between a self and an ambiance that is partly made up of other selves. As Demetrius says of the events of the night in the woods on the following morning (and a look at IV.i.186-87 will confirm that it is indeed he!), "These things seem small and undistinguishable, / Like far-off mountains turned into clouds."

So too may they seem to us, as we metaphorically awake at the end of a play that Puck's epilogue invites us to treat as a dream (V.i.423-28). For from several perspectives within the play we have been encouraged to see the four young lovers not as personalities with distinguishing traits, but as counters occupying shifting positions in an elaborate game or dance, again, as agents of an Aristotelian plot. There is, for instance, the gently ironic way Puck greets the entrance of the lovers as they are rounded up and gathered together at the end of the third act:

Yet but three? Come one more;
Two of both kinds makes up four.
Here she comes, curst and sad.
Cupid is a knavish lad,
Thus to make poor females mad.

Puck's reference to the two sexes as "both kinds," as well as his calling the women "females," tends to have a distancing and diminishing effect, to deny what we like to think of as the dignifying distinction between human nature and the rest of the animal kingdom. The effect is even stronger in his concluding lines:

And the country proverb known,
That every man should take his own,
In your waking shall be shown.
    Jack shall have Jill;
    Nought shall go ill:
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall
 be well.

The generic names suggest that character has become something very close to mere "plot-fodder": all you need for a story of this sort is two of both kinds.

It would be possible, though perhaps unnecessary, to multiply examples almost indefinitely. In general, however, we may notice that this principle of interchangeability, along with the transgression of boundaries normally thought of as secure, is supported by the play's preoccupation with metamorphosis, with the idea of one person or thing changing into another person or thing. Helena at the outset, in love with Demetrius, who scorns her in favor of Hermia, wishes she could change into Hermia in order to possess whatever mysterious and unspecifiable attractions the latter possesses:

Sickness is catching; O, were favor so,
Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go;
My ear should catch your voice, my eye your
My tongue should catch your tongue's sweet
Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I'll give to be to you translated.
O, teach me how you look, and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius' heart.

And later on she will well and truly become Hermia in the sense that she will occupy Hermia's position in the wooing game, after Puck's initial mistaking of Lysander for Demetrius and his partial attempt to set the mistaking right have brought it about that Helena herself is pursued by both men, and Hermia has become the odd woman out (III.ii).

The height of confusion in the wood is something like a mirror image of the configuration of lovers with which the play begins, for in the wood we have the two men who have previously been rivals for Hermia's affections suddenly competing with equal energy for Helena's. And Helena's response to this vertiginous shift is altogether interesting, because it seems an instance of that imaginative habit of mind we looked at above in discussing Puck's status, a habit that attempts to project a certain stability into an experience that is in fact utterly random and arbitrary:

Can you not hate me, as I know you do,
But you must join in souls to mock me too?
If you were men, as men you are in show,
You would not use a gentle lady so;
To vow, and swear, and superpraise my parts,
When I am sure you hate me with your hearts.
You both are rivals, and love Hermia;
And now both rivals, to mock Helena.

Faced with an otherwise inexplicable volte-face on the part of the men, Helena can only deny it by insisting that it is pretense, a particularly cruel prank, born of a sadism the implications of which would be rather disturbing, if it were indeed sadism. Nor does Helena's comically desperate assumption in this instance entirely circumvent the problem of the arbitrary, for the cruelty and hatred implicit in the prank, if it really were a prank, would be just as inexplicable and rationally unfounded as the love that the two men "truly" express. The arbitrary, like the conventional to which it is closely related, has a way of returning in the very attempt to dispel it.

I have already noted some of the ways in which character can be seen as an effect of language rather than the other way around, and I should note that the confusions in the wood and the interchangeability of characters there are the direct result of an impressive array of punning, figural, and antithetical uses of language—all contributing to a pervasive transgression of boundaries. The repeated use of the word "rivals" in antithetical senses in the last two lines from Hermia's speech quoted above (the men are rivals in the sense of "adversaries" when it is a question of Hermia's love, but rivals in the sense of "partners" when it is a question of mocking Helena) contributes to our sense of swiftly changing positions, and the convergence of opposite meanings in the same word suggests a sameness in what we otherwise think of as the greatest difference. Shakespeare is here exploiting a feature of Elizabethan English—where "rival" really could mean either "adversary" or "ally"—that he may elsewhere treat neutrally.

Or consider further a remarkable rhetorical feature of the lovers' language, the speaker's pervasive reference to the self in the third person, using his or her own proper name. As Helena says, "And now both rivals, to mock Helena." Lysander will fall into the same mode a little later in this exchange:

Her. But why unkindly didst thou leave me so?
Lys. Why should he stay, whom love doth press
  to go?
Her. What love could press Lysander from my
Lys. Lysander's love, that would not let him
Fair Helena!

The effect of this curious mode of self-reference, in which all the lovers indulge from time to time (and it extends to referring to a present interlocutor in the third person as well—"What love could press Lysander from my side?"), is in part designed to objectify the speaker and make him seem faintly ludicrous and operatic. It is as if those involved in the wooing confusions were at once both participants and spectators, in and out of the game simultaneously, watching, perhaps with a good deal of narcissistic relish, their own play. In short, they seem, as we often say without thinking about what we really mean, "beside themselves."

Shakespeare plays in A Midsummer Night's Dream with the word property or the idea it expresses in at least three senses. There is first the common sense of "possession," a sense which by virtue of Athenian law extends to people as well as things, the sense implied when Egeus calls Hermia "what is mine": "And she is mine, and all my right of her / I do estate upon Demetrius" (I.i.96-98). Second, there is the technical hut still familiar sense of "stage property," various portable items used to create dramatic illusion. It is to these that Peter Quince refers when he says, "I will draw a bill of properties, such as our play wants" (I.ii.105-6). And there is finally the broader sense, everywhere implied, of those traits, elements, or qualities that make a person or thing uniquely what he or she or it is and not someone or something else. It is in the latter sense that the lovers in the wood are "unpropertied," deprived of themselves or their individuality, made to seem interchangeable, although in another sense shared by the first two definitions they are also "propertied," that is, reduced to things as they are manipulated by Oberon and Puck, a process that really begins in the first scene with Egeus's insistence on the notion of his daughter as his property. In either case, the sense of the personal in human beings is lost, very much including the sense of the personal in human desire. It becomes difficult to conceive of a desire for a particular person, when in principle one person seems interchangeable with another, and we may come to suspect that desire is finally ungrounded, not circumscribed by a particular object, not a wanting of anyone or anything specifically, but just a wanting. Desire, we may begin to suspect, is like Bottom's dream, "because it hath no bottom" (IV.i.216).

Nor will it really do to say that depersonalized desire is the effect of magic, an effect that will simply vanish when the lovers emerge from the wood once again into the world of daylight. This is simply to ignore the fact that the first wandering of desire takes place in Athens before the action of the play proper begins. We are told that Demetrius has transferred his affections from Helena to Hermia, and if we are not told why, it is either because there is no reason (desire is not only impersonal but arbitrary), or, what amounts to much the same thing, because Demetrius's desire for Hermia is an effect of Lysander's desire for her in the sense that Lysander's desire may seem to Demetrius to confer upon Hermia the status of the desirable. This would simply be one more example of the phenomenon of interchangeability, of the principle that one's identity is always elsewhere for Demetrius's desire in this case would not be intrinsic to him but would derive from another.

What follows is that we no more have to posit a Shakespeare who believed in magic than we had to posit a Shakespeare who believed in fairies. Magic too is finally a metaphor, and as the lovers fall under its power, they really submit to the metaphorical expression of desire's unpredictable volatility, its whimsical nature, its tendency to veer from object to object, refusing to be circumscribed by any particular object. This, far more than inflexible fathers and arbitrary laws, is the ultimate tyranny of A Midsummer Night's Dream, showing once again that the movement of the play is not best described as a passage from tyranny to freedom but as a passage from one expression of the tyrannical to another. And what we witness of the lovers in the wood must make us a little skeptical about the neat solution their final marriages impose. One of those marriages, after all, the one joining Demetrius with Helena, remains the effect of love-in-idleness, a case of enchantment that is not in principle immune to further disenchantments.

It may well seem that, given all the giddy confusion of the lovers' night in the wood, the doings of Peter Quince and his troupe of artisans-turned-actors provide a kind of ballast, a stable ground against which we view the figure of antic desire. What is done in the theatrical sense with the plot of the lovers is undone with the plot of Peter Quince and company, as these simple men set about casting, rehearsing, and finally performing The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe. And this process of flatfooted undoing extends even to such metadramatic matters as the "verbal scenery," which, given the virtually bare stage of the Elizabethan theater, along with a fluid and swiftly moving dramaturgy that precluded elaborate sets difficult to change, was Shakespeare's most important means of suggesting locale. In his drama in general speeches set the scene, and for the most part we accept the fact that a scene is located where the characters say it is located.

If we bear the device of verbal scenery in mind, we will notice that, among other things, Shakespeare uses the second act of A Midsummer Night's Dream to establish the sylvan setting. The two longish scenes that make up the act are both full of a lush language aimed at leading us to imagine a forest:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine;
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night.

After more than 400 lines of such imagery we may well be prepared to accept the forest setting, but no sooner are we so prepared than Quince and company enter with an unwitting counterreminder:

… and here's a marvail's convenient place
for our rehearsal. This green plot shall be
our stage, this hawthorn brake our tiring-
house, and we will do it in action as we will
do it before the Duke.

We are made forcibly aware that what we have been looking at in the course of the preceding act is not a wood but a stage, and that what we have seen on it (and will continue to see) are actors.

The artisans are not the sort of characters that a dramatist less confident (and less playful) than Shakespeare would care to introduce. Their flatfooted literalness is dreadfully efficient in destroying whatever illusion the play has otherwise managed to produce and sustain, and we are justified in suspecting that the amateur troupe is, among other things, Shakespeare's wry way of calling attention to the fragility of illusion in A Midsummer Night's Dream or in any other drama. Given the radically limited technical means at his disposal, Shakespeare must have been constantly aware of the threadbare character of the theatrical enterprise, the bare stage, the men in women's parts, the paltry two or three hours allotted to enact a story that may actually have unfolded over decades. But his consistent response to this structural impoverishment seems not to have been to hush it up by any means, but to face it frankly and as far as possible exploit it, to draw it into the play itself, to thematize the very inconveniences that a lesser dramatist might try to suppress.

The homely artisans are thus a means of calling attention to the theatrical machinery of A Midsummer Night's Dream from the inside, and their earthiness and flashes of common sense provide a perspective from which the "aery nothing" of the lovers' fancies seems delusion merely. And yet in this exquisitely evenhanded play it is, of the mortals, Bottom, and Bottom alone, who, in return for an indignity he barely notices, actually sees a fairy, and not just any fairy but the Queen of Fairies herself. That we can choose to see this fact as evidence of Bottom's literal-mindedness (incapable himself of imagining a fairy, he must be shown one) or as evidence of the proverbial visionary powers of the simple and innocent, is itself evidence for the kinds of delicate poise Shakespeare's play so often achieves.

Although all the artisans are driven by a thoroughly literal habit of mind, Bottom in particular seems completely impervious to illusions, metaphors, and metamorphoses (including the quite literal one that befalls him). His appetite for role-playing—the most obvious form of metamorphosis A Midsummer Night's Dream offers—appears to be boundless (in I.ii Bottom wants to play Pyramus, Thisbe, and the lion simultaneously!), and yet wherever he goes and whatever he becomes, he remains stolidly himself, unmoved by what otherwise seem the most astounding occurrences. Even the Queen of Fairies' passion fails to unsettle him:

Tita. I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again.
Mine ear is much enamored of thy note;
So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape;
And thy fair virtue's force (perforce) doth move
On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee.
Bot. Methinks, mistress, you should have little
reason for that. And yet, to say the truth,
reason and love keep little company together
now-a-days. The more the pity that some honest
neighbors will not make them friends. Nay, I
can gleek upon occasion.
Tita. Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful.
Bot. Not so, neither; but if I had wit enough
to get out of this wood, I have enough to serve
mine own turn.

Doubtless much of the comic effect here derives from the fact that while Titania speaks in the ornate verse associated with the fairies, Bottom persists in using his serviceable and colloquial prose. He is neither startled, surprised, nor awed by the sudden apparition of the Fairy Queen declaring her passion, and, although he will go with Titania, for the moment he is undiverted from his project of finding his way out of the forest.

What is true for Bottom in the presence of the supernatural is equally true for Bottom in the presence of the theatrical, for he is never wholly "in" his part of Pyramus, anymore than his colleague Snug is wholly "in" his part of the lion. The altogether hilarious performance in the fifth act is indeed hilarious largely because of the amphibious effect of men half in and half out of the roles they attempt. No sooner has Bottom "died" as the Pyramus he has never really succeeded in becoming than he resurrects himself as the Bottom he has been all along:

The. Moonshine and Lion are left to bury the
Dem. Ay, and Wall too.
Bot. Starting up. No, I assure you, the
wall is down that parted their fathers. Will
it please you to see the epilogue, or to hear
a Bergomask dance between two of our

The performance is all the funnier, because the artisans so overestimate the effect of their bungled presentation that they utterly destroy the possibility of such illusion as it might have produced by employing wholly unnecessary devices like Snug's speech warning the ladies that he is not a real lion (V.i.219-26). Furthermore, while the artisans grossly overestimate the effect of their playing on the audience, they also grossly underestimate the ability and willingness of that audience to supply in imagination what the stage itself cannot supply. Thus, if a wall and moonlight are unavailable, they will be represented by human actors—a failed effect, which would have been much better produced by a few oral allusions to a wall and moonlight in the manner of verbal scene setting. What Peter Quince's company is unable to grasp is Samuel Johnson's pronouncement on the nature of dramatic illusion: "It is false, that any representation is mistaken for reality; that any dramatick fable in its materiality was ever credible, or, for a single moment was ever credited."

Johnson is, as so often, right on the mark: we never experience people and events on the stage quite in the same way we experience them in daily life. To do so might in fact constitute a pathological response. We are always aware to some degree in the theater of the amphibious nature of people playing roles, partly in and partly out of the characters they enact. The colossal failure of the artisan's play is simply an extreme case of what is to a lesser degree an element of any theatrical production. What Johnson does not say, but what is clearly implied in his argument, is that it is only the audience's grasp of theatrical conventions and ultimately its goodwill in construing those conventions that save all plays from seeming trivial and jejune, in Hippolyta's words (and she sounds, as Anne Barton remarks, remarkably like Samuel Pepys pronouncing on A Midsummer Night's Dream as a whole) "the silliest stuff that ever I heard" (V.i.210).

Theseus's response to Hippolyta's impatient stricture has to do with just this necessity for goodwill: "The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them" (V.i.211-12). And Hippolyta's further rejoinder is perhaps true in a way that in her present mood she does not intend: "It must be your imagination then, and not theirs" (213-14). It must, indeed, in every instance of theatrical presentation be the audience's imagination that to some degree completes the drama, fills in the gaps, or simply ignores the inescapable limits of the spectacle. An Elizabethan play is a strictly reciprocal enterprise, something that takes place between performers and audience, the result of an active cooperation. The audience is implicated in the play in at least two senses, for not only is the play, as we say rather loosely, "about" experience, that is, it comments upon how we live and behave, but also the play is drawn into the audience (or the audience into the play) by virtue of the fact that we must be active and sympathetic participants, not passive observers merely. And, as we join this interesting symbiosis, we may gradually realize that the border between art and life is permeable, that it is not always possible to establish it with certainty, and that just as plays are often lifelike, so life is often playlike, histrionic, a matter of shifting roles and postures, rather than an array of stable essences. The courtly young men with their sophisticated wise-cracks and witty criticisms of the artisans' seriously intended clowning, of course, do not know that just the previous night they themselves were in precisely the same relation to the observing fairies as the artisans are now in to the observing young men. But we know, and as we watch the courtly young men watching the artisans, we may come to the ironic awareness that they have recently enacted a play that Puck has called a "fond pageant" (III.ii.114), a play in its own way just as silly as the one currently unfolding.

Theseus too seems to forget this principle of the interchangeability of art and life, particularly in his great speech on lovers, madmen, and poets at the beginning of the final scene before the play-within-the-play commences. "I never may believe / These antic fables, nor these fairy toys," Theseus says of the lovers' tale about their night in the wood: "Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, / Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends" (V.i.2-6). Here is an apparently unassailable distinction between imaginative apprehension and reasonable comprehension, and yet Theseus's comprehension may not be quite as comprehensive as he seems to believe. We have already seen that a fantastic figure like Puck can function as a way of understanding or at least of making sense, as a way of giving, as Theseus says of the poet's pen, "to aery nothing / A local habitation and a name" (16-17). We are all involved with the imagination to this degree, Theseus included. And Shakespeare makes wryly available to us an irony that cannot in the circumstances be available to Theseus. We may be reminded that this man who affects superiority to "antic fables" (and the word antic means both "grotesque" and "antique," that is, "ancient") is himself the product of a set of what are for us antic fables, the legends and myths of the heroic deeds of Theseus in company with the likes of Hercules and Pirithous. These are in principle no more probable than fairy stories and enchantment or what must be the lovers' tangled account of their night in the woods, and if Theseus expects his courtly peers to believe them (and the evidence is that he does and they do), it is by no means clear why he cannot reciprocate by believing in the story of the events in the wood. One man's history, it would seem, is another man's antic fable. If Shakespeare is gently skeptical about fairy lore and magic in the thoroughly relativized world of A Midsummer Night's Dream, he seems equally skeptical of some of the ways we go about believing in what we perhaps too facilely call the "real" world.

Theseus too, like the lovers in the wood, is thus embedded in a literary matrix of which he is unaware, a fact the play slyly acknowledges by including as one item in the list of entertainments for the wedding night "'The Battle with the Centaurs, to be sung / By an Athenian eunuch to the harp'" (V.i.44-45). This is, of course, an allusion to the epic battle of the Lapithae, led by Theseus's friend Pirithous, against the Centaurs, who had attempted to carry off Pirithous's bride. Aided by Theseus, the Lapithae succeeded in driving the Centaurs from Thessaly. The Theseus of Shakespeare's play rejects the recitation of the battle on grounds that Hippolyta has already heard the story from his own lips ("We'll none of that: that have I told my love, / In glory of my kinsman Hercules" [46-47]). He claims himself as the original and consigns the proposed recitation to the status of a mere mimetic repetition. And yet we may well suspect that the opposite is the case, that the character is the effect of the legend, rather than the legend the effect of the character. Theseus's real origin is in the imagination of an Athenian singing to a harp, and he is thus no less a fictional construct than Oberon or Titania or Puck.

It would be a mistake, however, to adopt a smug position and assume that we in the offstage audience command the ultimate perspective and control all ironies. The complex situation that the play-within-the-play generates—an offstage audience watching an onstage audience watching a play—is calculated to raise the possibility of further regress, to tempt us to look over our shoulders and find that we in our turn are being watched, that we too are embedded in a social matrix we neither fully understand nor control, a matrix that speaks in us far more than we speak in it. We are all to an extent the effect of others, for we are always constrained by the expectations and interpretations of our fellows, a group that may be as restricted as those immediately behind us in the theater, watching us watching an onstage audience watching a play, or as dilated as the social and cultural contexts in which we must function. The self as self-determining entity, the play finally suggests, may be as much an illusion off the stage as it is on.

Peter Holland (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Theseus' Shadows in A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 47, 1994, pp. 139-51.

[In the following excerpt, Holland suggests that evocations of the Theseus myth in A Midsummer Night's Dream complicate and undermine the play's comic tone and its celebration of marriage.]

As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there,
He wasn't there again today.
I wish, I wish he'd stay away.

It is often noted that A Midsummer Night's Dream shares with Love's Labour's Lost and The Tempest a common lack of a clearly defined adequate narrative source. As Stanley Wells remarks in his essay 'Shakespeare without Sources' [in Shakespearean Comedy, 1972],

We are accustomed to the study of Shakespeare's plays by way of his sources. It is a common, and often rewarding, critical technique. But there are a few plays in which Shakespeare did not adapt existing sources … Other plays might almost be included in this list, and even these three show the influence of his reading, though in them the influence is local rather than pervasive. But in these three plays Shakespeare seems himself to have been responsible for the main story line, however much he may have drawn on his reading for points of detail.

That seems unexceptionable and my summary of it in my phrase 'clearly defined adequate narrative source' perhaps equally so. There are no sources for A Midsummer Night's Dream sufficient to identify all the elements of the action—Theseus, lovers, fairies and workers—nor even any three of the list. There are, though, many ways of rethinking this view in relation to the play. One could argue that across a remarkable number of features Chaucer's 'Knight's Tale' constitutes a sufficient narrative source for at least much of A Midsummer Night's Dream, more than the framework of Theseus and his marriage. The homecoming of the triumphant Theseus with his bride Ypolita in Chaucer modulates into a series of disruptions, by three mourning ladies, rather than Egeus and his complaint, and the triangle of lovers, Palamon-Arcite-Emelye, with the men conspicuously interchangeable, is simply and neatly squared in Dream with four lovers, rather than three, making the notion of interchangeability all the more complicatedly and comically explored. This might then be an 'existing source', providing an adequate version of the main story line. There is plainly much about 'The Knight's Tale' in particular and other work by Chaucer that influences many aspects of the creation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Warring fairies, mortals in love with fairy-queens, visions in May and the story of Pyramus and Thisbe all come from or were available in Chaucer, to a greater or lesser extent, from poems as diverse as The Legend of Good Women, 'The Merchant's Tale' and 'Sir Thopas'.

Rather more to the point the influence of Shakespeare's reading may—and I will be arguing did—go far beyond what Wells calls 'local rather than pervasive … points of local detail' for Dream. But scholars have looked far and unsuccessfully for a source as close, say, as Cintino's tale for Othello or Greene's Pandosto for The Winter's Tale. The result has been the generation of a remarkable plethora of sources for the play and more arrive every year; another tale from Cinthio's Hecatommithi for instance has recently been offered [by Hugh M. Richmond, in Shakespeare Studies, 1985] as a reasonably plausible source for the action involving the lovers, another version of a conventional romance action of confusion and cross-wooing, one significantly more like the action of A Midsummer Night's Dream than any other so far proposed.

But the proposals for local influence of Shakespeare's reading raise the central problems of the treatment of sources: the extraordinary weakness in our conventional critical use of the term and consideration of its meaning and function. What, after all, is the point of a source? Is it simply a scholar's recognition of material lying behind and transmuted in the process of the writing? Or is it also, often or occasionally, an evocation by the play of other narratives, other modes of perception, other possibilities of meaning that are available for the audience, in differing ways, to differing degrees, to use and make functional? Is the source read or heard alongside and within, an informing presence in Shakespeare's text that is not directly there but is transmuted, an evoked presence discernible in many of its crucial features only in its partial and significant absences, a man on the stair who will not go away? As we have learned to talk with greater apparent sophistication about cultural contexts and the possibilities of intertextuality, this presence has been rendered problematic. Of course any 'source' can now be seen as intertextually present, present simply because evoked. But the question of theatrical presence, the looming quality of a source as it works in conjunction with the text on the audience's perception still seems to me unclear. Some of the 'sources' for A Midsummer Night's Dream raise this acutely. Let me take first the problem of Seneca.

In his Arden edition, Harold Brooks argues for Shakespeare's substantial use of Seneca's Medea, Hippolytus and Oedipus. It has long been known, of course, that Bottom's enthusiastic speech on the raging rocks and shivering shocks (1.2.27-34) is a parody of two passages in John Studley's translation of Seneca's Hercules Oetaeus, though the two passages are much more widely separated in the translation than editions have ever indicated, making its presence as source much less immediately apparent. Studley's translation is part of that great edition of Seneca in English prepared by Thomas Newton and others and published in its completed form in 1581. It was a collection Shakespeare knew well and had already used by the time of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Given its presence as a source for the parody of bombastic tragic diction at this point in the play, Shakespeare is, one supposes, quite likely to have at least dipped elsewhere in the volume. When R. A. Foakes carefully says, in his New Cambridge edition, that the echoes Brooks traces 'perhaps reflect again Shakespeare's absorption of images and motifs into his capacious memory and transforming imagination, rather than a conscious use of Seneca as source', I want to wonder rather hard what the difference is that lies behind his separation here of absorption and source, whether the latter is held to have some greater informing power of meaning through its presence than the accidental local reminiscence and transformation.

I will need to spend some time going over Brooks' suggestions. The use of Seneca's Oedipus is the slightest: the lengthy description of the plague of Thebes at the beginning of the play describes many of the disasters that are part of Titania's description of the disorder of the seasons in 2.1: fogs, failed harvests, dying cattle. Brooks' quotation from the 150 lines of Seneca is acknowledgedly selective but the result is, perhaps, a little misleading. Can a line like 'What shall I say? all things (alas) are writhen out of course' really be held to affect in any imaginative and creative way Titania's account of the distortions of the seasons, as Brooks suggests, and can it really be separated from the other banal half of its couplet, which Brooks does not quote: 'And, as they seeme to me, are lyke, to fare still worse and worse' (fol. 80v), a line that Quince might well have used in 'Pyramus and Thisbe'? Perhaps Oedipus' description of the 'black and hellike hue' which has 'overshaded all the Skyes, whence deadly mists ensue' (fol. 79r) does have a link to Titania's 'Contagious fogs' (2.1.90) but I cannot see it and not every reference to the moon can be held to link straight back to the play, however pleasing Oedipus' couplet may be: 'The Moone with clowds quight ouer cast, all sadly forth she glides, / And dolefull darksom shades of night, the whole worlde overhides' (fol. 79r). The problem of the usefulness of a passage like this is that there is ample material in much more likely sources, particularly Golding's Ovid, that more self-evidently lie behind the speech and, though I would be the last to suggest that Shakespeare was incapable of using more than one source at a time, this passage does not seem to me to be operating clearly here. One could, in the wake of Brooks' suggestions, construct a plausible argument of similarity: seeing the plague in Oedipus and the cosmic disorder in Dream as equally the result of sexual transgression and disruption of the marriage-bond (at least if one takes Oberon's view of what Titania has been doing); but the effect is laboured and I end up feeling that such similarities can always be constructed, irrespective of their immanency, that they are not vitally created by a strong presence.

The same argument, the lack of necessity to see unremarkable details as recalled from precisely this text rather than many others, holds for Brooks' proposal that Shakespeare made use of Seneca's Medea, specifically Medea's invocation to Hecate and her account of the cosmic disorder her work has created—indeed, the more sources that are suggested for Titania's speech (and Brooks adds in numerous echoes of Spenser's Shepheardes Calendar as well) the less any of them seem to be sufficient or necessary.

The Medea at least offers a closer direct connection to A Midsummer Night's Dream since Hecate is invoked directly in the play, in Robin's association of the fairies with 'the triple Hecate's team' (5.2.14) at the end of the play; the tripleness of Hecate, the complex multi-named multi-personed god also appears with immense power and significance throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream as both Diana, god of chastity and hunting and Cynthia, god of change and the moon. The whole theomachia of the play, a structure of warring and opposed divinities, a form of organizing principle that Shakespeare might well have found in another familiar 'source'—if that is what it should be called—the plays of Lyly, depends crucially on the nature of triple Hecate.

But the Medea passage's link to Titania's speech is too tenuous. 'Triple Hecate' is entirely conventional as a phrase: Shakespeare had no need of Seneca or Golding's Ovid for the concept. Can one, as Brooks proposes, really move at all profitably from Studley's version of the wish that Hecate might 'the heart of people smyght / Wyth agonies of suddeyne dread' (fol. 135r) to Titania's account of the 'mazèd world' (2.1.113), a phrase so rich in its association with the mazes and amazement that permeate the play? These, if present at all, are no more than local details, absorption of images from his reading. There is nothing here to justify seeing Oberon as a Medea-figure because of his jealousy over his wife's affections for another.

But it is the last of the Seneca plays, the one Brooks argues is most used, that is most intriguing, the Hippolytus. Brooks proposes that it is used at four specific points: that Hippolytus' directions to his huntsman at the start of the play affect the language for the discussion of hounds and hunting between Theseus and Hippolyta in 4.1; that a series of passages about the activities of Cupid informed the construction of Oberon's image of the flying Cupid shooting at the vestal in 2.1; that Phaedra's resolve to pursue Hippolytus, resulting from what Brooks rather trivializes by calling her desire 'infatuated', influences Helena's pursuit of Demetrius, also the result of a doting, perhaps obsessive love; and that Phaedra's Nurse's petition to Diana to change Hippolytus' disdain to love affects the change that happens to Demetrius. The first two are fairly plausible: though the range of language for expressing hunting is comparatively narrow and one would expect many passages to be similar; the same is true for descriptions of Cupid and his arrows. But there are enough shared details to make the case reasonably reasonable. Prayers to Diana are also likely to associate her with 'forestes wyld and groues' (fol. 62v), a specific verbal echo Brooks notes.

At this point one might reasonably feel that none of this source-hunting adds up to very much or is adequately or significantly convincing. But Brooks suggests that Phaedra's nurse prays that

three-formed Hecate … will ensnare the mind of Hippolytus so that he may turn back into the fealty of love. In a play which makes its supernatural agents runners beside the triple Hecate's team, Demetrius … is turned back into the fealty of his original love for Helena by having his mind supernaturally ensnared.

In such a statement the source is no longer a matter of local detail and absorption but instead appears to be offered as a deliberately invoked difference, a source demanding to be noticed and contrasted by an audience made up, I assume, of Elizabethan theatre-goers not Arden editors. Seeing Helena as a version of Phaedra or Demetrius as a version of Hippolytus is both to see the comedy of A Midsummer Night's Dream as a deliberate transformation of the tragedy of the Hippolytus and to see the transformation as one placed for observation by the audience.

When [Larry Langford, in Cahiers Elisabéthains, 1984] working with Brooks' proposals, moving to the interpretative use of 'local influence', suggests that the play is full of 'Senecan figures, waiting in the shadows of the Athenian forest … for a cue that … never comes' he is clearly envisaging an active and informing principle for the Seneca, the source now defined as what we might want to call allusion, an allusion deliberately unfulfilled. M. C. Bradbrook in a fine phrase described A Midsummer Night's Dream as a play in which 'the marvellous elbows out the sinister'; others have sought to make the Senecan passages the precise source of that sinister world. But my initial response is to see these shadows as inadequately delineated, the linguistic echoes too faint, too imprecise, the process too hopeful on the critics' parts. For the comedy of Helena's difference from Phaedra, the recognition that this sexual desire is not incestuous but socially acceptable and realizable, depends on the recognition of Phaedra's language lying behind Helena's. Similarly the perception of Demetrius as a successful Hippolytus, a man who can find love, who can recreate that full expression of affect that Hippolytus cannot, depends on seeing the parallel Brooks finds, as actively present, for audience as well as Shakespeare—otherwise we are in the presence of some private Shakespearian joke, a joke of the author never available to the audience, a wry smile in his contemplation of his own game of metamorphosis of which the playing with the Senecan passages echoed in A Midsummer Night's Dream is a part.

If there are echoes of Seneca, the variations and transformations are operative only as a residue of possibility, the infinite analogousness of text, the pleasurable joys of intertextuality in the rarefied world of the scholar. I enjoy, for instance, the implication that the forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream is a world freed from conventional social patterns of sexual and gender restraint in contrast to the forest's normal identification with the chaste world of Diana and hunting. But such a difference, amply explored through the play's evocation of Diana, does not need Hippolytus' preference for hunting when the play is so full of Diana and Actaeon. Nor does it seem to me that the comedy of ungovernable sexual desire has anything very much to do with Hippolytus' problems with his step-mother.

Indeed my interest in Seneca as a source might stop here with a verdict of 'not proven', were it not for the whole problem of Hippolytus himself, a problem that makes me wish that the Senecan play were more directly and convincingly present. For Shakespeare, in following Chaucer and naming Theseus' bride as Hippolyta, rejected, in effect, the preference carefully set out in balanced terms in North's translation of Plutarch's life of Theseus, a work we know Shakespeare read. North's Plutarch states that only one historiographer believes that the name of the Amazon Theseus married was Hippolyta, a result of her making peace between the Amazons and the Athenians after the Amazon invasion of Athens, when they camped right inside the city itself. Others went even further, envisioning not a Theseus who captured Hippolyta but a Hippolyta who defeated Theseus: Anthony Gibson suggested that 'Hippolita dissipated the troupes of great Theseus, dismounting himselfe in the fight, yet afterwards (on meere grace) made him her husband'. North offers rather more evidence that the name of the Amazon-bride was Antiopa, whose name is conjured into brief existence in Dream as one of the women that Oberon accuses Titania of helping Theseus to seduce (2.1.80).

A Midsummer Night's Dream leaves entirely open the question of what the issue or outcome of this marriage of Athenian and Amazon will be, describing and blessing the future without directly stating what might or rather will happen (will because it is already accomplished, already fixed unalterably in the Theseus mythography). In any version of the Theseus story Theseus does not stay with his Amazon bride, be she Hippolyta or Antiopa, and the next person on the Theseus list of seduced, raped and abandoned women seems usually to have been Phaedra—indeed North's Plutarch repeats the suggestion that the Amazon wars were the result of this: 'the Amazones made warres with Theseus to reuenge the injurie he dyd to their Queene Antiopa, refusing her, to marye with Phœdra'.

When Oberon describes the future for the four lovers, 'And back to Athens shall the lovers wend / With league whose date till death shall never end' (3.3.373-4), this seems ironically different from what the audience could reasonably be assumed to know would happen to Theseus and Hippolyta. When Theseus in the first scene anticipates 'The sealing day betwixt my love and me / For everlasting bond of fellowship' (1.1.84-5) the bond is one that he will, outside the play but within the world of 'antique fables' (5.1.3) to which he indissolubly belongs, prove to make very briefly finite, very far from everlasting.

Again, in all versions that I know the issue of the bridebed of Theseus and Amazon, what Oberon describes as 'the issue there create' (5.2.35), is certainly, as Oberon promises, handsome but equally certainly not, as he says, someone who 'Ever shall be fortunate' (36). For the only child of Theseus and an Amazon was Hippolytus, the child whose name is so shadowily close to Chaucer's and Shakespeare's use of Hippolyta as the name for Theseus' Amazon-bride; indeed since Hippolytus means 'destroyed by horses' and therefore is a name directly derived from the mode of Hippolytus' death, his mother's name is a back-formation, a name passed back from son to mother. The tight connection of one to other is all the more emphatically present. Oberon's careful listing of the 'blots of nature's hand' which 'Shall not in their issue stand' (39-40) was right: 'Never mole, harelip, nor scar, / Nor mark prodigious, such as are / Despisèd in nativity / Shall upon their children be' (41-4), for Hippolytus was unquestionably a stereotypically gorgeous macho man. But the result of this physical beauty is Phaedra's sexual obsession with him and Theseus' responsibility for his own son's death, a demonstration of paternal power over child analogous to that which Egeus claims over Hermia. Even Plutarch, sceptical as ever, accepts that since none of the historiographers disagree with the poets 'we must needes take it to be so, as we finde it written in the tragedies'.

Whether or not Seneca's Hippolytus was an active source, the shadowy presence of Hippolytus is undeniably a man on the stair, a character who both is and is not there, a shadow, an unavoidable future for the marriage so richly, lengthily and apparently gloriously celebrated at the end of a play which deliberately, though only momentarily, invokes Theseus' promiscuity and his brutality towards his lovers. There is no reason, of course, to think that Oberon's accusations about Titania's part in Theseus' actions are right—she after all calls them the 'forgeries of jealousy' (2.1.81). But the lines summon into being and cannot then eliminate that other Theseus so substantially different from the one seen in the play, the vicious ravisher who balances in Plutarch the heroic warrior and ruler, someone, says North, whose 'faults touching women and ravishements … had the lesse shadowe and culler of honestie. Bicause Theseus dyd attempt it very often'. The very frequency of the rapes and seductions is part of the indictment; what is more they are not the product of warlike conquest, as with Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream, won with his sword, but of something creeping, deceitful and thief-like, dark and vicious deeds of the night, so unlike the activities of the moonlit night of the play's wood:

How canst thou thus for shame, Titania,
Glance at my credit with Hippolyta,
Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?
Didst thou not lead him through the
     glimmering night
From Perigouna whom he ravishèd,
And make him with fair Aegles break his faith,
With Ariadne and Antiopa?

Above all, the passage evokes not the ravishing itself but the aftermath, the creeping away, from Perigouna, not towards her, breaking faith not promising it, fracturing supposedly everlasting bonds of fellowship. Titania is not accused of helping the rape but aiding and abetting the abandonment, helping Theseus add to that long series of abandoned women that led Plutarch to say that it 'dyd geve men occasion to suspect that his womannishenes was rather to satisfie lust, then of any great love'. Chaucer suppresses this Theseus in the Knight's Tale; Shakespeare includes him in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The triumphant ending of the play, the overwhelming celebration of marriage and blessing that the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream so fully evokes is set in relation to an individual for whom marriage-vows are transient devices for satisfying lust and whose career of broken marriages is a pattern of male dominance and oppression carried to extreme. The success of the marriages at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream is dependent not on the fairies' blessing, not on the benign approval of a supernatural world but on the faithfulness—or rather faithlessness—of men, something which Hermia states, however much she may be saying it with wry and teasing mockery, at the start of the play, and which she will find in the dream to be painfully if accidentally true:

            My good Lysander,
I swear to thee by Cupid's strongest bow …
And by that fire which burned the Carthage
When the false Trojan under sail was seen;
By all the vows that ever men have broke—
In number more than ever women spoke—

It is an odd oath, a summoning up of an abandoned woman who kills herself as her lover sails away (though in the wood, Hermia abandoned by Lysander does not kill herself—A Midsummer Night's Dream is comedy, not tragedy). Aeneas, a man who broke his vow, at least did so on divine instruction; Theseus has no such excuse. Hippolytus is the hidden threat to the play's ending, the unborn child whose implicit silence is undermining.

Hippolytus cannot be ignored, but does that mean he should be noticed? The extent to which he is, to which we remember or recall his future presence, may make us wish he would stay away, remain unborn, and yet know that he will not go away, cannot be wished away. Once remembered, Hippolytus doggedly refuses to be forgotten.

In Euripides' Hippolytus opaquely and in Seneca's Hippolytus clearly, Theseus' father is Poseidon (Neptune). Seneca's Theseus calls explicitly on his father to kill his own grandson; in Studley's version:

               thou knowest that
   Neptune great
My Syre who flotes on floudes, and waves, with
   forked Mace doth beat
Geve licence freely unto me three boones to
   chuse and crave, …
All for the Fathers wrathful rage the cursed
  child downe smight,
To waile among the ghastly sprites o Father
  bend thy might,
To give (alas) this lothsome ayde unto thy
  needy Sonne.
                                      (fol. 69r-v)

Everywhere else Theseus' father is named Egeus. As editions of A Midsummer Night's Dream have long made clear, Shakespeare could have found the name for Hermia's father conveniently to hand in Chaucer in a passage after the death of Arcite:

No man myghte gladen Theseus,

Savynge his olde fader Egeus,
That knew this worldes transmutacioun,
As he hadde seyn it chaunge both up and doun,
Joye after wo, and wo after gladnesse,
And shewed hem ensamples and likenesse.

Oddly, no one seems to have thought this fragment at all interesting but I want to emphasize Chaucer's use of 'transmutacioun', a word that seems particularly appropriate to a play like A Midsummer Night's Dream so full of transmutations and metamorphoses. Brooks' note in his edition also refers to the passage in Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses dealing with Theseus' father in Book 7.

The story Ovid uses there is the tail-end of a narrative outlined at much greater length by Plutarch. Let me use North as a convenient summary, since the story is, in my experience, unfamiliar to modern readers: 'Aegeus desiring (as they say) to know how he might have children, went unto the city of DELPHES to the oracle of Apollo: where by Apolloes Nunne that notable prophecy was geven him for an aunswer. The which did forbid him to touch or know any woman, untili he was returned againe to ATHENS.' The enigmatic prophecy confused Aegeus who visited Troezen and was tricked by Pitheus who 'cunningly by some devyse deceived him in such sorte, that he made him to lye with his daughter called Aethra'. She became pregnant and he left her with a sword and, improbably enough, a pair of shoes, which were put under a rock as a test of strength. Theseus, when he had grown up, removed the rock and set off to find his father, clutching the sword and, I suppose, wearing the shoes, deciding to go by land rather than sea in order to do great deeds like his kinsman Hercules. The city when he finally reached it was 'turmoyled with seditions, factions, and divisions, and perticularly the house of Aegeus in very ill termes also' because Medea had turned up, married Aegeus and was using 'medicines to make him to get children'. Medea, unlike Egeus, recognized Theseus and persuaded Egeus to invite him to a feast to poison him. I turn to Golding:

    The King by egging of his Queene
Did reach his sonne this bane as if he had his
     enmie beene.
AndThesey of this treason wrought not
     knowing ought, had tane
The Goblet at his fathers hand which helde his
     deadly bane:
When sodenly by the Ivorie hilts that were
     upon his sword
Aegeus knew he was his sonne: and rising from
     the borde
Did strike the mischiefs from his mouth.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Except of course that the one story about Theseus' father that modern readers know is that, when Theseus was sailing back from killing the minotaur, 'they were so ioyfull', as North put it, 'he and his master, that they forgate to set up their white sayle, by which they shoulde have geven knowledge of their healthe and safetie to AEgeus. Who seeinge the blacke sayle a farre of, being out of all hope evermore to see his sonne againe, tooke suche a griefe at his harte, that he threw him selfe headlong from the top of a clyffe, and killed him selfe'.

Naming Hermia's father Egeus cannot then be a completely innocent act; it is not up to Shakespeare to decide how much of this baggage should be present—it is simply carried into the play with the name for the audience or, now, critic, to use. Whether the Elizabethan theatre audience did notice such implications is irrecoverable but knowledge of the Theseus myths was hardly a prerogative of the well-educated; the early stages of grammarschool education would have easily provided the information on which my argument is based. Shakespeare may have wanted the creative freedom with myths that the rapidity of theatre performance makes possible, the possibility of the audience not noticing changes and alterations, but he cannot have controlled the audience's ability to observe what he was doing. Sources in this sense come to be context, an indissoluble tying of the words to their origins. The name cannot choose whether to be allusive. Conjuring up Egeus in the play is to invoke his history, his antique fables.

The mythography of Theseus contains a surprising number of family murders, of parents and children. Theseus, directly responsible for the murder of Hippolytus, was also indirectly the cause of his own father's death. Plutarch states that Theseus because of his negligence in forgetting about the sail, 'cannot be cleared of parricide, howe eloquent an oration soever could be made for his excuse'. Egeus, even more significantly for A Midsummer Night's Dream, was nearly responsible for the death of his son. The crucial change at the banquet is a recognition of identity: to know your son is not to kill him. To know the step-son, for Medea, is to want to kill him. The power of the parent over life and death is exerted here only in ignorance and is transformed into joy when the child is recognized. Only in ignorance could Egeus want to kill Theseus. Egeus in A Midsummer Night's Dream of course knows perfectly well who his child is and is still willing to have his daughter killed simply for going against his wishes and consent, thwarting him—and the Athenian law allows it:

I beg the ancient privilege of Athens:
As she is mine, I may dispose of her,
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

Lysander makes clear, and no one contradicts him, that there is nothing to choose between the two men in terms of social status:

I am, my lord, as well derived as he,
As well possessed. My love is more than his,
My fortunes every way as fairly ranked,

If not with vantage, as Demetrius

There is no apparent reason for Egeus' objection, no socially explicable cause. It is simply, coldly and absolutely a matter of power and control, aided and abetted in its insubstantiality by the substantial and effective indistinguishability of Demetrius and Lysander as far as the audience is concerned at this stage.

There is, as Leo Salingar has pointed out [in Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy, 1974], an echo here of Arthur Brooke, in his Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, who describes at length the power of parents in Rome where, 'if children did rebell, / The parentes had the power, of lyfe and sodayn death', an echo that might support the priority of Shakespeare's Romeo over A Midsummer Night's Dream. Let me add another resource: George Sandys' translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses was published well after A Midsummer Night's Dream but made extensive use, in his totally unoriginal notes, of the long series of commentaries on Ovid, the Ovide Moralisé tradition; Sandys comments of Pyramus and Thisbe in Book 4 of Metamorphoses 'whose wretched ends upbraid those parents, who measure their childrens by their own outworne and deaded affections; in forcing them to serve their avarice or ambition in their fatali marriages … more cruell therein to their owne, then either the malice of foes or fortune … [n]ot considering that riches cannot purchase love; nor threats or violence either force or restraine it'. While Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream are not strongly identified as being kept apart by parents, even though the wall comes down that, as Bottom says, 'parted their fathers' (5.1.345-6), Sandys' moral could easily be applied to Hermia's Egeus.

It is, of course, part of the careful structure of power that Shakespeare outlines in Act 1 that the choice between marriage to Demetrius and death are not in fact the only options to Hermia. Significantly, it is not Egeus who mentions another possibility: 'Either to die the death, or to abjure / For ever the society of men' (1.1.65-6), becoming a nun. Equally significantly Theseus himself does not mention it until he is directly asked by Hermia 'The worst that may befall me in this case / If I refuse to wed Demetrius' (63-4). It is worth considering whether Egeus knows of this other avenue and has deliberately suppressed it as part of his expression of complete paternal power or whether Theseus' announcement is news to him: it is a choice actors might want to consider. Theseus' first response to Egeus' complaint creates the image of the father altering his daughter's appearance, physically transforming her body:

To you your father should be as a god,
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax,
By him imprinted, and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.

This image of a wax impression distorted and disfigured hints at something violent and horrific: it does not suggest death so much as disfigurement, some brutal and callous maiming. If 'disfigure' can mean nothing more than 'alter' (OED ν.2), as with sealing wax, the word cannot quite here lose its primary sense of 'mar, destroy the beauty of someone (OED ν.l). Theseus is complicit in this act of cruelty, helping this father to destroy his child until, like Theseus at the feast at Athens in Ovid and Plutarch, this child demands recognition, with a boldness that, as Hermia makes clear, may go beyond the normal limits of female behaviour:

I know not by what power I am made bold,
Nor how it may concern my modesty
In such a presence here to plead my thoughts.

It is part of the play's modulation from the threats of Act 1 that similar comments later in the play, particularly in relation to Helena, about the dangers of immodesty, now appear comic rather than genuinely dangerous. When Demetrius warns her, 'You do impeach your modesty too much, / To leave the city and commit yourself / Into the hands of one that loves you not' (2.1.214-16), we do not really imagine for a moment that he is likely to rape her. His reference to the place and time, 'the opportunity of night, / And the ill counsel of a desert place' (217-18), seems no more threatening as the wood endlessly and fluidly transforms from desert to rich bank, and from deserted to being equally richly populated.

Egeus' reappearance in Act 4 is no less antagonistic, no less violent, the rhythms of his anger as breathless and impatient in their characteristic repetitions:

Enough, enough, my lord, you have enough.
I beg the law, the law upon his head.—
They would have stol'n away, they would,
Thereby to have defeated you and me—
You of your wife, and me of my consent,
Of my consent that she should be your wife.

Frederick Reynolds' extremely successful version of the play in 1816 was so anxious about the problem Egeus faces in Act 4 that it included lengthy speeches showing Egeus' dilemma before the lovers reappear—they enter in his version wide awake, rather than being discovered asleep. After Theseus reminds Egeus what day it is he replies:

EGEUS It is, my Liege—and, ah! for her sake,
   and for mine,
  'Pray Heaven she chuse Demetrius for her
  He hath my sacred pledge; my honour's
  Else, Oh, my Sovereign! Nature struggling
   with duty, I fear,
  I should indulge a fond, fond father's

  What if Demetrius should resign her hand,
  And chuse fair Helena?
  In vain; he loves but Hermia, who, till of late,
  Bore such resemblance to her mother!
  So watch'd—so nurs'd me! But lo! Demetrius
  Comes to claim my promise—
  'Tis well—and I must claim our stern
  Athenian law!

Much as this Egeus would otherwise he is forced to 'beg the law':

   since a parent's sacred word is pledg'd,
Though life should in the contest cease, I claim
Your sentence, Sire!—I, her father, claim it.

Hermia approaches Egeus:

       Father! what say you?
May I love Lysander? (Kneels.) Oh, pardon!

Egeus duly forgives and seems to shift some of the blame neatly on Demetrius:

My blessings on thee! (Raising and embracing
Take her, Lysander; and for thee, Demetrius,
The busy phantoms of thy brain dispers'd,
May all be happiness and love!

In the Quarto text of A Midsummer Night's Dream Egeus has nothing further to say after he begs the law upon Lysander's head and exits, later in the scene, overruled by Theseus; though Egeus' emotions on his exit are inevitably opaque in the text's silence, in production he can appear begrudgingly reconciled to Theseus' will or, perhaps marginally more likely, angry and unforgiving. In the Folio text Egeus takes over Philostrate's lines in Act 5, making visible and audible his incorporation in Athenian society at the end of the play. But the text does not prescribe his attitude. He may be truculent, obstinate or irritable. His silence towards his daughter and her new husband may be a significant cold-shouldering or it could be a happy silence because there is no need for words. His silence now matches Hermia. It is perfectly possible, using the Quarto text, to show Egeus reconciled; productions do not need any more words to show an Egeus now happy with the new state of affairs than an Egeus still angry and unaltered.

Like it or not, Egeus has to accept that his will has been overborne, that the power of the father has limits, that his demands are not compatible either with the operation of ducal power in Theseus, whimsical though that might appear to be, or with the operation of the ending of comedy. Egeus, Theseus' father, who chose not to kill his son becomes Egeus, Hermia's father, who finds he cannot choose whether to kill his child. It is as if Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream takes over his father's functions in North and Golding, creating the social recognition of the child, acknowledging the lovers as Egeus there acknowledged him, but also perhaps allowing the marriages almost solely as a pleasing accompaniment to his own: 'for in the temple by and by with us / These couples shall eternally be knit', putting into effect, unknowingly, Oberon's promise.

I have one more shadowy figure, a man on the stair, briefly to add, or rather half a man, the minotaur. There is of course no direct reference in the play to the minotaur, no direct link to the killing of a monster at the heart of the Cretan labyrinth. Everything here works, if it works at all, by evocative difference. Titania mentions mazes but the 'quaint mazes in the wanton green' (2.1.99) are turf mazes, patterns found quite widely in England, often linked to fairies and, by distortion of a Welsh word, to Troy. These were unicursal mazes, mazes without false turnings and confusions, and led directly to their own centres, a maze in which one does not need an Ariadne's assistance with a ball of thread, or as Caxton has it in his translation of Aeneid, a 'botome of threde'. The labyrinth designed by Daedalus was multicursal, a puzzle maze—though, for reasons I do not at all understand, all Renaissance representations of the Cretan labyrinth show a unicursal maze, one, that is, in which Ariadne's help would have been unnecessary. This makes nonsense of the story but suggests the extent to which the process is inevitable: there is no route for Theseus that does not bring him to the minotaur.

Ariadne, mentioned in A Midsummer Night's Dream, is not there connected with the labyrinth in the reference, her abandonment on Naxos more important than her help in Crete, as it had been in Julia's description, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, of performing

                a lamentable part.
Madam, 'twas Ariadne, passioning
For Theseus' perjury and unjust flight.

But Ariadne is part of a complex of family relationships in the Theseus myth: she is the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, and the sister of Phaedra, later Theseus' wife. Pasiphae is, of course, the mother of the minotaur.

The journey through the wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream leads the lovers through a maze and then out again and, if their experience is of having been in a puzzle maze, it is one that is always beyond their control as they are made to take false paths, false turnings, false patterns of desire until the true pattern can be found and reinforced. This maze in which the people are 'mazed' gives the audience a superior and secure perspective on those wandering within it.

If the wood is a maze then the only half-man, half-animal the play can offer at the centre of the maze is half-ass, not half-bull: Bottom. Though his transformation is the play's structural centre, emphasized by every device Shakespeare conventionally uses to achieve it, particularly the subsequent expository dialogue between Oberon and Robin at the start of 3.2, it does not follow that he is the kind of thematic centre that accounts of the minotaur in the play have tended to suggest. This metamorphosed man is not to be murdered but loved and laughed at: like the suggested metamorphosis of Phaedra into Helena, this is comedy not tragedy.

Invoking the minotaur, even for a sensitive critic, is to see the myth itself paradoxically and perhaps mockingly transformed: hence M. E. Lamb's suggestion that 'the substitution of Bottom for a minotaur represents the transmutation of the elements of tragedy into comedy' and that 'Bottom is both the monster of this labyrinth and the thread leading the way out of it', thereby turning Bottom into both the minotaur and Ariadne. If Quince and presumably the others see him as 'monstrous' when 'translated' (3.1.99, 113), the audience does not. The ass-head is never anything but funny. There is no threat of death here, no terror and destructiveness. Bottom is always benign and harmless, roaring but never hurting, or perhaps singing and hee-hawing. Even the terror of the labyrinth itself is only superficially similar to the wood, a maze which is beneficial to those who enter it, a maze that exacts no tribute from its young Athenians, a labyrinth now located just outside the walls of Athens rather than across the seas in Crete.

In Apuleius' The Golden Ass, Lucius, transformed completely into an ass, is taken to bed by, as William Adlington describes her in his wonderful Elizabethan translation, 'a noble and riche Matron'. Lucius is reminded, both in her desire for the ass and in the physical problem of her accommodating his large ass's penis, of the minotaur's conception: 'she was amorous of me, and could finde no remedie to her passions and disordinate appetite, but continually desired to have her pleasure with me, as Pasiphae had with a Bull' (fol. 109r-v) and later she 'had her pleasure with me, whereby I thought the mother of Minotaurus, did not causelesse quenche her inordinat desier with a Bull' (fol. 110r). The minotaur is repeatedly defined as an emblem of lust; as Golding puts it intemperately in Book 8 of Metamorphoses, 'and now appeared more / The mothers filthie whoredome by the monster that she bore / Of double shape, an ugly thing' (fol. 98r). Apuleius is, obviously, a major source for Bottom's transformation. But Bottom, if he does indeed have sex with Titania, an activity in which he seems to show no particular interest, being much more concerned to munch hay, does not face Lucius' problem here: as William Empson characteristically puts it, 'if the genital action is in view, nobody denies that the genitals of Bottom remained human'. All that Robin has done, as modern productions seem inclined to forget, is to put an ass's head on Bottom; the rest of him stays irredeemably human. Titania is not Pasiphae, Bottom no bull, the outcome will be no minotaur.

In that sense, Bottom is paradoxically close to a separate strand of classical and Renaissance thinking about the minotaur, a strand exemplified in North's Plutarch. For alongside the fascinated disgust at the notion of the woman having sex with a bull goes a second sceptical rationalization. Pasiphae's lover became not taurus, the bull, but a man named Taurus, one of Minos' captains, 'a churlishe, and naughtie natured man of condition' as North calls him. Theseus defeated him in a set of games, much to Minos' delight. The labyrinth becomes a prison and there is no semi-human figure. In such a light one could perhaps see Bottom as an even more rationalist version of semi-human transformation, the man temporarily, harmlessly and comically transformed. Plutarch's scepticism denies the monstrous as the product of lust. Bottom is similarly nonproductive.

If, though, the more conventional version of the minotaur is a shadow, a vicious image cast by the play's transformation, it is one that is explicitly and repeatedly marginalized. To think of the minotaur, to summon him (it?) up is to recognize how little place he has in A Midsummer Night's Dream. If the thought cannot be suppressed it is always controlled. This man on the stair has gone away; he makes no threat of return. Our wish to make him go is fully acceded to by the play: 'I wish, I wish he'd stay away.'

My shadows may seem small-scale ones but they are only examples of a large problem. The mere presence of Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream makes the whole of the Theseus myth available. Very little has to be done, indeed very little is done, by the play to bring specific parts of that rich store of narratives and motifs into the play-world, the context of allusive action that the drama represents. What is more the play, very largely, cannot confidently choose how those aspects are controlled. It can choose what is invoked but it cannot easily choose what else that invocation will carry. Theseus, much more than Seneca, constitutes a major source for A Midsummer Night's Dream, a source of allusion, opposition and difference, a source of threat and terror, a source that the play, for all its wonderful assuredness in its happy ending, cannot really eliminate. Theseus leaves his shadows over the play.

There is of course the next stage, the parallel problems in virtually every Shakespeare play, the same difficulty of dealing with referential context, the same need to define the implications of uncontrollable presences. If such patterns are a regular part of our critical vocabulary, we do not seem to know what we mean when we move from source to allusion, from local detail to informing presence. The world of such shadows is as dark as the night in the wood.


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Norman N. Holland (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Hermia's Dream," in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

[Holland is an American educator and critic who employs a Freudian psychoanalytic approach to literature and emphasizes the subjective nature of our response to literature. In the following excerpt, originally published in 1979, he analyzes Hermia's dream in A Midsummer Night's Dream, relating it to the play's ambivalent treatment of love.

Literature is a dream dreamed for us.
          —The Dynamics of Literary Response (1968)

What could be more imaginary than a dream of a dream of a dream? Yet Hermia's dream is just that in A Midsummer Night's Dream. She dreams but later decides she was dreaming that she dreamed. Then, at the very end of the play, we, the audience, are told: "You have but slumb'red here"; we dreamed that she dreamed that she dreamed.

A dream of a dream of a dream—surely this is what the comedy means when it tells how:

… as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.

The psychoanalyst and the literary critic do the same. In our effort to give imaginary dreams a local habitation and a name, those of us who use psychoanalysis to talk about literature have historically used several different approaches. The first is typical of the first phase of psychoanalysis: we would use Hermia's dream as an illustration of someone's unconscious made conscious. In the second phase, we would place her dream within a system of ego functions. Finally—today—we would use this airy nothing to symbolize ourselves to ourselves.

For the moment, though, let me go back to the circumstances that lead up to Hermia's dream. At the opening of the play, Duke Theseus hears a plea from Hermia's father, Egeus. Egeus wants the Duke to force Hermia to marry Demetrius, who loves Hermia and has the approval of Egeus. Hermia, however, loves Lysander, and he loves Hermia. Theseus nevertheless agrees with Egeus and promises to enforce the law of Athens, which provides that Hermia must either marry the man her father has chosen, or die, or vow to live the rest of her life as a nun, abjuring forever the society of men. This was a dreadful fate for a young lady even in Elizabethan times, but perhaps not so bad a fate when you see what men were available.

Hermia and Lysander decide that the best way to cope with this decree is to run away from Athens. They do so, but Lysander gets lost and Hermia becomes exhausted from wandering in the wood. They sleep and Hermia has her dream.

When we first hear the dream, it is still going on. That is, I think she is still dreaming when she first speaks about it. As with so many nightmares, she is having trouble waking:

Help me, Lysander, help me! do thy best
To pluck this crawling serpent from my breast!
Ay me, for pity!

And only now, I think, is she beginning to come out of it:

Ay me, for pity! what a dream was here!
Lysander, look how I do quake with fear.
Methought a serpent eat my heart away,
And you sate smiling at his cruel prey.
Lysander! what, remov'd? Lysander! lord!
What, out of hearing gone? No sound, no word?
Alack, where are you? Speak, and if you hear!
Speak, of all loves! I swoon almost with fear.
No? Then I well perceive you are not nigh.
Either death, or you, I'll find immediately.

In effect, as Hermia tells the dream, she splits it into two parts. In the first, we hear the dream actually taking place. In the second, Hermia reports the dream to us after it is over. In the first part she makes a plea for help, but in the second we learn that Lysander wasn't interested in helping at all—he was just smiling and watching the serpent eat Hermia. Further, if we take the most obvious Freudian meaning for that serpent—a penis or phallus—the masculinity in the dream is split between the attacking, crawling serpent and her lover Lysander, smiling at a distance.

Among the fifty-one topics Erikson suggests considering in a full dream analysis [in Psychoanalytic Psychiatry and Psychology, 1954] let me be merciful and select just one: "methods of defense, denial, and distortion," which might be considered a variation on another topic, "mechanisms of defense," itself a subtopic of "ego identity and lifeplan." I see in this dream something I think is fundamental to Hermia's character.

If I go back to the first things Hermia says and look just at her speeches as an actor would, I see a recurring pattern. After hearing her father, Theseus admonishes her, "Demetrius is a worthy gentleman," and Hermia replies with her first words in the play, "So is Lysander" (an alternative). But, replies Theseus, since Demetrius has your father's approval, he "must be held the worthier." "I would my father look'd but with my eyes," answers Hermia. Next she begins a long speech by begging Theseus' pardon, wondering why she is bold, and worrying lest, by revealing her thoughts, she impeach her modesty. But, she says:

… I beseech your Grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.

I hear in all these speeches a distinct, recurring pattern. Call it a concern for alternatives, for other possibilities, or for an elsewhere: Lysander as alternative to Demetrius, her judgment as an alternative to her father's, her boldness contrasted with her modesty, or the alternatives the law allows her. We could say that Hermia's personal style or character consists (in the theoretical language of Heinz Kohut) of creating self-objects. Thus, after her dialogue with Theseus, the lovers are left alone, and Hermia uses a variety of examples and legends from the elsewhere of classical mythology to illustrate and buttress their love. Then, to Helena, who loves Demetrius, she describes how she and Lysander will run away, again looking for an elsewhere, an alternative to Athens: "To seek new friends and stranger companies." I would phrase Hermia's personal style as the seeking of some alternative in order to amend something closer to herself.

Her last speeches as well as her first show this sense of alternatives. Theseus, Egeus, and the rest have come upon the lovers and wakened them. However, the lovers are not sure they aren't still dreaming. Says Hermia:

Methinks I see these things with parted eye,
When every thing seems double.

Demetrius starts checking reality and asks: "Do you not think/The Duke was here, and bid us follow him?" And Hermia, for her last word in the play, offers one final alternative: "Yea, and my father."

Her dream dramatizes her "parted eye" in all its divisions, in the double telling, in the here and there of Lysander and the serpent, and in the very content of the dream—her effort to save herself by getting the serpent away and bringing Lysander closer. I think I could show the same theme of amendment by alternative if I were to trace through the dream the various levels of this adolescent girl's development: oedipal, phallic, anal, and oral.

Following the symbols (like that snake) and the libidinal levels of Hermia's dream would be the first and classical way of analyzing the dream, provided we ground the analysis on the free associations of the dreamer. Alas, however, this being a literary dream, we do not have associations in the way they usually float up from the couch. Nevertheless, we can analyze the dream in the classic way by inferring Hermia's associations.


We can begin by guessing at the day residue of Hermia's dream—a conversation she has with Lysander just before they lie down to go to sleep:

     Enter Lysander and Hermia.
Lysander. Fair love, you faint with wand'ring in
  the wood;
 And to speak troth I have forgot our way.
 We'll rest us, Hermia, if you think it good,
 And tarry for the comfort of the day.
 Hermia. Be't so, Lysander. Find you out a bed;
 For I upon this bank will rest my head.
 Lysander. One turf shall serve as pillow for us
 One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth.
 Hermia. Nay, good Lysander. For my sake, my
 Lie further off yet. Do not lie so near.
 Lysander. O, take the sense, sweet, of my
 Love takes the meaning in love's conference.
 I mean that my heart unto yours is knit
 So that but one heart we can make of it;
 Two bosoms interchained with an oath,
 So then two bosoms and a single troth.
 Then by your side no bed-room me deny;
 For lying so, Hermia, I do not lie.
 Hermia. Lysander riddles very prettily.
 Now much beshrew my manners and my pride,
 If Hermia meant to say Lysander lied.
 But, gentle friend, for love and courtesy,
 Lie further off, in humane modesty;
 Such separation as may well be said
 Becomes a virtuous bachelor and a maid,
 So far be distant; and good night, sweet friend.
 Thy love ne'er alter till thy sweet life end!
 Lysander. Amen, amen, to that fair prayer, say I,
 And then end life when I end loyally.
 Here is my bed; sleep give thee all his rest!
 Hermia. With half that wish the wisher's eyes be
                                      [They sleep.]

(Notice how she closes by alternating Lysander's wish.)

Their conversation concerns just exactly the question of separation, as in "lie further off," and the danger of union, Hermia's fear for her maidenly modesty if Lysander comes too close. If I think about Hermia's dream in the general framework of an adolescent girl's oedipal fears and wishes about the opposite sex, particularly in the light of this conversation, I see her imagining Lysander in two aspects. First, there is the Lysander who is physically close to her, and in the conversation they had before sleeping this is a sexual Lysander, one whom she feels is a threat to her maidenly virtue. The other is a Lysander at a distance, and him she associates with love, courtesy, humane modesty, and loyalty. In the dream, she will image this distant Lysander as smiling. Not so the nearer. In the day residue, the Lysander trying to get close proclaims that "my heart unto yours is knit,/So that but one heart we can make of it." In the dream, this sexual union of hearts becomes a snake eating her heart away. The dream separates these two aspects of Lysander, the sexual and the affectionate, but has images of both as hostile. By her waking cry for Lysander to help her, Hermia tries to put them back together in a more benevolent, pitying way, but reality fails her in this. While she dreamed, Lysander left her for Helena.

The next time we see Hermia, she has managed to track down the missing Lysander by his voice. Lysander has been following Helena because, while he and Hermia were briefly asleep, Puck dropped on his eyes the "love-juice" or "this flower's force in stirring love," which made Lysander fall in love with the next being he saw. While Hermia was sleeping, Helena came in and woke Lysander. He promptly fell madly in love with her and followed her off into the forest. Thus when Hermia woke from her nightmare, she could not find him.

We have no way of knowing how much Hermia has heard through her sleep of Puck's talk about the charm for Lysander's eyes or of the ensuing dialogue between Helena and Lysander, but I am willing to assume that some of this talk has percolated into her dream. In particular I think she may have heard Puck speaking about the charm and may have drawn on the idea of a special fluid in representing the oedipal Lysander as a snake with its venom. She may also have heard Lysander declare his love for Helena, and that is why she shows him in the dream as hurting her and as a double person, that is, one who lies. This is a key word not only because his name is "Lies-ander," but also because he made all those puns on "lie" during the dialogue before their nap. As he said, "for lying so [close to you], Hermia, I do not lie." Puns and lies, in which one word carries two meanings, might have helped Hermia to split and so double her representation of Lysander, especially Lysander as a snake.

In a true free association, the next time we see Hermia, she misunderstands Demetrius and thinks he has killed Lysander while he was sleeping. She promptly compares Demetrius to a snake:

             O brave touch!
Could not a worm, an adder, do so much?
An adder did it! for with doubler tongue
Than thine, thou serpent, never adder stung.

In other words, Hermia's free association for falseness while sleeping is a snake, and her free association to the snake is the doubleness of its tongue. As one of the fairies had sung earlier, "you spotted snakes with double tongue" (H.ii.9).

Both in the doubleness and in the tonguiness, the snake says what Hermia might well want to say about her now false Lysander. Moreover, the serpent fits Hermia's thoughts in another curious way. Twice in Shakespeare's works (although not, as it happens, in A Midsummer Night's Dream) we are told that the adder is deaf. So in Hermia's dream, Lysander does not seem to hear her cries for help.

In yet another way, then, Hermia applies her characteristic personal style to the sexual problems imaged in her dream. She separates the oedipal Lysander into two aspects: a sexual, hostile, intrusive being right on top of her and a milder but also hostile man at some distance. In the same way, her dream shifts its sensory mode (to return to another of Erikson's topics for dream analysis). She begins with something touching her—the serpent crawling on her breast. She shifts to looking: "Lysander, look how I do quake with fear." Then she looks for Lysander and does not find him: "What, remov'd?" Then she calls to him, but he does not answer: "What, out of hearing gone?" She has moved from the immediate sense of touch to the more distant senses of sight and hearing. Interestingly, Hermia comments on—or if you will, associates to—just this shift when next we see her. The very words she speaks when she finds her lost Lysander are:

Dark night, that from the eye his function takes,
The ear more quick of apprehension makes.
Wherein it [night] doth impair the seeing sense,
It pays the hearing double recompense.
Thou art not by mine eye, Lysander, found;
Mine ear, I thank it, brought me to thy sound.

Again, with her doubling and with the ear gaining what the eye loses at night, she shows her characteristic concern with alternatives, particularly one alternative compensating for another.

Sight takes on still more importance if we can imagine that Hermia has unconsciously overhead Lysander falling in love with Helena. Puck has just dropped the love-juice into Lysander's eyes. Further, when Helena comes upon the sleeping Hermia and Lysander right after Puck leaves, she is complaining that her eyes will not attract Demetrius the way Hermia's eyes do. Then, almost the first thing Lysander says when he awakes and falls in love with Helena is:

Transparent Helena, nature shows art,
That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart.

Hermia seems to me to take this image of complete truth or candor and dream it into a snake eating her own heart, an emblem of doubleness, treachery, and hostility.

If we were to limit ourselves to the old, rigid, one-to-one symbolism of early psychoanalysis, we would say simply that the snake is a symbol for a penis or a phallus. Rather than call it simply phallic, though, I would like to go beyond the symbolic code to a more human meaning for that stinging, biting snake. I can find it in Erikson's modal terms intrusive or penetrating. Hermia expresses that intrusion into her body as eating. In other words, she has built into the oedipal or phallic levels of the dream (the dream considered as an expression of an adolescent girl's attitude toward male sexuality) a regression to earlier levels of development. In yet another way, Hermia has provided an alternative—namely, anal and oral significances—to her own oedipal and phallic sexuality.

For example, one of the issues raised by the serpent in Hermia's dream is possession in contrast to true love. The serpent proposes to eat Hermia's heart, to make it a prey—in other words, to possess it. Earlier that day Hermia's father, Egeus, had accused Lysander: "With cunning hast thou filch'd my daughter's heart" (I.i.36), just as he had given her bracelets and rings, knickknacks and nosegays. Lysander partly replies by insisting that he has just as much money and land as Demetrius. Finally, when Hermia sees that Lysander has fallen in love with Helena, she cries:

                 What, have you come by night
And stol'n my love's heart from him?

False love is treating a heart like a possession that can be stolen. In true love, by contrast, hearts fuse and become one, as in Lysander's plea for Hermia to lie down by him: "My heart unto yours is knit,/So that but one heart we can make of it." Similarly, Helena recalls that she and Hermia were such close friends they had "two seeming bodies, but one heart" (IH.ii.212).

Yet it is precisely this fusion of hearts that Hermia refused when she would not let Lysander lie down with her. She left herself open to the other, possessive kind of love. Now, after her dream, she pleads to Lysander: "Do thy best/To pluck this crawling serpent from my breast!" In other words, make an effort to get this repellent, crawling thing away—and I hear the faintest trace of an excremental metaphor here: make an effort to push this disgusting thing out of you or me.

"Crawling" she calls it, a word she uses only one other time in the play, much later, when Puck has thoroughly befuddled all four lovers, leading them on a wild goose chase through the woods. Finally, each collapses, with Hermia saying:

I can no further crawl, no further go;
My legs can keep no pace with my desires.

Legless crawling is something less than fully human. Crawling suggests a desire for possession almost disembodied from the human, a desire that in life she has kept within "humane modesty" but which in her dream she feels as overpowering.

At the deepest level of the dream, that desire for possession becomes eating and thus both fusing with and taking away a person's essence: "Methought a serpent eat my heart away." Phallic intrusion and possession become a hostile, consuming oral possession. The dominant image of the dream seems to me to be the mouth: the serpent's eating and Lysander's smiling. Hermia's thought moves in the direction of sublimation from the eating to the smiling, from her being the serpent's "prey," to "pray" in the other sense, her prayer to Lysander to help her. Similarly, in the dream she moves from being eaten to being looked at: "Lysander, look how I do quake.…" The day before, she had parted from Lysander by saying that, "we must starve our sight/From lovers' food till morrow deep midnight" (I.i.222-23). The sight of the beloved is lovers' food. We should perhaps hear a pun in Hermia's exclamation during her dream: "Ay me, for pity!" "Ay me" includes "Eye me," look at me, as well as "I-me," a blurting out of her dual self. Again, Hermia has defended by setting up alternatives. She deals with the nightmare by saying she is both in the dream and out of it.

In the same way, when she cannot find Lysander, she cries "alack," and I hear the word in its original sense—just that, a lack: something is missing, taken away, dissociated. Her characteristic defense of providing an alternative can lead to a tragic separation—here it is Lysander's going off after the alternative, Helena.

Doubleness thus takes on a special charge for Hermia because it plays into her characteristic mode of defenses and adaptation: the providing of alternatives. Now, finally, I can surmise why out of all the materials that might have been important to her—her meeting with the Duke, the argument with her father, her flight by night—she dreams about the conversation she has with Lysander before they lie down to go to sleep. That conversation hinges on precisely the key issue for Hermia: one and two. Lysander wants them to have "one turf … / One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth," but this idea Hermia finds threatening, not only for the ordinary reasons a young girl of the gentry in the English Renaissance would, but because such a fantasy would deprive her of her customary mode of adaptation. At all levels of her dream, she is working out a theme of love within her characteristic way of dealing with inner and outer reality, namely, by finding alternatives. Union in love is one possibility, but she dreams about her fear of it as a deadly possession that would prey upon and eat away her very being. However, the other alternative, separation, leads to another kind of cruelty through distance and indifference and—alack!—a loss.

The sexual symbolism of her dream thus rests upon a far deeper doubleness, her wish and her fear that alternatives won't work, that she will have to settle for just one thing: one intrusive, penetrating, possessive lover. In a psychoanalytic context, we can guess that the adolescent Hermia is working out with Lysander a much earlier, more formative relationship with a figure never seen, never even mentioned, in this comedy: her mother.


When we come to mother, we come to both the beginning and the end of this kind of dream analysis. What you have just read is an analysis of this fictitious dream as if I were doing it ten years ago. I have been thinking about Hermia's dream mostly as though it were an event "out there" in a play "out there," wholly separate from me. I have been tracing her associations through deeper and earlier phases of her development.

In the earliest years of psychoanalysis, when people turned to invented dreams like Hermia's, they did so for two reasons. Either they were going to use the insight of the poet to confirm the views of the scientist, or they were going to use the ideas of the scientist to understand what the poet had done. One could use Hermia's dream to confirm various ideas about dreaming: that associations explain dreams, that dreams express character structure, that dreams work at a variety of developmental levels, and so on. Then one could say: "See, Shakespeare knew this intuitively. Now psychoanalysis has shown it scientifically." Alternatively, the psychoanalytic literary critic might say, "Here is all this scientific knowledge about dreams. If we apply it to Hermia's dream, we shall see what an extraordinarily rich and complex thing it is." In effect, the Shakespearean critic got a boost from psychoanalysis, and the psychoanalyst got a lift from Shakespeare.

Both these approaches, however, rest on the assumption that we can treat the dream Shakespeare invented for Hermia like a real dream. We are assuming that a play is an exact representation of reality, which obeys the same laws as reality and to which we can apply the same rules for interpretation that we would apply in real life. We can have free associations and symbols and oedipal, phallic, anal, and oral levels in Hermia's dream just as in any real adolescent girl's dream.

Such an assumption is, of course, one way of relating to a play, and some psychoanalytic criticism is still written this way, but few indeed are the literary critics who would settle for this one way. For some four decades now, literary people have been insisting that literary works are not meant to be looked through so as to discover some other, imagined reality they portray. Rather, they are to be looked at as ends in themselves. They are artifacts, just like paintings or sculpture, but made of words instead. This nonrepresentational attitude, furthermore, is part and parcel of the whole twentieth-century concept of art. As Matisse replied to a lady who complained that the arm of a woman in one of his paintings was too long: "Madame, you are mistaken. That is not a woman, that is a picture." So here Hermia is not an adolescent girl—she is a character in a remarkably artificial comedy, so artificial, in fact, that she states her dream in rhymed couplets. How many patients in real life do that?

Some ten or twenty years ago, we psychoanalytic literary critics shifted our objective. No longer did we want to treat Hermia like a literal adolescent. Instead, we wanted to understand her as one part fitted into the total play, as the arm fits into Matisse's painting. Both the character and the play are sequences of words that we understand by giving them meaning. Treating Hermia as a real person leads, of course, to one possible meaning, but a very closely limited one, and literary critics prefer to find a larger, more general meaning through themes.

For example, most literary critics treat Hermia's dream as simply "an accurate, if symbolic, account of what has just happened" [David Young, in Something of Great Constancy, 1966]. In that sense, the dream fits into the play's major theme: revelations through vision, like watching plays or seeing fairies or falling in love with someone you look at.

At least two Shakespeareans, however, have found their way to larger themes by treating Hermia's dream more dreamily. Marjorie Garber [in Dream in Shakespeare, 1974] analyzes this dream as part of her study of all Shakespeare's dreams and dream imagery. She sees Hermia as afraid of the doubleness she represents in the snake. Hermia separates Lysander as beloved from the sexuality and violation she associates with the serpent. Yet, in the context of the play as a whole, says Garber, Hermia should not be afraid of ambiguity or double meanings, for that is what this play is. She should take doubleness rather as a form of creativity, for in this play the dream—and that includes the whole play—is truer than reality.

Melvin D. Faber has analyzed this dream, too [in Literature and Psychology, 1972]. The strength of his analysis lies in the thoroughness with which he has followed out every symbolic and associative possibility. The limitation comes from resting the analysis on the overly simple one-to-one symbolic equations so popular in the first exuberant years of applying psychoanalytic symbolism. Thus the snake is Lysander's penis, dissociated from Lysander, thereby making him less sexual, and therefore less dangerous. Hermia's heart stands for her genitals, and the serpent's eating symbolizes (but regressively disguises) genital sex. Thus, concludes Faber, the dream fulfills Hermia's wish for sex with Lysander, and Lysander's smiling expresses his satisfied desire and Hermia's as well.

Faber sees in the play as a whole Shakespeare's effort to establish masculine control over unruly impulses associated with the lack of proper boundaries between male and female. The play establishes control by dissociating the conscious, social part of the mind from the unconscious, sexual, and dreamlike part—as, says Faber, Hermia does in miniature in her dream.

As for my own themes for this comedy, I see the questions of separation and fusion that appear in Hermia's dream permeating the play. That is, A Midsummer Night's Dream begins with the separation of lovers. Theseus and Hippolyta have to wait out the four days till their wedding, the fairy King and Queen, Oberon and Titania, have quarreled, and, of course, the lovers have tangled up their affections and drawn down the threats of the Duke and the father.

The end of the comedy brings all these lovers together and in between, what has happened is our dream. Puck says in the epilogue:

Think …
That you have but slumb'red here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream …

Hermia's dream is, as we have seen, a dream within a dream, a wish therefore that what she dreams of were a wish like the dream around it, therefore the truest part of the play. What, then, is the truth she dreams? She dreams of the doubleness of lovers and the separation of the two aspects of her own lover. As in our word duplicity, this doubleness connotes his falseness, as perhaps his name also does: "Lie-sander." One part of him wishes to fuse sexually with her, and she turns to a more separate part of him for help. But, divided this way, both parts of Lysander are cruel, one more physically so than the other.

Cruelty pervades this comedy. As Theseus says to his fiancée in the opening lines:

Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries.

You could say the same of Oberon, who humiliates Titania, or of either of our two young men, each of whom deserts and reviles and threatens his future wife. Throughout the play, the ruler, the father, the lovers, the King of the fairies, the amateur actors, and even the audience at the play within the play—all proclaim love, but they also threaten violence or humiliation. The play within the play focuses this ambivalence: it is a "very tragical mirth" (V.i.55), and "the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby" (I.ii.11-12) is both the funniest and the bloodiest part of the play.

This comical tragedy within the comedy comes about because the lover Pyramus, separated from his love Thisby and confused in the dark (like our four lovers), believes a lion has eaten her. That lion in Renaissance symbology provides the opposite to Hermia's snake. The royal beast takes his prey in the open, by force and grandeur. The low serpent sneaks his prey by stealth and cunning. Thus the lion in the clowns' broad farce causes right before your eyes a bloody fusion of lovers as Pyramus stabs himself over Thisby's bloody mantle and Thisby stabs herself over Pyramus' bloody body. By contrast, the snake in Hermia's dream images a much subtler cruelty, the desertion and indifference of these not-so-courtly lovers.

This is a second way, then, to read Hermia's dream. The first way is as a clinical study of an adolescent girl. This second, larger reading sets Hermia's dream in the whole atmosphere and development of ambivalence in the comedy. We move beyond the nineteenth and early twentieth-century concern with realism toward a more contemporary interest in theme. Instead of treating the various levels (oedipal, phallic, anal, and oral) as aspects of some particular adolescent girl, I would see them all as variations on the comedy's theme of ambivalence, separations that are both loving and cruel.

Yet both these methods treat Hermia or her dream or her play as though they were "out there," as though I were distant and indifferent to them except for a coolly intellectual curiosity. Both readings pretend the dream and the play are not connected to any me "in here" who shapes and re-creates both the dream and the comedy to fit my own character or, as I prefer to say, my identity. Rather, an abstractly skilled interpreter finds "the" meaning of the dream and fits it to "the" meaning of the play.


In the ten years since I wrote such externalized dream analyses, most of us in literature and psychology have come to feel that same new interest in the self that has quickened psychoanalytic theory throughout the world: in Paris through the writings of Lacan, in London in the object-relations theory of Milner and Winnicott and others, or in Chicago in the remarkable technical and theoretical studies of Heinz Kohut. Rather than simply look for an abstract theme "out there" in A Midsummer Night's Dream, we have become more interested in how a self—my self, for example—uses the text of the play or the dream as an object to establish a self-structuring relation.

Clearly, the kind of level-by-level exegesis you have just read makes up part of that relation: working out the implications of the dream through such schemes as Erikson's for analyzing the interaction of manifest and latent content or the classic psychoanalytic scheme of developmental levels. But this kind of analysis leaves out a great deal. It ignores, for example, my feelings as I hear this dream. It ignores the personal quality of my reading, which makes it different from Professor Faber's or Professor Garber's.

Ten years ago, psychoanalytic literary critics cared little about the personal qualities that set one interpretation off from another, partly because we believed there was a best reading (a "the" reading) that would rise to the top as we refined our literary ideas, and the other readings left in the pot simply wouldn't matter very much. Partly, too, we ignored the personal element because we had no way of talking about it. Now, however, we are less confident that there is some best reading, and we have a way of talking about the personal quality of a response.

That is, we have identity theory. We have a way of conceptualizing each new thing someone does as new, yet stamped with the same personal style as all the other actions chosen by that person. Each of us is a mixture of sameness and difference. We detect the sameness by seeing what persists within the constant change of our lives. We detect the difference by seeing what has changed against the background of sameness.

The most powerful way I know to think to that dialectic of sameness and difference is the one suggested by Heinz Lichtenstein: to see identity as a theme and variations like a musical theme and variations. Think of the sameness as a theme, an "identity theme." Think of the differences as variations on that identity theme. That is the way I have read Hermia's character, for example. She creates an alternative that will amend the original possibility. That is her identity theme, and we have seen her work out variations on it in her opening plea to Theseus, in her witty dialogue with Lysander before they lie down to sleep, and, above all, in her dream. These are all various ways by which she tries to amend through an alternative.

Now, just as Hermia develops a variation on her identity theme when she dreams, so you and I develop variations on our identity themes when we read her dream. Thus we arrive at a new kind of psychoanalytic method with literature. Our group at Buffalo calls it "transactive criticism." We actively create, we transact—for example, Hermia's dream and A Midsummer Night's Dream. As critics, it is our job to articulate the relation of those two explicitly.

For me, the two images of Hermia's dream, the eating snake and the smiling lover, evoke large questions of fidelity and possession between men and women that I find puzzling and troubling as I watch my students struggling to find and maintain stable relationships or as I see in my own generation yet another friend's marriage break up. That is, Hermia's dream, her very presence in the forest with Lysander, builds on the mutual promises she and Lysander made, a contract sealed by a dangerous elopement, a pledge of faith that her lover, at the very moment of her dream, has abandoned. Her dream begins from his infidelity.

As I visualize the dream, I see a small snake at a distance—yes, like a penis in the classic Freudian symbolism—but I also remember a picture from a book of nature photographs of a snake's wide open mouth with long, curved fangs under a pink, arched palate, one demonic eye showing behind the furious jaws. The head is all mouth, really, there is so little else besides that act of biting. Hermia describes the snake as "crawling," and we have already guessed at her associations. Mine are to a baby who is all helpless, inarticulate demand. For me, then, Hermia's image of the snake sets up the idea of possession, the way a lover or a penis can make a total demand as an animal or a baby demands food.

Curiously, food comes up again when Shakespeare has the two men explain why they switched partners. When Demetrius announces he is back in love with Helena, he says:

… like a sickness did I loathe this food
But, as in health, come to my natural taste,
Now I do wish it, love it, long for it,
And will forevermore be true to it.

The first time Shakespeare explains the switching of affections, it is Lysander who has suddenly fallen in love with Helena just before Hermia's dream. He looks at the sleeping Hermia and says:

For as a surfeit of the sweetest things
The deepest loathing to the stomach brings,

So thou, my surfeit and my heresy,
Of all be hated, but most of me!

Both times Shakespeare has his lovers refer emotional love to oral appetite, and an appetite of total desire or total rejection, fidelity to one girl meaning disgust at all others—at least for a time.

As we have seen, mouths appear twice in Hermia's dream, once in the serpent's eating and once when Hermia says of Lysander, "You sate smiling." For me, there is a great cruelty in that smile, just as there is in his radical rejection of Hermia as a "surfeit" that brings "deepest loathing to the stomach." I feel hatred in that smile and in that imagery of disgust, a hatred that psychoanalysis, in one of its hardest truths, asks us to believe tinges every human relationship. As the tough-minded La Rochefoucauld put it once and for all, "In the misfortune of our best friends we always find something that is not entirely displeasing."

In other words, if I bring my own associations to Hermia's dream and its context, I begin to read the comedy of which it is a part as a rather uncomfortable hovering between different views of love. In one view, love is a total, consuming desire like a baby's for food. In the other, the relation is less demanding: it admits a change of heart or appetite. Yet so cool a lover may be hateful in his very smiling, just as hateful as the snake is in his eating.

Nowadays, people reject the idea that love entitles you to possess another person. I too reject that kind of possessiveness—at least I consciously do. Yet the opposite possibility, a cool, distant love, does not satisfy me as a solution. I believe in a fidelity of mutual trust, an exchange of promises that I will be true to you and you will be true to me. I realize that contemporary patterns of marriage and sex deeply question this style of relationship. Many people believe they can and do love more than one person passionately and sexually at the same time.

No matter how contemporary I like to think myself in sexual matters, however, I have to admit that, deep down, I do not feel that the mutual pledge of loving or of sexual promises is the kind of contract one can negotiate like a lease on an apartment, with provisions for termination, renegotiation, or repairs. Nor do I believe one can hold several such leases at once. To be intimate is to risk oneself with another, and it is difficult, for me at least, to feel free to open myself up to another person without being able to feel that that opening up will be one-to-one, that neither of us will compromise our intimacy by sharing it with some third person. Somewhere inside me I deeply fear that I would be made small and ridiculous, like a child, were my lover to share our one-to-oneness with another lover. Hence I perceive Lysander's smiling as a cruel ridicule.

The comedy, however, like today's lovers, rejects possessiveness. Hermia's father states the theme: "As she is mine, I may dispose of her." The comedy as a whole moves away from this dehumanizing possessiveness, when what the play will substitute is not exactly clear. At the end, Duke Theseus rules:

Egeus, I will overbear your will;
For in the temple, by and by, with us
These couples shall eternally be knit.

They will be married, and the power of the Duke will knit them together as couples and as his subjects.

Paradoxically, though, the comedy arrives at this knitting by a system of separations and infidelities. At first Demetrius had been in love with Helena, but at the opening of the play he has fallen in love with Hermia. Then, when Lysander's eyes are charmed, he falls in love with Helena. Later, the same thing happens to Demetrius: his eyes are drugged and he too falls in love with Helena. Finally, Puck uncharms Lysander, and the lovers fall into their natural pairs. The Polish critic, Jan Kott [in Shakespeare Our Contemporary, 1964], urges us to think of this part of the comedy as a drunken switch party on a hot night, in which all the scantily clad lovers are interchangeable objects of desire who exchange with one another, finally waking up the next morning hung over, exhausted, and ashamed.

Perhaps Kott takes too extreme a view, but the comedy does seem to say the lovers learn fidelity through their infidelities. Yet very little is said about how this union comes about. After they all wake up, Demetrius says of the events of the night before: "These things seem small and indistinguishable" (IV.i.187). And once they are re-united with their proper lovers, the two girls say not another word for the whole long last scene of the comedy.

In other words, the comedy is silent just at the point where I, with my puzzling about fidelity, am most curious. How do these lovers, who now pledge to be true to one another, derive fidelity from their previous infidelity? The play doesn't say. I feel it is up to us as readers and critics to find a solution. One distinguished Shakespearean, Norman Rabkin, writes [in Shakespeare and the Common Understanding, 1967]:

In A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare opposes
reason to the folly of lovers whose choices are often
magically induced and always willful, only to make us
realize that those choices are ultimately right and of
the same order as that anti-rational illusion-mongering,
the performing and watching of plays, which,
depending on the charitable suspension of disbelief. .
  nevertheless tells us truths of which reason is

Rabkin suggests a parallel between the lovers falling in love and the way the rest of us give ourselves to plays. Illusions, fancies, fictions—if we can tolerate them, even lies—can lead us to a higher truth, a loving experience beyond reason. In psychoanalytic terms, I think this transcending corresponds to the basic trust we must all have developed in translating an imagining of a mother's nurturing presence into a confidence that she would really be there when needed. By not being there, she is unfaithful, but out of that first infidelity, most of us made the most basic of fidelities.

Thus I read Hermia's dream as having three parts. First, the snake preys on a passive Hermia's heart in an act of total, painful, destructive possession—hard on Hermia, but satisfying to that masculine snake. That possessiveness is one possibility open to me in relating to a woman or a play.

Second, Lysander smilingly watches the woman he so recently loved being possessed by another. His smile signals to me another kind of cruelty—dispassion, distance, indifference—another way of relating to a play or a lover. The snake is fantastic and symbolic, whereas Lysander presents a far more realistic lover whom I can interpret all too well through our century's alternatives to romantic commitment.

Then there is a third aspect to the dream, as I view it. It is a nightmare. The dream has aroused anxieties too great for Hermia to sleep through. She wakes, and we never learn how she might have dreamed that a loving Lysander plucked away a possessive snake. Instead, we are left with his deserting her for another woman.

For me, the sense of incompleteness is particularly strong, because I very much need to see a coherence and unity in human relations. I want a happy ending for this comedy. I want these couples married at the end, but I don't see—I don't trust, really—the way the comedy gets them together. Out of infidelity comes fidelity—but how? Hermia trusts Lysander, but he is unfaithful and leaves her alone and terrified: "I swoon almost with fear." It is hard for me to trust that there will be a happy outcome despite his cruel and contemptuous abandonment.

When I confess my uneasiness because the dream is incomplete and the play is silent on the creation of trust, I am working through something about myself I have faced many times before. It's hard for me simply to trust and to tolerate uncertainty or absence or silence. I question both Hermia's dream and the sexual revolution of our own time because I need to know things, particularly about human relations. I need to feel certain.

None of this, of course, do Lysander or the other lovers say. They talk about feelings of love and jealousy we can all share, but they do so within the conventions of Renaissance marriage. You and I, however, read what they say from a perch in our own culture, with its many marital and nonmarital and extramarital possibilities, all challenging the traditional limits on relations between the sexes. Where Shakespeare's lovers proceeded in their own day to a sure and socially structured Renaissance conclusion, now I feel they are opening up all kinds of twentieth-century uncertainties without, naturally, saying much about them. In particular, Hermia's dream images the tension between possessiveness and distance and the—to me at least—unknown way trust will resolve that tension.

Often, I think, we Shakespeareans teach Shakespeare as though we were ourselves unaffected by any of the changes in the relations between men and women that have happened since the days of Queen Elizabeth or A. C. Bradley. We are reading Shakespeare's romantic comedies in the middle of a sexual revolution. It would make sense to come to grips with the way our own feelings about that revolution shape our perception of episodes like Hermia's dream (or, even more drastically, Kate's antifeminist speech at the end of The Taming of the Shrew). That assertion of our selves is the new direction psychoanalytic literary criticism has begun to take.

In acknowledging my role in bringing these twentieth-century issues to this comedy of 1594, I am discovering through Hermia's dream how I am unconsciously or half-consciously possessive, even though I consciously aspire to an ethic of mutual trust. More generally, I am discovering that Hermia's dream takes its life not from some fictitious dreamer, but from my own concern with relations between men and women in my own time and my own hopes for those relations. I read Hermia's dream as an emblem of two human problems. One is an American problem of the 1970's and 1980's. Can one separate love from trust? The other is a universal human question: how can we establish trust with another being whom we partly trust and partly mistrust? Reading Hermia's dream this way, I—or you and I, if you will go along with me—can go beyond the earlier relationships with literature that psychoanalysis made possible.

At first we treated the unconscious processes in literary characters as though they were fact, not fiction, happening "out there," separate from us dispassionate observers. Then we set the character into an ego process embodied in the play as a whole. We began to acknowledge that we were included in that process, too, as we lent ourselves to the play. Now we have begun to make explicit the self-discovery that was only implicit and silent in those two earlier methods.

We can learn how each of us gives life to Shakespeare's imaginings "out there" through our own times and lives, our wishes and fears and defenses "in here." Through psychoanalytic identity theory, we can understand how we are able to talk about the words of another through ourselves and, in doing so, talk about ourselves through the words of another—even if they are as airy a nothing as dream of dream of dream. When we do, we each continue Shakespeare's achievement in and through ourselves. Just as self and object constitute each other in human development, so in the literary transaction the reader constitutes text so that text may constitute its reader. In this mutuality, Hermia's dream is not simply a dream dreamed for us. Rather, we dream her dream for ourselves, and as we know ourselves so we know the dream, until its local habitation is here and its name is us.

René Girard (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Myth and Ritual in Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, edited by Josué V. Harari, Cornell, 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Girard argues that in A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare exploits the clichés of romantic love and the structure of myth to expose the violent and self-destructive nature of desire.]

I have considered, our whole life is like a Play: wherein every man, forgetfull of himselfe, is in travaile with expression of another. Nay, wee so insist in imitating others, as wee cannot (when it is necessary) returne to ourselves: like Children, that imitate the vices of Stammerers so long, till at last they become such; and make the habit to another nature, as it is never forgotten.

—Ben Jonson, Timber of Discoveries

The opening scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream leads the audience to expect an ordinary comedy plot. Boy and girl love each other. A mean old father is trying to separate them, with the help of the highest authority in the land, Theseus, duke of Athens. Unless she gives up Lysander, Hermia will have no choice but death or the traditional convent. As soon as this formidable edict is proclaimed, the father figures depart, leaving the lovers to their own devices. They launch into a duet on the impediments of love: age difference, social conditions, and, last but not least, coercion by those in authority.

The two victimized youngsters leisurely and chattingly prepare to flee their ferocious tyrants; they plunge into the woods; Hermia is pursued by Demetrius, himself pursued by Helena, Hermia's best friend, whom, of course, he spurns. The first couple's happiness appears threatened from the outside, but the second couple, even from the start, insist on being unhappy by themselves, always falling in love with the wrong person. We soon realize that Shakespeare is more interested in this systematically self-defeating type of passion than in the initial theme of "true love," something unconquerable by definition and always in need of villainous enemies if it is to provide any semblance of dramatic plot.

It quickly turns out that self-defeating passion dominates the relationship of not just one but both couples, involving them in a fourway merry-go-round that never seems to allow any amorous reciprocity even though partners are continually exchanged. At first the two young men are in love with Hermia; then, during the night, both abandon that girl and fall in love with the other. The only constant element in the configuration is the convergence of more than one desire on a single object, as if perpetual rivalries were more important to the four characters than their changing pretexts.

Although the theme of outside interference is not forgotten, it becomes even more flimsy. In the absence of the father figures, the role is entrusted to Puck, who keeps pouring his magical love juice into the "wrong" eyes. When Oberon rebukes Puck for his mistake, he does so with a show of emotion, in a precipitous monologue that ironically reflects the confusion it pretends to clear, thereby casting doubt upon the reality of the distinctions it pretends to restore:

What hast thou done? Thou hast mistaken quite,
And laid the love juice on some true love's
Of thy misprision must perforce ensue
Some true love turned, and not a false turned

Who will tell the difference between some true love turned and a false turned true? We may suspect a more serious rationale for the four protagonists' miseries, for the growing hysteria of the midsummer night. A close look reveals something quite systematic about the behavior of the four, underlined by more than a few ironic suggestions. The author is hinting at something which is never made fully explicit, but which seems cogent and coherent enough to call for a precise formulation.

The midsummer night is a process of increasing violence. Demetrius and Lysander end up in a duel; the violence of the girls' rivalry almost matches that of the boys. Their fierce quarreling certainly contradicts—or does it?—Helena's earlier expression of unbounded admiration for her friend Hermia:

Your eyes are lodestars, and your tongue's sweet
More tunable than lark to shepherd's ear,
When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds
Sickness is catching. O! were favor so,
Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go;
My ear should catch your voice, my eye your
My tongue should catch your tongue's sweet
Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I'd give to be to you translated.

This is a strange mixture of quasi-religious and yet sensuous worship. The last line admirably sums up the significance of the passage. Desire speaks here, and it is desire for another's being. Helena would like to be translated, metamorphosed into Hermia, because Hermia enjoys the love of Demetrius. Demetrius, however, is hardly mentioned. The desire for him appears less pressing than the desire for Hermia's being. In that desire, what truly stands out is the irresistible sexual dominance that Hermia is supposed to exert upon Demetrius and all those who approach her. It is this sexual dominance that Helena envies: "O teach me how you look and with what art / You sway the motion of Demetrius' heart" (I. .i.192-193). Helena sees Hermia as the magnetic pole of desires in their common little world, and she would like to be that. The other three characters are no different; they all worship the same erotic absolute, the same ideal image of seduction which each girl and boy in turn appears to embody in the eyes of the others. This absolute has nothing to do with concrete qualities; it is properly metaphysical. Even though obsessed with the flesh, desire is divorced from it; it is not instinctive and spontaneous; it never seems to know directly and immediately where its object lies; in order to locate that object, it cannot rely on such things as the pleasure of the eyes and the other senses. In its perpetual noche oscura, metaphysical desire must therefore trust in another and supposedly more enlightened desire on which it patterns itself. As a consequence, desire, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, perpetually runs to desire just as money runs to money in the capitalistic system. We may say, of course, that the four characters are in love with love. That would not be inaccurate; but there is no such thing as love or desire in general, and such a formulation obscures the most crucial point, the necessarily jealous and conflictual nature of mimetic convergence on a single object. If we keep borrowing each other's desires, if we allow our respective desires to agree on the same object, we, as individuals, are bound to disagree. The erotic absolute will inevitably be embodied in a successful rival. Helena cannot fail to be torn between worship and hatred of Hermia. Imitative desire makes all reciprocal rapports impossible. Shakespeare makes this point very clear, but for some reason no one wants to hear. The audience resembles the lovers themselves, who talk ceaselessly about "true love" but obviously do not care to understand the mechanism of their own feelings.

Metaphysical desire is mimetic, and mimetic desire cannot be let loose without breeding a midsummer night of jealousy and strife. Yet the protagonists never feel responsible for the state of their affairs; they never hesitate to place the blame where it does not belong, on an unfavorable fate, on reactionary parents, on mischievous fairies, and on other such causes. Throughout the play, the theme of outside interference provides much of the obvious dramatic structure; and we must suspect that it is not simply juxtaposed to the midsummer night which, in a sense, it contradicts: the two may well be in a more complex relationship of disguise and reality, never clearly spelled out and formalized, allowing enough juxtaposition and imbrication so that the play, at least in some important respects, can really function as two plays at once. On one level it is a traditional comedy, destined for courtly audiences and their modern successors; but, underneath, mimetic desire holds sway, responsible not only for the delirium and frenzy of the midsummer night but also for all the mythical themes which reign supreme at the upper level.

The real obstacles are not outside the enchanted circle of the lovers: each of them is an obstacle to the others in a game of imitation and rivalry that is their mode of alienation, and this alienation finally verges on trancelike possession. The outside obstacle is an illusion, often a transparent one, a telltale disguise of the real situation, constructed so that it can serve as an allegory. It even happens that absolutely nothing has to be changed in order to pass from the truth to the lie and back again to the truth: the same words mean both the one and the other. Shakespeare loves to play on these ambiguities. I have already mentioned the love duet between Lysander and Hermia: most critics would agree that it constitutes a parody of fashionable clichés, and they are no doubt correct; but we cannot view this parodic character as sufficient justification in itself. The real purpose cannot be parody for parody's sake. There must be something more, something which Shakespeare definitely wants to say and which we are likely to miss because it will appear in the form of "rhetoric." In the duet part of that love scene, the first seven lines seem to mark a gradation which leads up to the eighth, on which the emphasis falls:

Lysander: The course of true love never did run
But either it was different in blood—
Hermia: O cross! Too high to be enthralled to
Lysander: Or else misgraffed in respect of
Hermia: O spite! Too old to be engaged to
Lysander: Or else it stood upon the choice of
Hermia: O hell! To choose love by another's

The last two lines can be read as only one more "cross," the most relevant really, the one we would expect to see mentioned first in the present context. The reference to "friends" is somewhat unexpected, but not so strange as to merit a second thought for most listeners. But if we isolate these last two lines, if we replace the love mystique in the spirit of which they are uttered with the present context, the context of the preceding remarks and of countless Shakespearean scenes (not only in A Midsummer Night's Dream but also in almost every other play), another meaning will appear, a meaning more evident and infinitely more significant.

Everywhere in Shakespeare there is a passion which is primarily the copy of a model, a passion that is destructive not only because of its sterile rivalries but because it dissolves reality; it tends to the abstract, the merely representational. The model may be present in the flesh and strut on the stage of the theater; and it may also rise from the pages of a book, come out of the frame of a picture, turn into the worship of a phantom, verbal or iconic. The model is always a text. It is Othello's heroic language, the real object of fascination for Desdemona rather than Othello himself. It is the portrait of Portia which her lover chooses to contemplate in preference to the original. This metaphysical passion is a corruption of life, always open to the corruptive suggestions of mediators and go-betweens, such as the Pandarus of Troilus and Cressida. The paramount role that Shakespeare attributes to such desire, in an obviously calculated way, even in relationships where we may least expect it, is matched only in the works of such writers as Cervantes, Molière, or Dostoevsky. O hell! To choose love by another's eyes. Since the phrase is uttered in conformity with the ideology of "true love," surely appropriate to a royal wedding (the occasion of A Midsummer Night's Dream), the true Shakespearean meaning must dawn upon us, prompted not only by the events that follow but by a thousand echoes from all the other plays.

Mimetic desire remains unperceived even when it is most obvious. In the very process of being denied, displaced, reified, it still manages to proclaim its own truth. Almost every time they open their mouths, the lovers unwittingly proclaim what at the same time they ignore, and we generally go on ignoring it along with them. The midsummer night is a hell of the lovers' own choosing, a hell into which they all avidly plunge, insofar as they all choose to choose love by another's eyes. Hermia, talking about the turn her love affair with Lysander has given her own life, naively recognizes that the hell is all hers, and that it was already mere before the appearance of the parental and supernatural bugaboos that are supposed to be its cause:

Before the time I did Lysander see,
Seemed Athens as a paradise to me.
O then, what graces in my love do dwell,
That he hath turned a heaven into a hell!

Shakespeare is making fun of us, of course. He seems intent on proving that you can say almost anything in a play as long as you provide the audience with the habitual props of comedy, the conventional expressions of "true love," even in minimal amounts, adding, of course, a ferocious father figure or two to satisfy the eternal Freudian in us. As long as the standard plot is vaguely outlined, even in the crudest and least believable fashion, the author can subvert his own myths and state the truth at every turn, with no consequences whatsoever. The audience will instinctively and automatically rally around the old clichés, so completely blind and deaf to everything which may contradict them that the presence of this truth will not even be noticed. The continued misunderstanding of the play throughout the centuries gives added resonance to the point Shakespeare is secretly making, providing ironic confirmation that the most worn-out myth will always triumph over the most explicit demythification.

If the subject persists in his self-defeating path, the rivalries into which mimetic desire inevitably runs must logically be viewed as glorious signs and heralds of the absolute that keeps eluding him. Mimetic desire breeds rejection and failure; it is rejection and failure that it must ultimately seek. The impossible is always preferred to the possible, the unreal to the real, the hostile and unwilling to the willing and available. This self-destructive character flows directly and automatically from the mechanical consequences of the first definition: to choose love by another's eyes. Are these consequences really spelled out in the play? They are in the most specific fashion, in perfectly unambiguous statements that somehow never manage to be heard; and even when they are noticed, a label is immediately placed on them, canceling out their effectiveness. The following lines, for example, will be labeled "rhetorical," which means that they can be dismissed at will, treated as insignificant. Recall that when Helena seeks the secret of Hermia's power over Demetrius, Hermia answers:

      I frown upon him, yet he loves me still.
Helena: O that your frowns would teach my
  smiles such skill!
Hermia: I give him curses, yet he gives me love.
Helena: O that my prayers could such affection
Hermia: The more I hate, the more he follows
Helena: The more I love, the more he hateth me.

It cannot be denied that there is a great deal of rhetoric in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Rhetoric in the pejorative sense means that certain figures of speech are repeated unthinkingly by people who do not even notice their meaning. The four protagonists of A Midsummer Night's Dream certainly are unthinking repeaters of modish formulas. But mere parodies of rhetorical vacuity would be themselves vacuous, and Shakespeare does not indulge in them. With him the most exhausted clichés can become bolts of lightning. When Helena calls Demetrius a "hard-hearted adamant," she speaks the most literal truth. Harshness and cruelty draw her and her friends as a magnet draws iron. The supposedly artificial figures of speech really describe the truth of desire with amazing exactitude. When an impeccably educated reader comes upon the lines, "Where is Lysander and fair Hermia? / The one I'll slay, the other slayeth me" (II.i.189-190), he feels a secret anxiety at the thought that a cultural monument like Shakespeare may be lapsing into less than impeccable taste. These lines are satirical; but, in order to be completely reassured, we have to know what the satirical intent is about. Shakespeare is not mocking a particular "rhetoric" and a particular "bad taste." Considerations of "style" are mainly relevant to professors of literature. It is rather the whole language of passion, with its constant borrowings from the fields of war, murder, and destruction, that Shakespeare is commenting upon. A book like De Rougemont's Love in the Western World throws more light on the type of meditation that nourishes Shakespearean satire than all stylistics put together. Shakespeare is almost contemporary in his recourse to the debased language of degraded human relations. With us, however, debased language generally remains just what it is and nothing more; the work never rises above the mire it pretends to stigmatize, or else it immediately sinks gently back into it. Not so with Shakespeare. The interest of the so-called rhetoric is its frightening pertinence; the destiny it spells for the four lovers, the destiny they unthinkingly announce, is really the one that they are busily forging for themselves; it is a tragic destiny from which they escape only by the sheer luck of being in a comedy.

This ambiguous nature of "rhetoric" is essential to the twofold nature of the play. As long as we listen as unthinkingly as the protagonists speak, we remain in the superficial play which is made up of "figures of speech," as well as of fairies and father figures. At the purely aesthetic and thematic level of "poetic imagination," we operate with the same conceptual tools as Theseus and the lovers; good and bad metaphors, true love turned false and false turned true. We understand little more than the lovers themselves. If, on the contrary, we stop long enough to hear what is being said, a pattern begins to emerge: the disquieting infrastructure of mimetic desire, which will erupt into hysterical violence a little later.

One of the most striking features in the amorous discourse of the protagonists is the abundance of animal images. These images express the self-abasement of the lover in front of his idol. As he vainly tries to reach for the absolute that appears incarnated in the model, the lover exalts his successful rival to greater and greater heights; as a result, he feels degraded to lower and lower depths. The first animal images appear immediately after Helena's hysterical celebration of her rival's beauty:

No, no, I am as ugly as a bear.
For beasts that meet me run away for fear.…
What wicked and dissembling glass of mine
Made me compare with Hermia's sphery eyne?

We will be told once again that such images are "pure rhetoric"; their source has been identified: most of them, it appears, come from Ovid. This is true, but the existence of a literary source for a figure of speech does not necessarily imply that it is used in a purely formal and inconsequential manner, that it cannot be given a vital significance by the second writer. It can be shown, I believe, that the animal images are part of the process which leads from mimetic desire to myth; this process is a continuous one, but a certain number of steps can be distinguished which have an existential as well as a functional significance. Far from raising himself to the state of a superman, a god, as he seeks to do, the subject of mimetic desire sinks to the level of animality. The animal images are the price the self has to pay for its idolatrous worship of otherness. This idolatry is really "selfish" in the sense that it is meant for the sake of the self; the self wants to appropriate the absolute that it perceives, but its extreme thirst for self-elevation results in extreme self-contempt, quite logically if paradoxically, since this self always meets and invites its own defeat at the hands of a successful rival.

Animal images are thus a direct consequence of the inordinate metaphysical ambition that makes desire mimetic. They are an integral part of the rigorous pattern I am trying to unravel; the law of that pattern could be defined by Pascal's aphorism, Qui fait l'ange fait la bête. The whole midsummer night looks like a dramatization of that aphorism. Here again is Helena, who fait la bête with Demetrius:

I am your spaniel, and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me—only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love—
And yet a place of high respect with me—
Than to be used as you use your dog?

Partners in mimetic desire cannot think of each other as equal human beings; their relationship becomes less and less human; they are condemned to an angel-beast or superman-slave relationship. Helena's near worship of Hermia might be described, today, in terms of an "inferiority complex." But psychiatrists view their so-called complexes almost as physical entities, almost as independent and stable as the self they are supposed to affect. Shakespeare is alien to this substantial thinking; he sees everything in terms of relations. Helena's "inferiority complex," for example, is only the "wrong" or the "beast" end of her relationship with Hermia and Demetrius. Ultimately, everyone ends up with the same "inferiority complex," since everyone feels deprived of an absolute superiority that always appears to belong to someone else.

Being purely mimetic, this relationship is anchored in no stable reality; it is therefore bound to be unstable. The metaphysical absolute seems to shift from character to character. With each shift the entire configuration is reorganized, still on the basis of the same polarities, but reversed. The beast becomes a god and the god becomes a beast. Inferiority becomes superiority and vice versa. Up is down and down is up.

During the first scenes, Hermia, being worshiped by everyone, appears to be and feel divine. Helena, being truly rejected and despised, feels despicable. But then it is Helena's turn to be worshiped and Hermia feels like a despicable beast. After the initial moment of relative stability, the four lovers enter a world of more and more rapid reversals and inversions. The necessities of dramatic presentation force Shakespeare to be selective and somewhat schematic in his description of the process, but the principles at work are obvious. As soon as the midsummer night crisis begins in earnest, the animal metaphors are not only multiplied but turned upside down and jumbled together. As the reversals become more and more precipitous, we obviously move toward complete chaos. All this, of course, to the renewed chagrin of our guardians of "good taste," who do not see any purpose to this unseemly spectacle and view it as mere stylistic self-indulgence on the part of the author. The "rhetoric" was bad enough before, but now it is going out of its rhetorical mind. Here is Helena, once more, getting ready to chase Demetrius through the woods:

Run when you will, the story shall be changed.
Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase;
The dove pursues the griffin; the mild hind
Makes speed to catch the tiger.

Reversal is so pervasive a theme in A Midsummer Night's Dream, as in most of Shakespeare's plays, that it finally extends to the whole of nature. Titania tells us, for example, that the seasons are out of turn. Scholars assume that the weather must have been particularly bad in the year Shakespeare wrote the play; this, in turn, gives some clues to the dating of the play. It must be true, indeed, that Shakespeare needed some really inclement weather to write what he did; however, the bad weather serves a specifically Shakespearean purpose, providing still another opportunity for more variations on the major theme of the play, the theme of differences reversed and inverted:

… The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase now knows not which is which.

The very pervasiveness of reversal makes it impossible for commentators not to acknowledge the theme, but it also provides a means of minimizing its significance by shifting the emphasis where it should not be shifted, onto nature and the cosmos. This, of course, is exactly what myth itself does in its constant projection and expulsion of human violence. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century mythologists who asserted and still assert that myth is mostly a misreading of natural phenomena really perpetuate the mythical dissimulation and disguise of human violence. Shakespeare seems to be doing the same thing when he inserts his midsummer night into the poetic frame of a crisis of quasi-comic proportions. In that vast macrocosm, our four protagonists' antics appear as a tiny dot moved by forces beyond its own control, automatically relived, once more, of all responsibility for whatever harm its even tinier components may be doing to one another and to themselves. Nature, in other words, must be included among the other mythical excuses, such as the mean father and the fairies. Shakespeare certainly gives it a major poetic and dramatic role, in keeping with the principles of what I earlier called the surface play. This is true; but, as in the other instances, he also makes sure that the truth becomes explicit. The real Shakespearean perspective is clearly suggested immediately below the lines just quoted. Titania ascribes disarray neither to herself nor to Oberon nor even to both, insofar as they would remain serene divinities manipulating humanity from outside, but to the conflict between them, a very human conflict, to be sure, which implies the same reversals of roles as the midsummer night and which duplicates perfectly the strife among the four lovers:

And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissensions;
We are their parents and original.

Reversals in nature are only reflections, metaphoric expressions, and poetic orchestrations of the mimetic crisis. Instead of viewing myth as a humanization of nature, as we always tend to do, Shakespeare views it as the naturalization as well as the supernaturalization of a very human violence. Specialists on the subject might be well advised to take a close look at this Shakespearean view; what if it turned out to be less mythical than their own!

The lopsided view that the lovers take of their own relationships keeps reversing itself with increasing speed. This constant exchange of the relative positions within the total picture is the cause of the vertigo, the loss of balance which the four characters experience. That feeling is inseparable from the sense of extreme difference to which the same characters never cease to cling, even as this difference keeps shifting around at a constantly accelerating tempo. It is a fact, to be sure, that two characters who face each other in fascination and rivalry can never occupy the same position together, since they themselves constitute the polarity that oscillates between them. They resemble a seesaw, with one rider always going up when the other is going down and vice versa. Never, therefore, do they cease to feel out of tune with each other, radically different from each other. In reality, of course, the positions successively occupied are the same; whatever difference remains is a purely temporal one which must become smaller and, as the movement keeps accelerating, even tend to zero, though without actually reaching it.

Even though they persevere in difference (an ever more vertiginous difference to be sure, but difference nevertheless), the protagonists become more and more undifferentiated. We have seen that the seasons lose their relative specificity, but the true loss of differentiation comes from the crisis among men who are caught in the vicious circle of mimetic desire. Progressive undifferentiation is not an illusion but the objective truth of the whole process, in the sense that reciprocity becomes more and more perfect. There is never anything on one side of a rivalry which, sooner or later, will not be found on the other. Here and there it is exactly the same mixture of fascination and hatred, the same curses, the same everything. It can be said that mimetic desire really works: it really achieves the goal it has set for itself, which is the translation of the follower into his model, the metamorphosis of one into the other, the absolute identity of all. As the climax of the midsummer night approaches, the four protagonists lose whatever individuality they formerly appeared to have; they wander like brutes in the forest, trading the same insults and finally the same physical blows, all drugged with the same drug, all bitten by the same serpent.

The more our characters tend to see one another in terms of black and white, the more alike they really make one another. Every slightest move, every single reaction becomes more and more immediately self-defeating. The more these characters deny the reciprocity among them, the more they bring it about, each denial being immediately reciprocated.

At the moment when difference should be most formidable, it begins to elude not one protagonist but the four of them all at once. Characters dissolve and personalities disintegrate. Glaring contradictions multiply, no firm judgment will hold. Each protagonist becomes a masked monster in the eyes of the other three, hiding his true being behind deceptive and shifting appearances. Each points at the hypocrite and the cheat in the others, partly in order not to feel that the ground is also slipping from under him. Helena, for example, accuses Hermia of being untrue to her real self: "Fie, fie! You counterfeit, you puppet, you!" (IH.ii.288). Hermia misunderstands and thinks Helena is making fun of her shortness:

Puppet? Why so? Aye, that way goes the game.
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures, she hath urged her height.
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevailed with
And are you grown so high in his esteem
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole?
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.

C. L. Barber [in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, 1963] correctly observes that the four young people vainly try to interpret their conflicts through something "manageably related to their individual identities," but they never achieve their purpose:

Only accidental differences can be exhibited. Helena tall, Hermia short. Although the men think that "reason says" now Helena is "the worthier maid," personalities have nothing to do with the case.… The life in the lovers' part is not to be caught in individual speeches, but by regarding the whole movement of the farce, which swings and spins each in turn through a common pattern, an evolution that seems to have an impersonal power of its own.

The time comes when the antagonists literally no longer know who they are: "Am I not Hermia? Are you not Lysander?" (III.ii.273).

Here it is no exaggeration or undue modernization to speak of a "crisis of identity." To Shakespeare, however, the crisis is primarily one of differentiation. The four characters lose a self-identity which they and the philosophers would like to turn into an absolute and which becomes relative for that very reason; it is made to depend upon the otherness of a model. When Barber points out that Shakespeare fully intends for his characters, in the course of the play, to lose whatever distinctiveness they had or appeared to have at the beginning (which wasn't much anyway), he runs counter to a long tradition of criticism, the whole tradition of "realism" and of "psychology." Many critics do not find it conceivable that a writer like Shakespeare might be more interested in the undoing and dissolving of "characters" than in their creation, viewing as they do the latter task as the one assigned to all artists of all eternity. Only the most honest will face squarely their own malaise and formulate the obvious consequences of their own inadequate principles: they blame Shakespeare for "insufficient characterization."

The question is truly fundamental. The whole orientation of criticism depends on it. It is usually the wrong solution that is adopted, all the more blindly because it remains implicit. I personally believe that the conflictual undifferentiation of the four lovers is the basic Shakespearean relationship in both his tragedies and comedies. It is the relationship of the four doubles in A Comedy of Errors; it is the relationship of the Montagues and the Capulets, of course, but also of Caesar, Brutus, and his coconspirators, of Shylock and Bassanio, of all the great tragic and comic characters. There is no great theater without a gripping awareness that, far from sharpening our differences, as we like to believe, our violence obliterates them, dissolving them into that reciprocity of vengeance which becomes its own self-inflicted punishment. Shakespeare is fully aware, at the same time, that no theater audience can assume the full force of this revelation. Its impact must and will necessarily be blunted. Some violence will be made "good" and the rest "bad" at the expense of some sacrificial victim, with or without the complicity of the writer. There is no doubt that, in many instances, Shakespeare is a willing accomplice; but his is never an absolute betrayal of his own vision, because the differences he provides are always at the same time undermined and treated as quasi-allegories. An excessive appetite for "characterization" and catharsis will take nothing of this into account: it will systematically choose as most Shakespearean what really is least so, at least in the form in which it is chosen. It will thus provide not only our realistic stodginess but also our romantic self-righteousness with the only type of nourishment they can absorb.

It is in a comedy like A Midsummer Night's Dream, if we only agree to read through the transparence of the "airy nothing," that the truth will stare us most openly in the face. Far from lacking substance and profundity, as even George Orwell inexplicably maintained, this play provides a quintessence of the Shakespearean spirit.

Am I not "going too far" when I assimilate the midsummer night to the tragic crisis; am I not running the risk of betraying the real Shakespeare? The language of differences and undifferentiation is not Shakespeare's own, after all. This is true if we take the matter quite literally; but it is also true that Shakespeare, in some of his writing, comes close to using that same language. A case in point is the famous speech of Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida: it describes that very same crisis, but does so in purely theoretical language and on as vast a scale as the most ambitious tragedies, as the crisis of an entire culture. The speech is built around one single word, degree, which would certainly be condemned as too "abstract," too "philosophical," if it were applied to Shakespeare by anyone but Shakespeare himself. And obviously Shakespeare applies it to himself as well as to the Greeks: it is the social framework of tragedy which is at stake.

     … O when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
The enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,

The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! Each thing
In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right, or rather, right and
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice
Then every thing include itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

The word degree, from the Latin gradus (step, degree, measure of distance), means exactly what is meant here by difference. Culture is conceived not as a mere collection of unrelated objects, but as a totality, or, if we prefer, a structure, a system of people and institutions always related to one another in such a way that a single differentiating principle is at work. This social transcendence does not exist as an object, of course. That is why, as soon as an individual member, overcome by hubris, tries to usurp Degree, he finds imitators; more and more people are affected by the contagion of mimetic rivalry, and Degree collapses, being nothing more than the mysterious absence of such rivalry in a functional society. The crisis is described as the "shaking," the "vizarding," or the taking away of Degree; all cultural specificities vanish, all identities disintegrate. Conflict is everywhere, and everywhere meaningless: Each thing meets in mere oppugnancy. We must note this use of the word "thing," the least determined, perhaps, in the English language. The meaningless conflict is that of the doubles. Unable to find a way out, men err and clash stupidly, full of hatred but deprived of real purpose; they resemble objects loose on the deck of a ship tossed about in a storm, destroying one another as they collide endlessly and mindlessly.

In the light of the above remarks, a precise analysis of the midsummer crisis becomes possible. The four protagonists do not see one another as doubles; they misunderstand their relationship as one of extreme if unstable differentiation. A point must finally be reached where all of these illusory differences oscillate so rapidly that the contrasting specificities they define are no longer perceived separately; they begin to impinge on one another, they appear to merge. Beyond a certain threshold, in other words, the dizziness mentioned earlier will make normal perception impossible; hallucination must prevail, of a type that can be ascertained with some precision, being not purely capricious and random but predetermined by the nature of the crisis.

When polarities such as the ones described earlier between the "beast" and the "angel" oscillate so fast that they become one, the elements involved remain too incompatible for a harmonious "synthesis," and they will simply be juxtaposed or superimposed on each other. A composite picture should emerge which will include fragments of the former "opposites" in a disorderly mosaic. Instead of a god and a beast facing each other as two independent and irreducible entities, we are going to have a mixture and a confusion of the two, a god that is a beast or a beast that is a god. When the polarities revolve fast enough, all antithetic images must be viewed simultaneously, through a kind of cinematic effect that will produce the illusion of a more or less single being in the form or rather the formlessness of "some monstrous shape."

What A Midsummer Night's Dream suggests, in other words, is that the mythical monster, as a conjunction of elements which normally specify different beings, automatically results from the more and more rapid turnover of animal and metaphysical images, a turnover which depends on the constantly self-reinforcing process of mimetic desire. We are not simply invited to witness the dramatic but insignificant birth of bizarre mythical creatures; rather we are confronted with a truly fascinating and important view of mythical genesis.

In a centaur, elements specific to man and to horse are inexplicably conjoined, just as elements specific to man and ass are conjoined in the monstrous metamorphosis of Bottom. Since there is no limit to the differences that can be jumbled together, since the picture will necessarily remain blurred, the diversity of monsters will appear properly limitless and the infinite seems to be at hand. Insofar as separate entities can be distinguished within the monstrous whole, there will be individual monsters; but they will have no stability: they will constantly appear to merge and marry one another. The birth of monsters, their scandalous commingling with human beings, and the wedding of the one with the other, all these mythical phenomena are part of one and the same experience. The wedding of Titania with the ass-headed Bottom, under the influence of that same "love juice" that makes the lovers crazy, can take place only because the difference between the natural and the supernatural is gone; haughty Titania finds to her dismay that the barrier between her and ordinary mortals is down:

Tell me how it came this night
That I sleeping there was found
With these mortals on the ground.

The conjunction of man, god, and beast takes place at the climax of the crisis and is the result of a process which began with the play itself. It is the ultimate metamorphosis, the supreme translation.

In that process the animal images play a pivotal role. I noted earlier that their perfect integration into the disquieting symphony conducted by Shakespeare was not at all incompatible with their identification as literary reminiscences. We must now go further. To say that these images are compatible with the role that Shakespeare himself wants them to play in his own work is no longer enough. It is evident that these animal images are especially appropriate to that role and that Shakespeare has selected them for that reason. Most of them come from Ovid's Metamorphoses. They are directly implicated in an earlier genesis of myth, still quite mythical, and far removed from the obviously psychosocial interpretation implicitly proposed by Shakespeare. It is no exaggeration to assert that A Midsummer Night's Dream, because it is a powerful reinterpretation of Ovid, also provides, at least in outline, Shakespeare's own genetic theory of myth. It is a mistake, therefore, to view the animal images as if they were suspended in midair between the matter-of-fact interplay of desires on the one hand and purely fantastic shapes on the other. They are the connecting link between the two. Thus we can no longer see the play as a collage of heterogeneous elements, as another monstrosity; it is a continuous development, a series of logically related steps that will account even for the monsters in its own midst if they are only followed to the end, if enough trust is placed in the consistency of the author.

At the climax of the crisis, Demetrius and Lysander are about to kill each other, but Puck, on Oberon's orders, substitutes himself for the doubles and puts the four lovers to sleep. When they wake up the next morning, they find themselves reconciled, neatly arranged this time in well-assorted couples. Good weather is back, everything is in order once more. Degree is restored. Theseus appears upon the scene. He and his future wife hear an account of the midsummer night, and it is for the duke to pronounce the final word, to draw the official conclusion of the whole episode in response to a slightly anxious question asked by Hippolyta. Then comes the most famous passage of the entire play. Theseus dismisses the entire midsummer night as the inconsequential fruit of a gratuitous and disembodied imagination. He seems to believe that the real question is whether or not to believe in the fairies. Hippolyta's later words will reveal that her concern is of an entirely different sort; but, like all rationalists of a certain type, Theseus has a marvelous capacity for simplifying the issues and displacing a debate toward his favorite stomping ground. Much of what he says is true, of course; but it is beside the point. To believe or not to believe, that is not the question; and, by trumpeting his fatuous skepticism, Theseus dispenses himself from looking at the remarkable pattern of the midsummer night and the disturbing clues it may contain concerning the nature of all social beliefs, including his own. Who knows if the crisis and its cathartic resolution are responsible only for the monsters of the night? Who knows if the peace and order of the morning after, if even the majestic confidence of the unchallenged ruler are not equally in their debt? Theseus' casual dismissal of myth is itself mythical in the sense that it will not ask such questions. There is irony in the choice of a great mythical figure to embody this rationalistic dismissal. Here Theseus acts as the high priest of a benign casting-out of all disturbing phenomena under the triple heading of poetry, lunacy, and love. This neat operation frees respectable men of all responsibility for whatever tricks, past, present, and future, their own desires and mimetic violence might play on them, thus perfectly duplicating the primary genesis of myth, the one that I have just noted.

Hippolyta: 'Tis strange, my Theseus, that these
  lovers speak of.
Theseus: More strange than true. I never may
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehend.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast Hell can hold,
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to
And as imagination bodies forth
The form of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothings
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

This positivism avant la lettre seems to contradict much of what I have said so far. Evidence so laboriously assembled seems scattered once more. Where are the half-concealed yet blatant disclosures, the allusive ambiguities artfully disposed by the author (or so I supposed) for our enlightenment? Long before I came to it, I am sure, many skeptical readers had the passage in mind, and they will rightly want to know how it fits into my reading. Here it is, finally, an obvious ally of the traditional readings that quite naturally regard it as the unshakable rock upon which they are founded. As such, it must constitute a formidable stumbling block for my own intricate revisionism.

The lead is provided by Shakespeare himself, and the present status of the passage as a piece of anthology, a lieu commun of modern aestheticism, testifies to the willingness of posterity to take up that lead. The reading provided by Theseus is certainly the most pleasant, the one which conforms to the wishes of the heart and to the tendency of the human mind not to be disturbed. We must note, besides, that the text is centrally located, placed in the mouth of the most distinguished character, couched in sonorous and memorable phrases, well fit to adorn academic dissertations on the so-called "imaginative faculty."

This speech has been so successful, indeed, that no one ever pays any attention to the five quiet lines that follow.

Hippolyta's response does not have the same resounding eloquence, but the dissatisfaction she expresses with the slightly pompous and irrelevant postmortem of Theseus was written by Shakespeare himself. It cannot fail to be of immense significance:

But the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy,
But howsoever strange and admirable.

Hippolyta clearly perceives Theseus' failure to come up with the holistic interpretation that is necessary. He and his innumerable followers deal with the play as if it were a collection of separate cock-and-bull stories. To them imagination is a purely individual activity, unrelated to the interplay of the four lovers. They themselves are the true inheritors of myth when they confidently believe in their simplistic objectivity. They see myth as something they have already left behind with the greatest of ease, as an object of passing amusement, perhaps, when the occasion arises to watch some light entertainment such as A Midsummer Night's Dream.

There is no doubt that we are dealing with two critical attitudes and that Shakespeare himself vindicates the one that has always been least popular. When I suggest that A Midsummer Night's Dream, behind all the frills, is a serious genetic theory of myth, I am only translating the five lines of Hippolita into contemporary parlance. It is not I but Shakespeare who writes that the midsummer night is more than a few graceful arabesques about English folklore and Elizabethan lovers. It is not I but Shakespeare who draws our attention to all their minds transfigured so together and to the final result as something of great constancy, in other words, a common structure of mythical meaning.

I have suggested that A Midsummer Night's Dream might well be two plays in one. This hypothesis is now strengthened. At this point, the two plays are coming to life as individuals; they are speaking to us and to each other, one through Theseus, the other through Hippolyta. The exchange between the bridegroom and his acutely perceptive but eternally overshadowed bride amounts to the first critical of the play. Representing as he does blissful ignorance and the decorum of Degree enthroned, Theseus must hold the stage longer, speaking with a brilliance and finality that confirms the dramatic preeminence of the surface play, a preeminence that is maintained throughout. Since he gives a voice to all those—the immense majority—who want nothing more in such an affair than "airy nothings," Theseus must be as deaf and blind to his bride's arguments as Shakespeare's audiences and critics seem to have been ever since. The debate seems onesided in the duke's favor, but how could we fail, at this juncture, to realize that the real last word belongs to Hippolyta, both literally and figuratively? In the context of the evidence gathered earlier, how could we doubt that Hippolyta's words are the decisive ones, that they represent Shakespeare's own view of how the play really hangs together? If we really understand that context, we cannot be surprised that Shakespeare makes his correction of Theseus as discreet and unobstrusive as it is illuminating, visible only to the same thoughtful attention already needed to appreciate such pregnant ambiguities as "to choose love by another's eyes" and other similar gems of exquisitely direct, yet almost imperceptible revelation.

Hippolyta is gently tugging at Theseus' sleeve, but Theseus hears nothing. Posterity hears nothing. Hippolyta has been tugging at that sleeve for close to four hundred years now, with no consequence whatever, her words forever buried under the impressive scaffoldings of Degree once more triumphant in the guise of rationalism, eternally silenced by that need for reassurance which is answered first by belief in myths, then by a certain kind of disbelief. Shakespeare seems to give his blessing to both, ironically confounded in the person of Theseus. He places in the hands of his pious and admiring betrayers the instruments best designed to blunt the otherwise intolerably sharp edge of their favorite bard's genius.

Louis Adrian Montrose (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "'Shaping Fantasies': Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture," in Representations, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 61-86.

[In the following excerpt, Montrose argues that A Midsummer Night's Dream calls attention to itself as both a product and a producer of Elizabethan attitudes regarding the relationship between gender and power.]


Shakespeare's Duke Theseus formulates policy when he proclaims that "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact"; that "Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, / Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends." The social order of Theseus' Athens depends upon his authority to name the forms and his power to control the subjects of mental disorder. The ruler's task is to comprehend—to understand and to encompass—the energies and motives, the diverse, unstable, and potentially subversive apprehensions of the ruled. But the Duke—so self-assured and benignly condescending in his comprehension—might also have some cause for apprehension: he himself and the fictional society over which he rules have been shaped by the imagination of a poet. My intertextual study of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream and symbolic forms shaped by other Elizabethan lunatics, lovers, and poets construes the play as calling attention to itself, not only as an end but also as a source of cultural production. Thus, in writing of "shaping fantasies," I mean to suggest the dialectical character of cultural representations: the fantasies by which the text of A Midsummer Night's Dream has been shaped are also those to which it gives shape. I explore this dialectic within a specifically Elizabethan context of cultural production: the interplay between representations of gender and power in a stratified society in which authority is everywhere invested in men—everywhere, that is, except at the top.

In the introduction to his [1979] edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Harold Brooks summarizes the consensus of modern criticism: "Love and marriage is the [play's] central theme: love aspiring to and consummated in marriage, or to a harmonious partnership within it." … But, as Paul Olson suggested some years ago, the harmonious marital unions of A Midsummer Night's Dream are in harmony with doctrines of Tudor apologists for the patriarchal family: marital union implies a domestic hierarchy; marital harmony is predicated upon the wife's obedience to her husband. Brooks' romantic view and Olson's authoritarian one offer limited but complementary perspectives on the dramatic process by which A Midsummer Night's Dream figures the social relationship between the sexes in courtship, marriage, and parenthood. The play imaginatively embodies what Gayle Rubin has called a "sex/gender system": a socio-historical construction of sexual identity, difference and relationship; an appropriation of human anatomical and physiological features by an ideological discourse; a culture-specific fantasia upon Nature's universal theme.

As has long been recognized, A Midsummer Night's Dream has affinities with Elizabethan courtly entertainments. In his edition of the play, Harold Brooks cautiously endorses the familiar notion that it was "designed to grace a wedding in a noble household." He adds that "it seems likely that Queen Elizabeth was present when the Dream was first acted.… She delighted in homage paid to her as the Virgin Queen, and receives it in the myth-making about the imperial votaress." … Although attractive and plausible, such topical connections must remain wholly conjectural. The perspective of my own analysis of the play's court connection is dialectical rather than causal, ideological rather than occasional. For, whether or not Queen Elizabeth was physically present at the first performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, her pervasive cultural presence was a condition of the play's imaginative possibility. This is not to imply that A Midsummer Night's Dream is merely an inert "product" of Elizabethan culture. The play is rather a new production of Elizabethan culture, enlarging the dimensions of the cultural field and altering the lines of force within it. Thus, in the sense that the royal presence was itself re-presented within the play, it may be said that the play henceforth conditioned the imaginative possibility of the Queen. In what follows, I shall explore how Shakespeare's play and other Elizabethan texts figure the Elizabethan sex/gender system and the queen's place within it.


I would like to recount an Elizabethan dream—not Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, but one dreamt by Simon Forman on January 23, 1597. Forman—a professional astrologer and physician, amateur alchemist, and avid playgoer—recorded in his diary the following account:

I dreamt that I was with the Queen, and that she was a little elderly woman in a coarse white petticoat all unready; and she and I walked up and down through lanes and closes, talking and reasoning of many matters. At last we came over a great close where were many people, and there were two men at hard words. One of them was a weaver, a tall man with a reddish beard, distract of his wits. She talked to him and he spoke very merrily unto her, and at last did take her and kiss her. So I took her by the arm and put her away; and told her the fellow was frantic. And so we went from him and I led her by the arm still, and then we went through a dirty lane. She had a long, white smock, very clean and fair, and it trailed in the dirt and her coat behind. I took her coat and did carry it up a good way, and then it hung too low before. I told her she should do me a favour to let me wait on her, and she said I should. Then said I, "I mean to wait upon you and not under you, that I might make this belly a little bigger to carry up this smock and coats out of the dirt." And so we talked merrily and then she began to lean upon me, when we were past the dirt and to be very familiar with me, and methought she began to love me. And when we were alone, out of sight, methought she would have kissed me.

It was then that Forman awoke.

Within the dreamer's unconscious, the "little elderly woman" who was his political mother must have been linked to the mother who had borne him. In an autobiographical fragment, Forman repeatedly characterizes himself as unloved and rejected by his mother during his childhood and youth: he writes of himself, that "Simon, being a child of six years old, his father loved him above all the rest, but his mother nor brethren loved him not.… After the father of Simon was dead, his mother, who never loved him, grudged at his being at home, and what fault soever was committed by any of the rest he was beaten for it." Forman's mother was still alive at the date of his dream, a very old woman. C. L. Barber has suggested [in Representing Shakespeare, M. Schwartz and C. Kahn eds., 1980] that "the very central and problematical role of women in Shakespeare—and in Elizabethan drama generally—reflects the fact that Protestantism did away with the cult of the Virgin Mary. It meant the loss of ritual resource for dealing with the internal residues in all of us of the once all-powerful and all-inclusive mother." What Barber fails to note is that a concerted effort was in fact made to appropriate the symbolism and the affective power of the suppressed Marian cult in order to foster an Elizabethan cult. Both the internal residues and the religious rituals were potential resources for dealing with the political problems of the Elizabethan regime. Perhaps, at the same time, the royal cult may also have provided Forman and other Elizabethans with a resource for dealing with the internal residues of their relationships to the primary maternal figures of infancy. My concern is not to psychoanalyze Forman but rather to emphasize the historical specificity of psychological processes, the politics of the unconscious. Whatever the place of this dream in the dreamer's interior life, the text in which he represents it to himself allows us to glimpse the cultural contours of an Elizabethan psyche.

The virginal sex-object of Forman's dream, the "little elderly woman" scantily clad in white, corresponds with startling accuracy to descriptions of Elizabeth's actual appearance in 1597. In the year that Forman dreamt his dream, the ambassador extraordinary of the French King Henri IV described the English Queen in his journal. At his first audience, he recorded:

She was strangely attired in a dress of silver cloth, white and crimson.… She kept the front of her dress open, and one could see the whole of her bosom, and passing low, and often she would open the front of this robe with her hands as if she was too hot.… Her bosom is somewhat wrinkled … but lower down her flesh is exceeding white and delicate, so far as one could see. As for her face, it is and appears to be very aged. It is long and thin, and her teeth are very yellow and unequal.… Many of them are missing so that one cannot understand her easily when she speaks quickly.

For the ambassador's second audience, the Queen appeared

clad in a dress of black taffeta, bound with gold lace.… She had a petticoat of white damask, girdled, and open in front, as was also her chemise, in such a manner that she often opened this dress and one could see all her belly, and even to her navel.… When she raises her head, she has a trick of putting both hands on her gown and opening it insomuch that all her belly can be seen.

In the following year, another foreign visitor who saw the Queen noted that her bosom was uncovered, as all the English ladies have it till they marry.

Elizabeth's display of her bosom signified her status as a maiden. But, as in Spenser's personification of Charity as a nursing mother or in the popular emblem of the life-rendering Pelican (which Elizabeth wore as a pendant upon her bosom in one of her portraits), her breasts were also those of a selfless and bountiful mother. The image of the Queen as a wetnurse may have had some currency. Of the Earl of Essex's insatiable thirst for those offices and honors which were in the Queen's gift, Naunton wrote that "my Lord … drew in too fast, like a childe sucking on an overuberous Nurse." The Queen was the source of her subjects' social sustenance, the fount of all preferments; she was represented as a virgin-mother—part Madonna, part Ephesian Diana. Like her bosom, Elizabeth's belly must have figured her political motherhood. But, as the French ambassador insinuates, these conspicuous self-displays were also a kind of erotic provocation. The official portraits and courtly blazons that represent the splendor of the Queen's immutable body politic are nicely complemented by the ambassador's sketches of the Queen's sixty-five year old body natural. His perceptions of the vanity and melancholy of this personage in no way negate his numerous observations of her grace, vitality, and political cunning. Indeed, in the very process of describing the Queen's preoccupation with the impact of her appearance upon her beholders, the ambassador demonstrates its impact upon himself.

So, too, the aged Queen's body exerts a power upon the mind of Doctor Forman; and, in his dream, he exerts a reciprocal power upon the body of the Queen. The virginal, erotic, and maternal aspects of the Elizabethan feminine that the royal cult appropriates from the domestic domain are themselves appropriated by one of the Queen's subjects and made the material for his dreamwork. At the core of Forman's dream is his joke with the Queen: "I told her she should do me a favour to let me wait on her, and she said I should. Then said I, 'I mean to wait upon you and not under you, that I might make this belly a little bigger to carry up this smock and coats out of the dirt.'" The joke—and, in a sense, the whole dream—is generated from Forman's verbal quibble: to wait upon/to weight upon. Within this subversive pun is concentrated the reciprocal relationship between dependency and domination. With one vital exception, all forms of public and domestic authority in Elizabethan England were vested in men: in fathers, husbands, masters, teachers, magistrates, lords. It was inevitable that the rule of a woman would generate peculiar tensions within such a "patriarchal" society. Forman's dream epitomizes the indissolubly political and sexual character of the cultural forms in which such tensions might be represented and addressed. In Forman's wordplay, the subject's desire for employment (to wait upon) coexists with his desire for mastery (to weight upon); and the pun is manifested physically in his desire to inseminate his sovereign, which is at once to serve her and to possess her. And because the figures in the dream are not only subject and prince but also man and woman, what the subject desires to perform, the man has the capacity to perform: for Forman to raise the Queen's belly is to make her female body to bear the sign of his own potency. In the context of the cross-cutting relationships between subject and prince, man and woman, the dreamer insinuates into a gesture of homage, a will to power.

It is strange and admirable that the dreamer's rival for the Queen should be a weaver—as if Nick Bottom had wandered out of Shakespeare's Dream and into Forman's. Forman's story of the night does indeed have affinities with the "most rare vision" (4.1.203) that Shakespeare grants to Bottom. Bottom's dream, like Forman's, is an experience of fleeting intimacy with a powerful female who is at once lover, mother, and queen. The liaison between The Fairy Queen and the assified artisan is an outrageous theatrical realization of a personal fantasy that was obviously not Forman's alone. Titania treats Bottom as if he were both her child and her lover. And she herself is ambivalently nurturing and threatening, imperious and enthralled. She dotes upon Bottom, and indulges in him all those desires to be fed, scratched, and coddled that make Bottom's dream into a parodic fantasy of infantile narcissism and dependency. The sinister side of Titania's possessiveness is manifested in her binding up of Bottom's tongue, and her intimidating command, "Out of this wood do not desire to go:/Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no" (3.1.145-46). But if Titania manipulates Bottom, an artisan and amateur actor, she herself is manipulated by Oberon, a "King of shadows" (3.2.347) and the play's internal dramatist. A fantasy of male dependency upon woman is expressed and contained within a fantasy of male control over woman; the social reality of the player's dependency upon a Queen is inscribed within the imaginative reality of the dramatist's control over a Queen. Both Forman's private dream-text and Shakespeare's public play-text embody a culture-specific dialectic between personal and public images of gender and power; both are characteristically Elizabethan cultural forms.


The beginning of A Midsummer Night's Dream coincides with the end of a struggle in which Theseus has been victorious over the Amazon warrior:

Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.

Descriptions of the Amazons are ubiquitous in Elizabethan texts. For example, all of the essentials are present in popular form in William Painter's "Novel of the Amazones," which opens the second book of The Palace of Pleasure (1575). Here we read that the Amazons "were most excellent warriors"; that "they murdred certaine of their husbands" at the beginning of their gynecocracy; that, "if they brought forth daughters, they norished and trayned them up in armes, and other manlik exercises.… If they were delivered of males, they sent them to their fathers, and if by chaunce they kept any backe, they murdred them, or else brake their armes and legs in sutch wise as they had no power to beare weapons, and served for nothynge but to spin, twist, and doe other feminine labour." The Amazons' penchant for male infanticide is complemented by their obvious delight in subjecting powerful heroes to their will. Spenser's Artegall, hero of the Legend of Justice, becomes enslaved to Radigund, "A Princesse of great powre, and greater pride, / And Queene of Amazons, in armes well tride" (FQ, 5.4.33). Defeated by Radigund in personal combat, Artegall must undergo degradation and effeminization of the kind endured by Hercules and by the Amazons' maimed sons.

Sixteenth century travel narratives often recreate the ancient Amazons of Scythia in South America or in Africa. Invariably, the Amazons are relocated just beyond the receding boundary of terra incognita. Thus, in Sierra Leone in 1582, the chaplain of an English expedition to the Spice Islands recorded the report of a Portuguese trader that "near the mountains of the moon there is a queen, empress of all these Amazons, a witch and a cannibal who daily feeds on the flesh of boys. She ever remains unmarried, but she has intercourse with a great number of men by whom she begets offspring. The kingdom, however, remains hereditary to the daughters, not to the sons." This cultural fantasy assimilates Amazonian myth, witch-craft, and cannibalism into an anti-culture which precisely inverts European norms of political authority, sexual license, marriage practices, and inheritance rules. The attitude toward the Amazons expressed in such Renaissance texts is a mixture of fascination and horror. Amazonian mythology seems symbolically to embody and to control a collective anxiety about the power of the female not only to dominate or reject the male but to create and destroy him. It is an ironic acknowledgment by an androcentric culture of the degree to which men are in fact dependent upon women: upon mothers and nurses, for their birth and nurture; upon mistresses and wives, for the validation of their manhood.

Shakespeare engages his wedding play in a dialectic with this mythological formation. The Amazons have been defeated before the play begins; and nuptial rites are to be celebrated when it ends. A Midsummer Night's Dream focuses upon different crucial transitions in the male and female life cycles: the fairy plot, upon taking "a little changeling boy" from childhood into youth, from the world of the mother into the world of the father; the Athenian plot, upon taking a maiden from youth into maturity, from the world of the father into the world of the husband. The pairing of the four Athenian lovers is made possible by the magical powers of Oberon and made lawful by the political authority of Theseus. Each of these rulers is preoccupied with the fulfillment of his own desires in the possession or repossession of a wife. Only after Hippolyta has been mastered by Theseus may marriage seal them "in everlasting bond of fellowship" (1.1.85). And only after "proud Titania" has been degraded by "jealous Oberon" (2.1.60, 61), has "in mild terms begg'd" (4.1.57) his patience, and has readily yielded the changeling boy to him, may they be "new in amity" (4.1.86).

The diachronic structure of A Midsummer Night's Dream eventually restores the inverted Amazonian system of gender and nurture to a patriarchal norm. But the initial plans for Theseus' triumph are immediately interrupted by news of yet another unruly female. Egeus wishes to confront his daughter Hermia with two alternatives: absolute obedience to the paternal will, or death. Theseus intervenes with a third alternative: if she refuses to marry whom her father chooses, Hermia must submit

Either to die the death or to abjure
Forever the society of men.

For aye to be in shady cloister mew'd,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold, fruitless moon.
Thrice blessed they that master so their blood
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage;
But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd
Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies, in single blessedness.
                                (1.1.65-66, 71-78)

Theseus has characteristically Protestant notions about the virtue of virginity: maidenhood is a phase in the life-cycle of a woman who is destined for married chastity and motherhood. As a permanent state, "single blessedness" is mere sterility. Theseus expands Hermia's options only in order to clarify her constraints. In the process of tempering the father's domestic tyranny, the Duke affirms his own interests and authority. He represents the life of a vestal as a punishment, and it is one that fits the nature of Hermia's crime. The maiden is surrounded by men, each of whom—as father, lover, or lord—claims a kind of property in her. Yet Hermia dares to suggest that she has a claim to property in herself: she refuses to "yield [her] virgin patent up / Unto his lordship whose unwished yoke / [Her] soul consents not to give sovereignty" (1.1.80-82). Like Rosalind, in As You Like It, Hermia wishes the limited privilege of giving herself. Theseus appropriates the source of Hermia's fragile power: her ability to deny men access to her body. He usurps the power of virginity by imposing upon Hermia his own power to deny her the use of her body. If she will not submit to its use by her father and by Demetrius, she must "abjure forever the society of men," and "live a barren sister all [her] life" (1.1.65-66, 72). Her own words suggest that the female body is a supreme form of property and a locus for the contestation of authority. The self-possession of single blessedness is a form of power against which are opposed the marriage doctrines of Shakespeare's culture and the very form of his comedy.

In devising Hermia's punishment, Theseus appropriates and parodies the very condition which the Amazons sought to enjoy. They rejected marriages with men and alliances with patriarchal societies because, as one sixteenth century writer put it, they esteemed "that Patrimonie was not a meane of libertie but of thraldome." The separatism of the Amazons is a repudiation of men's claims to have property in women. But if Amazonian myth figures the inversionary claims of matriarchy, sisterhood, and the autonomy of women, it also figures the repudiation of those claims in the act of Amazonomachy. Painter recounts the battle between the Amazons, led by Menalippe and Hippolyta (both sisters of Queen Antiopa) and the Greeks, led by Hercules and Theseus. Hercules returned Menalippe to Antiopa in exchange for the Queen's armor, "but Theseus for no offer that she coulde make, woulde he deliver Hippolyta, with whom he was so farre in love, that he carried her home with him, and afterward toke her to wyfe, of whom hee had a sonne called Hipolitus" (The Palace of Pleasure, 2:163). Theseus' violent and insatiable lust—what North's Plutarch suggestively calls his "womannishenes"—divorced Hippolyta from her sisters and from the society of Amazons.

Shakespeare's play naturalizes Amazonomachy in the vicissitudes of courtship. Heterosexual desire disrupts the innocent pleasures of Hermia's girlhood: "What graces in my love do dwell, / That he hath turn'd a heaven unto a hell!" (1.1.206-207). Hermia's farewell to Helena is also a farewell to their girlhood friendship, a delicate repudiation of youthful homophilia:

And in the wood, where often you and I
Upon faint primrose beds were wont to lie,
Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet,
There my Lysander and myself shall meet;
And thence from Athens turn away our eyes,
To seek new friends, and stranger companies.

Before dawn comes to the forest, the "counsel" shared by Hermia and Helena, their "sisters' vows … school-days' friendship, childhood innocence" (3.2.198, 199, 202), have all been torn asunder, to be replaced at the end of the play by the primary demands and loyalties of wedlock. On the other hand, by dawn the hostilities between the two male youths have dissolved into "gentle concord" (4.1.142). From the beginning of the play, the relationship between Lysander and Demetrius has been based upon aggressive rivalry for the same object of desire: first for Hermia, and then for Helena. Each youth must despise his previous mistress in order to adore the next; and a change in one's affections provokes a change in the other's. R. W. Dent [in Shakespeare Quarterly] has pointed out that the young women do not fluctuate in their desires for their young men, and that the ending ratifies their constant if inexplicable preferences. It should be added that the maidens remain constant to their men at the cost of inconstancy to each other. If Lysander and Demetrius are flagrantly inconstant to Hermia and Helena, the pattern of their inconstancies nevertheless keeps them constant to each other. The romantic resolution transforms this constancy from one of rivalry to one of friendship by making each male to accept his own female. In Puck's charmingly crude formulation:

And the country proverb known,
That every man should take his own,
In your waking shall be shown:
Jack shall have Jill,
Nought shall go ill:
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall
  be well.

At the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as at the end of As You Like It, the marital couplings dissolve the bonds of sisterhood at the same time that they forge the bonds of brotherhood.

According to the paradigm of Northrop Frye [in A Natural Perspective, 1965], Shakespearean comedy "normally begins with an anticomic society, a social organization blocking and opposed to the comic drive, which the action of the comedy evades or overcomes. It often takes the form of a harsh or irrational law, like … the law disposing of rebellious daughters in A Midsummer Night's Dream.… Most of these irrational laws are preoccupied with trying to regulate the sexual drive, and so work counter to the wishes of the hero and heroine, which form the main impetus of the comic action." Frye's account of Shakespearean comic action emphasizes intergenerational tension at the expense of those other forms of social and familial tension from which it is only artificially separable; in particular, he radically undervalues the centrality of sexual politics to these plays by unquestioningly identifying the heroines' interests with those of the heroes. The interaction of characters in the fictive societies of Shakespearean drama—like the interaction of persons in the society of Shakespeare's England—is structured by the complex interplay among culture-specific categories, not only of age and gender but also of kinship and class.

The "drive toward a festive conclusion" … which liberates and unites comic heroes and heroines also subordinates wives to husbands and confers the responsibilities and privileges of manhood upon callow youths. What Frye calls "the main impetus" of Shakespearean comic action is not so much to liberate "the sexual drive" from "irrational laws" as it is to fabricate a temporary accommodation between law and libido. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, as in other Shakespearean comedies, the "drive toward a festive conclusion" is, specifically, a drive toward a wedding. And in its validation of marriage, the play is less concerned to sacrimentalize libido than to socialize it.

In the opening scene, Egeus claims that he may do with Hermia as he chooses because she is his property: "As she is mine, I may dispose of her" (1.1.142). This claim is based upon a stunningly simple thesis: she is his because he has made her. Charging that Lysander has "stol'n the impression" (1.1.32) of Hermia's fantasy, Egeus effectively absolves his daughter from responsibility for her affections because he cannot acknowledge her capacity for volition. If she does not—cannot—obey him, then she should be destroyed. Borrowing Egeus' own imprinting metaphor, Theseus explains to Hermia the ontogenetic principle underlying her father's vehemence:

To you your father should be as a god:
One that compos'd your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted, and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.

Theseus represents paternity as a cultural act, an art: the father is a demiurge or homo faber, who composes, informs, imprints himself upon, what is merely inchoate matter. Conspicuously excluded from Shakespeare's play is the relationship between mother and daughter—the kinship bond through which Amazonian society reproduces itself. The mother's part is wholly excluded from this account of the making of a daughter. Hermia and Helena have no mothers; they have only fathers. The central female characters of Shakespeare's comedies are not mothers but mothers-to-be, maidens who are passing from fathers to husbands in a world made and governed by men.

In effect, Theseus' lecture on the shaping of a daughter is a fantasy of male parthenogenesis. Titania's votaress is the only biological mother in A Midsummer Night's Dream. But she is an absent presence who must be evoked from Titania's memory because she has died in giving birth to a son. Assuming that they do not maim their sons, the Amazons are only too glad to give them away to their fathers. In Shakespeare's play, however, Oberon's paternal power must be directed against Titania's maternal possessiveness:

For Oberon is passing fell and wrath,
Because that she as her attendant hath
A lovely boy, stol'n from an Indian king—
She never had so sweet a changeling;
And jealous Oberon would have the child
Knight of his train to trace the forest wild;
But she perforce withholds the loved boy,
Crowns him with flowers, and makes him all her

A boy's transition from the female-centered world of his early childhood to the male-centered world of his youth is given a kind of phylogenetic sanction by myths recounting a cultural transition from matriarchy to patriarchy. Such a myth is represented at the very threshhold of A Midsummer Night's Dream: Theseus' defeat of the Amazonian matriarchate sanctions Oberon's attempt to take the boy from an infantilizing mother and to make a man of him. Yet "jealous" Oberon is not only Titania's rival for the child but also the child's rival for Titania: making the boy "all her joy," "proud" Titania withholds herself from her husband; she has "forsworn his bed and company" (2.1.62-63). Oberon's preoccupation is to gain possession, not only of the boy but of the woman's desire and obedience; he must master his own dependency upon his wife.

Titania has her own explanation for her fixation upon the changeling:

His mother was a votress of my order
And in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip'd by my side;
And sat with me on Neptune's yellow sands,
Marking th'embarked traders on the flood:
When we have laugh'd to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following (her womb then rich with my young
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles, and return again
As from a voyage rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy;
And for her sake I will not part with him.

Titania's attachment to the changeling boy embodies her attachment to the memory of his mother. What Oberon accomplishes by substituting Bottom for the boy is to break Titania's solemn vow. As in the case of the Amazons, or of Hermia and Helena, the play again enacts a male disruption of an intimate bond between women: first by the boy, and then by the man. It is as if, in order to be freed and enfranchised from the prison of the womb, the male child must kill his mother: "She, being mortal, of that boy did die." Titania's words suggest that mother and son are potentially mortal to each other: the matricidal infant complements the infanticidal Amazon. As is later the case with Bottom, Titania both dotes upon and dominates the child, attenuating his imprisonment to the womb: "And for her sake I will not part with him." Thus, within the changeling plot are embedded transformations of the male fantasies of motherhood which are figured in Amazonian myth.

Titania represents her bond to her votaress as one that is rooted in an experience of female fecundity, an experience for which men must seek merely mercantile compensations. The women "have laugh'd to see the sails conceive / And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind"; and the votaress has parodied such false pregnancies by sailing to fetch trifles while she herself bears riches within her very womb. The notion of maternity implied in Titania's speech counterpoints the notion of paternity formulated by Theseus in the opening scene. In Theseus' description, neither biological nor social mother—neither genetrix nor mater—plays a role in the making of a daughter; in Titania's description, neither genitor nor pater plays a role in the making of a son. The father's daughter is shaped from without; the mother's son comes from within her body: Titania dwells upon the physical bond between mother and child, as manifested in pregnancy and parturition. Like an infant of the Elizabethan upper classes, however, the changeling is nurtured not by his natural mother but by a surrogate. By emphasizing her own role as a foster mother to her gossip's offspring, Titania links the biological and social aspects of parenthood together within a wholly maternal world, a world in which the relationship between women has displaced the relationship between wife and husband. Nevertheless, despite the exclusion of a paternal role from Titania's speech, Shakespeare's embryological notions remain distinctly Aristotelian, distinctly phallocentric: the mother is represented as a vessel, as a container for her son; she is not his maker. In contrast, the implication of Theseus' description of paternity is that the male is the only begetter; a daughter is merely a token of her father's potency. Thus these two speeches may be said to formulate in poetic discourse, a proposition about the genesis of gender and power: men make women, and make themselves through the medium of women. Such a proposition reverses the Amazonian practice, in which women use men merely for their own reproduction. But much more than this, it seems an over-compensation for the natural fact that men do indeed come from women; an over-compensation for the cultural facts that consanguineal and affinal ties between men are established through mothers, wives, and daughters. A Mid-summer Night's Dream dramatizes a set of claims which are repeated throughout Shakespeare's canon: claims for a spiritual kinship among men that is unmediated by women; for the procreative powers of men; and for the autogeny of men.

It may be relevant to recall that what we tend to think of as the "facts of life" have been established as facts relatively recently in human history, with the development of microbiology that began in Europe in the late seventeenth century. Of course, that seminal and menstrual fluids are in some way related to generation, and that people have both a father and a mother are hardly novel notions. My point is that, in Shakespeare's age, they remained merely notions. Although biological maternity was readily apparent, biological paternity was a cultural construct for which ocular proof was unattainable. More specifically, the evidence for unique biological paternity, for the physical link between a particular man and child, has always been exiguous. And, in Shakespearean drama, this link is frequently a focus of anxious concern, whether the concern is to validate paternity or to call it in question. Thus, Lear tells Regan that if she were not glad to see him, "I would divorce me from thy mother's tomb, / Sepulchring an adult'ress" (King Lear, 2.4.131-32). And Leontes exclaims, upon first meeting Florizel, "Your mother was most true to wedlock, Prince, / For she did print your royal father off, / Conceiving you" (The Winter's Tale, 5.1.124-26). In the former speech, a vulnerable father invokes his previously unacknowledged wife precisely when he wishes to repudiate his child; while in the latter, a vulnerable husband celebrates female virtue as the instrument of male self-reproduction.

The role of genetrix is self-evident but the role of genitor is not. As Launcelot Gobbo puts it, in The Merchant of Venice, "it is a wise father that knows his own child" (MV, 2.2.76-77). This consequence of biological asymmetry calls forth an explanatory—and compensatory—asymmetry in many traditional embryological theories: paternity is procreative, the formal and/or efficient cause of generation; maternity is nurturant, the material cause of generation. For example, according to The Problemes of Aristotle, a popular Elizabethan medical guide that continued to be revised and reissued well into the nineteenth century,

The seede [i.e., of the male] is the efficient beginning of the childe, as the builder is the efficient cause of the house, and therefore is not the materiali cause of the childe.… The seedes [i.e., both male and female] are shut and kept in the wombe: but the seede of the man doth dispose and prepare the seed of the woman to receive the forme, perfection, or soule, the which being done, it is converted into humiditie, and is fumed and breathed out by the pores of the matrix, which is manifest, bicause onely the flowers [i.e., the menses] of the woman are the materiali cause of the yoong one.

Conflating Aristotelian and Galenic notions, the text registers some confusion about the nature of the inseminating power and about its attribution to the woman as well as to the man. Although the contributions of both man and woman are necessary, the female seed is nevertheless materially inferior to that of the male. The notion of woman as an unperfected, an inadequate, imitation of man extends to the analogy of semen and menses: "The seede … is white in man by reason of his greate heate, and because it is digested better.… The seede of a woman is red … because the flowers is corrupt, undigested blood." … Whether in folk medicine or in philosophy, notions of maternity have a persistent natural or physical bias, while notions of paternity have a persistent social or spiritual bias. And such notions are articulated within a belief-system in which nature is subordinated to society, and matter is subordinated to spirit. The act of generation brings man and woman into a relationship that is both complementary and hierarchical. Thus, there exists a homology between the cultural construction of sexual generation and the social institution of marriage: genitor is to genetrix as husband is to wife.

While Shakespeare's plays reproduce these legitimating structures, they also reproduce challenges to their legitimacy. For, like the ubiquitous jokes and fears about cuckoldry to which they are usually linked, the frequent allusions within Shakespeare's texts to the incertitude of paternity point to a source of tension, to a potential contradiction, within the ostensibly patriarchal sex/gender system of Elizabethan culture. Oberon's epithalamium represents procreation as the union of man and woman, and marriage as a relationship of mutual affection:

To the best bride-bed will we,
Which by us shall blessed be;
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate.
So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be.

This benign vision is predicated upon the play's reaffirmation of the father's role in generation and the husband's authority over the wife. But at the same time that the play reaffirms essential elements of a patriarchal ideology, it also calls that reaffirmation in question; irrespective of authorial intention, the text intermittently undermines its own comic propositions. Oberon assures himself that, by the end of the play, "all things shall be peace" (3.2.377). But the continuance of the newlyweds' loves and the good fortune of their issue are by no means assured. Indeed, as soon as the lovers have gone off to bed, Puck begins to evoke an uncomic world of labor, fear, pain, and death (5.1.357-76). This invocation gives some urgency to Oberon's subsequent ritual blessing: the dangers are imminent and the peace is most fragile. A Midsummer Night's Dream ends, not only with the creation of new children but with the creation of new mothers and new fathers; it ends upon the threshhold of another generational cycle, which contains in potentia a renewal of the strife with which the play began. The status of "jealous" Oberon and "proud" Titania as personifications of forces in Nature at once sanctions and subverts the doctrine of domestic hierarchy. For, as personified in Shakespeare's fairies, the divinely ordained imperatives of Nature call attention to themselves as the humanly constructed imperatives of Culture: Shakespeare's naturalization and legitimation of the domestic economy deconstructs itself. The all-too-human struggle between the play's already married couple provides an ironic prognosis for the new marriages.

The promised end of romantic comedy is not only undermined by dramatic ironies but also contaminated by a kind of inter-textual irony. The mythology of Theseus is filled with instances of terror, lust, and jealousy which are prominently recounted and censured by Plutarch in his Life of Theseus and in his subsequent comparison of Theseus with Romulus. Shakespeare uses Plutarch as his major source of Theseus-lore but does so highly selectively, excluding those events "not sorting with a nuptial ceremony" (5.1.55) nor with a comedy. Nevertheless, as Harold Brooks' edition has now conclusively demonstrated, the text of Shakespeare's play is permeated by echoes not only of Plutarch's parallel lives of Theseus and Romulus but also of Seneca's Hippolitus and his Medea—by an archaeological record of the texts which shaped the poet's fantasy as he was shaping his play. Thus, sedimented within the verbal texture of A Midsummer Night's Dream are traces of those forms of sexual and familial violence which the play would suppress: acts of bestiality and incest, of parricide, uxoricide, filicide, and suicide; sexual fears and urges erupting in cycles of violent desire—from Pasiphae and the Minotaur to Phaedra and Hippolitus. The seductive and destructive powers of women figure centrally in Theseus' career; and his habitual victimization of women, the chronicle of his rapes and disastrous marriages, is a discourse of anxious misogyny which persists as an echo within Shakespeare's text, no matter how much it has been muted or transformed.

The play actually calls attention to the mechanism of mythological suppression by an ironically meta-dramatic gesture: Theseus demands "some delight" with which to "beguile / The lazy time" (5.1.40-41) before the bedding of the brides. The list of available entertainments includes "The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung / By an Athenian eunuch to the harp," as well as "The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals, / Tearing the Thracian singer in their rage" (5.1.44-45, 48-49). Theseus rejects both—because they are already too familiar. These brief scenarios encompass the extremes of reciprocal violence between the sexes. The first performance narrates a wedding that degenerates into rape and warfare; the singer and his subject—Athenian eunuch and phallic Centaur—are two antithetical kinds of male-monster. In the second performance, what was often seen as the natural inclination of women toward irrational behavior is manifested in the Maenads' terrible rage against Orpheus. The tearing and decapitation of the misogynistic Ur-Poet at once displaces and vivifies the Athenian singer's castration; and it also evokes the fate of Hippolytus, the misogynistic offspring of Theseus and Hippolyta. It is in its intermittent ironies, dissonances, and contradictions that the text of A Midsummer Night's Dream discloses—perhaps, in a sense, despite itself—that patriarchal norms are compensatory for the vulnerability of men to the powers of women.


Such moments of textual disclosure also illuminate the interplay between sexual politics in the Elizabethan family and sexual politics in the Elizabethan monarchy: for the woman to whom all Elizabethan men were vulnerable was Queen Elizabeth herself. Within legal and fiscal limits, she held the power of life and death over every Englishman; the power to advance or frustrate the worldly desires of all her subjects. Her personality and personal symbolism helped to mold English culture and the consciousness of Englishmen for several generations.

Although the Amazonian metaphor might seem suited to strategies for praising a woman ruler, it was never popular among Elizabethan encomiasts. Its associations must have been too sinister to suit the personal tastes and political interests of the Queen. However, Sir Walter Ralegh did boldly compare Elizabeth to the Amazons in his Discoverie of Guiana. In his digression on the Amazons, who are reported to dwell "not far from Guiana," Ralegh repeats the familiar details of their sexual and parental practices, and notes that they "are said to be very cruel and bloodthirsty, especially to such as offer to invade their territories." … At the end of his narrative, Ralegh exhorts Elizabeth to undertake a conquest of Guiana:

Her Majesty heereby shall confirme and strengthen the opinions of al nations, as touching her great and princely actions. And where the south border of Guiana reacheth to the Dominion and Empire of the Amazones, those women shall heereby heare the name of a virgin, which is not onely able to defend her owne territories and her neighbors, but also to invade and conquere so great Empyres and so farre removed.

Ralegh's strategy for convincing the Queen to advance his colonial enterprise is to insinuate that she is both like and unlike an Amazon; that Elizabethan imperialism threatens not only the Empire of the Guiana but the Empire of the Amazons; and that Elizabeth can definitively cleanse herself from contamination by the Amazons if she sanctions their subjugation. The Amazonomachy which Ralegh projects into the imaginative space of the New World is analogous to that narrated by Spenser within the imaginative space of Faeryland. Radigund, the Amazon Queen, can only be defeated by Britomart, the martial maiden who is Artegall's betrothed and the fictional ancestress of Elizabeth. Radigund is Britomart's double, split off from her as an allegorical personification of everything in Artegall's beloved which threatens him. Having destroyed Radigund and liberated Artegall from his effeminate "thraldome," Britomart reforms what is left of Amazon society: she

The liberty of women did repeale,
Which they had long usurpt; and them restoring
To mens subjection, did true Justice deale:
That all they as a Goddesse her adoring,
Her wisedome did admire, and hearkned to her
                                  (FQ, 5.7.42)

Unlike some of the popular sixteenth century forms of misrule so well discussed by Natalie Davis [in Society and Culture in Early Modern France, 1975], this instance of sexual inversion, of Woman-on-Top, would seem to be intended as an exemplum "of order and stability in a hierarchical society," which "can clarify the structure by the process of reversing it." For Ralegh's Elizabeth, as for Spenser's Britomart, the woman who has the prerogative of a goddess, who is authorized to be out of place, can best justify her authority by putting other women in their places.

A few paragraphs before Ralegh exhorts Elizabeth to undertake an Amazonomachy, he exhorts his gentlemen-readers to commit a cultural rape:

Guiana is a Countrey that hath yet her Maydenhead, never sackt, turned, nor wrought, the face of the earth hath not beene torne, nor the vertue and salt of the soyle spent by manurance, the graves have not beene opened for gold, the mines not broken with sledges, nor their Images puld down out of their temples. It hath never been entred by any armie of strength and never conquered and possessed by any Christian Prince.

Ralegh's enthusiasm is, at one and the same time, for the unspoiled quality of this world and for the prospect of despoiling it. Guiana, like the Amazons, is fit to be wooed with the sword and won with injuries. Such metaphors have a peculiar resonance in the context of an address to Elizabeth. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine Ralegh using them to represent the plantation of Virginia, which had been named by and for the Virgin Queen. When, in the proem to the second book of The Faerie Queene, Spenser conjoins "the Amazons huge river" and "fruit-fullest Virginia" (FQ, 2.Proem.2), he is invoking not only two regions of the New World but two archetypes of Elizabethan culture: The engulfing Amazon and the nurturing Virgin. Later in the same book, they are conjoined again: Belphoebe, the beautiful virgin huntress who figures Queen Elizabeth in her body natural, is introduced into the poem with an extended blazon (FQ, 2.3.21-31) that insinuates sexual provocation into its encomium of militant chastity. The description concludes in a curiously ominous epic simile, in which the Amazonian image is at once celebrated and mastered: Belphoebe is compared both to the goddess Diana and to Penthesilea, "that famous Queene / Of Amazons, whom Pyrrhus did destroy" (FQ, 2.3.31). Women's bodies—and, in particular, the Queen's two bodies—provide a cognitive map for Elizabethan culture, a veritable matrix for the Elizabethan forms of desire.

The Queen herself was too politic, and too ladylike, to wish to pursue the Amazonian image very far. Instead, she transformed it to suit her purposes, representing herself as an androgynous martial maiden, like Spenser's Britomart. Such was her appearance at Tilbury in 1588, where she had come to review her troops in expectation of a Spanish invasion. On that momentous occasion, she rode a white horse and dressed in white velvet; she wore a silver cuirass on her breast and carried a silver truncheon in her hand. The theme of her speech was by then already familiar to her listeners: she dwelt upon the womanly frailty of her body natural and the masculine strength of her body politic—a strength deriving from the love of her people, the virtue of her lineage, and the will of her God: "I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects.… I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too." As the female ruler of what was, at least in theory, a patriarchal society, Elizabeth incarnated a contradiction at the very center of Elizabethan sex/gender system. When Spenser's narrator moralizes on the negative example of the Amazons, he must be careful to provide himself with an escape clause at the end of his stanza:

Such is the crueltie of womenkynd
When they have shaken off the shamefast band,
With which wise Nature did them strongly bynd,
T'obay the heasts of mens well ruling hand,
That then all rule and reason they withstand,
To purchase a licentious libertie.
But vertuous women wisely understand,
That they were borne to base humilitie,
Unlesse the heavens them lift to lawfull
                                     (FQ. 5.5.25)

After the death of their royal mistress, Cecil wrote to Harington that she had been "more than a man, and, in troth, sometime less than a woman." Queen Elizabeth was a cultural anomaly; and this anomalousness—at once divine and monstrous—made her powerful, and dangerous. By the skillful deployment of images that were at once awesome and familiar, this perplexing creature tried to mollify her male subjects while enhancing her authority over them.

At the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth formulated the strategy by which she turned the political liability of her gender to advantage for the next half century. She told her first parliaments that she was content to have as her epitaph "that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin"; that her coronation ring betokened her marriage to her subjects; and that, although after her death her people might have many stepdames, yet they should never have "a more natural mother than [she] meant to be unto [them] all." One way in which she actualized her maternal policy was to sponsor more than a hundred godchildren, the offspring of nobility and commoners alike.

In his memorial of Elizabeth, Bacon epitomized her policy on gender and power:

The reigns of women are commonly obscured by marriage; their praises and actions passing to the credit of their husbands; whereas those that continue umarried have their glory entire and proper to themselves. In her case this was more especially so; inasmuch as she had no helps to lean upon in her government, except such as she herself provided … no kinsmen of the royal family, to share her cares and support her authority. And even those whom she herself raised to honour she so kept in hand and mingled one with the other, that while she infused into each the greatest solicitude to please her, she was herself ever her own mistress.

As Elizabeth herself reportedly told the Earl of Leicester, "I will have here but one Mistress, and no Master" (Naunton, Fragmenta Regalia). To be her own mistress, her own master, the Queen had to be everyone's mistress and no one's. Lawrence Stone wryly remarks that "things were not easy for lovers at the Court of Elizabeth." She frequently intervened in the personal affairs of those who attended her, preventing or punishing courtships and marriages not to her liking. As Stone points out, "her objections were based partly … on a desire to preserve the Court as the focus of interest of every English man and woman of note. She was afraid, with reason, that marriage would create other interests and responsibilities, and replace the attendance of both husband and wife upon her Court and upon herself." It was this royal politics of centripetal force that Spenser imaged in the proem to his "legend … of Courtesie":

Then pardon me, most dreaded Soveraine,
That from yourselfe I doe this vertue bring,
And to your self doe it returne againe:
So from the Ocean all rivers spring,
And tribute backe repay as to their King.
Right so from you all goodly vertues well
Into the rest, which round about you ring,
Faire Lords and Ladies, which about you dwell,
And doe adorne your Court, where courtesies
                              (FQ, 6.Proem.7)

In a royal household comprising some fifteen hundred courtiers and retainers, the Queen's female entourage consisted of merely a dozen ladies of high rank—married or widowed—and half a dozen maids of honor from distinguished families, whose conduct was of almost obsessive interest to their mistress. Sir John Harington, the Queen's godson and an acute observer of her ways, wrote in a letter that "she did oft aske the ladies around hir chamber, If they lovede to thinke of marriage? And the wise ones did conceal well their liking hereto; as knowing the Queene's judgment in this matter." He goes on to relate an incident in which one of the maids of honor, "not knowing so deeply as hir fellowes, was asked one day hereof, and simply said—'she had thought muche about marriage, if her father did consent to the man she lovede.'" Thereupon, the Queen obtained the father's consent that she should deal as she saw fit with her maid's desires. "The ladie was called in, and the Queene tould her father had given his free consente. 'Then, replied the ladie, I shall be happie and please your Grace.'—'So thou shalte; but not to be a foole and marrye. I have his consente given to me, and I vow thou shalte never get it into thy possession.… I see thou art a bolde one, to owne thy foolishnesse so readilye.'" The virgin Queen threatened her vestal with the prospect of living a barren sister all her life. Directly, in cases such as this, and indirectly through the operation of the Court of Wards, the Queen reserved to herself the traditional paternal power to give or withhold daughters. Among the aristocracy, marriage was not merely a legal and affective union between private persons but also a political and economic alliance between powerful families; it was an institution over which a careful and insecure monarch might well wish to exercise an absolute control. Behavior which, in the context of Elizabeth's body natural, may have been merely peevish or jealous was, in the context of her body politic, politic indeed.

Elizabeth's self-mastery and mastery of others were enhanced by an elaboration of her maidenhood into a cult of virginity which "allows of amorous admiration but prohibits desire" (Bacon, In Felicem Memoriam); the displacement of her wifely duties from a household to a nation; and the sublimation of her temporal and ecclesiastical authority into a nurturing maternity. She appropriated not only the suppressed cult of the Blessed Virgin but also the Tudor conception of the Ages of Woman. By fashioning herself into a singular combination of Maiden, Matron, and Mother, the Queen transformed the normal domestic life-cycle of an Elizabethan female into what was at once a social paradox and a religious mystery. Her emblem was the phoenix; her motto, semper eadem. Because she was always uniquely herself, Elizabeth's rule was not intended to undermine the male hegemony of her culture. Indeed, the emphasis upon her difference from other women may have helped to reinforce it. As she herself wrote in response to Parliament in 1563, "though I can think [marriage] best for a private woman, yet I do strive with myself to think it not meet for a prince" (Neale, Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments 1559-1581). The royal exception could prove the patriarchal rule in society at large.

Nevertheless, from the very beginning of her reign, Elizabeth's parliaments and counselors urged her to marry and produce an heir. There was a deeply felt and loudly voiced need to insure a legitimate succession, upon which the welfare of the whole people depended. But there must also have been another, more obscure motivation behind these requests: the political nation, which was wholly a nation of men, seems at times to have found it frustrating or degrading to serve a female prince—a woman who was herself unsubjected to any man. Late in Elizabeth's reign, the French ambassador observed that "her government is fairly pleasing to the people, who show that they love her, but it is little pleasing to the great men and nobles; and if by chance she should die, it is certain that the English would never again submit to the rule of a woman" (De Maisse, Journal). In the 1560s and 1570s, Elizabeth witnessed allegorical entertainments boldly criticizing her attachment to a life of "single blessedness." For example, in the famous Kenilworth entertainments sponsored by the Earl of Leicester in 1575, Diana praised the state of fancy-free maiden meditation and condemned the "wedded state, which is to thraldome bent." But Juno had the last word in the pageant; "O Queene, O worthy queene,/ Yet never wight felt perfect blis / But such as wedded beene." By the 1580s, the Queen was past child-bearing; Diana and her virginal nymph, Eliza, now carried the day in such courtly entertainments as Peele's Araygnment of Paris. Although "as fayre and lovely as the queene of Love," Peele's Elizabeth was also "as chast as Dian in her chast desires." By the early 1590s, the cult of the unaging royal virgin had entered its last and most extravagant phase. In the 1590 Accession Day pageant, there appeared "a Pavilion … like unto the sacred Temple of the Virgins Vestal." Upon the altar there were presents for the Queen—offerings from her votaries. At Elvetham, during the royal progress of 1591, none other than "the Fairy Queene" gave to Elizabeth a chaplet that she herself had received from "Auberon, the Fairy King" (Nichols, Progresses and Public Processions). From early in the reign, Elizabeth had been directly engaged by such performances: debates were referred to her arbitration; the magic of her presence civilized savage men, restored the blind to sight, released errant knights from enchantment, and rescued virgins from defilement. These social dramas of celebration and coercion played out the delicately balanced relationship between the monarch and her greatest subjects. And because texts and descriptions of most of them were in print within a year of their performance, they may have had a cultural impact far greater than their occasional and ephemeral character might at first suggest.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is permeated by images and devices that suggest these characteristic forms of Elizabethan court culture. However, whether or not its provenance was in an aristocratic wedding entertainment, Shakespeare's play is neither focused upon the Queen nor structurally dependent upon her presence or her intervention in the action. On the contrary, it might be said to depend upon her absence, her exclusion. In the third scene of the play, after Titania has remembered her Indian votaress, Oberon remembers his "imperial votaress." He has once beheld

Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all arm'd; a certain aim he took
At a fair vestal, throned by the West,
And loos'd his love-shaft smartly from his bow
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts.
But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft
Quench'd in the chaste beams of the watery
And the imperial votress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
Yet mark'd I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love's
And maidens call it 'love-in-idleness'.

The juice of it, on sleeping eyelids laid,
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
                              (2.1.156-68, 170-72)

The evocative monologues of Titania and Oberon are carefully matched and contrasted: the fairy queen speaks of a mortal mother from the east; the fairy king speaks of an invulnerable virgin from the west. Their memories express two myths of origin: Titania's provides a genealogy for the changeling and an explanation of why she will not part with him; Oberon's provides an aetiology of the metamorphosed flower which he will use to make her part with him. The floral symbolism of female sexuality begun in this passage is completed when Oberon names "Dian's bud" (4.1.72) as the antidote to "love-in-idleness." With Cupid's flower, Oberon can make the Fairy Queen "full of hateful fantasies" (2.1.258); and with Dian's bud, he can win her back to his will. The vestal's invulnerability to fancy is doubly instrumental to Oberon in his reaffirmation of romantic, marital, and parental norms that have been inverted during the course of the play. Thus, Shakespeare's royal compliment re-mythologizes the cult of the Virgin Queen in such a way as to sanction a relationship of gender and power that is personally and politically inimical to Elizabeth.

Unlike the fair vestal, Shakespeare's comic heroines are in a transition between the states of maidenhood and wifehood, daughterhood and motherhood. These transitions are mediated by the wedding rite and the act of defloration, which are brought together at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream: when the newlyweds have retired for the night, Oberon and Titania enter the court in order to bless the "bride-bed" where the marriages are about to be consummated. By the act of defloration, the husband takes physical and symbolic possession of his bride. The sexual act in which the man draws blood from the woman is already implicit, at the beginning of the play, in Theseus' vaunt: "Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries." The impending injury is evoked—and dismissed with laughter—in the play-within-the-play which wears away the hours "between our after-supper and bedtime" (5.1.34): Pyramus finds Thisbe's mantle "stain'd with blood," and concludes that "lion vile hath here deflower'd [his] dear" (5.1.272, 281). The image in which Oberon describes the flower's metamorphosis suggests the immanence of defloration in the very origin of desire: "the bolt of Cupid fell / … Upon a little western flower, / Before milk-white, now purple with love's wound." Cupid's shaft violates the flower when it has been deflected from the vestal: Oberon's purple passion flower is procreated in a displaced and literalized defloration. Unlike the female dramatis personae, Oberon's vestal virgin is not subject to Cupid's shaft, to the frailties of the flesh and the fancy. Nor is she subject to the mastery of men. Isolated from the experiences of desire, marriage and maternity, she is immune to the pains and pleasure of human mutability. But it is precisely her bodily and mental impermeability which make possible Oberon's pharmacopoeia. Thus, ironically, the vestal's very freedom from fancy guarantees the subjections of others. She is necessarily excluded from the erotic world of which her own chastity is the efficient cause.

Within A Midsummer Night's Dream, the public and domestic domains of Elizabethan culture intersect in the figure of the imperial votaress. When a female ruler is ostensibly the virgin mother of her subjects, then the themes of male procreative power, autogeny, and mastery of women acquire a seditious resonance. In royal pageantry, the Queen is always the cynosure; her virginity is the source of magical potency. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, however, magical power is invested in the King. Immediately after invoking the royal vestal and vowing to torment the Fairy Queen, Oberon encounters Helena in pursuit of Demetrius. In Shakespeare's metamorphosis of Ovid, "the story shall be chang'd / Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase" (2.1.230-31). Oberon's response is neither to extinguish desire nor to make it mutual but to restore the normal pattern of pursuit: "Fare thee well, nymph; ere he do leave this grove / Thou shalt fly him and he shall seek thy love" (2.1.245-46). Perhaps three or four years before the first production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in a pastoral entertainment enacted at Sudeley during the royal progress of 1591, the Queen's presence had changed Ovid's story into an emblem of Constancy. The scenario might be seen as a benevolent mythological transformation of the Queen's sometimes spiteful ways with her maids of honor. Here it was in the power of the royal virgin to undo the metamorphosis, to release Daphne from her arboreal imprisonment and to protect her from the lustful advances of Apollo. Unlike Elizabeth, Oberon uses his mastery over Nature to subdue others to their passions. The festive conclusion of A Mid-summer Night's Dream depends upon the success of a process by which the female pride and power manifested in misanthropic warriors, possessive mothers, unruly wives, and willful daughters are brought under the control of lords and husbands. When the contentious young lovers have been sorted out into pairs by Oberon, then Theseus can invite them to share his own wedding day. If the Duke finally overbears Egeus' will (4.1.178), it is because the father's obstinate claim to "the ancient privilege of Athens" (1.1.41) threatens to obstruct the very process by which Athenian privilege and Athens itself are reproduced. Hermia and Helena are granted their desires—but those desires have themselves been shaped by a social imperative. Thus, neither for Oberon nor for Theseus does a contradiction exist between mastering the desires of a wife and patronizing the desires of a maiden. In the assertion of an equivalence between the patriarchal family and the patriarchal state, the anomalous Elizabethan relationship between gender and power is suppressed.

In his letters, Sir John Harington wrote of Elizabeth as "oure deare Queene, my royale godmother, and this state's natural mother"; as "one whom I both lovede and fearede too." After her death, he reflected slyly on how she had manipulated the filial feelings of her subjects: "Few knew how to aim their shaft against her cunninge. We did all love hir, for she saide she loved us, and muche wysdome she shewed in thys matter." So much for Elizabeth's maternal strategies. As for her erotic strategies, Bacon provides perhaps the most astute contemporary analysis:

As for those lighter points of character,—as that she allowed herself to be wooed and courted, and even to have love made to her; and liked it; and continued it beyond the natural age for such vanities;—if any of the sadder sort of persons be disposed to make a great matter of this, it may be observed that there is something to admire in these very things, which ever way you take them. For if viewed indulgently, they are much like the accounts we find in romances, of the Queen in the blessed islands, and her court and institutions, who allows of amorous admiration but prohibits desire. But if you take them seriously, they challenge admiration of another kind and of a very high order; for certain it is that these dalliances detracted but little from her fame and nothing from her majesty, and neither weakened her power nor sensibly hindered her business.

(In Felicem Memoriam)

Bacon appreciates that the Queen's personal vanity and political craft are mutually reinforcing. He is alert to the generic affinites of the royal cult, its appropriation and enactment of the conventions of romance. And he also recognizes that, like contemporaneous romantic fictions, the Queen's romance could function as a political allegory. However, symbolic forms may do more than represent power: they may actually help to generate the power that they represent. Thus—although Bacon does not quite manage to say so—the Queen's dalliances did not weaken her power but strengthened it; did not hinder her business but furthered it.

By the same token, the Queen's subjects might put the discourse of royal power to their own uses. Consider the extravagant royal entertainment of 1581, in which Philip Sidney and Fulke Greville performed as "Foster Children of Desire." "Nourished up with [the] infective milke" … of Desire—"though full oft that dry nurse Dispaier indevered to wainne them from it"—the Foster Children boldly claimed and sought to possess The Fortress of Perfect Beauty, an allegorical structure from within which Elizabeth actually beheld the "desirous assault" mounted against her. The besieged Queen was urged that she "no longer exclude vertuous Desire from perfect Beautie."… During two days of florid speeches, spectacular self-displays, and mock combats, these young, ambitious, and thwarted courtiers acted out a fantasy of political demand, rebellion, and submission in metaphors of resentment and aggression that were alternately filial and erotic. They seized upon the forms in which their culture had articulated the relationship between sovereign and subjects: they demanded sustenance from their royal mother, favors from their royal mistress. The nobility, gentlemen, and hangers-on of the court generated a variety of pressures that constantly threatened the fragile stability of the Elizabethan regime. At home, personal rivalries and political dissent might be sublimated into the agonistic play-forms of courtly culture; abroad, they might be expressed in warfare and colonial enterprise—displaced into the conquest of lands that had yet their maidenheads.

The Queen dallied, not only with the hearts of courtiers but with the hearts of commoners, too. For example, in 1600, a deranged sailor named Abraham Edwardes sent "a passionate … letter unto her Majesty," who was then sixty-eight years old. Edwardes was later committed to prison "for drawing his dagger in the [royal] presence chamber." The Clerk of the Privy Council wrote to Cecil that "the fellow is greatly distracted, and seems rather to be transported with a humour of love, than any purpose to attempt anything against her Majesty." He recommended that this poor lunatic and lover "be removed to Bedlam." By her own practice of sexual politics, the Queen may very well have encouraged the sailor's passion—in the same sense that her cult helped to fashion the courtly performances and colonial enterprises of courtiers like Sidney or Ralegh, the dream-life of Doctor Forman, the dream-play of Master Shakespeare. This being said, it must be added that the Queen was as much the creature of her image as she was its creator, that her power to fashion her own strategies was itself fashioned by her culture and constrained within its mental horizon. Indeed, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, as in The Faerie Queene, the ostensible project of elaborating Queen Elizabeth's personal mythology inexorably subverts itself—generates ironies, contradictions, resistances which undo the royal magic. Such processes of disenchantment are increasingly evident in Elizabethan cultural productions of the 1580s and 1590s. The texts of Spenser and other Elizabethan courtly writers often fragment the royal image, reflecting aspects of the Queen "in mirrours more then one" (FQ, 3.Proem.5). In a similar way, Shakespeare's text splits the triune Elizabethan cult image between the fair vestal, an unattainable virgin; and the Fairy Queen, an intractable wife and a dominating mother. Oberon uses one against the other in order to reassert male prerogatives. Thus, the structure of Shakespeare's comedy symbolically neutralizes the forms of royal power to which it ostensibly pays homage. It would be an over-simplification and a distortion to characterize such cultural processes merely as an allegorical encoding of political conflict. The spiritual, maternal, and erotic transformations of Elizabethan power are not reduceable to instances of Machiavellian policy, to intentional mystifications. Relationships of power and dependency, desire and fear, are inherent in both the public and domestic domains. Sexual and family experience were invariably politicized; economic and political experience were invariably eroticized: the social and psychological force of Elizabethan symbolic forms depended upon a thorough conflation of these domains.


Differences within the courtly and fairy groups of A Mid-summer Night's Dream are structured principally in terms of gender and generation. When Bottom and his company are introduced into the newly harmonized courtly milieu in the final scene, the striking difference between groups overshadows the previously predominant differences within groups. Like Bottom, in his special relationship to Titania, the mechanicals are presented collectively in a child-like relationship to their social superiors. (They characterize themselves, upon two occasions, as "every mother's son" [1.2.73; 3.1.69]; however, they hope to be "made men" [4.2.18] by the patronage of the Duke.) But differences of gender and generation have now been reorganized in terms of a difference which is at once social and theatrical: a difference between common artisan-actors and the leisured elite for whom they perform. In the mechanicals' play, A Midsummer Night's Dream internalizes and distances its relationship to traditions of amateur and occasional dramatic entertainment. And in the attitudes of the play-within-the-play's courtly audience, A Midsummer Night's Dream internalizes and distances its relationship to the pressures and constraints of aristocratic patronage. By incorporating and ironically circumscribing it, Shakespeare's professional theatre implicitly repudiates Theseus' attitude toward the entertainers' art: that performances should serve only as an innocuous distraction from princely cares or as a gratifying homage to princely power. In this dramatic context, Duke Theseus is not so much Queen Elizabeth's masculine antithesis as he is her princely surrogate.

The much-noted "metadrama" of A Midsummer Night's Dream—its calling of attention to its own artifice, its own artistry—analogizes the powers of parents, princes, and playwrights; the fashioning of children, subjects, and plays. Shakespeare's text is a cultural production in which the processes of cultural production are themselves represented; it is a representation of fantasies about the shaping of the family, the polity, and the theatre. When Oberon blesses the bride-beds of "the couples three" (5.1.393), he metaphorizes the engendering of their offspring as an act of writing: "And the blots of Nature's hand / Shall not in their issue stand" (5.1.395-96). And when Theseus wryly describes the poet's "fine frenzy" (5.1.12), the text of A Midsummer Night's Dream obliquely represents the parthenogenetic process of its own creation:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

That the dramatic medium itself is thematized in Shakespeare's play does not imply a claim for the self-referentiality of the aesthetic object or the aesthetic act. On the contrary, it implies a claim for a dialectic between Shakespeare's profession and his society, a dialectic between the theatre and the world. In its preoccupation with the transformation of the personal into the public, the metamorphosis of dream and fantasy into poetic drama, A Mid-summer Night's Dream does more than analogize the powers of prince and playwright: it dramatizes—or, rather, meta-dramatizes—the relations of power between prince and playwright. To the extent that the cult of Elizabeth informs the play, it is itself transformed within the play. The play bodies forth the theatre poet's contest, not only with the generativity of Elizabethan mothers but with the generativity of the royal virgin; it contests the princely claim to cultural authorship and social authority. A Mid-summer Night's Dream is, then, in a double sense, a creation of Elizabethan culture: for it also creates the culture by which it is created, shapes the fantasies by which it is shaped, begets that by which it is begotten.

Philip C. McGuire (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Hippolyta's Silence and the Poet's Pen," in Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences, University of California Press, 1985, pp. 1-18.

[In the following excerpt, noting that Hippolyta speaks relatively few lines in A Midsummer Night's Dream, McGuire examines various interpretations of her silence that are allowed by Shakespeare's text and the implications of these interpretations for the meaning of the play.]

The opening moments of A Midsummer Night's Dream include a silence—Hippolyta's—that has reverberations that, reaching beyond the scene of which it is a wordless yet crucial element, touch upon the issue of how much (and how little) the words Shakespeare penned reveal about the play. The first words of the play are those of Theseus telling Hippolyta of the approach of their wedding day:

Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in
Another moon; but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires,
Like to a stepdame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man's revenue.

Hippolyta replies with the only words she speaks during the opening scene:

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night,
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.
                                     (lines 7-11)

When Theseus says that, having conquered her in battle, he will now make her his wife "in another key, / With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling" (lines 18-19), Hippolyta says nothing, and she maintains that silence the rest of the time she is onstage. The defeated Queen of the Amazons becomes a mute observer as the man who "won" her love by doing her "injuries" (line 17) rules that a young woman who is one of his subjects must die or live a life cloistered among women if she does not obey her father and enter into a marriage that she does not want.

The words Hippolyta does speak are of very limited use when we attempt to clarify the meanings and effects of her silence. What she says is part of a dialogue with Theseus that clearly reveals that each of them responds differently to the passage of time. For Theseus, time moves slowly toward their "nuptial hour," but for Hippolyta time moves swiftly. He laments "how slow / This old moon wanes," whereas she twice uses the word "quickly" to describe the passing of time: "Four days will quickly steep themselves in night, / Four nights will quickly dream away the time."

The words that Shakespeare assigns to Theseus and Hippolyta allow us—if we wish—to see the differences in their temporal responses as facets of an underlying harmony. In emphasizing how "quickly" time will move, Hippolyta can be reassuring Theseus that the hour for which he longs will soon arrive, and her words of reassurance can also convey her own sense of excited anticipation. Theseus and Hippolyta have differing senses of time's pace, but each can be accurate. Time can move both quickly and slowly, traveling, as Rosalind notes in As You Like It, "in divers paces with divers persons" (III.ii.293-94). The differences underscored by Hippolyta's use of "quickly" can suggest that, when they are together, the Duke of Athens and the Queen of the Amazons have a fuller sense of the complexity of time than either does in isolation. The "nuptial hour" toward which each moves at a different pace becomes, then, a moment when they will complete a union that does not obliterate their differences but allows them to complement one another. Their differences become, in effect, the basis for a harmony that is more inclusive, more resilient, than would otherwise be possible.

The words Theseus and Hippolyta exchange at the start of the play permit us to see their differences as facets of an underlying harmony, but the words do not compel such a conclusion. The differences brought into focus by Hippolyta's use of "quickly" can, without distorting the words of Shakespeare's playtext, just as plausibly be taken as reflecting a conflict between Theseus and her. If the nuptial hour approaches so slowly for Theseus because he desires it so much, then perhaps it approaches so quickly for Hippolyta, the newly conquered queen of a society of women who had long resisted male domination, precisely because she desires it so little. In explaining that "time travels in divers paces with divers persons," Rosalind notes that it moves most swiftly for "a thief [going] to the gallows; for though he go as softly as foot can fall, he thinks himself too soon there" (III.ii.293-94, 311-12). In contrast, time, which gallops by for the thief, moves at a trot, Rosalind says, for

… a young maid between the contract of her marriage and the day it is solemnized. If the interim be but a se'nnight, Time's pace is so hard that it seems the length of seven year.

(lines 299-302)

The opening lines of A Midsummer Night's Dream reverse those relationships. Theseus feels time moving slowly as if he were a maid awaiting her wedding day, whereas the response of the woman whom he has taken to be his bride is like that of a thief approaching the gallows. For her, as for the thief, time moves "quickly." Before the scene concludes, Theseus decrees, in the presence of a silent Hippolyta, that the wedding day she said will "quickly" arrive will also be the day on which Hermia must

           … either prepare to die
For disobedience to your father's will,
Or else to wed Demetrius, as he would,
Or on Diana's altar to protest
For aye austerity and single life.
                                   (lines 86-90)

Theseus' decree means that Hippolyta's movement through time, toward what will be the day of her marriage, becomes congruent with Hermia's movement through time, toward the same day, which will find her facing an involuntary marriage, the single life, or death. Each woman might think herself, like the thief on his way to the gallows, "too soon there."

The more closely we analyze the opening exchange between Theseus and Hippolyta, the more likely we are to see it with what Hermia calls a "parted eye, / When everything seems double" (IV.i.188-89). As they exist on the printed page, the words that make up that exchange are "double" in the sense of being radically ambiguous, of being equally capable of expressing harmony or conflict or even a combination of both. Because they are ambiguous, those words cannot provide the basis for specifying the precise meanings and effects of Hippolyta's silence. In fact, even if the meaning of the words were absolutely clear, they would not suffice as the basis for interpreting Hippolyta's silence. If, for example, we could determine beyond doubt that the dialogue between Theseus and Hippolyta established a fundamental harmony between them, Hippolyta's subsequent silence could indicate either a continuation of that harmony (since she utters no objection to what Theseus does) or a breakdown of that harmony (since she does not verbally agree with what he does). The converse is also true. If the opening dialogue were taken as establishing conflict between them, Hippolyta's ensuing silence could then reflect either the continuation of that conflict or, since she is no longer voicing any disagreement with Theseus, the cessation of that conflict.

Because no character comments upon Hippolyta's silence, there is no way to discriminate among the possibilities her silence allows by using a mode of analysis that focuses exclusively upon the words of A Midsummer Night's Dream and thus treats what is a play as if it were a work of literature. Hippolyta's silence is textually indeterminate. It is open in the sense that it is established by the words that constitute the playtext, but once established, it is capable of having meanings and effects that are not fixed by those words and that take on distinct form and shape only during performances of the play. We cannot probe her silence with any precision unless we attend to what has happened during performances.

Four specific productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream since 1959 demonstrate the range of meanings and effects that Hippolyta's silence can generate without contradicting the words of Shakespeare's playtext. During Peter Hall's 1959 production at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Hippolyta's silence confirmed the harmony between her and Theseus that was expressed during the opening dialogue. She and Theseus sat side by side as he listened to Egeus' accusation and Hermia's reply. After warning Hermia to "take time to pause," Theseus stood and raised an unresisting Hippolyta to her feet. As they walked toward the staircase that dominated the set, Theseus stated that Hermia's decision must be made "by the next new moon—/ The sealing day betwixt my love and me / For everlasting bond of fellowship" (lines 83-85). They reached the staircase and stood there together while Theseus set forth the third of Hermia's alternatives: "on Diana's altar to protest / For aye austerity and single life" (lines 89-90). The consistent pairing of Theseus and Hippolyta underscored the contrast between what that "sealing day" would bring for Hippolyta and what it would bring for Hermia. Their movements together also established that both Theseus and Hippolyta were oblivious to the contrast.

That pairing was interrupted briefly later in the scene, when Theseus walked away from Hippolyta and toward Hermia while advising her to "arm yourself / To fit your fancies to your father's will" (lines 117-18), but the interruption did not signify any breach in the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta. Having warned Hermia that the Athenian law sentenced her "to death or to a vow of single life" if she failed to obey her father, Theseus turned immediately to the woman who was soon to become his bride and said, "Come, my Hippolyta" (line 122). Hippolyta's silent response was a model of the very type of obedience that Hermia had outspokenly refused to accept. Without hesitation, Hippolyta crossed toward Theseus and he toward her and, hands joined, they walked together toward the exit as he asked solicitously, "What cheer, my love?" (line 122).

Hall's production, in which Hippolyta's silence conveyed her untroubled, obedient acquiescence in the sentence imposed on Hermia, stands in pointed contrast to the production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that John Hirsch directed at the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespearean Festival in 1968. In Hirsch's production, the opening exchange between Theseus and Hippolyta established that theirs was a relationship marked by conflict rather than by harmony. Theseus was a nearly doddering old man in military dress uniform of the late nineteenth century; Hippolyta was a desirable woman of middle years who entered carrying a red rose and wearing a black dress that, in contrast to what Hermia and Helena wore, showed her shoulders. As Hippolyta spoke of how quickly "the night of our solemnities" would arrive, she stepped away from Theseus and stood, downstage right, on the lower of the two steps around most of the perimeter of the Festival Theatre's thrust stage. Theseus followed her, and when he ordered Philostrate to "stir up the Athenian youth to merriments" (line 12)—an order that took on sexual over-tones and stressed his own age—Hippolyta again distanced herself from him. Using the bottom step, she crossed to the downstage left corner, where she sat on the first step. Theseus followed her again and, dropping to his hands and knees, tried to kiss her at the conclusion of his pledge to wed her "with pomp, with triumph, and with revelling." Hippolyta avoided the kiss by drawing back without rising—a gesture that conveyed both her distaste and Theseus' awkward, futile amorousness as he sought to convert his military victory over the queen of the Amazons into a sexual conquest. The entrance of Egeus, Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander caught Theseus unprepared. His failure as a wooer was obvious to them, and his subsequent exercise of ducal power became in part a compensation for that failure.

Hirsch's production intensified the conflict between Theseus and Hippolyta by using her silence to emphasize Hippolyta's recognition of the affinities between herself and Hermia. In this production, in contrast to Hall's, Hippolyta was not at Theseus' side as he listened to and acted upon Egeus' complaint against Hermia. Theseus, standing center stage, addressed himself to Hermia, who stood at the downstage right corner while Hippolyta remained seated on the top step at the downstage left corner. That triangular configuration aligned the two women in their resistance to male authority, and that alignment eventually became a pairing. Hippolyta stood up when Demetrius called for Hermia to "relent" (line 91), and when Lysander defiantly asked, "Why should not I then prosecute my right?" (line 105), Hippolyta moved toward Hermia along the same step that she had earlier used to dodge Theseus. The pairing of the two women was completed following Hippolyta's response to Theseus' words, "Come, my Hippolyta." She crossed not to Theseus but to Hermia. Although he stood holding his hand out toward her, Hippolyta turned her back to him and handed to Hermia the red rose she had carried since her entrance. She then exited, leaving Theseus to ask, "What cheer, my love?" to her departing back. Hippolyta's demonstration that she felt neither duty toward nor desire for Theseus gave a special flavor to the words Egeus used when he and Demetrius obeyed Theseus' order to accompany him as he exited after Hippolyta: "With duty and desire we follow you" (line 127).

The rose that Hippolyta passed to Hermia extended the correspondences between the two women beyond the fact that both faced marriages that were being imposed on them by men whose control rested on law or military conquest. That rose made it easier for the audience to realize that Hippolyta's life among the Amazon women is analogous to that "single life" available to Hermia if, resisting her father's will, she elects "to abjure / For ever the society of men" (lines 65-66) and to live instead among women "in shady cloister mewed" (line 71). The use of the rose to draw attention to the analogy was particularly appropriate because Theseus uses the rose metaphorically when he dismisses a life lived among women and without men:

Thrice blessed they that master so their blood
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage;
But earthlier happy is the rose distilled
Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness.
                                      (lines 74-78)

Passed from Hippolyta to Hermia and then to Helena, the only woman in the opening scene whom no man seeks to marry, that rose came to signify the "single blessedness" that Theseus dismisses. Hermia's response to his words is a defiant vow to undertake "such maiden pilgrimage":

So will I grow, so live, so die, my lord,
Ere I will yield my virgin patent up
Unto his lordship whose unwished yoke
My soul consents not to give sovereignty
                                      (lines 79-82)

The sovereignty that Hermia explicitly refuses to accept is the sovereignty that, in Hirsch's production, the conquered Queen of the Amazons resisted in silence, and the life of "a barren sister" (line 72) that Hermia prefers to wedded life with Demetrius points toward the life in sisterhood that Hippolyta lost when Theseus triumphed in battle.

Celia Brannerman's 1980 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for the New Shakespeare Company at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London, endowed Hippolyta's silence with quite different meanings and effects. Theseus once again wore a military dress uniform of the late nineteenth century, but he was middle-aged and vigorous; Hippolyta wore vaguely near-Eastern garb, including what one reviewer called "Turkish harem pants." Hippolyta did not move away when, kneeling on one knee, Theseus declared, "But I will wed thee in another key, / With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling." That posture suggested that the conqueror was submitting to the conquered, and thus Theseus' words became a conciliatory pledge rather than a self-aggrandizing announcement of his capacity to shift styles as martial affairs gave way to martial concerns.

Standing side by side, Theseus and Hippolyta both found Egeus' complaint against Hermia and Lysander amusing at first. Egeus concluded his initial speech by opening a book he carried and citing the law that entitled him, as Hermia's father, to "beg the ancient privilege of Athens":

As she is mine, I may dispose of her,
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.
                                    (lines 41-45)

Theseus himself checked Egeus' citation and handed the book, still open, to Hippolyta, before he turned to Hermia and said, "Be advised, fair maid, / To you your father should be as a god" (lines 46-47). As Theseus listened to Hermia's reply, Hippolyta stood slightly away from him studying the book of laws. When Hermia asked to "know / The worst that may befall me in this case / If I refuse to wed Demetrius," Theseus replied, "Either to die the death, or to abjure / For ever the society of men" (lines 62-66). Having different characters consult the book of laws brought into focus the fact that Theseus here allows Hermia an alternative that her father had not mentioned when he called for either her obedience or her death, "according to our law / Immediately provided in that case." In offering Hermia the opportunity to live a life outside "the society of men," Theseus made the first of several efforts to mollify the silent woman who would soon be his wife and who had been until very recently the head of a society that consisted entirely of women.

On hearing Theseus fix as Hermia's deadline "the sealing day betwixt my love and me / For everlasting bond of fellowship," Hippolyta angrily and loudly snapped shut the book of laws—a gesture sharply different from the actions of Hippolyta and Theseus at the comparable point in Hall's production, when their gestures demonstrated their unbroken fellowship. Theseus rose and raised Hippolyta to her feet, after which they walked hand in hand toward the staircase as he set the deadline. The Theseus of Brannerman's production tried again to mollify a Hippolyta whose displeasure was unspoken but also unconcealed as he spoke his final words of counsel to Hermia:

For you, fair Hermia, look you arm yourself
To fit your fancies to your father's will;
Or else the law of Athens yields you up
(Which by no means we may extenuate)
To death, or to a vow of single life.
                                    (lines 117-21)

In most productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the words "which by no means we may extenuate" are spoken to Hermia and emphasize the certainty of "death" or "single life" if she persists in defying her father's will. Brannerman's Theseus, however, addressed the words to Hippolyta rather than to Hermia, and they become, because of that interpretation, an effort by Theseus to ease Hippolyta's displeasure by explaining his own inability to mitigate the workings of Athenian legal processes. The effort failed. Hippolyta responded to the next words Theseus spoke ("Come, my Hippolyta") by stepping toward him, slapping the book of laws into his hands, and proceeding to exit without him. He was left to ask after her, in a last, futile effort at reconciliation, "What cheer, my love?" In Brannerman's production, Hippolyta's silence was part of a process whereby, as she witnessed Theseus' handling of Hermia's predicament, Hippolyta suspended her initial receptiveness to marriage with Theseus.

In his much acclaimed 1970 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Peter Brook used Hippolyta's silence to deepen a split between her and Theseus that was present but muted during the play's opening dialogue. Theseus and Hippolyta stood together during that exchange, and Hippolyta did not give the word "quickly" an overtly hostile emphasis, but she walked away, crossing from stage right to stage left after Theseus voiced his pledge to wed her "with pomp, with triumph, and with revelling."

When Egeus presented his case against Hermia and Lysander, Theseus and Hippolyta remained apart, seated downstage right and downstage left, respectively. That configuration fixed and emphasized their separation. Hippolyta stayed seated until after Hermia's declaration that she would not marry Demetrius, to "whose unwishèd yoke / My soul consents not to give sovereignty." A sustained pause followed the word "sovereignty," during which no one moved or spoke. Then Hippolyta rose to her feet. The timing of her movement brought into focus her unspoken resistance to the sovereignty over her that Theseus had won in battle and would now exercise in marriage. That resistance, in turn, sharpened the words with which Theseus broke the stillness that followed the word "sovereignty." "Take time to pause," he cautioned Hermia. He then set the deadline for Hermia's decision, and in the specific context of Brook's production, this announcement of that deadline was also a declaration of his resolve to demonstrate his sovereignty over Hippolyta. Hermia must decide "by the next new moon," which would also be, Theseus stressed, "the sealing day betwixt my love and me / For everlasting bond of fellowship."

Another distinct pause followed Theseus' final warning to Hermia that if she chose to resist her father's authority and did not marry Demetrius, the law of Athens would yield her up "to death, or to a vow of single life." That pause ended when Theseus said, "Come, my Hippolyta." Hippolyta, however, stood motionless as Theseus crossed toward her, and before reaching her, he stopped to ask, "What cheer, my love?" When she still did not step toward him or speak, he turned in embarrassed anger to address Demetrius and Egeus. The Queen of the Amazons continued to stand motionless and silent as he spoke to the two men, and she did not join Theseus when he exited through the door upstage right. Instead, Hippolyta walked alone toward the door upstage left, silently challenging Theseus' claim that she is "my Hippolyta," "my love" (emphasis added). On reaching the doors, Theseus and Hippolyta stopped and looked briefly at one another before each exited separately. With "duty and desire," Egeus and Demetrius then followed Theseus through the door upstage right. Their eager compliance with his order to "go along" gave a final definition to Hippolyta's silent and Hermia's explicit refusal to submit to the sovereignty that men claimed over them.

Another way of demonstrating the impact that Hippolyta's silence can have is to consider a production—Elijah Moshinsky's in 1981 for BBC-TV—that obliterated it. Moshinsky split Shakespeare's single opening scene into several "scenes" set in different locations. The first of Moshinsky's scenes opened by having the camera show Hippolyta, dressed in black, pacing restlessly, even angrily, in front of a line of attendants who stood along one wall of a room. The voice of Theseus speaking the play's first lines intruded as the audience watched Hippolyta. Then the camera showed him, still wearing armor, standing in front of his attendants, ranged along the opposite wall. Facing him across that intervening space, Hippolyta replied without in any way narrowing the distance, both physical and emotional, between them. After Hippolyta finished speaking, Theseus first ordered Philostrate to "stir up the Athenian youth to merriments," then crossed until he stood face to face with an unsmiling, defiant Hippolyta. In an assertion of his will and dominance, he declared to her his resolve to wed her "with pomp, with triumph, and with revelling."

Moshinsky's production then shifted directly to the arraignment of Hermia, which, set in a different room, became a scene distinct from the exchange between Theseus and Hippolyta that began the play. Hippolyta was not present during this second scene to watch in silence as Theseus heard the "complaint" against Hermia and passed judgment. Her absence negated all possibility of establishing visual correspondences between Hippolyta's situation and Hermia's, and Moshinsky squandered the potential established by his interpretation of the opening dialogue between Theseus and Hippolyta. Moshinsky thus wasted the opportunity presented by the silence that Shakespeare's words impose on Hippolyta—the same opportunity that Hall, Hirsch, Bannerman, and Brook exploited in sharply divergent ways.

The diverse meanings and effects that Hippolyta's silence yields have an impact that reaches beyond the opening scene. Her silence can be the primary factor in defining the nature of her relationship with Theseus, and that relationship in turn can shape the alignments among the various characters and even alter the structure of the play. Consider the possible consequences of endowing Hippolyta's silence with meanings and effects that establish—as Hall's production did—that the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta is harmonious from the start of the play. Their harmony then contrasts with the discord that characterizes the relationship between Oberon and Titania and the interactions of Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena.

Shakespeare's positioning of Theseus' and Hippolyta's first appearance after the opening scene illustrates how the Duke of Athens and the Queen of the Amazons, who are soon to be married, can function as a mean between the King and Queen of the Fairies, who are already married, and the four young Athenians who are seeking spouses. Shakespeare has Theseus and Hippolyta, whose amity has never been in doubt, enter immediately after Oberon and Titania find that they are "new in amity" (IV.i.86). Consequently, Theseus and Hippolyta are present when the four young Athenians awake to find that, after the confusions of the night, they are paired in combinations that Theseus then validates when he declares that "in the temple, by and by, with us, / These couples shall eternally be knit" (lines 179-80). In productions such as Hall's, the harmony that Oberon and Titania attain is the harmony that Theseus and Hippolyta have enjoyed since the opening moments of the play, and it is through Oberon's manipulations that the four young lovers find their affections realigned in ways that allow them to participate in that harmony. If Hippolyta's silence signifies concord between Theseus and Hippolyta, A Midsummer Night's Dream becomes a play whose structure is based on the principle of repetition. The opening exchange between Theseus and Hippolyta establishes the harmony that emerges from conflict, the amity in union that follows enmity in battle. The audience then watches a variety of characters go through variations of the same change from discord to concord.

If, however, Hippolyta's silence signifies a conflict with Theseus, alignments among the various characters shift. The relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta at the start of the play does not establish a concordant order in which other characters eventually participate. Instead, the conflict between the Duke of Athens and the Queen of the Amazons is the initial manifestation of a more fundamental disorder that surfaces again in the quarrel between father and daughter and in the squabbling over which young man will be paired with Hermia and which with Helena. The source of that disorder lies, one learns at the start of act II, outside the human realm, in the battle under way between the King and Queen of the Fairies that disrupts everything from the cycle of the seasons to the patterns of the Morris dancers. "And this same progeny of evils comes," Titania advises Oberon,

From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

The occasion of their quarrel is Titania's refusal to give to Oberon the changeling boy whom she prizes because of her affection for his mother, who died giving birth to him: "And for her sake," Titania tells Oberon, "do I rear up her boy; / And for her sake I will not part with him" (II.i.l36-37). In her insistence on keeping the boy, Titania, like Hermia, explicitly refuses to submit to a male who claims authority over her. She defies her husband just as Hermia defies both her father and her duke. In performance, Hippolyta's silent defiance of the man who has conquered her and will be her husband can be just as pointed, even if unspoken. In her silence the defeated Queen of the Amazons can even convey a commitment, like Titania' s, to the primacy of the bonds that link one woman to another—a commitment that marriage does not extinguish. The pattern of resistance to an authority figure can be extended to include the scenes involving the "rude mechanicals" (III.ii.9), during which Bottom and to a lesser extent the other would-be actors repeatedly challenge Quince's decisions as director.

Peter Brook's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream illustrates the force such parallels can exert. He had the same actor play both Egeus and Quince, thus linking the father who tries to force his daughter to fit her fancies to his will and the novice director who struggles to force his performers to make their various and erratic fancies conform with his befuddled conception of dramatic order. Brook also doubled the roles of Oberon and Theseus, of Hippolyta and Titania, and of the courtiers and fairies. Probably the most striking instance of doubling involved Philostrate, the official charged with providing entertainment to the Athenian court, and Puck, the agent through whom Oberon seeks to execute his designs and the figure through whom, in the Epilogue, Shakespeare articulates the correspondence between what happens to the characters and what happens to the audience during the play:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumb'red here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.

The extensive doubling enabled Brook to use the process of seeing to give nonverbal but compelling confirmation to Puck's summary of the dreamlike visions experienced by the theater audience during A Midsummer Night's Dream. How audiences saw during performances of Brook's production was similar to how Hermia says she sees on awakening after her night in the forest: "Methinks I see these things with parted eye, / When everything seems double."

When Hippolyta's silence is used to establish or to deepen her conflict with Theseus, the structure of A Midsummer Night's Dream changes accordingly. The principle of repetition is replaced by the principle of gradual intensification, followed by sudden, almost explosive transformation. In the first four acts, the prevailing movement is toward disorder, which becomes ever more baffling to those caught up in it. At the moment during act IV, scene i when that disorder seems greatest, it is—to use Quince's not inappropriate malapropism—"translated" into order. Titania awakes to find herself loathing the man with the head of the ass, whom she has taken to her bed, and willing to join hands and dance with Oberon without any thought of the changeling boy or his mother. The four young Athenians, each of whose last conscious memories were of hunting a member of the same sex in order to do battle, awake to find themselves peacefully paired, male and female. With Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus standing before them, they learn, to their own amazement, that the answer to Theseus' question ("Begin these woodbirds but to couple now," line 139) is yes. His affections changed "I wot not by what power" (line 163), Demetrius, dazed but certain, declares that he now loves Helena, leaving Egeus with no one whom he can compel Hermia to marry. The process of "translation" even touches Theseus. Overruling Egeus, he sets aside without explanation the law whose validity he had upheld during the opening scene while Hippolyta looked on in silence, and he sanctions the union of Hermia with Lysander and of Helena with Demetrius.

The decision to have Hippolyta's silence convey that she and Theseus are (or come to be) in conflict during the opening scene requires that another decision be made about when that conflict ends, allowing Theseus and Hippolyta to participate in the "amity" engendered by the reconciliation of Oberon and Titania. One possibility is that the conflict has already ended when Theseus and Hippolyta enter in act IV, scene i, immediately after Oberon and Titania have exited together "new in amity." Theseus says,

We will, fair Queen, up to the mountain's top
And mark the musical confusion
Of hounds and echo in conjunction.
                                 (lines 108-10)

Then Hippolyta speaks for the first time since falling silent during the opening scene. The very fact that she breaks her silence can testify to a reconciliation with Theseus, and that possibility is strengthened when one considers that what she says can be an endorsement of Theseus' sense of the thrill of the hunt:

I was with Hercules and Cadmus once
When in a wood of Crete they bayed the bear
With hounds of Sparta. Never did I hear
Such gallant childing; for, besides the groves,
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seemed all one mutual cry. I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.
                                   (lines 111-17)

However, the words Hippolyta speaks when she breaks her silence—like those she uttered at the start of the play before falling silent—need not necessarily signify harmony with Theseus. Twice she uses the word "never" ("Never did I hear" and "I never heard"), each time in a phrase that can convey her belief that the hunting that Theseus now proposes cannot measure up to what she has known in the past. Delivered with a skeptical or belittling edge, her words can convey continuing discord with Theseus, and if they do, the moment when she and Theseus are joined in amity must come later in the scene, perhaps after Theseus says, "Egeus, I will overbear your will" (line 178) and gives his approval to the marriages of Hermia with Lysander and Demetrius with Helena. With that decision Theseus disregards the Athenian law defining Egeus' paternal rights over Hermia, a law that, he had earlier said, "by no means we may extenuate." In Brannerman's production especially, those words emphasized Theseus' respect for Athenian law. By exploiting the parallels between the exit Theseus and Hippolyta make in this scene and the exit they make during the opening scene, Brannerman had their reconciliation flow directly from Theseus' refusal to heed Egeus' call for "the law, the law" (line 154). When Theseus said, after announcing the triple marriages, "Come, Hippolyta" (line 185), Hippolyta's reaction was very different from her reaction when he said, "Come, my Hippolyta" during the opening scene. She responded not by slapping the book of Athenian laws into Theseus' hands and exiting without him, but by taking first Egeus' hand and then Theseus', after which the three of them exited together.

If Hippolyta and Theseus are in harmony when they enter, the rest of act IV, scene i shows order and the awareness of order emerging in a clearly hierarchical pattern-beginning with the King and Queen of the Fairies, followed by Theseus and Hippolyta, and finally by the four young lovers. A different pattern develops, however, if the reconciliation between Theseus and Hippolyta is delayed until Theseus affirms the lovers' pairings. Theseus' willingness to make that affirmation becomes, in effect, a condition for the reconciliation, and the movement from disorder to order does not proceed hierarchically, but rather from Oberon and Titania, to the four young lovers, to Theseus and Hippolyta. The Duke of Athens and the Queen of the Amazons—recent foes in actual battle—are the last to share in the concord that can result from the union of male and female.

The latest that the reconciliation between Theseus and Hippolyta can occur is the start of act V, which opens with Hippolyta saying, "'Tis strange, my Theseus, what these lovers speak of." This is the first time during the play that she addresses Theseus by name, and her use of "my," conveying acceptance, even possessiveness, echoes Theseus' use of the same adjective during the opening scene: "Come, my Hippolyta," and "What cheer, my love?" The fact that Hippolyta (might well have) resisted the implications of that word during the opening scene makes her use of it now, immediately after the marriage ceremony, all the more telling. Perhaps equally telling is that the phrase "my Theseus" establishes a correspondence between the first words an audience hears Hippolyta speak to the man who has just become her husband and the first words Titania speaks when she awakes from her sleep and finds herself reconciled with her husband: "My Oberon, what visions have I seen" (IV.i.75).

Hippolyta's open silence occurs during the opening scene of a play in which Shakespeare calls attention to and celebrates his own success in using language to engender dramatic illusion. To solve the problem posed by the fact that Pyramus and Thisby must meet by moonlight, Bottom suggests they "leave a casement of the great chamber window, where we play, open, and the moon may shine in at the casement" (III.i.48-50). Quince counters with a proposal to substitute figurative moonbeams for actual moonlight:

Or else one must come in with a bush of thorns and a lantern, and say he comes to disfigure, or to present, the person of Moonshine.

(lines 51-53)

Their laughable efforts highlight by contrast Shakespeare's success in coping with virtually the same problem. He deploys the resources of language in order to conjure up the illusionary darkness and moonlight in which much of A Midsummer Night's Dream takes place. We can better appreciate what Shakespeare achieves by means of words if we recall that most performances of the play in Shakespeare's time took place in daylight in an outdoor theater. Those who watched those first performances imposed on the daylight that their eyes registered the fictional darkness and moonlight that Shakespeare's language imprinted upon their minds. They saw "not with the eyes, but with the mind" (I.i.234). By effectively using words to "present" moonlight during the play, Shakespeare gives Theseus' description of how a poet uses language a validity that Theseus himself did not intend:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Hippolyta's silence is open not because Shakespeare lacked the skill to give her words but because he did not exercise that skill, did not employ the power of his "poet's pen" to give her silence precisely fixed meanings and effects. He did not use the words at his command to provide her silence with "a local habitation and a name"—with specific "shapes." Until and unless her silence is given body during a performance, it remains one of those "things unknown." In effect, Shakespeare has assigned to those who perform A Midsummer Night's Dream the power to give Hippolyta's silence shape and local habitation. That power is not minor or peripheral, for the exercise of it determines the relationships among characters and the structural principle of the play. As the productions I have discussed illustrate, the exercise of that power can bring forth from Hippolyta's silence meanings and effects that differ, sometimes profoundly, yet remain compatible with the words that Shakespeare did pen.

Relinquishing the power to shape Hippolyta's silence entails risks. Like Quince, Bottom, and the others who rehearse and then perform the play of Pyramus and Thisby, actors and directors can, and have, and will run rough-shod over the words a playwright puts down for them. An open silence like Hippolyta's removes even the frail check that the dramatist's words impose upon their impulses and inclinations.

Balancing such risks are certain rewards. Because the words that came from Shakespeare's "poet's pen" establish the existence of Hippolyta's silence but do not specify its meanings and effects, those who perform and produce the play must do more than enact Shakespeare's intentions. Lacking the words necessary to know what Shakespeare intended, they must use their skills to determine what the meanings and effects of her silence will be. They must enact intentions that are theirs, not Shakespeare's. As they do, A Midsummer Night's Dream becomes their play as well as his and acquires a vitality it would not otherwise have.

Hippolyta's silence, in its openness, also offers another benefit. It helps to endow A Midsummer Night's Dream with the capacity to change significantly while retaining identity and coherence—to remain itself yet be "translated" not just from performance to performance and production to production but even from era to era across the centuries. To give but one example, A Midsummer Night's Dream can better and more revealingly accommodate and be adapted to the values and concerns brought to the fore by the feminist movement precisely because Hippolyta's silence allows for the possibility that she, like Hermia, does not submit to male authority. A version of the play that included words with which Hippolyta voiced her acceptance of Theseus' authority would not allow such a possibility. The freedom and flexibility generated by Hippolyta's silence increase the likelihood that, despite the changes in values and perceptions that come with time, A Midsummer Night's Dream will continue to find "a local habitation" that will allow audiences better to understand themselves and their culture.

Jay L. Halio (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Nightingales That Roar: The Language of A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Traditions and Innovations: Essays on British Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by David G. Allen and Robert A. White, University of Delaware Press, 1990, pp. 137-49.

[In the following excerpt, Halio examines how "verbal inconsistencies" in A Midsummer Night's Dream complicate and subvert the play's comic tone by providing continual reminders of the fragility of its harmonious resolution.]

In an essay called "On the Value of Hamlet" [in Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, 1969], Stephen Booth has shown how that play simultaneously frustrates and fulfills audience expectations and otherwise presents contradictions that belie or bedevil the attempts of many a reductionist critic to demonstrate a coherent thematic pattern in Shakespeare's masterpiece. Booth's commentary is particularly directed to the language and action of act 1 which, from the very outset, arouse in the audience a "sensation of being unexpectedly and very slightly out of step" with the drama that the players unfold. "In Hamlet," Booth says, "the audience does not so much shift its focus as come to find its focus shifted." The end result, though initially disturbing, is not finally so: "People see Hamlet and tolerate inconsistencies that it does not seem they could bear.… Truth is bigger than any one system for knowing it, and Hamlet is bigger than any of the frames of reference it inhabits. Hamlet allows us to comprehend—to hold on to—all of the contradictions it contains."

The kind of linguistic and dramatic complexity that Booth describes, while preeminently demonstrable in Hamlet, is by no means limited to that play. It is far more prevalent than perhaps has been recognized, although several critics before and since Booth's essay have tried to show similar situations in other plays. David Bevington, for example [in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1975], has shown how in A Midsummer Night's Dream the debate between Oberon and Puck in act 3, scene 2 "reflects a fundamental tension in the play between comic reassurance and the suggestion of something dark and threatening." In "Titania and the Ass's Head" [in Shakespeare Our Contemporary, 1964] Jan Kott argued that A Midsummer Night's Dream is "the most erotic of Shakespeare's plays" and nowhere else is the eroticism "expressed so brutally." Kott's focus is largely upon the animal imagery and erotic symbolism. The metaphors in Helena's speech to Demetrius in which she proclaims herself his "spaniel," his "dog" (2.1.203-10), Kott regards as "almost masochistic." Contrary to the romantic tradition, reinforced by Mendelssohn's music, the forest in Dream represents anything but a version of Arcadia, inhabited as it is by "devils and lamias, in which witches and sorceresses can easily find everything required for their practices." Titania caressing the monster with the head of an ass is closer to the fearful visions of Hieronymous Bosch, in Kott's view, than to the gentler depictions of Chagall and countless other illustrators of Shakespeare's dream play.

Like Bevington, we need not go as far as Kott does. We need not imagine Titania's court consisting of toothless old men and shaking hags, "their mouths wet with saliva" as they, sniggering, "procure a monster for their mistress." But there is a good deal more going on beneath the play's surface than many have been willing to notice, or have deliberately been persuaded (or lulled) into not noticing. This surely was the point, in part, of Peter Brook's 1970 production: to shake us out of complacency. In much of the poetry, indeed in some of the most celebrated passages, there is a repeated undercutting of the tenor by the vehicle Shakespeare chooses, or a subverting of the overall tone by the actual sense of the language employed. Although this point is related to Kott's, it is, I think, a more general one and characterizes similar phenomena in other plays.

As so often in Shakespearean drama, the first clues come early, in the very opening speeches. Theseus tells Hippolyta that their nuptial hour approaches and he is, like any bridegroom, impatient for the event. But the specific language suggests a crass motive and includes images that are otherwise scarcely flattering to his bride, who is, like Theseus, somewhat advanced in years:

     Four happy days bring in
Another moon—but O, methinks how slow
This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires,
Like to a stepdame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man's revenue.

Hippolyta's response, meant to be reassuring, yet includes the simile of a "silver bow / New-bent in heaven" that reminds Theseus in his turn how he wooed her with his sword and won her love by doing her injuries. He promises to wed her in "another key," but suggestions of discord have already been sounded, and many more will follow before Oberon's final benediction and Puck's epilogue—and their interesting peculiarities.

One such discord occurs immediately with the entrance of Egeus, Hermia, and her two suitors. It is a situation not unlike the opening scenes of Othello, and Egeus's complaints against Lysander are similar to Brabantio's accusations of the Moor: the young man has "bewitched" the old man's daughter with rhymes and presents, "messengers / Of strong prevailment in unhardened youth" (34-35). As the dialogue develops, however, it is clear that if any bewitching has so far occurred—some will certainly occur later—it has been Hermia who has enchanted the affections of both young men. Nevertheless, Egeus's determination to have his way, or his daughter's death, is more than a little disconcerting. It is Theseus—not Egeus—who recalls a third alternative that he makes sound, in this dramatic context, less attractive than a more orthodox view requires. Hermia, after all, can become a nun:

Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires,
Know of your youth, examine well your blood,
Whether, if you yield not to your father's
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be in shady cloister mewed,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.
Thrice-blessèd they that master so their blood
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage:
But earthlier happy is the rose distilled
Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness.

Anachronisms apart, Theseus's description of a "thrice-blessèd" life is shall we admit, rather forbidding. The whole conception of devotion—filial, religious, amorous—is further subverted a few lines later when Lysander mentions Helena's love for Demetrius, who has jilted her:

       she, sweet lady, dotes
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry
Upon this spotted and inconstant man.

And, strangely enough, Theseus sets his own wedding day as the date on which Hermia must make her fateful decision:

Take time to pause, and by the next new
The sealing day between my love and me
For everlasting bond of fellowship—
Upon that day either prepare to die
For disobedience to your father's will,
Or else to wed Demetrius, as he would,
Or on Diana's altar to protest
For aye austerity and single life.
                                (83-90; my italics)

Left with the three alternatives that Theseus enumerates, the lovers look for consolation from each other. Lysander tries to comfort Hermia with a disquisition upon the theme, "The course of true love never did run smooth." The stichomythia in which they then engage reveals only the most obvious way Lysander's words of "comfort" are undercut: "O cross! … O spite! … O hell!" begins each of Hermia's comments. She eventually allows herself to be persuaded by the lesson Lysander seems to be emphasizing—"Then let us teach our trial patience"—only to discover, contrary to his explicit assent, that this is not what he really has in mind at all. His "therefore" (156) leads in quite a different direction, wherever his earlier logic might have been pointing, as he presents to Hermia his plan to elope.

Hermia's ready agreement to the plan concludes with what is, again given the dramatic context, a most curious set of oaths. It begins conventionally enough, but then something happens to the conventions, or rather some oddly inappropriate ones intrude:

I swear to thee by Cupid's strongest bow,
By his best arrow with the golden head,
By the simplicity of Venus' doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
And by that fire which burned the Carthage
When the false Trojan under sail was seen,
By all the vows that ever men have broke—
In number more than ever women spoke,—
In that same place thou hast appointed me
Tomorrow truly will I meet with thee.

Hermia may be merely teasing her lover, so sure she is of him, as Alexander Leggati says [in Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, 1974] and the joking does no harm. But teasing always contains a barb, and (not only in light of what comes later) the allusions to male infidelity are ominous, to say the least. In any event, the rhetoric of the first eight lines is neatly undercut by the final couplet, whose jingling and prosaic simplicity collapses the soaring quality of what precedes it. This may all be part of the comic effect intended, and Lysander's flat "Keep promise, love," while confirming the anticlimactic effect, at the same time suggests by its peremptoriness that he may be caught a little off balance by Hermia. But before we can ponder this exchange further, Helena enters with paradoxes of her own.

Consider her lines on love and the imagination. Although earlier she laments how Demetrius is misled in large part by Hermia's external beauty, here Helena complains of the transforming power of the imagination under the influence of love:

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath love's mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is love said to be a child
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

Throughout her speech Helena shows remarkable maturity of insight, except of course that all of her insight helps not a jot to correct her own love's folly. She errs as badly as Demetrius, by her own admission. Nor is she correct about visual susceptibility. As much of the central action of the play demonstrates, the eyes decidedly lead—or mislead—lovers. The capacity for transposing "things base and vile" to "form and dignity" is not in the imagination, or "mind," but in the fancy, which as she indicates is devoid of judgment. Shakespeare shows the relation between eyesight and fancy (or love) in a song from The Merchant of Venice:

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
 Reply, reply.
It is engendered in the eyes,
With gazing fed; and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.

Later, in a speech notable for its dramatic irony, Lysander justifies his sudden passion for Helena by an appeal to his reason, which he claims has led his will, or desire (2.2.121-23). But like others in the Athenian forest, he is led by his eyes, influenced by Puck's misapplied herb juice, which has engendered his fancy. And it will be through his eyes also that his fancy, his infatuation for Helena, will die. Although the terms were often used interchangeably by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the power of the imagination could be distinguished from the fancy, as some Elizabethans knew two centuries before Coleridge's Biographia Literaria. It is, moreover, this power, fancy (or phantasy), that Theseus unfortunately calls "imagination" in his famous fifth act speech, which connects the lunatic, the lover, and the poet.

The frequent malapropisms of the rude mechanicals' dialogue also add to our growing sense of linguistic (and other) disorder. Here Bottom is the most notorious, because the most pretentious; but he is not the only one. Wanting the role of Lion, as well as the roles of Pyramus and Thisbe—and Ercles, too, if that "part to tear a cat in" could somehow be worked into the play—he pleads that he will use moderation in his roaring so as not to frighten the ladies in the audience:

But I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove. I will roar you an 'twere any nightingale.


Peter Quince, the stalwart impresario, also gets tangled up in his language, not only in failing to stand upon his points in the Prologue, but earlier, speaking more accurately than he realizes, when he explains how moonlight can be provided for their play. As an alternative to leaving the casement window open, he suggests "one must come in with a bush of thorns and a lantern and say he comes to disfigure or to present the person of Moon-shine" (3.1.53-55; my italics). When it is finally staged before the court, the "most lamentable comedy … Pyramus and Thisbe" will function on various levels of significance well prepared for by the kinds of linguistic subversion that appear elsewhere in the play.

The sense of disorder that characterizes much of A Mid-summer Night's Dream is, in one way, explained by the conflict between Oberon and Titania. These adept lovers, when they meet in act 2, upbraid one another with accusations of jealousy, philandering, insubordination, and downright meanness. As a result of their quarrel, Titania complains that everything in nature has turned topsy-turvy (2.1.81-117). The vagaries of love have power, apparently, in these supernatural beings to make the seasons alter:

         … hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems' thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is as in mockery set.

But the disorder is conveyed in other, more subtle ways than in this image of old Hiems and his fragrant chaplet. Immediately after Oberon vows to "torment" his queen for her injurious behavior, he calls upon his "gentle" Puck. Again, as he describes hearing a mermaid on a dolphin's back "uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath / That the rude sea grew civil at her song," he notes that at the same time "certain stars shot madly from their spheres / To hear the sea-maid's music" (2.1.150-54). How can it happen both ways: the rude sea grows civil, but certain stars go mad in the firmament? The subsequent magnificent passage describing the "fair vestal throned by the west" concludes with the sad plight of the once milk-white flower, love-in-idleness, stained purple, which will provide Oberon with the magic he needs for his plot against Titania. The epitome of this kind of doublespeak occurs in the famous passage where Oberon describes his plan in detail:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet muskroses and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania some time of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight.
And there the snake throws her enamelled skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.
And with the juice of this I'll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.

As Harold Brooks remarks, the lines are "famous for their melody, as well as for their imagery, which is no less lyrical." The mellifluousness of the verse, the lulling rhythms of the end-stopped lines, but especially the beauty of the images combine to hide for the reader or spectator almost entirely the edge of Oberon's real malice. If the image of the snake is hardly an image here that repels, its appearance is at least problematical—whatever generic relation it may have to Hermia's dream of the crawling serpent on her breast after Lysander deserts her in the next scene. Jan Kott has noted a parallel in the fairies' lullaby in act 2 where the linguistic effect is reversed:

You spotted snakes with double tongue,
 Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen.
Newts and blindworms, do no wrong,
 Come not near our Fairy Queen.
 Philomel with melody
 Sing in our sweet lullaby,
Lulla, lulla, lullaby; lulla, lulla, lullaby.
   Never harm
   Nor spell nor charm
 Come our lovely lady nigh.
 So good night, with lullaby.
Weaving spiders, come not here;
 Hence, you longlegged spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near,
 Worm nor snail, do no offence.
 Philomel with melody.…

Despite its invocation to Philomel in the refrain, this is not the sort of lullaby to forecast or inspire pleasant dreams. But the harmonies of sound, especially enhanced by music (as in many lullabies), do everything—or almost everything—to hide from us the actual horrors. The same point can be illustrated where Titania explains her opposition to Oberon's demand for the changeling Indian boy:

His mother was a votress of my order,
And in the spicèd Indian air by night
Full often hath she gossiped by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune's yellow sands,
Marking th'embarkèd traders on the flood,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she with pretty and with swimming gait
Following—her womb then rich with my young
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles, and return again
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
And she, being mortal, of that boy did die,
And for her sake do I rear up her boy;
And for her sake I will not part with him.

The beauty of the passage—"spicèd Indian air," the imagery of conception, and the mocking gait of the pregnant young woman—bears the full emphasis, and the serious point of the speech—the mother's childbirth death, leaving her son an orphan—becomes almost anticlimactic, certainly less emphatic, though to Shakespeare's audience the dangers of childbirth were quite real.

Bottom's meeting with Titania also offers some surprising paradoxes. Can Oberon really mean to have himself cuckolded by an asinine country bumpkin? We may laugh, and are surely meant to do so, when Titania greets Bottom's rustic song: "What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?" (3.1.122). But Bottom goes on, providing some interesting clues to what actually is about to happen:

The finch, the sparrow, and the lark,
     The plainsong cuckoo grey,
Whose note full many a man doth mark
     And dares not answer "Nay"—

for, indeed, who would set his wit to so foolish a bird? Who would give a bird the lie, though he cry "cuckoo" never so?


Cuckoos and cuckolds—need one remark?—traditionally have a strong association, which modern audiences may miss, but Shakespeare's would not. Oberon plans to punish Titania and succeeds—not without some cost to himself, however, which he may ignore or perhaps relish ("This falls out better than I could devise!" he says to Puck at 3.2.35). But Bottom's song and comment point to what the cost actually is.

These linguistic and dramatic complexities and contradictions serve, as Stephen Booth has said about Hamlet, to keep us from simplistic reductions of experienced situations, specifically the play's mirrored experiences of reality, to say nothing of its own reality. As such, they force us out of, rather than into, an artificial prison that R. P. Blackmur has (in another connection [in Form and Value in Modern Poetry, 1957]) described as a tendency to set artistic unity as a chief criterion of excellence.

Coherence, existentially considered, is more, much more, than rhetorical cohesiveness, though to some extent that kind of coherence is also necessary. But however necessary, it is not a sufficient condition of great art, such as Shakespeare's. The point can be illustrated as well by examples from the great literature of music, such as the late Beethoven quartets. But (to remain with Shakespeare) let me expand the reference to other plays of the same period as A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In an essay on "Shakespeare and the Limits of Language," Anne Barton [in Shakespeare Survey, 1971] … contrasted Richard II's verbal adeptness with Bolingbroke's political skill to show how, despite his manifold successes, Shakespeare did not allow language, the efficacy of the word, an "unexamined triumph." In the deposition scene, for example, Barton shows how it is the weak king who insists upon inventing a rite, creating a litany that will, through words, invest the transference of power with meaning. The speech she specifically cites uses the well metaphor as its controlling device:

Here, cousin, seize the crown.
On this side my hand, and on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another:
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water.
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on

As Barton says, Bolingbroke's submission is "oddly qualified"; he reaches out his hand, but verbally he will not cooperate; his blunt inquiry—"I thought you had been willing to resign"—tears through and destroys the validity of the metaphor. Or does it? We can see Bolingbroke containing himself in patience while Richard goes through his ceremonies of self-debasement, for Bolingbroke fully understands the political might he now controls. Richard's wit is keener than Bolingbroke suspects, or lets on. The well metaphor, like much else in this scene, carries more than an acknowledgment of Richard's defeat and Bolingbroke's success. Richard, the heavier bucket, down and unseen, is also fuller, weightier; Bolingbroke, the high bucket, is also lighter, emptier, frolicking in the air as in a dance. The word, as Richard delivers it then, in this speech as in others, is hardly impotent. Its triumph is not an unqualified one, but neither is Bolingbroke's. Many of Shakespeare's plays make the same point.

In the last act of The Merchant of Venice the equations appear reversed. Some of the same verbal inconsistencies that analysis of A Midsummer Night's Dream revealed occur in the opening speeches between Lorenzo and Jessica, creating the initial tension that leads indirectly to the tensions created by the ring trick that Portia and Nerissa have played upon their husbands. Or are all of these tensions, as Jonathan Miller's production (with Laurence Olivier as Shylock) seemed to argue, actually the result, or aftermath, of those generated in the previous act, where Shylock learns the meaning of justice as taught him by Portia and Antonio and the rest?

Lorenzo and Jessica are sitting outside Portia's house in Belmont. Lorenzo speaks:

The moon shines bright. In such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise, in such a night
Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls
And sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents,
Where Cressid lay that night.

The first three lines set both the scene and time and prepare for the lovely passage fifty lines later that begins, "How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!" But here as later a discordant note slips in, even as the mellifluousness of the lines, the soft alliterations and rhythm beguile the listener—the less attentive audience, at any rate—but not Jessica. She follows Lorenzo's allusion to the tragedy of Troilus and Cressida with:

                   In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o'ertrip the dew,
And saw the lion's shadow ere himself
And ran dismayed away.

And so on, back and forth, through Dido and Medea until Lorenzo openly teases Jessica about stealing away with him to Belmont, and she retorts in kind. Only the entrance of a messenger apparently halts the contest; but later, as they await Portia's return and Lorenzo describes the music of the spheres, Jessica feels compelled to say: "I am never merry when I hear sweet music" (69). And so on, again, throughout the scene concords find discords, discords concord, in a seemingly unending series. Although the overall tone is joyful and the teasing playful, Shakespeare does not let us forget the more somber aspects of human relationships, which can and do intrude.

The same kind of linguistic and dramatic strategy is at work in the final act of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Philostrate's list of possible wedding entertainments is an odd one, beginning as it does with "The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung / By an Athenian eunuch to the harp" (5.1.44-45). His fourth possibility brings us to

"A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth."

Theseus's reaction summarizes ours:

Merry and tragical? Tedious and brief?
That is, hot ice and wondrous strange snow.
How shall we find the concord of this discord?

Philostrate's condescending reply to the question does not probe deeply enough, of course: How indeed shall we find the "concord of this discord"? Not, I submit, by simply acquiescing in the general merriment of the stage spectators while the playlet is in progress, beginning with the "tangled chain" of Quince's Prologue. Even if we grant that the play was first performed at an actual wedding celebration, with fun and laughter very much in the spirit of the occasion, we cannot stop there. However well things may turn out for Theseus and Hippolyta, Lysander and Hermia, Demetrius and Helena, Oberon and Titania, there is still one couple whose fortunes do not end happily. Within the happy framework of this celebration, the solemn notes of tragedy still intrude, all but obliterated by peals of mirth that the simple rustics inspire, but nonetheless there.

Critics have been at some pains to show how Shakespeare "brilliantly reconciles opposites" in his dream-play. The usual reference is to the passages on Theseus's hounds in act 4, scene 1, lines 109-26, specifically to "So musical a discord, such sweet thunder" that their baying offers. Not remarked often enough, perhaps, is the providential role that characters like Oberon and Theseus enact in bringing about the concord between the jarring couples in the play. (Shakespeare as playwright is of course the relevant analogy here.) But my purpose has been to show that the concords exist at only one level, and that one not the most profound. The thunder may be "sweet," but it is still thunder. Oberon overmasters Titania, reduces her to tears, and has his way finally. Theseus suavely ignores the law Egeus and he himself have invoked in act 1 to enable the young couples to be married, and Egeus (with whatever silent, grudging acceptance) goes along: Theseus quite frankly tells him "I will overbear your will" (4.1.178). Shakespeare is hardly as direct, but in effect he overbears ours as well, lulling or beguiling us into an acceptance of concord and amity, however achieved, through the artistry of his verse and the adeptness of his comic genius. But he has left sufficient pointers (for those willing to recognize them) that this is artifice, after all; that a benevolent providence does not always or inevitably enter into human affairs to make things right. His most significant indication of that fact is in the play-within-the-play, where no providential solution to Pyramus and Thisbe's plight appears. The "thunder" there may be nearly drowned out by laughter and jollity, but it still rumbles. And what the thunder says is not a message of concord or reconciliation of opposing wills.

Of this situation Marjorie Garber has commented [in Dream in Shakespeare, 1974] that the play-within-the-play is "ultimately nothing less than a countermyth for the whole of A Midsummer Night's Dream, setting out the larger play's terms in a new and revealing light." If the playlet "absorbs and disarms" the tragic alternative to the happy outcome that the other couples have experienced, it is nevertheless present to remind us of what we all know but usually prefer to ignore or forget, especially on such occasions as this. By framing the images of night-mare terrors in "an illusion within an illusion," as James Calderwood has said [in Modern Language Quarterly, 1965], Shakespeare here dissolves their threat in laughter. But the laughter is generated, Calderwood continues, at least in part by the act of self-recognition that follows from the transformation of "subjective vagueness" into the "objective clarity" of dramatic form.

As "the iron tongue of midnight" summons the couples to bed, with Theseus's anticipation of yet a fortnight of "nightly revels and new jollity," Puck steals in and reminds us that

Now the hungry lion roars
  And the wolf behowls the moon,
Whilst the heavy plowman snores
 All with weary task foredone.

Not that the fairies' work is done, and Puck is "sent with broom before / To sweep the dust behind the door" (379-80). Perhaps that is the best image for Shakespeare's strategy in this play. As every housewife knows, sweeping the dust behind the door, or under the rug, may hide it for awhile, but does not get rid of it. In A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare, like Puck, is busy with his broom, but we do not altogether lose sight of his, or the world's, dust.

Mark Taylor (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Female Desire in A Midsummer Night's Dream, in Shakespeare Yearbook, Vol. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 115-29.

[In the following excerpt, Taylor examines the relationship between gender and the operation of desire in A Midsummer Night's Dream, asserting that "inside men, desire tends to eradicate the person of the other; inside women, it does not."]

Generally women begin to … yearn for a male … at fourteen years old, then they do offer themselves, and some plainly rage.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

In Shakespeare Our Contemporary, published some twenty-five years ago, Jan Kott insists on the utter "interchangeability" of the four young lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Helena, Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander. "The lovers are exchangeable," he writes. "The entire action of this hot night, everything that has happened at this drunken party, is based on the complete exchangeability of love partners." More recently [in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, 1979] René Girard asserts that the pressure of desire obliterates distinctions of personality and gender among the four lovers: "they all worship the same erotic absolute, the same ideal image of seduction which each girl and boy in turn appears to embody in the eyes of the others. This absolute has nothing to do with concrete qualities; it is properly metaphysical." He continues, "As the climax of the midsummer night approaches, the four protagonists lose whatever individuality they formerly appeared to have.… The four characters lose a self-identity which they and the philosophers would like to turn into an absolute" (emphasis added).

Girard never explains his obscure (and perhaps derisive) reference to "the philosophers," but one supposes them to be champions of some idea of ineradicable individuality. In contrast to the Middle Ages, when "Man was conscious of himself only as member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category," Jacob Burckhardt wrote [in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy], in the Renaissance "the subjective side … asserted itself… [and] man became a spiritual individuar" (original emphasis). Burckhardt's view was implicitly under attack almost as soon as he formulated it, for the idea of individuality has been devalued if not dismissed for over a century. "Since the late nineteenth century," Thomas Heller and David Wellbery write, "theoretical work within [the social sciences]—one need only think of Marxist political economy, psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, and Saussurian linguistics—has increasingly relied on models and methods incompatible with the fundamental terms of individualism. Perhaps Girard himself relies on such a model and thus must see the notion of individuality or "self-identity" in A Midsummer Night's Dream as incompatible with it. Hence, the four young lovers—who never more than appeared to have individuality, and soon lose even that appearance—are brought into conformity with a prior agenda.

Still more recently, Terry Eagleton [in William Shakespeare, 1986] considers this play (and also Twelfth Night) under the rubric of "Desire." He does not cite Girard, but he agrees with him about the consequences of desire for what seems originally distinctive about the lovers. Eagleton writes, "Desire in this drama is at root deeply impersonal.… In the play's fantasia of the unconscious, what looks through the individual eye is nothing less than the unconscious itself, casually indifferent to particular bodies.…" He speaks also of "a purely random subjectivity of Eros … (the four interchangeable lovers)." For Girard and Eagleton (and implicitly for Kott) desire comes to be, if it is not from the outset, independent of the persons through whom and upon whom it operates. It effaces all singularity in both its subject and its object.

Lysander and Demetrius both, at one time or another, desire the two women; this inconstancy of affection may support the inference that the object of their desire is less important than their desire itself. If one discounts the power of the love-in-idleness drops, the design of Oberon, and the mistake of Puck, there are certainly moments when these men appear "casually indifferent to particular bodies," in Eagleton's phrase. But it does not follow logically—and it will not follow from an examination of the play—that the identities of the two men blur into each other for Hermia and Helena. Quite the contrary: although Hermia and Helena behave as they do in the play largely because of the enormous power of awakening desire within them, they are never indifferent to its object. Indeed, Shakespeare uses desire here as an instrument to differentiate between the genders: inside men, desire tends to eradicate the personality of the other; inside women, it does not. Hermia and Helena hold at different moments various attitudes in the play—great confidence, equally great uncertainty, feelings of isolation, feelings of abandonment, anger, indignation, envy of the other, and so forth—but the love object of each is unvarying; neither ever surrenders or compromises her desire for the one man whom she claims to love at the beginning of the play. And for these women, as for Girard's mysterious philosophers, self-identity (like other-identity) also remains constant. To hold that it does not is to deflect attention from what is indeed of great importance: the peculiar ways, devoted and tenacious, in which women must come to terms with their desires in a male world that is not favorably disposed to a female's desire in the first place, except as an aid to her exploitation. In sum, the object of female desire does not become indistinct or interchangeable; and this desire, though a great force, is not one to which women surrender themselves unconditionally.


As the object of desire of two men when A Midsummer Night's Dream begins, Hermia can afford a certain appearance of passivity denied to Helena. Since Lysander, the man she loves, loves her, and since, notwithstanding the strident opposition of her father Egeus, the champion of Demetrius, Lysander contrives the clever strategem of escape into the wood, Hermia does not, initially, have to act at all—except by going along with Lysander's plan—or to define herself through action. Circumstances would allow a Hermia who is free of internal motivation, or who does not reveal such motivation, but in fact, even in the play's first scene, Hermia tells us a great deal about herself and about the changes that desire, once born, has wrought inside her. When Theseus pronounces on the need for obedience to her father, the imperative to have even her perceptions guided by his wisdom—"Rather your eyes must with his judgment look"—Hermia replies,

I do entreat your Grace to pardon me.
I know not by what power I am made bold,
Nor how it may concern my modesty
In such a presence here to plead my thoughts;
But I beseech your Grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.

In these words Hermia acknowledges a conflict between propriety and the special conditions that override it. "Modesty," respect before "such a presence" as the Duke of Athens, above all, perhaps, silence—these are the graces a young woman, regardless of her own intentions, properly displays on such an occasion. But all of these polite forms Hermia boldly abrogates because of "what power" she knows not, the force of desire itself, which can disrupt the normal proceedings of the court, and lead her to question the established hierarchy of Athens. The power that compels Hermia to speak is the power that will compel Helena to direct Demetrius into the wood and then to follow him. For one, it is the felt need to possess Lysander; for the other, it is the felt need to possess Demetrius. For both, it is desire: what Freud calls "the ceaseless trend by Eros towards extension." Hermia's ignorance of what this power is suggests something in her nature beyond her analysis or perhaps something that is only newly asserting itself. For all the mystery that surrounds it, however, desire, even in an otherwise powerless woman, provokes not merely immodesty but positively subversive challenges to the authority of father and state. Understood or not, female desire presents a danger to the male order of things.

Theseus perhaps recognizes more clearly than Hermia herself the power that makes her bold. To her request to know "The worst that may befall me in this case, / If I refuse to wed Demetrius," he replies,

Either to die the death, or to abjure
For ever the society of men.
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires,
Know of your youth, examine well your blood,
Whether, if you yield not to your father's
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be in shady cloister mewed,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.

"Question your desires, / Know of your youth, examine well your blood": Theseus points to the sources of her rebellion, to the instincts that have shocked her out of silence, and implicitly suggests that any satisfaction of these instincts—any partner at all (but specifically Demetrius)—is preferable to the celibate life. The suggestion derives from what will develop as an unspoken male attitude in the play—evident once Lysander and Demetrius vary the female objects of their pursuit in the forest—which honors the interchangeability of partners. It is a dilemma, this choice between no man and any man, that as circumstances will have it Hermia never in fact has to resolve on its own terms.

Theseus leaves Hermia to ponder her alternatives; she agrees to Lysander's proposal of escape to the wood, where "the sharp Athenian law / Cannot pursue us" (162-63). Then Helena arrives, lamenting Demetrius' abandonment of her for Hermia. Perhaps Helena's presence, and the likelihood of shared feelings, allows Hermia a candor she does not dare in the presence of men only. She tells her friend,

Before the time I did Lysander see,
Seemed Athens as a paradise to me.
O, then, what graces in my love do dwell
That he hath turned a heaven unto a hell!

With these words Hermia locates the time of change within her, something of the force of that change, and therefore the torment of present existence, continuing until there can be some relief. She speaks, indeed, of the disappearance of childhood, the cause of whose irretrievable loss is the birth of desire, itself precipitated by and confused with the sight of a particular, concrete love object. Hermia characterizes the moment of her transformation simultaneously as "the time I did Lysander see" and the action whereby "be bath turned a heaven unto a hell," by the presumably unintentional act of coming before her eye. "There is nothing either good or bad," Hamlet will say, "but thinking makes it so" (2.2.247-48): the heaven that was Athens has become the hell that is Athens.

Hermia then accompanies Lysander out of Athens; they next appear in Act Two, scene two, Hermia "faint with wand'ring in the wood," Lysander claims, while he confesses to having "forgot our way" (35-36). If the court of Theseus is a place where desire marvels at its own boldness in asserting itself, the wild forest, in some ways its most congenial habitat, is a place where desire, taking its boldness for granted, can assert itself openly and without apology. Or nearly so, for now a curious thing has happened: Hermia, heretofore the champion of desire, becomes the agent of its suppression and denial. Correspondingly, Lysander, who in the earlier scene at court needed only to manufacture devices for accommodating Hermia's interests, must now remind her of their latent purpose in coming into the wood. Yet his approach must be oblique, tentative, courteous: the license apparently conferred upon them by the wood is a great shared secret that Lysander dares not quite express. And so he substitutes a conventional romantic trope for what is really on his mind. As Hermia lies down, deliberately at some remove from him, Lysander, presumably approaching her, says,

One turf shall serve as pillow for us both,
One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth,

and when she cautions him to "Lie further off yet; do not lie so near," he, all hurt feelings, protests,

O, take the sense, sweet, of my innocence,

to which he adds an extravagant elaboration of his one-heart, two-bosoms, single-troth figure (41-42, 44, 45). Not deceived by his rhetorical flights, Hermia determines how matters are to be:

But, gentle friend, for love and courtesy
Lie further off, in human modesty.
Such separation as may well be said
Becomes a virtuous bachelor and a maid,
So far be distant; and good night, sweet friend.
Thy love ne'er alter till thy sweet life end!

Appending a no doubt ironical "Amen, amen" to Hermia's "fair prayer," Lysander lies down, alone, and sleeps.

If one considers these two scenes (1.1 and 2.2) together with respect to the presentation of Hermia, one cannot fail to be struck by the circumstance that she, for whom Lysander's existence turned the heaven that was Athens into hell, must be the one to dictate the terms of decorum to "a virtuous bachelor and a maid." There might appear to be an inconsistency in these attitudes except that in both instances Hermia is in conflict with—is struggling to survive against—distinctly male prerogatives, the power that men possess and the right to domination that they assume. In 1.1, it is true, she and Lysander seem to stand together against the force of Athenian law and the will of Egeus; but Lysander, though he tries to compare himself "with vantage" (102) to Demetrius, does not say much about his love for Hermia, and he is never presented with the disagreeable options—death, celibacy, union with an unwanted partner—that she faces. It might seem to him, in fact, that he stands to be the beneficiary of these options—that, unwittingly, Theseus does him a favor—since they make flight into the wood attractive to Hermia.

Once there, of course, Lysander finds a Hermia who must obey other constraints than those of Act One, including the knowledge that gratification of his desire, and her own, is not likely to produce happy long-range consequences. And since A Midsummer Night's Dream casts Lysander as a rather gallant and courtly fellow, not even in potential the forceful violator of a woman's honor, like Demetrius (as we shall see), Hermia's resistance is effective. But it owes its effectiveness to his goodness of heart, not to its own physical superiority or to a world that respects the complexities of a woman's predicament.


My analysis of Hermia and Helena is concerned almost entirely with their words and actions in the play's first two acts, for it is here that they discover and reveal the forces that are inside themselves, direct these forces toward possessing their men on their own terms, and manage to survive the precarious environment they have produced. It is here, in short, that the two women show their desire and their ability to control it. But since René Girard maintains, in a passage quoted above, that "As the climax of the midsummer night approaches, the four protagonists lose whatever individuality they formerly appeared to have," a word is in order about the long second scene of Act Three.

In this scene, under Oberon's influence, Demetrius comes to desire Helena, whom Lysander, under the same influence, has desired since 2.2.103. This reversal of the play's initial situation, where both men desired Hermia, greatly bewilders the two women. Each, however, remains committed to the only man to whom she is ever committed. It is significant that Hermia's last words before she lies down to sleep—the fourth of the lovers to do so, allowing Puck to apply his antidote to Lysander's eyes—are an affirmation of her love and loyalty: "Here will I rest me till the break of day. / Heavens shield Lysander, if they mean a fray!" (3.2.446-47). Otherwise, the two women are concerned mainly with matters of self-esteem and the possibility that they are the butts of everyone else's joke. So Helena, suddenly and doubly desired, believes first that the two men and "Injurious Hermia, most ungrateful maid" (195), are mocking her. Hermia, for her part, is puzzled that Lysander has "grown so rude" (262). Then Hermia decides that Helena has deliberately stolen her man ("O me! you juggler, you canker blossom, / You thief of love" [282-83]), at which point, finally, Helena believes that things are as they (temporarily) seem, and therefore that she can have some sweet revenge on the friend who had been so coyly proud to be desired by all ("I frown upon [Demetrius]; yet he loves me still," Hermia had said sweetly [1.1.194]). And this revenge she has, picking on Hermia short stature, "Fie, fie, you counterfeit, you puppet you!" (288), until the enraged Hermia chases her from the stage (344). Pride, resentment, and an impulse to revenge are interestingly mixed in the two women in this scene, but as Hermia displays her ferocity, and Helena, a dependence on swiftness of foot, they come to possess more individuality, not less.

By contrast with her friend Hermia, Helena is at the beginning of A Midsummer Night's Dream the object of no man's desire, although at some point in the past Demetrius "made love" to her. In the middle of the play she becomes the object of Lysander's most pronounced desire and then of Demetrius' ; and at the end Demetrius alone continues to desire her. Through all these metamorphoses of male temperament Helena remains constant in her love for Demetrius; and yet when her desire becomes most apparent to her, and strongest within her, she retreats from it and from the sexual consummation to which it would lead. She does so, I suggest, because her desire, however genuine, coexists with a peculiarly female imperative (as this play defines it), a silent understanding of the course of action that will best serve her longterm interests. In this capacity for restraint Helena much resembles Hermia although, since Helena enticed and then pursued Demetrius into the wood, her moral vulnerability is always greater than Hermia's. Additionally, the desire of both women is at odds with the kind of chaste heroine demanded by the play in which they find themselves.


The initial situation in A Midsummer Night's Dream up-ends literary conventions and the consequent expectations of the audience. A girl possessing the blond beauty of the adored mistresses of countless Renaissance sonnet sequences and the very name of Helen of Troy is overdetermined as the object of male desire. But Helena is not loved, not desired, not pursued, and therefore, unaided by the proscriptions of Athens and the ingenuity of a boy-friend, must become the agent of her own inclinations; neglect is the condition that fosters her desire, which through the first two acts of the play manifests itself with far more desperation than Hermia's. Half a century after this play Thomas Hobbes would consider the phenomenon of desire: "That which men Desire, they are also sayd to Love.… So that Desire, and Love, are the same thing; save that by Desire, we alwayes signifie the Absence of the Object; by Love, most commonly the Presence of the same." If Helena's desire is more emphatic and prominent than Hermia's, that may be because its object is so often absent.

The conventional heroines who are fused in her can succeed by remaining passive. Helena cannot; she must act. Her first significant action will be to tell Demetrius of Lysander and Hermia's plan to escape from Athens into the surrounding wood; with this revelation Helena recognizes her desire for Demetrius as a more compelling motive than loyalty to Hermia and the sustaining of their fellowship. Of this she is aware. In her soliloquy at the end of Act One she says, "I will go tell [Demetrius] of Hermia's flight" (1.1.246). Later, in the wood, confronting an indignant Hermia, Helena protests, "I evermore did love you, Hermia, / Did ever keep your counsels, never wronged you; / Save that, in love unto Demetrius, / I told him of your stealth unto this wood" (3.2.307-10). Love for the man excuses or at least mitigates a wrong to the woman. Some lines earlier (202-19) Helena had described at length the history of her friendship with Hermia: the shared "childhood innocence" that her desire has now destroyed.

Having worked out her strategy for getting Demetrius into the wood, Helena now proceeds to conceal the intensity of her desire alike from Demetrius and herself, while asserting it, nevertheless, at those moments she might lose him. She concludes her soliloquy in 1.1 by acknowledging that Demetrius will pursue Hermia into the wood; she is curiously reticent about precisely what she herself hopes or intends to accomplish, except to say that "herein mean I to enrich my pain, / To have his sight thither and back again" (250-51). Enrich, a word that always has favorable connotations in Shakespeare (for instance, in Romeo's first reference to Juliet as a lady who "doth enrich the hand / Of yonder knight"), allows Helena to equivocate about pain. What she consciously perceives as pain, on some level of intuition she recognizes as enriching. This divided attitude, I suggest, is thoroughly characteristic of Helena in her association with Demetrius.

An act later the two meet in the wood outside Athens. Demetrius is extremely angry, "wood within this wood / Because I cannot meet my Hermia," and at first simply wants Helena to go away: "Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more!" (2.1.192-94). Helena blames him for magnetically attracting her to him: "You draw me, you hardhearted adamant! / But yet you draw not iron, for my heart / Is true as steel. Leave you your power to draw, / And I shall have no power to follow you" (195-98). Blaming Demetrius, by likening him to the lodestone that draws the steel, is a trick of Helena's, a way of concealing, or attempting to conceal, the strength of the desire within her that has driven (not merely drawn) her here. But Helena nearly gives her game away by speaking of Demetrius' power, not as the force behind her acquiescence, but as the source of power of her own: "Leave you the power to draw / And I shall have no power to follow you."

After Demetrius continues to insist that he has not led her on, that he has not praised her beauty, and that he has stated plainly that he cannot and will not love her, Helena claims to "love you the more" for this inattention and pleads for acceptance on terms of whatever degradation:

I am your spaniel; and Demetrius,

The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel—spurn me, strike
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave
(Unworthy as I am) to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love
(And yet a place of high respect with me)
Than to be usèd as you use your dog?

With these words Helena asserts more completely than anywhere else, excepting not even her several soliloquies, the force of desire within her, and its need for recognition and release.

Even here, however, notwithstanding the generally adject tone and hints of extreme emotional dependency, we notice that her offer of herself is not quite unconditional: in the lines "Use me but as your spaniel—spurn me, strike me, / Neglect me, lose me," the terms "spurn me" and especially "neglect me" and "lose me" invite continued rejection of a sort not obviously different from what Demetrius has been practicing. Indeed, they contradict, undermine, or reverse the direct physical force of "Use me" and "strike me," as if Helena herself resists the meaning of these terms or wishes to cancel the invitation as she gives it. The invitation is to physical abuse, but it is more particularly to sexual abuse, the word "use" often having such implications (for example, in Timon's words to Timandra, "Be a whore still. They love thee not that use thee," Timon of Athens, 4.3.84), and "strike" occasionally having them (as in Aaron's advice to Chiron and that other Demetrius in Titus Andronicus: "Single you thither then this dainty doe, / And strike her home by force, if not by words" 2.1.117-18). But by directing or limiting Demetrius' potential use of her—"Use me but as your spaniel" and "What worser place can I beg in your love … Than to be usèd as you use your dog?—Helena again seeks to conceal the overt sexual content of her discourse.

Despite these attempts to annul her admission of desire (though not her desire itself), Helena cannot be unaware that, in making Demetrius party to her secret longings, she has exposed a private area of her self. The immediate consequences of her so doing I shall examine in a moment, but it is worth noting, first, that during the great confusion of Act Three, scene two, when Lysander and Demetrius profess their love for Helena, as she and Hermia pour out their mutual recriminations, Helena gives Hermia a specialized account of recent events. She told Demetrius of Hermia's departure for the wood, she says, and then,

He followed you; for love I followed him.
But he hath chid me hence, and threat'ned me
To strike me, spurn me, nay, to kill me too.

"Strike," "spurn," and "kill" are words that Demetrius never utters, but Helena speaks them—"strike" and "spurn" in Act One, scene two, above, and "kill," with the same kind of equivocal sexual undertones, in 2.2.84: "Stay, though thou kill me, sweet Demetrius." Helena has a discernible tendency to revise, in report, the speeches of Demetrius. His first extravagant words to her after his metamorphosis—"O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine" (3.2.137)—surely no exercise in understatement, she improves, quoting him to himself, to "goddess, nymph, divine, and rare, / Precious, celestial" (3.2.226-27). Here, at least, she begins with his words. But with "strike," "spurn," and "kill" she deliberately misattributes her own words, or, to put it somewhat differently, reads her desire to be dominated into a text ascribed to Demetrius and thus makes her own behavior proper. This revision emphasizes also Helena's sense that it is impermissible to reveal publicly, that is, to Hermia and Lysander, the desire within her, which may be urged in private to Demetrius.

After Helena's groveling request "to be usèd as you use your dog," Demetrius starts to recognize, or at least to acknowledge openly, some of the possibilities inherent in the situation where he finds himself: it is night; he and Helena are together in the woods, far, it seems, from anyone else; and although he "loves [her] not" (216), she is a woman filled with desire for him, and so time and place conspire to encourage an assault upon "the rich worth of [her] virginity" (219). Demetrius need not love Helena, need not even like her, to respond positively to the sexual being that she is and has insisted she is. To ignore at such moments the particular identity of any convenient female is a man's prerogative in this play, his unquestioned and unexamined right.

Helena also understands the privilege conferred by their circumstances: only in the wood could she make herself available to Demetrius; but now, when he prepares to act fully the role she has contrived for him, she retreats from the consequences of her desire. Having stimulated Demetrius precisely as she wished to, Helena now does an astounding about-face and denies any response to his passion. To Demetrius' suggestion that she was imprudent "To trust the opportunity of night / And the ill counsel of a desert place / With the rich worth of your virginity," Helena replies,

Your virtue is my privilege. For that
It is not night when I do see your face,
Therefore I think I am not in the night;
Nor doth this wood lack worlds of company,
For you, in my respect, are all the world.
Then how can it be said I am alone
When all the world is here to look on me?

To the very real danger that darkness and a deserted wood place her in, Helena responds with metaphors that presume to translate reality: it is not night because of the brightness of Demetrius' face, and she is not alone because, since he is with her and he is all her world, all the world is present. Helena's defense resides in particularly trite conceits of the sort lovers use to make themselves part of a rhetorical community with other lovers but not to define what is unique about themselves. She retreats from reality into a rather silly kind of rhetoric as Lysander, in the next scene, will try to misrepresent reality to Hermia with his talk of hearts, bosoms, and troths (2.2.41ff). Helena's words attempt to nullify the menace of the moment by subordinating it to a verbal convention. And this she does, of course, without admitting that part of herself has willed the menace—Demetrius' sexual desire responding to her own—into being.

Trite and silly or not, Helena's rhetorical self-defense is by definition a defense, and thus an acknowledgment of her self. She insists upon maintaining the "self-identity" that René Girard finds her in the process of losing. In the mode of romance, Northrop Frye writes, "virginity is to a woman what honor is to a man, the symbol of the fact that she is not a slave." So here: Helena's refusal to be a slave—to be the anonymous auxiliary to Demetrius' gratification (it is worth noting that never in this scene does he call her by name)—equals a claim to remain her distinct and unique self—as individuated as Demetrius (whom she twice addresses by name in the scene) remains for her.

Demetrius does not immediately repeat his physical threat to Helena; instead, he says that he will escape into the "brakes" and leave her "to the mercy of wild beasts." "The wildest hath not such a heart as you," says Helena, who then claims that the traditional pattern of active man (or animal) in pursuit of passive woman (or animal) has been reversed by her necessary pursuit of him:

Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase,
The dove pursues the griffon, the mild hind
Makes speed to catch the tiger.

However established Apollo's pursuit of Daphne may be as a model for courtship, it has been Helena all along who has pursued Demetrius, and once again she attempts to conceal what is distinctive about her arrangement with Demetrius by reference to a convention.

Now Demetrius renews his sexual threat: "I will not stay thy questions. Let me go! / Or if thou follow me, do not believe / But I shall do thee mischief in the wood." This is his final speech in the scene, and Helena answers it as he runs off the stage:

Ay, in the temple, in the town, the field
You do me mischief. Fie, Demetrius.

The first of these lines appears, before we see or hear it completed by the second, to offer Demetrius a larger environment for doing her mischief: don't limit yourself to the wood; the temple, town, or field will do as well. The actor who speaks it could make it sound an outburst of great enthusiasm. But, as if Helena has had doubts in mid-sentence about the wisdom of this expansive offer, she completes her sentence by undercutting the way it had begun and blames Demetrius for his perpetual slights. Here, it is the ambiguous, self-canceling syntax of the sentence that mirrors Helena's ambivalent attitude toward her desire. She continues:

Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex.
We cannot fight for love as men may do;
We should be wooed, and were not made to

This interestingly echoes something Demetrius said fifty lines earlier: "And here I am, and wood within the wood / Because I cannot meet my Hermia." Wood means 'forest', 'courted', and 'mad'. Demetrius is mad in the forest but also courted by Helena; Helena should be courted, and perhaps she wishes that her sex could be mad—that is, passionate, unrestrained, without art, open in expression of desire. And then Helena says,

I'll follow thee, and make a heaven of hell
To die upon the hand I love so well,

and again races off after Demetrius. These words, her last in the scene, are a frank confession of sexual longing; as such, they offer an authentic definition of her motives that, for example, her earlier hiding behind metaphor tries to conceal. And now, despite her exact knowledge of the threat Demetrius poses to the rich worth of her virginity, and despite that part of her that would shun such a threat, Helena again runs after Demetrius, catching up with him two scenes later (2.2.83), where there is a further reprise of Helena's invitation to abuse, Demetrius' threat of abuse, her implicitly ignoring his threat, and his departure. Helena is too breathless to continue her chase. She will never again be alone with Demetrius.

Helena's actions, as we have seen, are determined by competing motives. On the one hand, Helena is driven by sexual desire to frenzied and unremitting pursuit of Demetrius, to throwing herself at him, to begging for his acceptance on terms of limitless degradation. It is to precisely these displays that the sought-after Hermia is never inspired. On the other hand, whenever these first motives are about to carry the day, whenever Demetrius responds to Helena's arousal as he predictably must, she resists him by hiding behind protestations of having been misused, avowals of modesty and feminine passivity, and hackneyed romantic tropes and other conventions that favor her maidenly state. We have seen, moreover, the alternation of these dual motives not only in the crucial first scene of Act Two as a whole, but also within individual speeches of Helena's, so that when she offers herself, she simultaneously holds herself back, and vice versa. These motives, toward the satisfaction of desire and the preservation of virginity, respectively, surely deepen the character of Helena, making her challengingly complicated, humanly inconsistent; they also make her believable because of her similarity to innumerable other girls, fictional and real, who must hold their desire in check or risk losing their men through its satisfaction. For all of these young females Cressida, perhaps, speaks most wisely; in her early soliloquy she says,

Yet hold I off: women are angels, wooing;

Things won are done, joy's soul lies in the
That she beloved knows nought that knows not
Men prize the thing ungained more than it is;
That she was never yet, that ever knew
Love got so sweet as when desire did sue.
                           (Troilus, 1.2.272-77)

Cressida knows, and Helena knows, and Hermia knows, to keep male desire suing.

Helena's retreat into chastity, however, is a product not only of her own wisdom but also of the play's need for virginal (thus marriageable) young heroines at the end. The "feast in great solemnity" that Theseus proposes, when "These couples shall eternally be knit" (4.1.184, 180), would be severely compromised by Helena's surrendering to her desire before marriage. This desire is subversive of the kind of play A Midsummer Night's Dream is trying to be, in which marriage is the fitting reward for chastity faithfully preserved; it is only when the play's middle seems to forget about its end, so to speak, that this subversion seems capable of being actualized. Female chastity is an absolute value to which A Midsummer Night's Dream subscribes, at least publicly; it is not, as for example in Measure for Measure, a kind of coin to be offered up at the right moment for something else. The play itself militates against Helena's becoming a Cleopatra, who shows her desire openly, proudly, and without restraint. Although even this overarching dramatic purpose is insufficient to eradicate desire within her, it combines with Helena's own prudence to hold desire in check.

Further Reading

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Calderwood, James L. A Midsummer Night's Dream. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992, 227 p.

Examines the play in light of the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, looking in particular at issues of male authority, desire, and personal identity.

Empson, William. "The Spirits of the 'Dream'." In William Empson: Essays on Renaissance Literature, edited by John Haffenden, pp. 226-48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Explores interactions between fairy and human characters in the play.

Farrell, Kirby. "A Rite to Bay the Bear: Creation and Community in A Midsummer Night's Dream." In Shakespeare's Creation: The Language of Magic and Play, pp. 97-116. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1975.

Suggests that Shakespeare uses the interaction between the city and the fairy wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream to dramatize the harmony between rational and irrational behavior that is necessary in order to attain a balance of freedom and community in love.

Freeman, Barbara. "Dis/Figuring Power: Censorship and Representation in A Midsummer Night's Dream." In Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy, pp. 154-91. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Reads the play in terms of issues of censorship and self-censorship and the relationship between poets and their aristocratic patrons in Renaissance England.

Garber, Marjorie B. "Spirits of Another Sort: A Midsummer Night's Dream. " In Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis, pp. 59-87. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.

Suggests that in this play Shakespeare explores analogies between dreaming and the dramatist's imaginative transformation of reality.

Hollindale, Peter, ed. A Midsummer Night's Dream. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1992, 152 p.

Includes an introduction examining the play's sources, structure, characterizations, and imagery, and a discussion of its treatment of marriage.

Rhoads, Diana Akers. Shakespeare's Defense of Poetry: A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985, 255 p.

Studies the role of the poet in civil society as a central concern of the two plays.

Smidt, Kristian. "Doth the Moon Shine That Night? A Midsummer Night's Dream." In Unconformities in Shakespeare's Early Comedies, pp. 120-40. London: Macmillan, 1986.

Notes various inconsistencies and contradictions in the play's plot and its representation of the fairy world and relates these to the play's ambiguous treatment of love.

Stewart, Garrett. "Shakespearean Dreamplay." The English Literary Renaissance 11 (Winter, 1981): 44-69.

Discusses the self-reflexive "interweaving of dream and drama" in the language of the play.

Summers, Joseph H. "Dreams of Love and Power: A Midsummer Night's Dream." In Dreams of Love and Power: On Shakespeare's Plays, pp. 1-22. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Examines relationships between love and the imagination and between love and the exercise of power in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Taylor, Brian Anthony. "Golding's Ovid, Shakespeare's 'Small Latin,' and the Real Object of Mockery in 'Pyramus and Thisbe.'" In Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production 42 (1990): 53-64.

Argues that the character Peter Quince represents Shakespeare's parody of himself as an under-educated but versatile playwright and actor with "a weakness for romantic and tragic verse, and a fondness for Ovid."

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream


A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vol. 45)