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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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A Midsummer Night's Dream

The role of dreams in A Midsummer Night's Dream is of primary interest to critics who wish to uncover the relationships between dreams and the reality of the play's world, as well as between dreams and the reality of Shakespeare's world. Not surprisingly, some critics approach the play from a psychological perspective in order to dissect such connections. Jan Lawson Hinley (1987) examines the role of dreams in the play from such a standpoint and asserts that Shakespeare uses dreams as a way to illuminate the psychological foundation of the sexual anxieties of the four lovers. For example, Hinley maintains that Hermia's dream of the snake attacking her while Lysander stands by, watching, demonstrates Hermia's fears of male sexuality and betrayal and also reflects her anxiety regarding the social pressures in Athens. Similarly, Hinley goes on, the "triple dream of Bottom, Titania, and Oberon" reinforces the sense of tension that appears to be inherent in creating and maintaining a sexual and romantic love relationship. Hinley concludes that the struggle of the lovers to secure a balance between their sexual desires and the requirements of society is brought to an end when stable relationships are established and condoned within a "benevolent patriarchal society." Peter Holland (1994), like Hinley, advances a psychological approach to dreams in the play. Holland begins by stating his belief that dreams in the play are better understood from a Jungian viewpoint, in that the play, as a dream, reveals more than it conceals. Holland states that Oberon and Puck create a situation in which the characters in the play, as well as the audience, are able to see the play as a "true dream experience," not simply something like a dream. In exploring the historical context of this transformative power of the dream, Holland explains how Shakespeare's audiences may have regarded dreams as a source of "true understanding." In conclusion, Holland observes that Oberon relates dreams to visions, that Puck advises the audience that it has seen visions, and that Bottom views his experience as a vision. Holland stresses that if as audience members "we have responded to the play fully" then we will share Bottom's assessment, and should therefore regard the play not as trivial but as the "revelation of another reality." Just as Holland observes the significance of visions, Marjorie B. Garber (1974) notes that in the play, visions are contrasted with dreams, and are regarded as correctly interpreted and valued dreams. Garber maintains that the view of dreams presented in A Midsummer Night's Dream is a "redemptive" one which "arises in part from a new emphasis upon transformation as a creative act." Furthermore, Garber contends that the dream state, as a transforming and creative process, orders the events of the play. The contrast between sleep and wakefulness, between reality and illusion, between reason and imagination, and between the realms of Theseus and Oberon, are all "structurally related to portrayal of the dream state," Garber explains. Similarly, Garber notices other structural analogs, including the relationship between metaphor and the dream state. Garber closes her essay by emphasizing that in this play, dreams have the power to reveal insight and truth, and to "interpret and transform" reality.


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Louis Montrose (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Stories of the Night," in The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre, The University of Chicago Press, 1996, pp. 124-50.

[In the following essay, Montrose examines the mythological subtext of A Midsummer Night's Dream, claiming that Hippolyta's presence at the play's opening invokes Amazonian mythology, which Montrose describes as the "embodiment of a collective, masculine anxiety about women's power to dominate, create, and destroy men. "]

The opposed domestic emphases of Brooks and Olson—the former, romantic and companionate; the latter, authoritarian and hierarchical—abstract and oversimplify what may be construed as potentially complementary or contradictory elements in the dramatic process whereby A Midsummer Night's Dream figures the social relationship between the sexes in courtship, marriage, and parenthood. Among the cultural materials employed in the construction of the gender system that is figured in A Midsummer Night's Dream, those of classical myth are perhaps the most conspicuous. The play dramatizes or alludes to numerous episodes of classical mythology that were already coded by a venerable tradition of moral allegorization, and its treatment of such mythographic traditions is, like the traditions themselves, far from unequivocal. In this chapter, I want to focus upon the mythological subtext of A Midsummer Night's Dream and upon its articulation with the gendered discourses of human physiology and domestic economy.


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 or allusions to them are ubiquitous across the range of Elizabethan writing and performance genres. 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; and 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.19

Amazonian mythology seems symbolically to embody and to control a collective (masculine) anxiety about women's power not only to dominate or to repudiate men but also to create and destroy them. 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 own birth and nurture; upon chaste mistresses and wives, both for the validation of their manhood and for the birth and legitimacy of their offspring.

Shakespeare engages his wedding play in a dialectic with this mythological formation. The Amazons have been defeated shortly 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 masculine and feminine life cycles of early modern English society: The fairy plot focuses upon taking "a little changeling boy" from the relatively androgynous or feminized state of infancy into the more decisively gendered state of youth, from the world .of mothers and nurses into the world of fathers and masters. In The Book named The Governor, Sir Thomas Elyot advised, "after that a [boy] child is come to seven years of age, I hold it expedient that he be taken from the company of women" and assigned "a tutor, which should be an ancient and worshipful man." As Stephen Orgel has recently pointed out, à propos of The Winter's Tale,

Elizabethan children of both sexes were dressed in skirts until the age of seven or so; the 'breeching' of boys was the formal move out of the common gender of childhood, which was both female in appearance and largely controlled by women, and into the world of men. This event was traditionally the occasion for a significant family ceremony.20

Shakespeare's Athenian plot focuses upon conducting a young gentlewoman from the state of maidenhood to the state of matrimony, upon conveying her from her father's house to her husband's. This, too, of course, was a transition marked by significant ritual and ceremonial events—namely, betrothal, wedding, and the bedding of the bride. 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. It is only after Hippolyta has been mastered by Theseus that marriage may seal them "in everlasting .bond of fellowship" (1.1.85). And it is 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, that they may be "new in amity" (4.1.86).

The unfolding action of A Midsummer Night's Dream—its diachronic structure—eventually restores the inverted Amazonian system of gender and nurture to a patriarchal norm. But the initial plans for Theseus's 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's rhetoric concisely stages a Reformation debate on the relative virtues of virginity and marriage. He concedes praise to the former, as being exemplary of self-mastery, but nevertheless concludes that the latter more fully satisfies the imperatives of earthly existence. He implies that maidenhood is a phase in the life-cycle of a woman who is destined for married chastity and motherhood; that, when it persists as a permanent state, "single blessedness" is reduced to mere sterility.

Theseus expands Hermia's options, but 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 her father, her lovers, and her lord; and each of these men claims a kind of property in her—in her body, her fantasy, her will. 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 Portia or Rosalind, Hermia wishes the limited privilege of giving herself. Theseus appropriates the sources of Hermia's fragile power, her ability to master her blood and 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; a locus for the contestation of authority; the site of a struggle between man and woman, and between man and man. Although displaced into the thoroughly anachronistic setting of Theseus's Athenian court, Hermia's predicament activates the vexed and contested status of Elizabethan women as conscious and willing subjects and as objects of patriarchal sovereignty. The self-possession of single blessedness is a form of resistance against which are opposed the dominant domestic values of Shakespeare's culture and the very form of his comedy.21

The conflict between Egeus and Hermia and its mediation by Theseus constitute a paradigm case for Northop Frye's influential theory of Shakespearean comic form. According to Frye, a 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.

(A Natural Perspective, 73-74)

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. The interaction of personae in the fictive societies of Shakespearean drama, like the interaction of persons in the society of Shakespeare's England, is structured by a complex interplay among culture-specific categories, not only of age and gender but also of kinship and social rank. The ideologically unstable Elizabethan gender system articulated in Shakespeare's plays is structured both in terms of difference—as opposition, and as complementariness; and in terms of hierarchy—as superiority/inferiority, and as domination/subordination.

In Shakespearean comedy, as in Shakespearean drama generally, (gentle)women are represented variously as volitional and reasonable agents, as objects of masculine desire or anxiety, and as victims of masculine aggression or slander. Frye unequivocally identifies the heroines' interests with those of the heroes. Nevertheless, the "drive toward a festive conclusion" (Natural Perspective, 75) that liberates and unites comic heroes and comic heroines also binds together generations of men through the giving of daughters, confers the responsibilities and privileges of manhood upon callow youths, and subordinates wives to the authority of their husbands. Women's, wit may be acknowledged and accommodated in the new domestic economy that has been prepared for, or established by, the end of the comic action; however, the plays' imagined societies show little if any sign of genuine structural transformation. According to Frye, "the main impetus" of Shakespearean comic action is the defeat of attempts "to regulate the sexual drive." (Unlike more recent studies of the poetics of desire in Shakespearean drama, A Natural Perspective conceives of the Shakespearean erotic as exclusively heterosexual and as gender-neutral.) I would suggest a pattern different from and more equivocal than that proposed by Frye: In A Midsummer Night's Dream, as in other Shakespearean comedies, the main impetus is to regulate the concupiscible passions through the social institution of marriage, thus fabricating an accommodation between law and desire, between reason and appetite; however, a subliminal or oblique counter-impetus, of varying strength, frames these acts of regulation and accommodation as tentative, partial, or flawed.

In devising Hermia's punishment, Theseus appropriates and parodies the very condition that 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 Matrimonie was not a meane of libertie but of thraldome."22 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, sorority, and female autonomy, it also figures the repudiation of those claims in the recuperative act of Amazonomachy. At the opening of The Two Noble Kinsmen, in a scene generally ascribed to Shakespeare, one of the suppliant queens addresses the about-to-bewedded Hippolyta as

Most dreaded Amazonian, that hast slain
The scythe-tusk'd boar; that with thy arm, as strong
As it is white, wast near to make the male
To thy sex captive, but that this thy lord,
Born to uphold creation in that honor
First Nature styl'd it in, shrunk thee into
The bound thou was't o'erflowing, at once subduing
Thy force and thy affection.

(TNK, 1.1.78-85)

The passage registers Hippolyta's imposing combination of physical beauty and physical strength as something wonderful but also as something unnatural and dangerous, and requiring masculine control. The judgment that the Amazon is monstrous and that Theseus is a champion of the natural order is given (ironically) greater credence when it is pronounced by a queen. Here, as at the beginning of A Midsummer Night's Dream, what seems to interest Shakespeare (and, perhaps, Fletcher) about Theseus's participation in the Amazonomachy is that it leads to his marriage with his captive. In the story of Theseus and Hippolyta, Amazonomachy and marriage coincide, reaffirming the Amazons' reputed estimation "that Matrimonie was not a meane of libertie but of thraldome."

Elsewhere in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare displaces the myth of Amazonomachy into 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!" (1.1.206-07). 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.


Helena is sworn to secrecy by the lovers; nevertheless, before this scene ends, in order to further her own desire, she has determined to betray her sweet bedfellow's secret to Demetrius. Before dawn comes at last 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, the hostilities between the two male youths have, before dawn, 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 current mistress in order to adore her successor; and a change in the affections of one provokes a change in the affections of the other. R. W. Dent 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.23 It should be added, however, that the maidens remain constant to the objects of their desire at the cost of inconstancy to each other. On the other hand, Lysander and Demetrius are flagrantly inconstant to Hermia and Helena but the pattern of their romantic inconstancies stabilizes a relationship of rivalry between them. The romantic resolution engineered by Oberon and approved by Theseus transforms the nature of their mutual constancy from rivalry to friendship by contriving that each male will accept "his own" female. In Puck's jaunty and 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.


In A Midsummer Night's Dream, as in As You Like It, the dramatic process that forges the marital couplings simultaneously weakens the bonds of sisterhood and strengthens the bonds of brotherhood.24


In the play's 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" (1.1.42). 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, in-forms, 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.25 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.26 The central women 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. Here, the proprietary claims of patriarchy are taken to their logical extreme, and the female subject is wholly denied the capacity to have property in herself.27

In effect, Theseus's 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 or kill their sons, the Amazons are only too glad to give them away to their fathers. In Shakespeare's play, however, Oberon's paternal dominance 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 joy.


In his De Pueris, Erasmus approves of the mothers of infants, who "swaddle their children and bandage their heads, and keep a watchful eye on their eating and drinking, bathing and exercising"; however, he excoriates those who would prolong infancy into later childhood: "What kind of maternal feeling is it that induces some women to keep their children clinging to their skirts until they are six years old and to treat them as imbeciles?"28 A boy's transition from the woman-centered world of his early childhood to the man-centered world of his youth is given a kind of phylogenetic sanction by myths recounting a cultural transition from matriarchy to patriarchy.29 Such a mythic charter is represented at the very threshhold of A Midsummer Night's Dream: Oberon attempts to take the boy from what Puck suggests is an indulgent and infantilizing mother, and this attempt is sanctioned by Theseus's defeat of the Amazons, a matriarchate that maims and effeminizes its male offspring. Oberon will make a man of the boy by subjecting him to service as his "henchman" and "Knight of his train," thus exposing him to the challenges of "the forest wild." 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 also of the woman's desire and obedience; he must master his own dependency upon his wife.30

In his pioneering essay on "the double standard" in regard to sexual conduct, Keith Thomas notes that the importance of legitimate heirs to Englishmen of the property-owning classes has frequently been cited to explain and justify the emphasis on wifely chastity. However, he concludes that the property issues involved include not only "the property of legitimate heirs, but the property of men in women." Virginity before and chastity during marriage have been regarded as of paramount importance in women because "the absolute property of the woman's chastity was vested not in the woman herself but in her parents or her husband."31 This perspective on the persistence of "the double standard" in English law and custom helps to focus more sharply the gendered thematics of power and possession that characterize both of the conflict-generating plots in A Midsummer Night's Dream, those contesting the statuses of Hermia and the changeling. Thus, the conflict between the King and Queen of Faeries, like those between Egeus and Hermia and between Theseus and Hippolyta, revolves around issues of authority and autonomy, around claims to have property in others and in oneself, as these claims are generated in relations between husbands and wives, parents and children.

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 squire),
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. As is later the case with Bottom, Titania both dotes upon and dominates the child; her bond to the child's mother attenuates his imprisonment to the womb: "And for her sake I will not part with him." 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, here again the play enacts a masculine 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. Thus, embedded within the changeling plot are transformations of the collective masculine fantasies of powerful and dangerous motherhood that are figured in Amazonian myth. The matricidal male infant has a reciprocal relationship to the infanticidal Amazon. Elizabethan family life was characterized by a high incidence of spontaneous and induced abortion and of infant mortality, and a pervasive perception that pregnancy and parturition were life-threatening to the mother. Material conditions of existence such as these are given imaginative articulation in Shakespeare's play as an inherently dangerous relationship between mother and son.32

Titania represents her bond to her votaress as one that is rooted in an experience of female fertility. 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, at the same time that she herself bears a treasure within her womb. The riches of the maternal womb and those of the merchant venturer provide the dramatic poet's rich with with matter for similitudes. Yet, in part because of the gendered perspective of the similitude's fictive speaker, the passage not only gives priority to the woman's (fatal) generativity but also gives voice to women's proprietary relationship to their own bodies and to the products of their maternal labor. In this sense, the passage provides a lyrical counter-statement to the paternal and patriarchal claims upon Hermia. Specifically, the notion of maternity implied in Titania's speech counterpoints the notion of paternity formulated by Theseus in the opening scene. In Theseus's 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. Here it is worth remembering that in early modern social practice, men were rarely present during labor and birth; and that the work of midwives and wetnurses, and the custom of female visitations during the period of lying-in, strongly reinforced the sense of childbirth as a collectively and exclusively feminine modality of experience. As Adrian Wilson has characterized it, "the social space of the birth . . . was a collective female space, constituted on the one hand by the presence of gossips and midwife, and on the other hand by the absence of men."33 By emphasizing her own role as a foster mother to the offspring of the votary who "gossip'd by [her] side," 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.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the mother is represented as a vessel, as a container for her son; she is not his maker. Lemnius' Secret Miracles of Nature, a sixteenth-century treatise translated in 1658, demystifies the lyrical similitude for maternal fecundity that Shakespeare gives to Titania. Lemnius attacks such a conception of conception, one that teaches women that

Mothers afford very little to the generation of the child, but onely are at the trouble to carry it . . . as if the womb were hired by men, as Merchants Ships are to be straited by them; and to discharge their burden . . . women grow luke-warm, and lose all humane affections towards their children.34

In contrast to such a representation of maternity, the implication of Theseus's description of paternity is that the male is the only begetter; a daughter is merely a token of her father's potency. Such an implication reverses the putative Amazonian practice, in which women use men merely for their own reproduction. Taken together, the speeches of Theseus and Titania 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.35

Despite the exclusion of a paternal role from Titania's speech, the embryological notions represented in A Midsummer Night's Dream have a recognizably Aristotelian coloring. In the Aristotelian tradition, the actively in-forming sperma of the male is the efficient cause of generation, and the passively receptive catamenia of the female is the material cause of generation.36 Whereas Aristotle emphasizes two distinct sexes, Galenic anatomy and physiology emphasize what Thomas Laqueur calls a "one-sex" model: There is a homology between the genital organs of man and woman, the latter being an inverted and internalized version of the former. Accordingly, both sexes contribute their "seed" to conception, and both have to experience orgasm and ejaculation in order for conception to take place.37 However, when Angus McLaren writes that, in Galenic medicine, "both sexes were presented as contributing equally in conception" (Reproductive Rituals, 17; emphasis added), he may give the wrong impression that this implies an egalitarian sex/gender system. It would be more accurate to say that, in Galenic theory, males and females contribute to conception according to their homologous but inherently unequal abilities: The Galenic "one-sex" model is based upon the norm of male anatomy and physiology; the female is an imperfect version of the male, unable to realize the telos of masculinity due to a lack of vital heat in her constitution. The act of generation brings man and woman into a relationship that is both complementary and hierarchical. Thus, there exists a homology between ideologies of sexual and domestic relations: genitor is to genetrix as husband is to wife.

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 man] 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 materiall cause of the yoong one.38

Incorporating Galenic elements into its fundamentally Aristotelian perspective, this 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, version 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" (Problemes of Aristotle, E3r). Although Laqueur insists upon a sharp theoretical distinction between a "one-sex" and a "two-sex" model, in practice such distinctions may have been neither clear nor absolute to most men and women in early modern England. A widely read medical text like The Problemes of Aristotle suggests the existence of a syncretic and sometimes internally contradictory popular discourse, both written and oral, extending beyond the confines of a learned discourse that was based almost exclusively upon the Galenic corpus.

What most people today tend to think of as the "facts of life" have been established on the basis of observations and hypotheses made relatively recently in human history, since the development of microbiology that began in Europe in the late seventeenth century.39 Whatever unexamined assumptions and hidden agendas motivate and skew the quest for "objective truth" in modern scientific research, few would dispute that present-day knowledge of anatomy and physiology is not merely different from but also quantitatively and qualitatively superior to that possessed by Shakespeare's contemporaries. In Elizabethan England, it seems to have been widely held that seminal and menstrual fluids are relevant to generation, and that people have a natural father as well as a natural mother. Nevertheless, the configuration and articulation of such beliefs, and their epistemological foundations, differed—sometimes, radically—from our own. Biological maternity has always been a readily observable material datum, a natural and universal fact—yet one, nevertheless, that is subject to widely varying, culture-specific representation, experience, and understanding. Outside the modern laboratory, however, biological paternity has everywhere remained a cultural construct for which ocular proof is unavailable.

This consequence of biological asymmetry calls forth an explanatory—and compensatory—cultural asymmetry in many traditional embryological theories, both learned and popular: Paternity is procreative, the formal and/or efficient cause of generation; maternity is nurturant, the material cause of generation. The quasi-Aristotelian procreative propositions of A Midsummer Night's Dream work against some of those Galenic propositions that were dominant in the learned tradition of Shakespeare's culture, propositions that are represented or implied elsewhere in his plays.40A Midsummer Night's Dream articulates a relatively extreme—but, nevertheless, not wholly anomalous—perspective on the Elizabethan system of gender and sex. Whatever the particular and subjective occasion of its invention by the playwright, this culturally inscribed phallocentric rhetoric overcompensates for the observable natural fact that men do indeed come from the bodies of women. Furthermore, it overcompensates for the cultural fact that consanguineal and affinal ties between men were established through their mutual but differential relationships to women, who were variously positioned as mothers, wives, or daughters.

Whether in folk medicine or in philosophy, notions of maternity have a persistent natural or material 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 civility, and matter is subordinated to spirit. Thomas Hobbes avers that, "in the condition of meer Nature, where there are no Matrimoniali lawes, it cannot be known who is the Father, unlesse it be declared by the Mother: and therefore the right of Dominion over the Child dependeth on her will" (Leviathan, 254). Traditional sex/gender systems impose law upon mere nature in order to secure a conceptual space for paternity. However, the legitimation of paternity as a general principle does not guarantee the establishment of specific and individual paternity, the physiological link between a particular man and child. This bond has always been highly tenuous—at least, until very recent advances in forensic genetics. The role of genetrix is selfevident 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" (2.2.76-77).

A cynical quip attributed to Sir Henry Wotton summarizes the modalities in which a man's relationship to matrimony and paternity might be realized: "Next to no wife and children, your own wife and children are best pastime; another's wife and your children worse; your wife and another's children worst."41 Man's worst condition is to be made a cuckold by his wife and the unwitting provider for another man's offspring; less bad, to make another man a cuckold by begetting one's own bastards upon his adulterous spouse; better, to be secure in the chasteness of one's spousal relationship and the legitimacy of one's offspring; but, best of all, to be a bachelor and thus invulnerable to the degrading temptations of the flesh and to the threat of contaminated blood lines, one's own and others'. In Shakespearean drama, the uncertain linkage of father and child is frequently a focus of anxious concern, whether the motive is to validate paternity or to call it into question. For example, 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" (Winter's Tale, 5.1.124-26). In the former speech, a father who is vulnerable to perceived acts of "filial ingratitude" invokes his previously unacknowledged wife precisely when he wishes to repudiate his female child. In the latter speech, a husband who is subject to cuckoldry anxieties rejoices in the ocular proof of paternity; he celebrates wifely chastity as the instrument of masculine self-reproduction. A Midsummer Night's Dream dramatizes a set of claims that are repeated in various registers—and not without challenge—throughout the Shakespearean 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.


While Shakespeare's plays reproduce such legitimating structures, they also produce challenges to their legitimacy. Within the course of a given dramatic action, representatives of opposition and difference are usually defeated, banished, converted, or otherwise apparently contained by the play's ideologically dominant forces and forms. Nevertheless, in its very representation of alternatives and resistances, the play articulates and disseminates fragments of those socially active heterodox discourses that the politically dominant discourse seeks, with only limited success, to appropriate, repudiate, or suppress. The play may try to impose symbolic closure upon the heterodoxy to which it also gives voice, but that closure can be neither total nor final. And such ideological instability or permeability in the drama may be a consequence not only of its performance but also of its inscription. It is obvious that theatrical productions and critical readings originating from beyond the cultural time and place of the text's own origin may work against the grain to achieve radically heterodox meanings and effects. But it may also be the case that the appropriative potential of such subsequent acts of interpretation is enabled by Elizabethan cultural variations and contradictions that have been sedimented in the text of the play at its originary moment of production.

I want to turn now to some of those instances in which A Midsummer Night's Dream produces challenges to its own legitimating structures, a focus to which I shall return at greater length in chapter 11. At the close of the play, 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 and communal vision is predicated upon the play's prior reaffirmation of the father's role in generation and the husband's authority over the wife. Nevertheless, although A Midsummer Night's Dream reaffirms essential elements of a patriarchal ideology, it continues to call that reaffirmation into question, thus intermittently undermining its own comic propositions. The all-too-human struggle between the fairy king and queen—the play's already married couple—provides an ironic prognosis for the new marriages. 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. 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. As soon as the lovers have gone off to bed, the rustic and sylvan Puck appears within the confines of the ducal court; he remains a central presence there until the end of the play, and then speaks the epilogue. Now, at the close of the wedding day and while the marriages are being consummated, Puck begins to evoke an uncomic world of labor, fear, pain, and death (5.1.357-76): "The hungry lion roars"; "the heavy ploughman snores, / All with weary task fordone"; "the screech-owl . . . / Puts the wretch that lies in woe / In remembrance of a shroud" (357, 359-60, 362-64). Puck's invocation of night alludes to the heritage of the Fall and the burden of Eve's transgression—a grim prelude that gives some urgency to Oberon's blessing of the bridal beds (389-400). The dangers are immanent and the peace is most fragile.

The play ends upon the threshhold of another generational cycle, in which the procreation of new children will also create new mothers and new fathers. This ending contains within it the potential for renewal of the forms of strife exhibited at the opening of the play. The promised end of romantic comedy is not only undermined by dramatic ironies but is also contaminated by a kind of intertextual irony. I do not mean to imply that such ironies necessarily registered in the minds of most members of Shakespeare's audience, nor that it was the playwright's intention that they should. Rather, I am trying to (re)construct an intertextual field of representations, resonances, and pressures that constitutes an ideological matrix from which—and against which—Shakespeare shaped the mythopoeia of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The mythology of Theseus is well supplied with examples of terror, lust, and jealousy; and these 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 selectively, for the most part down-playing those events "not sorting with a nuptial ceremony" (5.1.55) nor with a comedy. At their first entrance, Oberon accuses Titania of abetting (or actually compelling) Theseus's abuses—an accusation she dismisses as "the forgeries of jealousy" (81):

Didst not thou lead him through the glimmering night
From Perigouna, whom he ravished;
And make him with fair Aegles break his faith,
With Ariadne and Antiopa?


This is perhaps the play's only explicit reference to Theseus's checkered past.42 However, as Harold Brooks's Arden edition has convincingly demonstrated, the text of A Midsummer Night's Dream 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 that shaped the poet's fantasy as he was shaping his play.43 Thus, sedimented within the verbal texture of A Midsummer Night's Dream are traces of those forms of sexual and familial violence that the ethos of romantic comedy seeks to neutralize or to evade: acts of bestiality and incest, of parricide, uxoricide, filicide, and suicide. In the mythological record, such sexual fears and urges erupt into cycles of violent desire that stretch from Pasiphaë's consummated taurophilia to Phaedra's frustrated lust for her stepson.44 It is precisely this lurid mythological subtext of unchecked, violent, and polymorphous desire that the play text's dominant discourse seeks to contain.

Shakespeare's play actually calls attention to its own mechanisms of mythological suppression, however, by an ironic metadramatic 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 on the grounds that they are already too familiar. These brief scenarios encompass the extremes of reciprocal violence between the sexes. The first offering narrates a wedding that degenerates into rape and warfare; the singer and his subject—emasculated Athenian and phallic Centaur—are two antithetical kinds of male monster. In the second offering, what was often regarded as the natural inclination of women toward irrational behavior is manifested in the Maenads' terrible rage against Orpheus. The tearing apart and decapitation of the misogynistic Ur-poet at once displaces and vivifies the Athenian singer's castration. It also evokes the fate of Hippolytus, the misogynistic offspring of Theseus and Hippolyta: Hippolytus' body was torn apart upon the rocks when his horses bolted at the instigation of his father, who had been deceived by Phaedra's charge that her stepson had attempted to rape her.

The seductive and destructive powers of women figure centrally in Theseus's career; and his habitual victimization of women, the chronicle of his own rapes and disastrous marriages, is a discourse of anxious misogyny that persists as an echo within Shakespeare's text, despite its having been variously muted or transformed. In Seneca, as in Plutarch, the mother of Hippolytus is named Antiopa. Shakespeare's deliberate choice of the alternative, Hippolyta (an apparent back-formation from the name of her son) obviously evokes the future Hippolytus. A profoundly ironic context is thus provided for the royal wedding, for Oberon's intention to bless "the best bride-bed," and for his prognosis that "the issue there create / Ever shall be fortunate." (In a related example of intertextual irony, by choosing the name of Theseus's father, Egeus, for the Athenian patriarch whose will is overborne by the Duke, Shakespeare effects a displacement within his comedy of Theseus's negligent parricide.) Seneca's Hippolytus emphasizes Theseus's abuse of women; Phaedra's invective gives voice to his victims. At this point in his sordid career, Theseus has forsaken (or, perhaps, killed) Antiopa/Hippolyta and married Phaedra. Hippolytus, as Phaedra's nutrix reminds him, is the only living son of the Amazons (Seneca, Hippolytus, 577). It is by his very misogyny—his scorn of marriage, and his self-dedication to virginity, hunting, and the cult of Diana—that Hippolytus proves himself to be his mother's son; he is "genus Amazonium" (Hippolytus, 231). Oberon's blessing of the marriage bed of Theseus and Hippolyta evokes precisely that which it seeks to suppress: the cycle of sexual and familial desire, fear, violence, and betrayal that will begin again at the very engendering of Hippolytus, whose fate is already written in his name.

In The Palace of Pleasure, 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 faire in love, that he carried her home with him, and afterward toke her to wyfe, of whom hee had a sonne called* Hipolitus" (163). Plutarch reports that Antiopa (conflated with Hippolyta in Shakespeare's play) was not conquered in personal combat but was captured by Theseus with "deceit and stealth" (55). Hippolyta is divorced from her sisters and from the society of Amazons as a consequence of Theseus's possessive passion—the deceitful, violent, and insatiable lust that North's Plutarch suggestively calls his "womannishenes" (116). To term masculine concupiscence "womannishenes" implies that a man who continually lusts after women is behaving like a woman; he has become enslaved to his passions. Indeed, "womannishenes" suggests that masculine heterosexual desire is itself, in its essence, effeminizing; that concupiscence weakens and degrades manly virtue. Ironically, the very opening of A Midsummer Night's Dream finds Hippolyta counseling restraint and patience to Theseus, who restlessly longs for his wedding night (1.1.1-11). Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to Oberon, who is jealous and vengeful because his wife has "forsaken his bed and company," and has made the changeling "all her joy." Sir Thomas Elyot's counsel regarding the education of boys, partially quoted above, is impelled by a fear of incipient womanishness:

After that a child is come to seven years of age . . . he [should] be taken from the company of women . . . for though there be no peril of offence in that tender and innocent age, yet in some children nature is more prone to vice than to virtue, and in the tender wits be sparks of voluptuosity which, nourished by any occasion or object, increase in time to so terrible a fire that therewith all virtue and reason is consumed. Wherefore, to eschew that danger, the most sure counsel is to withdraw him from all company of women, and to assign him to a tutor, which should be an ancient and worshipful man. (The Book named The Governor, 19)

It is fear of the consequences of womanishness, too, that makes Wotton consider "no wife and children" to be a man's best option. The term "womannishenes" suggests that there exists within the Elizabethan ideology of gender, a complementary and compensatory relationship between attitudes of uxoriousness and misogyny.


19 William Painter, The Palace of Pleasure (1575) ed. Joseph Jacobs, 3 vols. (1890; rpt., New York: Dover Books, 1966), 2:159-61. Page citations are to volume 2 of this edition. For a sense of the ubiquity of Amazonian representations in Elizabethan culture, see the valuable survey by Celeste Turner Wright, "The Amazons in Elizabethan Literature," Studies in Philology 37 (1940), 433-56.

20 See Sir Thomas Elyot, The Book named The Governor, ed. S. E. Lehmberg (London: Dent, 1962), 19; Stephen Orgel, "Nobody's Perfect: Or, Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?" South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989), 7-29; quotation from 10-11. Also see Patricia Crawford, "The Construction and Experience of Maternity in Seventeenth-Century England," in Women as Mothers in Pre-Industrial England: Essays in Memory of Dorothy McLaren, ed. Valerie Fildes (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), 3-38, esp. 12-13: "Contemporaries usually judged that a mother was responsible for the care of children under the age of 7. . . . In the upper levels of society, maternal education for boys was confined to their earlier years. After about the age of 7, boys from the gentry were usually entrusted to the care of a schoolmaster or tutor. . . . Although mothers were responsible for the education of daughters, they were subject to paternal authority."

21 Linda T. Fitz, "'What Says the Married Woman?': Marriage Theory and Feminism in the English Renaissance," Mosaic, 13:2 (Winter 1980), 1-22, suggests that "the English Renaissance institutionalized, where it did not invent, the restrictive marriage-oriented attitude toward women that feminists have been struggling against ever since. . . . The insistent demand for the right—nay, obligation—of women to be happily married arose as much in reaction against women's intractable pursuit of independence as it did in reaction against Catholic ascetic philosophy" (11, 18). And Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England, points out that, "In spite of legal, demographic, economic and social shifts, an underlying continuity ties the women of 1550 and earlier to the women of 1750 and later. Men's perceived need to restrict women legally within marriage is as constant as their need to persuade women to think in terms of marriage as the natural female state" (232).

Despite the dominance and desirability of marriage as a social expectation and norm, the work of social historians and historical demographers suggests that significant numbers of Elizabethan women—and men—never married, chiefly because they were unable to accumulate the material resources necessary to establish a household.

22 André Thevet, The newefounde Worlde, trans. T. Hacket (London, 1568), 102r.

23 Robert W. Dent, "Imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964), 115-29; see 116. On the permutations of desire among the lovers of MND, see René Girard, "Myth and Ritual in Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Textual Strategies, ed. Josué V. Harari (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 189-212. On the relationship of Hermia and Helena, see the discussion in James L. Calderwood, Shakespearean Metadrama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), 126.

24 For a detailed analysis, see my essay, "'The Place of a Brother' in As You Like It."

25 In this connection, see Hobbes's interesting remarks in his discussion "Of Dominion Paternall, and Despoticall" (Leviathan, pt. 2, ch. 20): Hobbes construes the parent-child relationship as the condition of dominion or sovereignty by generation, with the proviso that this dominion is not established through mere procreation but rather by contract. Hobbes reasons that, because "there be alwayes two that are equally Parents: the Dominion therefore over the Child, should belong equally to both"; however, this "is impossible; for no man can obey two Masters." Hobbes notes that "in Common-wealths, this controversie is decided by the Civili Law: and for the most part, (but not alwayes) the sentence is in favour of the Father; because for the most part Common-wealths have been erected by the Fathers, not by the Mothers of families." However, in the (hypothetical) state of "meer Nature, either the Parents between themselves dispose of the dominion over the Child by Contract; or do not dispose thereof at all. . . . We find in History that the Amazons Contracted with the Men of the neighboring Countries, to whom they had recourse for issue, that the issue Male should be sent back, but the Female remain with themselves: so that the dominion of the Females was in the Mother." See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), ed. C. B. Macpherson (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1968), 253-54.

26 I first emphasized this point in "Shaping Fantasies" (1983). Now see Mary Beth Rose, "Where Are the Mothers in Shakespeare? Options for Gender Representation in the English Renaissance," Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991), 291-314. In her meticulous study, Rose sketches a range of attitudes toward, and representations of, motherhood in Elizabethan-Jacobean England; she concludes that Shakespearean maternal representations are almost exclusively of the most traditional and conservative sort. In this construction, motherhood, "lagging behind the altering definitions of other family roles . . . remains most resolutely limited to the private realm, inscribed entirely in terms of early love and nurture. As a result, motherhood in this formulation can be dramatized only as dangerous or as peripheral to adult, public life" (313). For an excellent overview of the early modern representation and practice of motherhood, based primarily on diaries, letters, and guidebooks, see Crawford, "The Construction and Experience of Maternity in Seventeenth-Century England"; and, for a powerful psychoanalytic reading of the problematic representation of motherhood in Shakespeare's later plays, see Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, "Hamlet" to "The Tempest" (New York and London: Routledge, 1992).

27 This may be an extreme form of the proprietary fantasy of patriarchy but it is nevertheless securely grounded in the gender ideology and customary and legal practices of early modern England. See, for example, the observations of Amy Louise Erickson:

Many men would have liked to regard women as property in and of themselves; but while married women's legal disabilities put them in the same category as idiots, convicted criminals and infants, they were never legally classed with chattels. Nonetheless, there are ways in which women were treated as a form of property. The specious theory of the "unity" of husband and wife, and the constant threat of legal incapacitation; the association of a woman's marriage portion with her sexual honour; the view of rape as a form of theft, not from the victim but from her husband or male relatives; the prosecution of adultery only in cases where the woman was married; and the implications of even a practice as apparently innocuous as losing one's name upon marriage—all of these smack of men's ownership of women. Certainly in the seventeenth century a number of women (and a very few men) protested that women were treated little better than slaves.

(Women and Property in Early Modem England, 232-33)

28De pueris statini ac liberaliter instituendis declamatio ("A Declamation on the Subject of Early Liberal Education for Children"), trans. Beert C. Verstraete, in Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 26 (Literary and Educational Writings, vol. 4), ed. J. K. Sowards (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), 295-346; quotations from 300, 309.

29 See Joan Bamberger, "The Myth of Matriarchy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Society," in Woman, Culture and Society, ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974), 262-80, esp. 266, 277.

30 Some of the play's (masculine) critics have approved of Oberon's actions as undertaken in the best interests of a growing boy and a neurotic mother. Two of the play's most rewarding critics must be included among them: see Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, 119-62, esp. 137; Calderwood, Shakespearean Metadrama, 120-48, esp. 125.

31 Keith Thomas, "The Double Standard" (1959), rpt. with revisions, in Ideas in Cultural Perspective, ed. Philip P. Wiener and Aaron Noland (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1962), 446-67; quotations from 461, 464. Thomas quotes Juan Luis Vives's influential Tudor treatise, The Instruction of a Christen Woman, to the effect that "A woman hath no power of her own body, but her husband; thou dost the more wrong to give away that thing which is another body's without the owner's licence" (trans. R. Hyrde [1541], 66r).

32 For evidence regarding infant mortality, see R. S. Schofield and E. A. Wrigley, "Infant and Child Mortality in the Late Tudor and Early Stuart Period," in Health, Medicine and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Charles Webster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 61-95; on spontaneous and induced abortion, and fears of pregnancy, see Linda A. Pollock, "Embarking on a Rough Passage: The Experience of Pregnancy in Early-Modern Society," in Women as Mothers in Pre-Industrial England, 39-67; also, Crawford, "The Construction and Experience of Maternity in Seventeenth-Century England," ibid., 21-23.

33 Adrian Wilson, "The Ceremony of Childbirth and Its Interpretation," in Women as Mothers in Pre-Industrial England, 68-107; quotation from 73. Also see Crawford, "The construction and experience of maternity in seventeenth-century England," ibid., 21, 25-29.

34 L. Lemnius, The Secret Miracles of Nature (London 1658), 23; quoted in Crawford, "The Construction and Experience of Maternity in Seventeenth-Century England," 7.

35 In Love's Labour's Lost, such an assertion seems to be implied in Berowne's ostensible paean to the ladies of France: "Or for men's sake, the authors of these women, / Or for women's sake, by whom we men are men" (LLL, 4.3.355-56).

36 On classical embryological theory, I have found the following useful: F. J. Cole, Early Theories of Sexual Generation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930); Joseph Needham, A History of Embryology, 2nd ed., rev. (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1959); Maryanne Cline Horowitz, "Aristotle and Woman," Journal of the History of Biology 9 (1976), 183-213; Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), and also his earlier essay, "Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology," Representations 14 (Spring 1986), 1-41.

37 On theories of sexuality and conception in early modern English culture, see Audrey Eccles, Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Tudor and Stuart England (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1982); and Angus McLaren, Reproductive Rituals: The Perception of Fertility in England from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century (London: Methuen, 1984). Also see Laqueur, Making Sex.

38The Problemes of Aristotle, with other Philosophers and Phisitions (London, 1597), E3v-E4r.

39 The following discussion is indebted to J. A. Barnes "Genetrix: Genitor:: Nature: Culture?" in The Character of Kinship, ed. Jack Goody (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 61-73.

40 For a reading of Shakespearean comedy and Elizabethan theatrical crossdressing that is based upon Galenic theories of sexuality and is much influenced by the perspective of Laqueur, see "Fiction and Friction," in Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, 66-93. As I have already suggested, I believe that the Elizabethan discourse of sexuality and generation was wider and significantly more heterogeneous than Greenblatt's provocative essay implies.

41 Logan Pearsall Smith, The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, 2:490.

42 Compare Plutarch, "The Life of Theseus," in The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, trans. Thomas North (1579) from Amyot's French trans., 6 vols., The Tudor Translations (1895; rpt., New York: AMS Press, 1967):

The Poet telleth that the Amazones made warres with Theseus to revenge the injurie he dyd to their Queene Antiopa, refusing her, to marye with Phaedra. . . . We finde many other reportes touching the manages of Theseus, whose beginnings had no great good honest ground, neither fell out their endes very fortunate: and yet for all that they have made no tragedies of them, neither have they bene played in the Theaters. For we reade that he tooke away Anaxo the Troezenian, and after that he had killed Sinnis and Cercyon, he tooke their daughters preforce: and that he dyd also marye Peribaea, the mother of Ajax, and afterwards Pherebaea, and loppa the daughter of Iphicles. And they blame him much also, for that he so lightly forsooke his wife Ariadne, for the love of Aegles the daughter of Panopaeus. . . . Lastely, he tooke awaye Hellen: which ravishement filled all the Realme of Attica with warres, and finally was the very occasion that forced him to forsake his countrye, and brought him at the length to his ende. (1:58-59)

43 For a review and analysis of the play's sources and analogues, see Brooks's edition, lviii-lxxxviii; 129-53; and the notes throughout the text. D'Orsay W. Pearson, "'Vnkinde' Theseus: A Study in Renaissance Mythography," English Literary Renaisance 4 (1974), 276-98, provides an informative survey of Theseus's "classical, medieval, and Renaissance image as an unnatural, perfidious, and unfaithful lover and father" (276). Olson characterizes the traditional Theseus as uneqivocally embodying "the reasonable man and the ideal ruler of both his lower nature and his subjects" ("A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage," 101), thus oversimplifying both the tradition and the play.

44 Many details in the texts of Plutarch and Seneca that have not been considered previously as "sources" for Shakespeare's play are nevertheless relevant to problems of gender, generation, filiation, and licit desire, which seem to me to be central to MND. Here I can do no more than enumerate a few of these details. The following discussion cites Shakespeare's classical sources from the following editions: Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, trans. Sir Thomas North (1579), Tudor Translations, cited by page numbers in volume 1; Seneca, Tragedies, trans. F. J. Miller, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1960-61), cited by line numbers in the Latin texts.

In his Lives, Plutarch relates that Theseus was "begotten by stealth, and out of lawfull matrimony" (30); that, "of his father's side," he was descended from the "Autocthones, as much to say, as borne of them selves" (30); that, having been abandoned by Theseus on Cyprus, the pregnant Ariadne "dyed . . . in labour, and could never be delivered" (48); that, because the negligently joyful Theseus forgot to change his sail as a sign of success upon his return from Crete, his father Egeus, "being out of all hope evermore to see his sonne againe, tooke such a griefe at his harte, that he threw him selfe headlong from the top of a clyffe, and killed him selfe" (49). In Seneca's Hippolytus, Hippolytus reminds Phaedra that she has come from the same womb that bore the Minotaur, and that she is even worse than her mother, Pasiphaë (688-93). At the end of the play, Theseus's burden is to refashion his dead son from the "disiecta . . . membra" of his torn body (1256-70). Now a filicide, as well as a parricide and uxoricide, Theseus has perverted and destroyed his own house (1166).


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Marjorie B. Garber (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Spirits of Another Sort: A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis, Yale University Press, 1974, pp. 59-87.

[In the following essay, Garber studies the role of dreams in A Midsummer Night's Dream, arguing that dreams are a source of creative insight and have the power to transform reality. The creative, transforming process of dreams, Garber states, is not only the subject of the play, but the force which guides the play's action.]

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.


Puck's closing address to the audience is characteristic of the tone of A Midsummer Night's Dream; it seems to trivialize what it obliquely praises. All the key words of dream are here, as they have been from the play's title and opening lines: "shadows," "slumb'red," "visions," and "dream" itself Puck is making an important analogy between the play and the dream state—an analogy we have encountered before in Shakespeare, but which is here for the first time fully explored. For A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play consciously concerned with dreaming; it reverses the categories of reality and illusion, sleeping and waking, art and nature, to touch upon the central theme of the dream which is truer than reality.

Puck offers the traditional apologia at the play's end; if the audience is dissatisfied, it may choose to regard the play as only a "dream" or trifle and not a real experience at all. The players, as Theseus has already suggested, are only "shadows" (V.i.212); the play, in short, is potentially reducible to a "weak and idle theme" of no significance. Yet everything which has gone before points in precisely the opposite direction: sleep in A Midsummer Night's Dream is the gateway, not to folly, but to revelation and reordering; the "visions" gained are, as Bottom says, "most rare" (IV.i.208), and the "shadows" substantial. Puck's purposeful ambiguity dwells yet again on a lesson learned by character after character within the play: that reason is impoverished without imagination, and that we must accept the dimension of dream in our lives. Without this acknowledgment, there can be no real self-knowledge.

The fundamental reversal or inversion of conventional categories which is a structuring principle of this play is familiar to us in part from the framing device of The Taming of the Shrew. The Athenian lovers flee to the wood and fall asleep, entering as they do so the charmed circle of dream. When Puck comes upon them and anoints their eyes, the world of the supernatural at once takes over the stage, controlling their lives in a way they cannot guess at, but must accept, "apprehending" "more than cool reason ever comprehends." In the great dream of the forest experience and the smaller dreams within it, we might say paradoxically that their eyes are opened; this is the fundamental significance of the key word "vision," which appears several times in the play, offsetting the deliberately disparaging use of "dream" to mean something insignificant, momentary. "Swift as a shadow, short as any dream" (I.i. 144), says Lysander in the first scene, describing what he takes to be the inevitable tragedy of romantic love, and Hermia replies that they must have patience, "As due to love as thoughts and dreams and sighs" (154), where dreams are once again the customary furniture of passion, illusory and conventional.

By contrast "vision," as it is introduced into the play, is a code word for the dream understood, the dream correctly valued. Often the user does not know that he knows; this is another of the play's thematic patterns, supporting the elevation of the irrational above the merely rational. As a device it is related to a character type always present in Shakespeare, but more highly refined in the later plays, that of the wise fool. Thus Bottom, awakening, is immediately and intuitively impressed with the significance of his "dream," which we of course recognize as not a dream at all, but rather a literal reality within the play.

I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of
man to say what dream it was.


Similarly Oberon, to conceal the truth of events, instructs Puck to straighten out the mismatched lovers by crushing a magic herb into Lysander's eye, "and make his eyeballs roll with wonted sight" (III.ii.369). When the lovers wake, then

all this derision
Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision.


The "vision" has been true, but he will make it appear to have been "fruitless," illusory, with the submerged Eden pun in "fruit" underscoring one of the play's principal mythic themes. Again, Titania, roused from her sleep, cries out

My Oberon, what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamored of an ass.


Her "visions," like the others, were "play" reality, and not. dream or illusion. Moreover, the mental concept of "vision" in her phrase is picked up again in the more literal and physical reference in the next line (80) to his face or the way he looks. The association with images of sight, literal and metaphorical, is thematically significant. Early on, Helena suggests that "Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind" (I.i.234):

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


She does not, of course, comprehend the larger implications of this doctrine; yet this is what the mind of Titania in the dream state does to the loathsome visage of Bottom, and the mind of the bewitched Demetrius to the formerly despised Helena. It is this transposition or transformation which is the special prerogative of the dream state and the center of interest of the whole of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Dream is truer than reality because it has this transforming power; it is part of the fertile, unbounded world of the imagination.

Standing in opposition to this world, which exists only within the wood, is the practical everyday world of Athens, in which reason and law hold sway. Interestingly, reason is a limiting rather than a liberating force for Shakespeare, close to Blake's "bound or outward circumference of energy," and this is particularly true in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Theseus attempts to impose a "reasonable" solution upon the lovers without regard for passion or imagination, with the result that no one's happiness is taken into account. Lysander, his eyes anointed in error by Puck so that he swears his devotion to Helena, given "reason" as the excuse for his change of heart:

The will of man is by his reason swayed
And reason says you are the worthier maid.
Things growing are not ripe until their season:
So I, being young, till now ripe not to reason.
And touching now the point of human skill,
Reason becomes the marshal to my will,
And leads me to your eyes, where I o'erlook
Love's stories, written in love's richest book.


It is characteristic of A Midsummer Night's Dream that Lysander should produce this speech at a point when his actions are completely supernaturally or subconsciously controlled, without the slightest hint of either reason or will. Delusion is the prelude to illusion. Likewise it is fitting that the oracular Bottom, unknowingly transformed into a monster, should observe placidly to Titania that "reason and love keep little company together nowadays" (III.i. 142-43). Reason has no place in the dream state, which possesses an innate logic of its own; and when characters attempt to employ it, they frustrate their own ends. Thus the lovers, awakened in act IV by the arrival of Theseus's hunting party, are bemused by what has taken place:

Demetrius: These things seem small and undistinguishable,
Like far-off mountains turnèd into clouds.
Hermia: Methinks I see these things with parted eye,
When everything seems double.
Helena: So methinks:
And I have found Demetrius like a jewel,
Mine own, and not mine own.
Demetrius: Are you sure
That we are awake? It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream.


Although they reap the benefit of the night's dreams, they do not fully apprehend them. Significantly the images they choose to describe their experiences are those of ambiguous and incomplete vision: "parted eye," "far-off mountains turned into clouds." The memory of the dream is itself obscuring, because as the mind tries to rationalize what has occurred, it inevitably distorts. The instinct of the mind is to set boundaries, while the process of dream blurs and obliterates those boundaries. Demetrius's hypothesis—"that yet we sleep, we dream"—is literally incorrect, but there is another sense in which these dreamers are not, and will not be, awakened. We as audience are made aware of the primacy of the dream state, but the lovers, the means of our enlightenment, remain themselves unenlightened.

The pattern of the play is thus in part controlled and ordered by a series of vital contrasts: the opposition of the sleeping and waking states; the interchange of reality and illusion, reason and imagination; the disparate spheres of influence of Theseus and Oberon. All of these are structurally related to portrayal of the dream state; while the lovers sleep, the world of dream and illusion inhabited by the fairies dominates the stage. For the world over which Oberon presides, peopled by Puck and Titania, by Peaseblossom and Mustardseed, is itself a dramatic metaphor for the dream world of the subconscious and the irrational. "Spirits" are moods and energies as well as sprites, and the fruitful ambiguity of the word may stand as a sign of the multiplicity of the world they inhabit. As was the case with Queen Mab, and will be again with Ariel, the diminutive fairies of Shakespearean fantasy are elemental indwellers of the imagination, quicksilver manipulators of dream. The simultaneity of dream world and spirit world is central to an understanding of the special magic of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

There is, of course, a traditional literary basis for the dream world, which extends back to the French and Middle English dream visions of the fourteenth century. Throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream formal reminders of this tradition appear, often characteristically transformed into sophisticated commentaries on the received forms. Particularly prominent among these motifs are those of the god of love, the enchanted garden, the journeying lovers and the May morning, all present in whole or in part in the play. Of these the most important for our purpose is the traditional figure of the god of love, who acts as intermediary between the lover and the beloved. This role is taken in A Midsummer Night's Dream by Oberon, the fairy king, whose intent it is to bring together the right pairs of lovers in the forest. Essentially he appropriates to himself the role of stage manager, a role we have seen utilized by the lord in The Shrew for the purpose of controlling Christopher Sly's "dream," and one which will attain its greatest prominence in the later and richer dream management of Prospero and Autolycus.

Oberon's stage-managing falls somewhere between the relatively mechanistic deception of the Shrew lord and the apocalyptic hegemony of Prospero. His intentions are in the main benevolent; when he tells Puck to bring "death-counterfeiting sleep" (III.ii.364) to the lovers, so that what has occurred may appear to them "a dream and fruitless vision," he is attempting to redress an inadvertent error by his mischievous and unreliable messenger. The relation of sleep to death, which will be strongly emphasized in The Tempest, is here deliberately underplayed; Oberon, though he is a god of sorts, is not trafficking in resurrection. Shakespeare has made him a kind of tongue-in-cheek fairy king, a little pettish, something of a buffoon. But like so many characters in this play, Oberon speaks fairer than he knows; what to him are independent and pragmatic actions, the putting to sleep of the lovers and of Titania, have a much more far-reaching thematic significance for the play as a whole. It is no accident that he regards the events of the night as "accidents" (IV.i.69), which can be made to seem to all "but as the fierce vexation of a dream" (70). He undervalues dream and mechanizes "translation," and he, like the lovers, is an accidental rather than a controlling instrument of the doctrine of creative dream.

As the play's god of love, Oberon is structurally complemented by Peter Quince, who casts and manages the "most lamentable comedy" of Pyramus and Thisby; and both are deliberately made parallel to Theseus, Duke and arbiter of Athens, so that the cognate worlds of reason, art, and imagination are juxtaposed through plot. It is notable that all three authorities manage with more zeal than skill; Theseus appears to appropriate the role of the reasonable adjudicator, but in fact he fails to analyze the situation of the lovers properly and later is persuaded to reverse his earlier ruling. The events of the "dream" have altered his sense of reality, just as they have ours. The dream vision situation, in which the lover is thwarted by jealousy, idleness, and false appearances and is both helped and hindered by the god of love, is here simultaneously echoed and commented upon.

If Oberon may be usefully compared to the much more complex figure of Prospero, there is also a sense in which Puck looks forward to Ariel. Puck is a more deliberately earthbound figure, a local British spirit not unlike Mercurio's Queen Mab. He emerges from a world of regional superstition and old wives' tales. "I jest to Oberon and make him smile," he tells us,

When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of filly foal:
And sometimes 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 dewlap 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;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,
And waxen in their mirth, and neeze and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there.


This is the same theme of transformation we have observed before, and to which we shall want to return at greater length. Puck is a quicksilver figure, capable of lightning transformations and astonishing impersonations; he is a true denizen of dream. Yet he lacks the sublimity of Ariel, the moral and spiritual grace. He is mischievous, and he makes mistakes. When he leads the mechanicals astray, frightening them with the apparition of the transformed Bottom, he so reverses their ideas about perception and comprehension that he places them in the midst of nightmare:

Their sense thus weak, lost with their fears thus strong,
Made senseless things begin to do them wrong;
For briers and thorns at their apparel snatch;
Some sleeves, some hats, from yielders all things catch.
I led them on in this distracted fear,
And left sweet Pyramus translated there:
When in that moment, so it came to pass,
Titania waked, and straightway loved an ass


Likewise, when commanded by Oberon to keep Lysander and Demetrius safe from harm, he impersonates first one, then the other, in a frantic round robin that leads them both to abandon the chase for sleep. But there is a significant difference between Puck's coltishness, even on a supernatural level, and the more apocalyptic and controlled transformations of Ariel. The unholy triumvirate of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban poses a much more profound threat to art and humanity as represented by Prospero than does anything in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Prospero is severely distressed when, in the middle of the pageant of fertility, he remembers the existence of the plot against his rule; and Ariel's treatment of the rebels, though in many ways formally related to Puck's horseplay with the lovers and mechanicals, sounds a far deeper note which takes cognizance of tragedy:

I beat my tabor;
At which like unbacked colts they pricked their ears,
Advanced their eyelids, lifted up their noses
As they smelt music. So I charmed their ears
That calf-like they my lowing followed through
Toothed briers, sharp furzes, pricking goss, and thorns
Which ent'red their frail shins. At last I left them
I' th' filthy mantled pool beyond your cell,
There dancing up to th' chins, that the foul lake
O'erstunk their feet.

[Tmp. IV.i.175-84]

This is a profoundly moral landscape, the projected vision of the internal state of a soul. It is a dimension which, with the less ambitious and more playful Puck, Shakespeare is careful to leave unexplored.

But the problem of the nature of the spirit world extends beyond Puck, even beyond Oberon. These are not apparitions, such as we found in Richard III and in Julius Caesar, nor are they creatures clearly contained within the fancy, as was the case with Mercutio's Queen Mab. They partake in part of the spirit of genius loci, especially in the account of Puck as a hobgoblin and in the names given to Peaseblossom, Cobweb, and Mustardseed—all, in Theseus's phrase, precisely "airy nothing" given "a local habitation and a name." But the fairies are predominantly inhabitants of an in-between world, neither wholly fictive nor wholly explainable in natural or even psychological terms. An important dialogue between Puck and Oberon touches usefully on this in-between state, a state which, like dream vision, takes place in half-light, between sleeping and waking.

Puck: My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For night's swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora's harbinger;
At whose approach, ghosts, wand'ring here and there,
Troop home to churchyards: damnèd spirits all,
That in crossways and floods have burial,
Already to their wormy beds are gone.
For fear lest day should look their shames upon,
They willfully themselves exile from light,
And must for aye consort with black-browed night.
Oberon: But we are spirits of another sort.
I with the Morning's love have oft made sport;
And, like a forester, the groves may tread,
Even till the eastern gate, all fiery-red,
Opening on Neptune with fair blessèd beams,
Turns into yellow gold his salt green streams.
But, notwithstanding, haste; make no delay.
We may effect this business yet ere day.


"But we are spirits of another sort"—Oberon's reminder charts a distinction without which we can hardly comprehend the importance of dream in the play. All the spirits of which Puck makes mention, ghosts and damned spirits immured in dusty churchyards, are the creatures of a superstitious super-naturalism, allied to witchcraft and fear. Not only the ghost of Caesar, but also old Hamlet and the Macbeth witches are inhabitants of this realm. We may usefully call them night or evening spirits, because they were thought to roam only in darkness; hence Horatio recounts the Christmastime phenomenon when "the bird of dawning singeth all night long" and no spirit dares to stir abroad. But they are evening spirits in another way as well, spirits which recall and recollect what has gone before, shadows whose substance is past. As such they stand in marked contrast to Oberon's "spirits of another sort"—morning spirits, or spirits of dawning. It is perhaps not too fanciful to compare such spirits with the impulse to creation, working in the half-light of the subconscious, shadows in place of and in some ways greater than the substance they portend.

This redemptive view of dream and its creatures arises in part from a new emphasis upon transformation as a creative act. We have seen that somatic dreams function through the use of transformations, described by Freud as displacements and condensations, by means of which the underlying meaning is bound into an apparently fictive plot. This process is clearly analogous in many ways to that of conscious fiction-making in literature; words like "symbol," "image," and "meaning" are common analytic terms for both the psychoanalyst and the literary critic, and the patterns of interpretation they employ each involve, at some stage, a search for subconscious and associative meanings which have been transformed or translated into the finished artifact, poem or dream. Our word "translate" overlaps both categories; when Peter Quince exclaims, "Bless thee, Bottom! Bless thee! Thou art translated" (III.i.117-18), he is describing the appearance of Bottom in an ass's head as a kind of awful change. The spectator knows, however, that Bottom is metaphorically an ass, a fool or buffoon. His "translation" is therefore in other terms a kind of identity, bringing the hidden to the surface through a literal symbol, the ass's head. The stage event has become a metaphor.1 This is, as we have said, the special provenance of the dream world, that it presents the imagined as actual and that it does so by means of transformation.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream this transforming creative process becomes the subject as well as the technique of the play. The structural paradigm of transformation is the overall movement from court to wood and back, the transition from childhood and innocence to experience and adulthood. This is the fundamental Shakespearean pattern of growth and renewal, and it is anticipated in this play by the transformation which has already taken place in the lives of Theseus and Hippolyta. Theseus, the warrior and abductor, who "wooed [Hippolyta] with his sword" (I.i. 16), is now the governor of a city, the guardian of the Athenian law, who will wed her "in another key" (18); Hippolyta, the warlike Amazon, erstwhile forest companion of Hercules and Cadmus (IV.i.113-19), is to be his wife in Athens. As the play opens these changes have already taken place, and they provide a frame or prologue for the works of transformation yet to come. Theseus now appears as the ostensible embodiment of civilized reason. Yet the choice he offers to Hermia between an unwelcome marriage and life in a nunnery is more like tyranny than reason or justice, and either alternative would run counter to the concept so often stressed in this play—that fertility is an important component of a creative and harmonious order. Throughout the play, and even at its close, Theseus stands as the apostle of reason against imagination, and therefore as a kind of limit to the transforming world of dream.

Not only the court-wood-court structure, but also the very nature of the landscape itself, form part of this spatial pattern of natural and supernatural transformation. We have touched upon the question of the landscape of the mind, the correlation between psychological and geographical description. This phenomenon might well be called "visionary landscape," because it is a projection of the subconscious state of mind upon the external state of terrain and climate—what Wallace Stevens was in his poetry to call "weathers." Early in the play we learn from Titania that her quarrel with Oberon has in fact brought about such a change; what was formerly a fairy place, locus amoenus, is now all disordered, its rivers overflowing their banks, its corn rotten before it is ripe, its cattle dead or dying.

And thorough this di stemperature we see
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. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazèd world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.


This is a strangely solemn note for a comedy. Suggestions of the fall from paradise are unmistakable, yet the ostensible cause (possession of the Indian page boy) seems insufficient. Here we are directly confronted with the terrifying and inexplicable world of the irrational unconscious. What was once perfect, regular, and orderly is now out of all proportion. Even the place of ritual joy-making and fertility rites, the "nine men's morris," is now "filled up with mud" (98). The overwhelming impression is that of sterility, and this is important because it is the opposite of fruitful creation and change. Everywhere in the plays of Shakespeare the progression of the seasons is taken as a significant figure for the just and orderly progression of life; in the most season-oriented of all the plays, The Winter's Tale, Leontes greets the disguised Perdita as "Welcome hither, / As is the spring to th' earth" (WT V.i.151-52). Titania is describing the world of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and it is a world which greatly needs this seasonal change. In a sense the Athenian wood is at this point a parodic version of Eden, a timeless but paradoxically disordered realm which seeks a fortunate fall into knowledge.

This pattern of fall and redemption is clearly a valuable mythic analogue within the play. Both the Bible and the dream vision tradition classically present the image of a timeless garden, invaded and despoiled by a snake or its human counterpart. In Shakespeare's plays the same motif appears many times indirectly, as for example in the death of King Hamlet in the orchard, but it is nowhere so clearly and directly set forth as in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The innocent or Unfallen version of the image is that of Titania as pictured by Oberon:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk roses, and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enameled skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.


Here we have a harmonious composition, suggestively Edenlike: the garden, the flowers, the unsuspecting lady, significantly asleep, and the amiable snake, herself engaged in benevolent natural transformation. Yet Oberon is describing this retreat in order that Puck may go there with the transforming love juice, to "make her full of hateful fantasies" (258). Thus Titania's apparently secure world is actually in the process of a fall—a fortunate fall, as it turns out, since the fantasy experience in the wood helps to reunite her with Oberon and to restore order to the fairy world.

An equivalent structure can be perceived in Hermia's dream, the only literal dream in the play. Highly evocative, full of fruitful associations, the dream—in which Hermia is attacked by a serpent, while Lysander sits by "smiling at his cruel prey" (II.ii.150)—is especially susceptible to the kind of dream analysis we have been attempting. The snake, long a representative of violation and betrayal in scripture and in emblem books, is also a familiar Freudian image for male sexuality, and sexual fears are clearly in Hermia's mind: "gentle friend, for love and courtesy," she says before they sleep, "Lie further off, in human modesty" (II.ii.56-57). At the same time her dream is monitory and predictive, describing in metaphorical terms the estrangement which is actually taking place. Puck has anointed Lysander's eyes, and his love has been transferred from Hermia to Helena. The snake image is vivid and literal within the dream, just as the ass's head was literal in the dream world of the enchanted Bottom. Interestingly, however, when Hermia awakes, into a world which is now for her fallen, she begins to use the same image in a figurative, allusive way. Demetrius, whom she suspects of doing away with Lysander, is a "worm," an "adder," a "serpent":

with doubler tongue
Than thine, thou serpent, never adder stung.


Where she was controlled by the snake image while dreaming, she here controls it with her conscious mind. We may note the difference in technique between the conscious and unconscious formulations. A protective distortion operates in the dream; by means of what Freud calls "displacement," Hermia separates Lysander, the beloved, from the serpent with whom she instinctively identifies him. The serpent eats at her heart, as does her love for the perfidious Lysander; and Lysander himself is made merely a passive onlooker. She reproaches him for smiling, but she does not take the further step of blaming him directly for her unhappy condition. The splitting of the menacing figure into two, Lysander and the snake, may thus be considered as a compensatory action on the part of the subconscious. By contrast Hermia feels no such compunctions about accusing the despised Demetrius. She is able to use the snake image as a direct metaphor. The imputation of the "double tongue" is clearly the culmination of her outburst, and this is appropriate, because the question of duplicity and its near relative, ambiguity, is central to the concerns of the play.

Duplicity in Demetrius's case is really a matter of lack of self-knowledge; Berowne's maxim that we "lose our oaths to find ourselves" is again apposite here. Hermia, however, like so many others in this play, is afraid of ambiguity and double meanings and equates them with guile. Fiction to her is a species of deceit. Hers is a regressive attitude, antithetical to the potentialities of dream, which is itself ambiguous and contains many things in one. The activities of condensation and displacement, essential elements in the dream work, are based upon the concept of multiplicity of meaning. In fact, this positive pluralism is at the heart of the whole question of dream, as we began to perceive in our examination of "truth" and "fiction" in The Taming of the Shrew. The exchange of shadow and substance, illusion and reality, is implicit in the dream state, and it is the very impatience of the Athenians with such an exchange which renders them insensible for a while to the play's subtlest discoveries. Hermia's experience in the woods, however, is a first step toward a heightened awareness, a necessary incident in the pursuit of self-knowledge. Both specifically Edenic moments in the play thus utilize a fundamentally comic form: the fortunate fall leads ultimately to reintegration, and the apparently innocent Unfallen state is seen to be fraught with danger and concomitant with an interior disorder. Experience and change are clearly necessary if the persons of the play are to progress toward a fuller understanding of themselves.

Change itself is essentially an aspect of creativity in the realm of time; from the opening lines of the play it is evident that time, too, is in a state of fallenness or disorder which requires reparation.

Theseus: Four happy days bring in
Another moon; but O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! . . .
Hippolyta: Four days will quickly steep themselves in night,
Four nights will quickly dream away the time.


Hippolyta uses "dream" here to mean "make to seem unreal." She is suggesting an illusion, the compression of an objective span, "four days and nights," into a subjective experience, "short as any dream." This imaginative compression is achieved in part through the "reality" of theatrical time, the fictive "four days" presented in two hours on the stage. "This palpable-gross play hath well-beguiled / The heavy gait of night," (V.i.366-67) says Theseus at the close of the "Pyramus and Thisby" play, underscoring the point, as the lovers depart for their nuptial beds. With the wedding night comes the promise of fertility, the reunion of Oberon and Titania and the consequent restoration of fertility and change to the landscape. Puck's last speech is appropriately concerned with progeny, since here at the play's close the fertility theme intersects with the theme of creativity and imagination.

Seasonal and temporal change are thus for A Midsummer Night's Dream active agents of transformation. With the initial premise "our quarrel has caused a disruption in the seasons" we are abruptly ushered into a world in which dream logic takes precedence over reality. Moreover, this impression is heightened when the proper personae of the wood appear. For one of the essential properties which is shared by Puck and Oberon is the ability to change shape at will—to present the illusion of something they are not. In a long jubilant passage we have already examined. Puck reports his successive metamorphoses from "filly foal" to "roasted crab" and then to "three-foot stool" (II.i.44-57). Setting out to bait the Athenian lovers, he boasts

Sometime a horse I'll be, sometime a hound,
A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire;
And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn,
Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn.

[III.i. 107-10]

Similarly Oberon is taxed by Titania for his impersonation of a love-struck shepherd:

I know
When thou hast stolen away from fairy land
And in the shape of Corin sat all day,
Playing on pipes of corn, and versing love
To amorous Phillida.


Puck's antics seem largely drawn from the native folkloric tradition, though they may owe something as well to the figure of Proteus; Oberon's more explicitly pastoral posturing recalls Jove, another king of gods, and hints at a classical parallel. These associations help to place the play in a larger imaginative context, to give it dimension and depth by suggesting a body of tradition. But in all cases these allusions are subsidiary to the central purpose, which is to develop and refine the growing sense of a dream world whose essence is change.

Physical transformations of this type are of necessity metaphorical in the language of the Athenian lovers: Helena at one time calls herself a "spaniel" (II.i.203), and at another laments "I am as ugly as a bear" (II.ii.94). Oberon, because of his fairy powers, is able to transmute the metaphor into literal reality at will, sending Puck for the flower whose juice will bewitch Titania's eyes:

What thou seest when thou dost wake,
Do it for thy true love take;
Love and languish for his sake.
Be it ounce, or cat, or bear,
Pard, or boar with bristled hair,
In thy eye that shall appear
When thou wak'st, it is thy dear.
Wake when some vile thing is near.


This is the literal enactment of Helena's homily on blind Cupid, which was only meant as a figure: "Love looks not with the eye but with the mind." The effect is a devastating parody of romantic love, not unlike Mercutio's relentless baiting of Romeo. Women "dote" beyond all control—"How I dote on thee!" exclaims Titania to Bottom (IV.i.46)—and "dote" is throughout Shakespeare's plays a sign word for shallow, meaningless affection; men are literally turned into asses by romantic folly. Further, these literal transformations are echoed and answered by the behavior of the Athenian lovers, since it is a fundamental structural principle of the play that the creatures of the dream world enact literally what is undergone figuratively or metaphorically by the citizens of the court. The result is a kind of visual punning, with the metaphors physically present on the stage, as we have seen in the case of Bottom. At the same time, moreover, this process is a dramatic counterpart of the workings of the dream state, in which ideas and concepts are conveyed as visual symbols.

Metaphor, then, is a condition structurally analogous to the dream state. Moreover, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the spectator's eye is continually directed to the act of metaphormaking, the visible exchange of literal for figurative and fictive. The whole play is almost a tour de force in this regard, and its sustaining creativity is developed, at least in terms of felt energy, as a crucial counterpart to the literal comedic values of fertility and marriage. Almost inevitably, then, the play begins to take on meanings which are at once direct and reflexive. The act of artistic creation, so clearly a conscious parallel to the subconscious activities of memory and imagination, is now brought before our eyes directly in a series of fictional artifacts: a sampler, a ballad, and a play. The availability of art as an ultimate form of transformation, a palpable marriage of dream and reason, emerges as a logical extension of the recognized dream state. Thus Helena, distraught and offended, reminds her childhood playmate of their earlier contentment together:

We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key.


She pictures them as twin creators, "artificial gods," that is, gods of artifice, although the other meaning of "artificial" is also present in a muted and fallen way. As an image this anticipates the later and more resounding recollection of Polixenes, "We were, fair queen, / Two lads that thought there was no more behind / But such a day tomorrow as today, / And to be boy eternal" (WT I.ii.62-65). "Artificial" is thus darkly predictive, but the memory itself remains joyous. The girls are singing, an act with creative associations, as they perform the godlike act of creating flowers, transforming nature into art. The incident itself is lightly stressed within the play, a momentary glimpse rather than a vivid occurrence. As a memory, however, it retains a certain understated power, anticipating the more direct creative moments to come.

A more central incident for the play as a whole, and one crucial to the question of art as transformation, is the recapitulation of "Bottom's Dream." Significantly, as we have noted, the "dream" is of course not a dream at all; as was the case with Christopher Sly and others, the dreamer thinks he is awakening when he is actually moving from one kind of real experience to another. Bottom is the quintessential naïve percipient, and his approach to his "dream" is unfettered by reason:

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 patched 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. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream. It shall be called "Bottom's Dream," because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the duke. Peradventure to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.


His text is well chosen; the passage from Saint Paul he quotes in scrambled form2 is not only a sign of his ignorance but also, and more importantly, of his radical wisdom. Paul is expounding the doctrine of the spirit in its primacy over the letter—an important crux for metaphorical expression itself and one which has a bearing upon the symbolic medium of dream. "God," he says, "hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty" (I Cor. 1:27). The allusion is more meaningful to author and audience than it is to Bottom; though he would doubtless acknowledge himself one of the "foolish things of the world," he is not taking the context of his quotation into account—he is intent merely upon utilizing an orthodox expression of wonder. In part, the biblical quotation is thus a learned joke at Bottom's expense. But we have learned by now that this kind of joke is almost always superseded in A Midsummer Night's Dream by a greater joke upon the learned perceiver. Bottom's multiple confusion—"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 hand to report"—is a synesthetic mixture highly characteristic of dream sensation. The inversion of "eye" and "ear" is a structural parody of the Pauline original; that "tongue" should "conceive," however, is both more profound and more relevant to the interests of the play. In each of these phrases Bottom unconsciously warns us that the senses are untrustworthy; at the same time, his malapropisms are related to the important theme of transformation. He remains himself unaware of these further implications; like the others in the play, he sees and says more than he consciously knows, and like them he is fundamentally a determined realist. But his words speak to us with a special significance; like the porter in Macbeth, and the clown in Antony and Cleopatra, he unknowingly hits upon the central themes of the play. Despite his intellectual and cultural limitations, his inadvertent role as the wise fool and his willingness to suspend disbelief in the world of dream place him closer to the top than to the bottom of an evaluative scale. This is the same handy-dandy with which we are becoming familiar; what Sidney called with disapprobation "mingling Kinges and Clownes"3 has a supreme logic of its own in the world of dream.

Language as well as scriptural allusion seems to have a transforming energy of its own within "Bottom's Dream." The pun on "Duke" and "gracious," for example, is doubtless hidden from Bottom himself, following the pattern of a more or less oracular diction, truer than it is conscious of being. The obvious irony of "man is but an ass," and the fleeting invocation of the "patched fool," a figure which throughout Shakespeare's plays is representative of the imaginative capability of mankind, hint at deeper meanings than Bottom can rationally perceive. But perhaps the clearest evidence of the creative impulse to transformation is present on the level of art, in Bottom's avowed desire to have Peter Quince "write a ballet of this dream." The writing—and perhaps the performing—of the ballad is conceived as a kind of verification, the manufacturing of a palpable artifact from the material of a transient experience. In Bottom's eyes to "expound" the dream is a fruitless and foolhardy task; what can be done instead is to transform it into an independent, unchanging work of art. The choice of "ballad" again emphasizes the enormous difference between the intellectual and cultural assumptions of Bottom and the author and audience, while the unerring movement from spiritual transformation through dream to ekphrasis, transformation into art, mirrors the informing structural design of the play as a whole.

The ballad of "Bottom's Dream" is of course never performed for the Duke. Instead the play's two audiences—the court of Theseus and ourselves—are privileged to witness an even more gloriously flawed artifact, "the most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby," which in its parodic form summarizes and unites the themes of transformation in art, in nature, and in language. In part a failed transformation, a transformation out of control which keeps on transforming, the "Pyramus and Thisby" 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. In the body of the playlet, the audience sees before it a transformed vision of the events of the play. For "Pyramus and Thisby," while comic in performance, is unrelievedly tragic in conception. In it we see the spectacle of a father who harshly opposes the marriage of his daughter, just as was the case with Egeus and Hermia. But here the result is not reconciliation, but tragic death for the lovers. Similarly the menacing forest of the playlet, which contains the fatal lion, stands as a tragic alternative to the amiable world of the Athenian wood, where animal shapes are mischievous but benevolent, and natural spirits are agents of amelioration rather than of harm. Misconceptions and misinterpretations dominate both situations—the delusion of crossed loves among the Athenians is balanced by Pyramus's mistaken belief in the death of Thisby—but in the cathartic world of art the outcome is death, not marriage. The play-within-a-play thus absorbs and disarms the tragic alternative, the events which did not happen. Art becomes a way of containing and triumphing over unbearable reality.

Here, too, language has its part in demarcating patterns of transformation. The prologue, spoken by Peter Quince, is an accurate forecast of what will take place throughout the play-within-a-play.

Consider, then, we come but in despite.
We do not come, as minding to content you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here.


"Like a tangled chain; nothing impaired, but all disordered" (V.i.125-26) is Theseus's opinion of this performance. The clear intention of the text is amusingly and totally reversed by the delivery of the speaker. "Nothing impaired, but all disordered," is in fact the prevailing condition of the world of A Midsummer Night's Dream—a fruitful disordering in a comic realm which leads to a renewed understanding. Its articulation here in a most literal way, through the collision of a rationally intended text and a passionate Peter Quince caught up in his role as actor, makes plain the kinship of unreason and imagination while hinting at their real dangers.

Characteristically, Bottom is vividly aware of the dangers of imagination and illusion, while at the same time he is attracted by them. He is eager, for example, to protect the court audience against untoward effects of illusion. Thus his first thought at the rehearsal of the mechanicals is that "Pyramus must draw a sword to kill himself; which the ladies cannot abide" (III.i.9-11). His answer, again characteristic, is to extend his own part:

I have a device to make all well.

Write me a prologue, and let the prologue seem to say, we will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus is not killed indeed; and, for the more better assurance, tell them that I Pyramus am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver. This will put them out of fear.


This is comic in part because the play as we perceive it is hardly realistic enough to contain the dangers he fears for it. But what is most telling about Bottom's plan here is his emphasis upon the literal truth: "Pyramus is not killed indeed"; "I Pyramus am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver." He sees the principal fiction of the "Pyramus and Thisby" play as somehow dangerous and misleading. By seeking to destroy or control the illusion, he demonstrates his faith in its power, together with his own limited understanding of that power. The same is true in the case of the lion's part: "To bring in—God shield us!—a lion among ladies, is a most dreadful thing" (III.i.29-30). Snug the joiner is therefore instructed to reassure the audience:

If you think I come hither as a lion,
it were pity of my life. No, I am no such thing. I am a man as other men are.


"And there indeed," says Bottom, "let him name his name, and tell them plainly, he is Snug the joiner" (44-45). Part of the humor, as is usual with a play-within-a-play, comes from the doubling of the illusion: in trying to strip off artifice ("not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver"; "tell them plainly, he is Snug the joiner") the speaker substitutes something equally artificial, since "Bottom" and "Snug" are fictions as surely as are Pyramus and the lion. But the limits of illusion for Bottom are not the same as those for the spectator. Distanced by our vision of the whole play, we can see that nothing is but what is not; Bottom is and is not Pyramus the mythical lover, just as he possesses and does not possess an ass's head, and has seemed to Titania both an "angel" (III.i. 128) and a monster. The equality of all roles in a fictive world is vividly clear, just as in dreams a "composite person"4 may simultaneously represent father, teacher, and lover. But to Bottom the artifice of imagination is more literal and more threatening. Insulated by laughter, the spectator can view the doomed lovers and the lurking lion without a sense of tragic identity. To Bottom, for whom they are not comic at all, the imitation and the tragedy are dangerously persuasive. The prologue serves as a deliberate breaking of the frame, paralleled by illusion-shattering asides from Wall, Moon, and Pyramus in the body of the play. In the analogy of dream, these are manifest content and latent thoughts at once, and their clear purpose is to warn against the dangers of the irrational: for the world of art, the lion in the fictional forest; for the subconscious imagination, the equally frightening serpent of Hermia's dream.

But if illusion and the imagination are not without their dangers, they are nonetheless, in the terms of this play, preferable to their radical opposite, "cool reason," in Theseus's phrase. We have already observed the follies of Lysander when he claims to be acting on the promptings of "reason," and considered the wisdom of Bottom's conclusions about reason and love. A Midsummer Night's Dream is throughout a celebration of the irrationality of love, not a criticism of the failure of reason. The indistinguishable Athenian lovers and their changeable passions are emblems, not of love's disorderliness, but of its creative power, more akin to the logic of dream than to that of waking reason. Yet it is part of the play's design that none of the Athenians, including even Theseus and Hippolyta, should fully comprehend the lessons of the dream state. It might be said of them that they have had the experience and missed the meaning—missed it in part because of the preoccupation with reason and the rational which dominates the civilized world of Athens. Puck's highly suggestive closing words, with which we began this examination of A Midsummer Night's Dream, are thus fittingly juxtaposed to Theseus's great speech on imagination, a speech so frequently considered out of context that it is rivaled only by Polonius's "This above all, to thine own self be true," for distorted interpretation within the Shakespearean canon.

Theseus's position as a rational lawgiver has been somewhat impugned by the tyrannous sentence he imposes upon Hermia, an exercise of "cool reason" without imagination or generosity which calls into question his own understanding of love. By the end of the play he has amended these rigorous views; he approves the love matches of the Athenians and is generously inclined toward the performers of "Pyramus and Thisby." His fundamental ideas about the relative values of reason and imagination, however, remain largely unchanged, and stand in sharp contrast to the doctrine of dream and the dream state as articulated by events in the interior world.

Hippolyta: 'Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.
Theseus: More strange than true. I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
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 heaven;
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.


In these lines words like "fantasies" and "fables" are clearly deprecatory, as indeed is "fairy"; fictions and the world of the supernatural, because not "true," become suspect and of little value. Imagination itself is equated with madness and with the irrational—qualities which, in this play of "midsummer madness," have demonstrated enormous energies and the ability to bring about self-knowledge through transformed vision. The triad of lunatic, lover, and poet is meant to demean the roles of poet and lover and comes oddly from a Theseus who has won Hippolyta by the sword. Yet in this association Theseus, like Bottom before him, speaks truer than he knows and defines the very creative and imaginative unities toward which all of A Midsummer Night's Dream has been striving. The image of the poet's transforming power to make "shapes" of the "forms of things unknown" follows closely the processes of dream as we have seen them; the "airy nothing" which is the raw material of poetic vision is clearly related to the volatile "nothing" of other early plays. Though "nothing" may be pejorative to Theseus, from his stance of practical rationality, it is akin to Puck's "shadows" and imparts the same sense of transcendent wonder. "Airy nothing" is clearly an appropriate figure for the fairy folk who inhabit the Athenian wood. It is equally telling as a description of the subconscious dreams and conscious fictions which preoccupy the play's human characters. And, even more, it is an emblem of the spirit of creative gaiety which is so important to the festive world of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Theseus himself intends his words in a critical and instructive sense as a defense of reason. Yet with the ambiguity so characteristic of utterances throughout the play, he sets forth, as well, an unexampled praise of imagination.

Theseus would partition experience into the true and the false, the dream and the reality, much as did Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew: "Or do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?" But the transforming effect of the dream world upon the Athenian lovers has been to teach them to suspend disbelief in order to inhabit two worlds at once. "It seems to me / That yet we sleep, we dream" says Demetrius (IV.i. 194-95) as the lovers follow Theseus out of the wood, and significantly, a moment later, "Why then we are awake. Let's follow him, / And by the way let us recount our dreams" (199-200). This final impulse to recount is a counterpart of the ballad projected by Bottom, a creative transformation turning experience and insight into a self-contained verbal form. Like the "winter's tale" and The Winter's Tale, a symbolic artifact within the play and the play itself as a symbolic artifact, the dreams in A Midsummer Night's Dream have attained an important reflexive function as emblems of the visionary experience. In Hippolyta's perceptive phrase, the lovers see now with "minds transfigured" (V.i.24)—the ultimate turning inward of the world of dream. Moreover, the impulse to recount and remember is merged with the impulse to return, so that the redemptive energies of the play come to rest at last in a harmonious moment of self-realization. At the last, as Puck alone remains upon the stage, the "shadows" of A Midsummer Night's Dream have become inexhaustibly evocative, "no more yielding but a dream," in a dramatic world where dreams are a reliable source of vision and heightened insight, consistently truer than the reality they seek to interpret and transform.


1 It is interesting to note that Quintilian (Institutio Oratione VIII.2.6) equates translatio, "transfer," with the Greek figure Mεταφορά. See Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952), p. 128.

2 "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" (I Cor. 2:9).

3Defence of Poesie, in The Prose Works of Sir Phillip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), II, 39.

4 See Freud, Interpretation of Dreams, pp. 297ff.

Jan Lawson Hinley (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Expounding the Dream: Shaping Fantasies in A Midsummer Night's Dream,'" in Psychoanalytic Approaches to Literature and Film, edited by Maurice Charney and Joseph Reppen, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987, pp. 120-38.

[In the following essay, Hinley contends that in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare uses the "accepted Mogie of the dream" as a means of examining the psychological basis of the lovers' sexual anxieties. Hinley concludes that in the end the lovers establish stable romantic relationships within the boundaries of patriarchal society.]

The movement from sexual confusion and tentative bondings to sexual certainty and mutually desired and socially beneficial unions, particularly significant in Shakespearean "green world" comedies, is nowhere so clearly marked as in A Midsummer Night's Dream. There Shakespeare, moving from the structured Athenian world to the supernatural night world of the forest, is freed by the accepted illogic of the dream to explore the psychological roots of his characters' sexual conflicts.1 Two dreams are at the center of A Midsummer Night's Dream: the quadruple dream of the four lovers and the triple dream of Bottom, Titania, and Oberon. By examining these dreams we can reach into Shakespeare's controlling "dream" of the tensions and difficulties seemingly inherent to the process of establishing and maintaining the bond of reciprocal sexual/romantic love. A third "dream," the play of Pyramus and Thisbe, rehearsed in the forest but presented before the court, presents in burlesque nightmare form the disastrous results of unmediated sexual tensions. Through these dreams individual sexual anxieties are released and transformed, and social harmony is reestablished.

The play begins in a determinedly male-oriented society. Theseus, the ruler of Athens, is in the process of celebrating his triumph, soon to be consummated in marriage, over the Amazon, Hippolyta. His words imply that his struggle, though difficult, is over, and that he is about to "lock" up his happiness by the marriage ceremony: "Hippolyta, I wooed 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 reveling" (1.1.16-19).2 The struggle between Theseus and Hippolyta was at least a direct conflict between male and female, but Egeus, Lysander, and Demetrius introduce two other conflicts that deny the woman involved any substantial role in deciding her fate. The first is the struggle between two rivals for the same woman, Hermia; the second is the insistence of Egeus, Hermia's father, that his fatherly prerogatives include the right to place Demetrius, his approved surrogate, in his daughter's bed. Egeus's determination to control his daughter's sexuality and Demetrius's tacit assumption that his masculine privileges include fickleness toward one woman and bullying sexual dominance over another, reinforced by the patriarchal structure of Athenian society, are supported by Theseus, the embodiment of the dominant male as ruler and lover.

Patriarchal attitudes thus block the lovers' efforts to work out reciprocal relationships: marriage is treated primarily as a matter of competition between younger males for the approval of a dominant older male. Demetrius, the most overtly problematic lover, can ignore Hermia's rejection by focusing on Lysander as its cause, and Egeus's approval is accepted by him as more significant than Hermia's right of choice. Correspondingly, this society also negates the selfhood of the young women of the play. In Athens Hermia is not an individual, but "as a form in was, / By him [her father] imprinted" (1.1.49-50), and Helena, having lost Demetrius's love, can think of no recourse but to lose her "self as well, to be "translated" into the desired love object, Hermia.

Hermia and Lysander, followed by Helena and Demetrius, flee Athenian society. Their movement, to borrow some of the categories used by David Young (1966), is from waking to dream, from reason to imagination, from sanity to madness, from limitation to freedom, and from order to anarchy. It is also a movement from exercise of conscious choice to helplessness before the apparent caprice of unconscious fantasies. Their dream experiences in the forest clarify, through exaggeration, through role exchange, and through the irrationality of sexual hysteria, the psychological sources of their sexual anxieties. Though they share the dream the audience witnesses, their minds being "transfigured so together," the dream is different for each (5.1.24). Each dream enables the lover to "work through" internal blocks to mutual love. Once these blocks are overcome, Egeus's patriarchal authority is seen, properly, as secondary to the desires of the lovers, and the marriages can be celebrated.

Of the four lovers Hermia has received the most individual comment because she alone has an overt dream within the play. Her dream, a symbolic but "true" reflection of her experience, has been thoroughly analyzed by M. D. Faber (1972) and by Norman Holland (1980). Faber sees it as a reflection of Hermia's fear of sexual consummation of her love. She dreams that "a serpent eat my heart away," while Lysander "sat smiling at his cruel prey" (2.2.149-150). The phallic serpent (also a symbol of male inconstancy) is carefully disassociated by Hermia's dreaming mind from the "smiling Lysander," but as Faber points out, the dream reflects the anxieties aroused by Lysander's efforts to share a "bank" with Hermia; "One turf shall serve as pillow for us both, / One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth" (2.2.41-42). As a defense mechanism used "to disguise something that is wished for" (Faber 1972, 182), the dream seems an appropriate response from a young virgin who finds herself alone in a wild forest, suddenly unprotected by the external forces of society from the power of those attractions that have led to the elopement.

Holland, in his richer reading of the dream, emphasizes Hermia's separation of Lysander into two aspects, the "sexual, hostile, intrusive being right on top of her" [the snake] and the "milder but also hostile man at some distance" (6). Holland sees Hermia caught between the fear that union with Lysander will be a "deadly possession that would prey upon and eat away her very being" and the fear that rejection of this union will lead to "another kind of cruelty through distance and indifference. . . . " (9).

Seen in a larger context, Hermia's fears are not merely irrational and sexual, but reflect anxieties entirely appropriate to Athenian social pressures. She is fleeing a father whose unreasoning opposition to Lysander, a man of rank and fortune equal or superior to those of Demetrius, suggests that Hermia is the object of her father's incestuous desires, desires he can appease by delivering her "virgin patent" to a man he can see as an extension of himself. To Lysander's scornful remark, "You have her father's love, Demetrius; . . do you marry him," Egeus affirms, "True, he hath my love, / And what is mine my love shall render him. / And she is mine, and all my right of her / I do estate unto Demetrius" (1.1.93-98). She is also fleeing a law that allows her only the choices of marriage to a man she hates, a lifetime of enforced chastity, or death. The openly threatening third male in the play, Demetrius, has betrayed her close friend and seeks to enforce his claims against her expressly stated objections. Her only recourse is to escape with Lysander, but this involves Hermia in a tremendous risk. She becomes utterly dependent on Lysander's "love and courtesy" (2.2.56).

Her underlying fears about the course she has chosen appear in the oath with which she seals her agreement to meet him in the forest:

And by that fire which burned the Carthage queen,
When the false Troyan under sail was seen,
By all the vows that ever men have broke,
In number more than ever women spoke, . . .


A rueful regret for the tranquil existence she led before loving Lysander comes out in her words to Helena, "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" (1.1.204-07). As her dream implies, Lysander is the serpent who has turned Hermia away from her state of Edenic presexual innocence. Her hopes for the future rest on a Lysander who is significantly different in his relationship with her from the other men in the play, a Lysander whose love does not "lie."

Hermia's nightmare, expressive of her fears of unleashed male sexuality and betrayal, finds almost immediate confirmation in the encompassing midsummer dream experience. Her fears of phallic aggressiveness are transferred to Demetrius, whom she accuses of having slain Lysander in his sleep. Demetrius becomes the "adder," the "serpent" with "double tongue," who has "stung" Lysander (3.2.71-73). Her fears of male betrayal are even more graphically realized when she is rejected by both the "inconstant" Demetrius and the trusted Lysander. The inexplicability of male desires, which so bewilders Helena and which forms the burden of her conversations with Hermia ("The more I hate, the more he follows me." "The more I love, the more he hateth me." [1.1.198-99]), is dramatically underlined for Hermia by Lysander's sudden hatred. Hermia's shaky reliance on her own "vision" of love, "I would my father looked but with mine eye" (1.1.56), abandons her as she enters the "dark night, that from the eye his function takes" (3.2.177) to discover insult and rejection. In lines which, though expressing his loathing for her, connect him with the serpent of her dreams, Lysander orders, "Vile thing, let loose, / Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent!" (3.2.261).

While Hermia undergoes the nightmare fall from desired to despised love object, Helena experiences the opposite movement. Her first-scene wish, to be "translated" to Hermia, to "catch" her "favor," her "voice," her "eye," her "tongue," is apparently granted, for both Demetrius and Lysander now swear to Helena the love they earlier swore to Hermia. Helena, not Hermia, becomes the object of their petulant male rivalry. But Helena's response to this is frantic disbelief and intense dismay. Demetrius's hatred, at first a devastating blow to her self-esteem, may now protect her against the undependable idealizations of male romantic passion and the threat of sexual engagement feared by Hermia in her dream. Perhaps, even, the alacrity with which she informs Demetrius of the elopement plans reflects an unconscious preference for a continuation of the status quo. Seeing Hermia as the cause of Demetrius's sudden transfer of affection, Helena decides at once to tell him how he may prevent her rival's escape:

For ere Demetrius looked on Hermia's eyne,
He hailed down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and show'rs of oaths did melt.
I will go tell him of fair Hermia's flight.


This betrayal insures that Demetrius will stay in pursuit of Hermia as Helena continues in pursuit of him. Her excuse for this apparently self-defeating gesture, that she means "to enrich my pain, / To have his sight thither and back again," indicates the masochistic delight she has begun to take in the self-abasement of unreciprocated love (1.1.250-51). Reflecting the psychology of love most common in the Renaissance, Helena, like the Petrarchan lover, transforms Demetrius's cruelty, something "base and vile," into "form and dignity" (1.1.232-33). His "justified" scorn of such an unworthy lover proves his worth by denying her own.

The fretful self-pity Helena expresses in Athens finds exaggerated release in the woods, and she wallows in the abjectness of her unloved state, making her sufferings an excuse for a cloying possessiveness:

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.


In Athens her shattered self-esteem could take some comfort from the good opinions of society, "Through Athens I am thought as fair as she' (1.1.227), but in her "dream" Demetrius becomes "all the world. / Then how can it be said I am alone, / When all the world is here to look on me?" (2.1.224-26). His opinion is the only opinion. Self-abasement is expressed as a desire for self-annihilation, either through rape or murder, "I'll follow thee and make a heaven of hell, / To die upon the hand I love so well" (2.1.243-44).

By the time she encounters Lysander she has concluded that she is "as ugly as a bear," (2.2.94), and accepted Hermia's manifest superiority: "What wicked and dissembling glass of mine / Made me compare with Hermia's sphery eyne?" (2.2.98-99). Helena's exaggerated acceptance of her own worthlessness at least defends her ego from the pain of further rejection, and her abrupt change of status from all-despised to all-desired is a kind of psychic rug-pulling. Recoiling from the problematic sexual union with the unpredictable male, Helena seeks to renew the childhood innocence of an earlier oneness with Hermia:

We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have 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. So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet a union in partition;
Two lovely berries molded on one stem;
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart; . . .


Having earlier desired to be transformed into Hermia in order to win Demetrius's love, Helena now wishes to merge with Hermia to avoid the impetuous onslaught of male desires.

Lysander's first love speech to Helena contained an image of visual penetration, "Transparent Helena! Nature shows art, / That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart" (2.2.104-5); Demetrius now finds her lips tempting, "those kissing cherries," and her hand, "this princess of pure white" (3.2.140, 144). In response, Helena fearfully withdraws hands, cherry lips, and heart into the self-contained image of two virgin sisters creating "both one flower." Hermia's rejection of this childhood female bond and her subsequent discovery that Lysander is now in love with Helena precipitate the two women into the state of sexual rivalry that heretofore characterized the two men. In their rivalry they seek tangible physical "reasons" for the switch of affections—short versus tall, brunette versus blonde—but this attempt to explain the distinctions perceived by Lysander and Demetrius degenerates into hysterical declarations that such distinctions do exist and can explain such bewildering masculine inconstancy.

Helena's idyllic memory of "school day friendship" gives way to "She was a vixen when she went to school; / And though she is but little, she is fierce," while she characterizes herself as "a right maid for my cowardice," and "simple" and "fond" (3.2.324-25, 302, 317). Helena works to assert an identity now independent of Hermia, while Hermia tries to hold onto the selfhood and bond she fought to establish in Athens, "Am I not Hermia? Are not you Lysander? /1 am as fair as I was erewhile" (3.2.273-74). Having turned from the artificial image of childhood sameness, Helena and Hermia seek as well to separate themselves from the image of woman as stereotyped, idealized, de-individualized sexual object for Lysander and Demetrius. They assert their particularity in the face of that aspect of male desire that responds not to the woman's reality but to the fantasies projected on her by the male ego which, "if it would but apprehend some joy, / It comprehends some bringer of that joy" (5.1.19-20).

This night encounter with passionate sexual love divorced from valid distinction is an encounter with the love symbolized by the potion placed in the lovers' eyes. Oberon's description of the genesis of the potion connects it with unleased priapic sexual energy, "A certain aim he [Cupid] took / At a fair vestal throned by the west, / And loosed his love shaft smartly from his bow, / As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts" (2.1.157-60). The "quenching" of "young Cupid's fiery shaft" by the chaste moon serves only to deflect this energy elsewhere; "It fell upon a little western flower, / Before milk-white now purple with love's wound, . . ." (2.1.161, 66-67). In this account aggressive sexual energy, not its object, is important, a sexual energy that "wounds" and deflowers, that causes those who feel it to "madly dote" (2.1.171). This love is frightening because its discriminations keep no company with reason.

On the human level it is the two men who feel the force of this potion, for their immaturities in love reflect the competitive and self-centered nature of their desires. They denigrate the woman rejected by the rival and their desires increase in ratio to the increase of competition. The first scene of the play seems to distinguish between Demetrius, the "spotted and inconstant man," and Lysander, the true lover (1.1.110). But it also suggests their basic similarity, a sameness that engenders strong competition (Nevo 1980). "I am, my lord," Lysander asserts, "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'" (1.1.99-102). Demetrius's potion-inspired change from love of Hermia to love of Helena suggests that his love for Hermia originated in his unconscious attempts to mimic and outdo his rival/double, Lysander. While in the spell-induced sleep he must hear, at least subliminally, Lysander's avowals of love for Helena, for he wakes, on cue, to protest at "Demetrius loves her, and he loves not you" (3.2.136).

In the following scene of confused love, Demetrius and Lysander reverse roles in a manner similar to Hermia and Helena: Demetrius becomes the preferred lover, Lysander the lover rejected by the desired woman and pursued by the despised. Lysander's responses in this case mimic Demetrius's earlier postures. Demetrius has threatened Helena with violence, "Or, if thou follow me, do not believe / But I shall do thee mischief in the wood" (2.1.236-37), and desired to remove his rival by murdering him, "I'd rather give his carcass to my hounds" (3.2.64). Lysander now insults Hermia, "Out, tawny Tartar, out! / Out loathed med'cine! O hated potion, hence!" (3.2.63-64), and wishes to destroy Demetrius, "O how fit a word / Is that vile name to perish on my sword" (2.2.106-7). Like Demetrius, he avoids facing sexual rejection from Helena by focusing on his rival as the only impediment: "Now follow, if thou dar'st, to try whose right / Of thine or mine, is most in Helena" (3.2.336-37).

Lysander is guilty of only one infidelity, and his lapse is usually attributed to Puck's carelessness. But he, like Hermia, is affected by the tensions Athenian society has created by opposing social and individual desires. He sees love as a brief and uncertain phenomenon, attacked by the hostile forces of nature and society, "war, death, or sickness" (1.1.142) and, in itself, unstable:

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.


In his attempt to flee with Hermia from society's hostile power he loses his way, and his desire to find solace with Hermia is rebuffed with, "Lie further off yet, do not lie so near" (2.2.44). His protestations of innocence are gently but firmly rejected, "Lie further off, . . . So far be distant" (2.2.57,60). It is at that moment that Puck anoints his eyes; he opens them to see not the surprisingly cold Hermia but the lovelorn and, as he thinks, sexually eager, Helena. His subsequent behavior revenges Hermia's slight and brings to a climax his own quasi-sibling rivalry with Demetrius.

The abortive fight in the woods becomes a substitute sexual consummation, where would-be murderous triumph over the competing male could prove the masculinity they have not achieved in heterosexual coupling. As they pursue each other with weapons "drawn and ready," the language, particularly Puck's, suggests the frustrated sexual desires that fuel their anger, "Up and down, up and down, / I will lead them up and down: . . ." "Speak! In some bush? Where dost thou hide thy head?" "And wilt not come? Come, recreant! Come, thou child! / I'll whip thee with a rod. He is defiled / That draws a sword on thee." "We'll try no manhood here." "Coward, why com'st thou not?" "Thou . . . dar'st not stand, . . ." (3.2.396-424).

The end of the scene finds all four lovers assembled on stage in a state of confused exhaustion. When they wake, they do not understand what has happened; hatred has been changed to "gentle concord," and the entangled chain of desires has been sorted out. Within the dream experience they entered a state of frightening release, of almost Dionysian excess. Through role exchange and the purging of excess, this nightmare/dream in the woods has managed to move all the lovers closer to the standard of mature reciprocal sexuality that Shakespeare treats as the necessary prerequisite for festive comedy marriage. Demetrius and Lysander have acted out both their male rivalry and their mixture of desire and hatred toward the women who have the power to frustrate passionate desires or the bad taste to demand fidelity once desire has vanished, to demand, in other words, that love be more than a mere function of appetite. Demetrius can now return to his original choice, Helena, the woman he apparently chose before competition with Lysander led him to claim Hermia. When awake he rejects his role as Egeus's surrogate and Lysander's competitor for the role of Helena's lover. His love for Hermia, "an idle gaud / Which in my childhood I did dote on." based on male competition rather than "natural taste," has been outgrown in the night's emblematic movement from adolescence to adulthood (4.1.170-71).

The women, as well, have been altered by the experiences of the night. Hermia's dream, symbolizing her precarious balance between the phallic devouring serpent-lover and the maliciously smiling detached-lover, is tilted in favor of an acceptance of the sexual union with Lysander as preferable to the loneliness of abandonment and rejection. Helena, whose self-abasement led toward degradation and loss of autonomous identity, reasserts herself in opposition to Hermia and to the tormenting male lovers. Rather than blame the blind "boy Cupid" for the disappointments of love, she accuses the two men of lack of "pity, grace, or manners"; accepts the undesirability of merger with Hermia; and attempts to leave, saying, "Tis partly my own fault, . . ." (3.2.241, 243). Helena's newfound sense of self, receiving the daylight reinforcement of Demetrius's vows of love, permits her to give to Demetrius some of the autonomy she has gained. In words that reflect her uncertainty about the night, but that also grant Demetrius both mutuality and autonomy, she speaks of finding "Demetrius like a jewel, / Mine own, and not mine own" (4.1.192-93). Hermia's moves toward the necessary trust in the loved male, and Helena's reassertion of herself as Helena, neither Demetrius's spaniel nor Hermia's double, have prepared them for the daylight return to mature reciprocal love.

This concord among the lovers is also important in reconciling Lysander and Hermia to society. Theseus not only supports the new couplings, he shares his own wedding ceremony with the lovers. They are reintegrated into the now more flexible patriarchal society of Athens. Demetrius, still uncertain of this approval and of the events of the night, asks:

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?


Hermia's response, her last words in the play, testify to the restoration of parental bonds, if not of parental tyranny, "Yea, and my father" (197).

The lovers' night in the woods, a "dream" reflection of their baffled and immature desires, receives in turn its own reflection, the mirror of "art," Ovid's tale of Pyramus and Thisbe as "disfigured" by Bottom and his crew. Critics have often pointed out how this play parallels the lovers' flight to the woods, but reverses the outcome so that irrational love leads to death rather than happiness. But this play also rehearses "most obscenely and courageously" (1.2.105), the societal blocking, tentative bondings, and superficial apprehensions experienced by the lovers. The basic source of these confusions is the wall, symbolic of the hostility of the fathers, which "did these lovers sunder" (5.1.132). The wall, whose "stones" are cursed by Pyramus, is played by the actor who was first assigned the role of Pyramus's father, Tom Snout the tinker (both names suggesting masculine sexual activity). Blocked by the wall, the lovers, though full of hyperbolic passion, can scarcely recognize each other:

Pyramus. I see a voice: now will I to the chink,
To spy and I can hear my Thisbe's face
Thisbe. My love thou art, my love I think.


They associate themselves specifically with classical prototypes whose names are shared by two of the play's lovers, as Pyramus declares, "like Limander, am I trusty still," and Thisbe rejoins, "And I like Helen, till the Fates me kill," these lines seeming to glance at Lysander's proclaimed trustworthiness and Helena's masochistic devotion (5.1.196-97). The dismal outcome of the love is foreshadowed by the bungled vows, "Not Shafalus to Procrus was so true." "As Shafalus to Procrus, I to you" (5.1.198-99). Unfortunately, Cephalus accidentally killed his wife, Procris.

The thwarted sexual development and frustration of the lovers blocked by this recalcitrant wall is bawdily suggested by a hodgepodge of vaginal, phallic, and anal allusions (Goldstein 1973; Gui 1952-53). The wall suggests both the female and male sexual organs. The phrases "the crannied hole, or chink," "the cranny," "right and sinister,"; the stage direction, Pyramus draws near the wall; and Pyramus's address to "Thou wall, O sweet and lovely wall, / Show me thy chink, . . ." all allude to the female genitalia aspects of the wall (5.1.158-77). Thisbe, for her part, is unintentionally scatological when declaiming, "My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones, / Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee," and "I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all" (5.1.190-91, 201).

The ill-fated elopement occurs at night, but a night presided over by a moon that seems to represent the absence of any female influence for this travestied patriarchal tragedy.3 The role of moonshine is enacted by Starveling the tailor, who was originally cast for the role of Thisbe's mother, a tailor often being mocked as an effeminate man. Poor Starveling, who as the man in the moon appears with a lantern that represents the moon, a thorn bush, and a dog, is soundly ridiculed by his courtly audience, for his inept portrayal reduces to "moonshine" the female powers of nature represented by Titania. The moon's gender is further distorted by Demetrius, who suggests the "horned moon" is a cuckold, and by Pyramus, who confuses it with its masculine opposite by thanking it for its "sunny beams" (5.1.270). Under this "disfigured" moon, Thisbe encounters not her lover, Pyramus, but the lion, who frightens her from the appointed rendezvous. The lion, one of the "vile" things Oberon wished Titania to love, humorously represents the malevolent potential of patriarchal authority. Played by Snug, the joiner, it "joins" these lovers in death rather than in marriage, an echo of Egeus's earlier savagery. The lion's staining of the mantle with "bloody mouth" is misinterpreted by Pyramus, who, assuming "lion vile hath here deflow'red my dear," kills himself in grief (5.1.143, 290). Pyramus's death is comically described by Thisbe as a kind of castration:

O Sisters Three,
Come, Come to me,
With hands as pale as milk;
Lay them in gore,
Since you have shore
With shears his thread of silk.


Like Pyramus, she kills herself with the phallic sword, deaths that playfully recall the sexually motivated sword play and suicidal hyperboles at the end of act 3.

This play is comic not only because it is so clumsy, but also because it carries one step further the sexual anxieties the lovers experience. In the main plot the four lovers struggle to find appropriate, self-enhancing outlets for their powerful though unfocused sexual desires and to bring their desires and the prescriptive demands of society into harmony. Male sexual dominance in the green world (embodied in Oberon) reinforces male social dominance in Athens (represented by Theseus), and the lovers arrive at stable love relationships within the framework of an orderly and, finally, benevolent patriarchal society. In the Pyramus and Thisbe play, however, anxiety about sexual roles intensifies into confusion about sexual gender. The four lovers' painful attempts to make meaningful distinctions about sexual objects is transformed into a ludicrous lack of gender distinctions. Snout (the wall) possesses hole, chink, and stones; the horned moon shines "sunny beams." Even the lion, a traditional symbol of lordly male dominance, is travestied—itself both male and female ("a lion fell, nor else no lion's dam"), it is a "fox for valor," "goose for discretion," and, far from deflowering Thisbe in "wildest rage," "mouses" her discarded mantle and flees (5.1.222, 230, 231, 221).

The ineptness of the actors not only undercuts hilariously the stereotyped masculine and feminine roles they play, but also mocks the gender distinctions these roles reflect. As Demetrius comments, "A mote will turn the balance, which Pyramus, which Thisbe, is the better; he for a man, God warr'nt us; she for a woman, God bless us!" (5.1.317-19). This palpable-gross play thus gains much of its explosive comic vitality by presenting an implicitly anarchic sexual world. Psychic health and sexual identity being interdependent, this loss of gender distinction is the true stuff of nightmare, the suppressed terror that edges the lovers' dream actions with violence and hysteria. The linked breakdown of sexual gender and social role in the play-within-the-play mocks and exaggerates the confusions experienced by the lovers. By its "merry and tragic" blurring of sexual distinctions it prepares us to celebrate the ordered sexuality of the traditional marriages at the play's end.

The most significant preparation for this affirmation, however, occurs in the dream at the center of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the dream of the union of Titania and Bottom. This dream, which parallels the lovers' experience in the wood, finds release for tensions felt at a deeper level than those transitory uncertainties characteristic of adolescent romantic passion. Infinitely suggestive, the dream has been alternately interpreted as comic, mystic, or grotesque; it mirrors the play as reflected in the metamorphic eye of the viewer.4 At the bottom of the dream one sees the harried critic peering myopically out of the ass's head. The following reading is one attempt to respond to the multiple resonances of this elusively complex dream.

Part of this complexity is caused by the fact that the dream, usually called Bottom's dream, belongs to three characters. Like the dream of the lovers, which is a single dream for the audience but four impinging dreams for the lovers, this dream shifts meaning as its perspectives shift from Bottom to Titania to the voyeur and creator of the dream, Oberon. Behind these perspectives is Shakespeare, who like Oberon creates the dream and like Bottom turns it into art, who dreams the dream the audience enters.

Oberon's dream is a response to Titania's challenge to his patriarchal authority and an attempt to reestablish outraged male dominance. Their quarrel, as the "parents and original," has disordered the world of nature (2.1.117). The immediate cause of the quarrel, Titania's refusal to give Oberon the changeling Indian boy, serves as the symbol of an encompassing breakdown of the trust and reciprocity necessary to a mutually satisfying bond of love. Though Puck, who first recounts the argument, ascribes Oberon's rage to his desire to have the boy as a "knight of his train," the first exchange with Oberon furnishes Titania with an earlier source of hostility, Oberon's infidelity. Their opening exchange establishes Titania's denial to Oberon of her sexual favors and companionship and Oberon's angered attempt to make her resume her proper subordinate position:

Titania. What, jealous Oberon! Fairy, skip hence.
I have forsworn his bed and company.
Oberon. Tarry, rash wanton; am not I thy lord?
Titania. Then I must be thy lady: but I know
When thou has stolen away from fairy land
And in the shape of Corin sat all day,
Playing on pipes of corn, and versing love
To amorous Phillida. . . .


Oberon defends himself by accusing Titania of similar faults, but she rejects his accusations and gives a long description of the harmful results of their quarrels. Oberon's response is simply, "Do you amend it, then; it lies in you: / Why should Titania cross her Oberon? / I do but beg a little changeling boy, / To be my henchman" (2.1.118-21).

In reply, Titania details a picture of feminine companionship that excludes Oberon and that, more threateningly, seems to portray a female nuclear "family," Titania and her pregnant votaress, of joyous and fulfilled sexuality independent of the male:

Her mother was a vot'ress of my order,
And in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossiped by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune's yellow sands,
Marking the embarked 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 squire—
Would imitate, and sail upon the land, . . .


This female bond, intensified by the woman's death in childbirth, Titania now values more than her chafing marital bond with Oberon: "And for her sake do I rear up her boy, / And for her sake I will not part with him" (2.1.136-37). Titania's possession of the boy is a further defiance of male authority and denial of male paternal rights in that he was "stolen from an Indian king," the boy's father (2.1.22). This Indian boy Titania now makes "all her joy," and "jealous" Oberon insists that the boy is the price of their reconciliation (2.1.26). Titania's rebellious refusal to pay that price arouses Oberon's desire for vengeance, "Thou shalt not from this grove / Till I torment thee for this injury" (2.1.146-47).

This "torment," Oberon's revenge, is his dream. It is a dream of love reduced to animality, for it limits unleashed sexual energy to purely animal gratification. Oberon will use the magic potion to create another kind of conceiving than that of Titania's votaress, to make Titania "full of hateful fantasies" (2.1.258). Titania shall "pursue," with the "soul of love," "some vile thing," "lion, bear, or wolf, or bull," "meddling monkey," "busy ape," "ounce, or cat, or bear / pard, or boar with bristled hair" (2.1.180-82;2.2.30-31, 34). His imagination ranges over phallic, savage, or grotesque animals.

Jan Kott (1964) has, perhaps, responded most perceptively to the essential brutality and male wish-fulfillment of Oberon's dream, though he generalizes this view as the single perspective the dream represents: "The love scenes between Titania and the ass must seem at the same time real and unreal, fascinating and repulsive. They are to rouse rapture and disgust, terror and abhorrence. They should seem at the same time strange and fearful." He compares them to the "fearful visions of Bosch" an to the "animal eroticism" of Goya. "Titania has embraced the ass's head and traces his hairy hooves with her fingers. She is strikingly white. . . . The ass's hooves are entwining her more and more strongly. He has put his head on her breasts. The ass's head is heavy and hairy. . . . Titania has closed her eyes: she is dreaming about pure animality" (82-86).

But the dream of animality belongs only to Oberon. Hermia's dream, reflective of her fears of Lysander, is from another angle reflective of Oberon's malicious delight at Puck's message, "My mistress with a monster is in love." "This falls out better than I could devise," is Oberon's response—the smiling lover who watches the serpent at the breast of his beloved (3.2.6, 36). Oberon's cruelty is linked to his sense of loss. When setting out his plan to corrupt Titania's imagination with the magic potion, he describes his sleeping, no longer accessible wife in terms conveying the enchantment which that picture holds for him:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine
With sweet musk roses, and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight; . . .


Excluded from this Edenic vision, Oberon will destroy it. He will replace the child in Titania's bower with a savage phallic extension of himself. The charms the fairies sing are vain attempts to protect their queen from desecration:

You spotted snakes with double tongue
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blindworms, do no wrong,
Come not near our Fairy Queen.

Philomele, with melody
Sing in our sweet lullaby;

Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legged spinners, hence!
Beetle black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail do no offense.

(2.2.9-14, 20-23)

The double-tongued snake, recalling Hermia's fears of phallic intrusion and male inconstancy; the "thorny," hence dangerous, hedgehog; the slimy and repulsive newts and blindworms (all which later appear among the disgusting ingredients of Macbeth's witches' caldron); the creeping beetles and snails; and the ravished and mutilated Philomela, another victim of male lust and ego, are images of the designs of Oberon's jealous mind. They also anticipate in The Winter's Tale Leontes's spiders, nettles, tails of wasps, as Leontes's recoil from Hermoine's fulfilled maternal sexuality and his denial to her of both son and daughter recall and exaggerate Oberon's resentment. Even the spiders, the "long'legged spinners," represent the hateful fantasies Oberon will weave into Titania's dreams—"Wake when some vile thing is near" (2.1.34). Her waking is, of course, a waking into Oberon's dream. "Your actions," says Leontes, "are my dreams" (WT, 3.2.80), but Leontes has been overpowered by a sick dream that expresses itself as his reality, while Oberon deliberately uses his power to translate his fantasies into reality.

Oberon's dream, however, as it is given dreamlike enactment in Titania's experience, is lost to Oberon's control. Her love for Bottom is not savage and bestial, but nurturing and tender, capable of transforming the ignoble assheaded Bottom into "an angel," "as wise . . . as beautiful," her "gentle joy" (3.1.128, 147). Though Titania's love for Bottom may strike the beholder as strange and comic, it is neither perverse nor animalistic: "And I will purge thy mortal grossness so, / That thou shalt like an airy spirit go" (3.1.159-60). It is transfigured from Oberon's fantasy of revenge into something touching, even charming, by the delicately straightforward erotic and maternal nature of her response. She tempts Bottom with toys, "jewels from the deep," music, and food, "apricocks and dewberries, / With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries; / The honey bags . . . from the humblebees" (3.1.157, 166-68). Like a doting mother, she finds Bottom's every action precious and unique. Stroking his cheeks, winding roses in his head, kissing his "fair large ears," and twining him in her arms, Titania's love images the solicitous love union of mother and child, a grotesquely tender and erotic madonna and child.

Yet Titania herself, once awake, rejects her "visions" of loving an ass: "O how mine eyes do loath his visage now" (4.1.80). The potion-induced "vision" that Titania awakes to loath is the dream of sexually consummated maternal love. In her dream the place of the Indian boy ("But she perforce withholds the loved boy, / Crowns him with flowers, and makes him all her joy") has been taken by the child/animal Bottom ("For she his hairy temples then had rounded / With coronet of fresh and fragrant flowers") (2.1.27;4.1.53). Her dream has released the genital/sexual desires ordinarily diffused into the polymorphous sensuality not regarded as sexual in a mother's love—the suppressed perverse or incestuous component of maternal love latent in her earlier exclusive preoccupation with the child. This love, for all its tenderness, is smothering and possessive. It denies its object any other identity than that of the beloved: "Out of this wood do not desire to go. / Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no." "Tie up my love's tongue, bring him silently" (3.1.151-52, 200). Her love for Bottom is unnatural in part because it is "out of season." Bottom is not an infant, however childlike he seems, but Titania, in her doting love, refuses to recognize his true state as she refuses to relinquish the Indian boy to the masculine pursuits and male identity of Oberon, who "would have the child / Knight of his train to trace the forests wild" (2.1.25-26). In her anger with Oberon and attachment to her votaress, she would deny her "child" the autonomy that would separate him from infant dependency on the female and give him over to the male-dominated patriarchal world.

All the love, sexual and maternal, nurturing and erotic, rightfully divided between child and father, has been directed to the boy. Oberon's jealousy was not unfounded:

Come, wait upon him; lead him to my bower.
The moon methinks looks with a wat'ry eye;
And when she weeps weeps every little flower,
Lamenting some enforced chastity.


So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.
O how I love thee! How I dote on thee.


The sexual imagery of the last quotation is unavoidable. In medieval and Renaissance beast lore the ass was noted for its sexual potency and long, hard phallus. The monster that Titania loves is the child with the phallus. Her recoil, upon awakening, is in response not only to the actual situation (the assheaded man in her bed), but to the fantasy of an overextended maternal love this situation has embodied. Purged of this vision, she joins Oberon in calling for music, and the two "new in amity," will restore sexual harmony to the world of Athens (4.1.88).

Bottom shares Titania's dream from his own perspective, but unlike Titania, he does not reject it when he wakes. Richard Wheeler (1981) points perceptively to Bottom's dream as a recovery of "the protected environment of early childhood, a refusion of self and magically responsive world, of sensual and tender longings, . . ." (170). From the standpoint of the young child the exclusive union with the mother is desirable and necessary, forming the basis of all future ability to love. Bottom, before his transformation, is engaged in a play with sexual roles that exaggerates the uncertain role-switching of the lovers. Assigned the role of Pyramus, "a lover who kills himself, most gallant, for love," Bottom declares he had rather play "Ércles," his "chief humor" being "for a tyrant" (1.1.25, 29, 30). Denied this he is willing to hide his face, "speak in a monstrous little voice," and play the female, Thisbe (1.2.52-53). The lion's part, which bears a certain resemblance to the rant and power of Hercules, also draws him, "I will roar that I will do any man's heart good to hear me. I will roar that I will make the duke say, "Let him roar again, let him roar again" (1.2.71-72). But if his roars are too frightening, he will "roar you an 'twere any nightingale" (2.1.83). His attraction to all these roles suggests the metamorphic sexual identity of a child: lover, tyrant, woman, savage or gentle beast—all seem to Bottom within his range, though Quince, the director, declares he can "play no part but Pyramus; . . . a sweet-faced man, a proper man . . ." (1.2.84-85). Puck, however, gives Bottom a role that, with the creative logic of dreams, lets him play contradictory parts simultaneously—he is both lover and beast. In a fantasy related to the early longings of a child, he will become the lover of the mother and receive not only the readily available oral and tactile gratification, but the denied genital union as well. Though the dream is censored, for the audience if not for the impervious Bottom, even as it occurs—the child lover is unnatural and grotesque, half-human, half-animal—Bottom's childlike enjoyment of Titania's infatuation, which grows from dubious acceptance ("to say the truth, reason and love keep little company nowadays") to lordly command ("scratch my head, "bring me a honey bag") underlines the nurturing and positive nature of his experience (3.1.142; 4.8.7, 13). For the awakened Bottom, the dream was wonderful, a "most rare vision . . . a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was" (4.1.205-7).

Bottom has the last word on the dream: "It shall be called 'Bottom's Dream,' because it hath no bottom; . . ." (4.1.215-16). But he cannot explain it: "Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream" (4.1.207-8). The dream belongs to that part of the self out of reach of the conscious, rational, interpreting mind. From that point of view the dream "hath no bottom," for it exists in a developmental phase before Bottom's discovery of himself, when the fonctions of the senses are mingled together in one blur of sensation, the eye hearing, the ear seeing, the hand tasting, the tongue conceiving. It is that vision of wholeness, that "feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole," which Freud (1930, 12) notes as a form of mystic religious experience and connects with the "limitless narcissism" (15) of "An infant at the breast [that] does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of sensations flowing in upon him," (13-14). This connection of the dream with religious experience is also suggested by the fact that Bottom, sensing the inappropriateness of rational discourse to "expound" his dream, emphasizes its inexpressibility by garbling St. Paul's assertions of man's inability to conceive of the glory of the final merging with God: "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him" (1 Cor. 2:9). It is the ballad of this dream that Bottom thinks to sing "to make it the more gracious," at Thisbe's death (4.1.219). This lost dream-vision of the perfect oneness of mother and child imaged in the intimacy of Titania and Bottom will become Pyramus's lament for his loss of the romantic love object through which the male lover hopes to recapture the earliest and most important source of love.

There seems a sense in which Titania's loving acceptance of the assheaded Bottom, their total entwinement in "the cradle of the Faerie Queen," supplies the metaphor of basic trust that enables the warring and uncertain lovers to arrive at mature sexuality. In his classic study of the first oral stage of infantile sexuality, Erikson (1963) comments, "One may say (somewhat mystically, to be sure) that in thus getting what is given, and in learning to get somebody to do for him what he wishes to have done, the baby also develops the necessary ego groundwork to get to be a giver. . . . Where this fails, the situation falls apart into a variety of attempts at controlling by duress or fantasy rather than by reciprocity" (76). This play is full of turmoil that reflects the characters' inabilities to reconcile love and sexuality through the achievement of reciprocal, genital love. It is surely significant that Demetrius and Lysander both image the young women in terms of despised or desired food, food that nourishes or nauseates. The play also echoes with male efforts to control through duress, "I wooed thee with my sword," "As she is mine, I may dispose of her," "I shall do thee mischief in the wood," "I will shake thee from me like a serpent" (1.1.16; 1.1.42; 2.1.237; 3.2.261). And it contains at least one attempt, successful as it turns out, to control through fantasy. "Wake when some vile thing is near" (2.2.34).

Oberon's fantasy of erotic savagery has been recreated by Titania's maternal tenderness, and Oberon's jealous rage is cured: "Her dotage now I do begin to pity" (4.1.48). Having replaced his rival with a grotesque "twin" that he knows Titania, freed of the spell, will reject, Oberon has asserted his authority over both wife and child. But this exercise of masculine authority is saved from its initial brutality by Titania's capacity for transforming love. Titania's intended sexual debasement becomes, instead, Bottom's wonderful and comic glorification. This central dream thus reestablishes basic trust in part by demonstrating woman's ability to transform, through love, even the most ignoble object. And, in the play as a whole, man's need to trust is reassured by the woman's ability to love the instrument of her injury, by Hippolyta's ability to love her conqueror, by Hermia and Helena's abilities to overlook the infidelities and cruelties of Lysander and Demetrius, by Titania's capacity to accept as natural both the asininity of Bottom and the "lordship" of Oberon. To merit such love the men, on the other hand, must forgo both egooriented pretense of idealized worship and the societal reality of uncompromising masculine control to achieve a loving equality founded on respect, the kind of relationship perhaps suggested by the voice and counter-voice exchanges between Theseus and Hippolyta and the final "hand in hand" appearance of Titania and Oberon to bless the bride-beds.

The roles these lovers achieve at the play's end do not overthrow the old patriarchal hierarchies, but transform them. Thus the societies of both worlds are not altered but completed by the play's movement from the narcissistic and "injurious" love characteristic of courtship to the reciprocal and trusting love necessary for harmonious marriage. The psychological mechanisms of these transformations are the materials shadowed forth by the dreams. Both types of love are, perhaps, equally irrational, but the first has the irrationality of fear, the second of faith.


1 Marjorie Garber (1974) in her study of Shakespeare's dramatic treatment of dreams, speaks of Shakespeare's using the dream for "the important dramatic function of representing subjective events, like the workings of the imaginations and the activities of the subconscious. . . . " (p. ix). Ruth Nevo (1980) connects the magic potion with the therapeutic function of dreams: "It discovers, enlarging as in a distorting mirror, the shadowy wishes and fears of the mind, and by so doing enables the victims to enfranchize themselves from their obsessions: (106).

2 All quotations are from The Complete Signet Shakespeare.

3 George Sandys, in Ovid's Metamorphosis: Englished, Mythologized, and Represented in Figures, ed. Karl Hulley and Stanley Vandersall (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970) moralized the tale as an indictment of tyrannical parents "who measure their childrens by their owne out-worn and deaded affections; in forcing them to serve their avarice or ambition in their fatali manages (aptly therefore compared to the tyranny of Mezentius, who bound the living to the dead till they perished by the stench) more cruell therein to their owne, then either the malice of foes or fortune: . . ." (212).

4 See C. L. Barber (1959, 154-57), Jan Kott (1964, 69-88), and Frank Kermode (1961, 214-20) for very different readings of this fascinating dream.


Barber, C. L. 1959. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form in Relation to Social Custom. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Barnet, Sylvan, ed. 1972. The Complete Signet Shakespeare. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Erikson, Erik. 1963. Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton.

Faber, M. D. 1972. "Hermia's Dream: Royal Road to A Midsummer Night's Dream." Literature and Psychology 22:179-90.

Freud, Sigmund. 1930. Civilization and Its Discontents. Edited and translated by James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton, 1962.

Garber, Marjorie. 1974. Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Goldstein, Melvin. 1973. "Identity Crises in a Midsummer Nightmare: Comedy as Terror in Disguise." Psychoanalytic Review 60:169-204.

Gui, Weston A. 1952-53. "Bottom's Dream." American Imago 9:251-305.

Holland, Norman. 1980. "Hermia's Dream." In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, 1-20. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kermode, Frank. 1961. "The Mature Comedies." In Early Shakespeare, 3:214-20. London: Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies.

Kott, Jan. 1964. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. London: Methuen.

Nevo, Ruth. 1980. Comic Transformations in Shakespeare. London: Methuen.

Sandys, George. 1970. Ovid's Metamorphosis: Englished, Mythologized, and Represented in Figures. Edited by Karl Hulley and Stanley Vandersall. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Wheeler, Richard P. 1981. Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Young, David. 1966. Something of Great Constancy: The Art of "A Midsummer Night's Dream. " New Haven: Yale University Press.

Peter Holland (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: An introduction to William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, written and edited by Peter Holland, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1994, pp. 1-21.

[In the following essay, Holland reviews the history of dream analysis and discusses the Elizabethan conception of dreams and their meaning, concluding that the play may be taken not as a "false or trivial" dream, but as a "revelation of another reality. "]

Of all the commentators on Shakespeare, perhaps the oddest is Ulrich Bräker, a Swiss weaver, who in 1780 finished writing his thoughts on the plays under the title A Few Words about William Shakespeare's Plays by a poor ignorant citizen of the world who had the good fortune to read him. Bräker did not like much of A Midsummer Night's Dream:

I don't want to run down your dream, but I just can't make it out. The whole tone of the piece doesn't appeal to me. If I ever dreamt of entering a community where affairs are conducted in this tone then I'd leap out of bed, I'll be bound, without even waking up! A certain Theseus, a certain Lysander, every fairy in fact, is busy spouting his own wooden verses. I don't know what fairies are like, and if I did, I'd make a point of not mixing with them—they'd be too quick for me.1

Only the workers appealed to this Swiss Bottom: 'The characters of the interlude in this dream—they're the ones for me!' (p. 29).

I doubt if there are many who would agree with Bräker. A Midsummer Night's Dream is probably the most performed of all Shakespeare's plays, not least because, in schools, it is so often the way children first encounter Shakespeare. It has always seemed to me a play peculiarly perfect, ideally compact and coherent in its form. At this early stage in his career, in A Midsummer Night's Dream as in The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare's approach to comic form is to transmute the enormous range and divergent nature of the materials that lie behind the play into a surface of disarming simplicity.

Like the work of Freudian analysts of genuine dreams, critics considering A Midsummer Night's Dream find that the play has a 'manifest' level behind which lurks their own version of the 'latent dream'.2 For Freudians dreamers change their dreams as they remember them, this 'dream-work' transforming the latent dream through a process of distortion involving four techniques, identified as condensation, displacement, representation and symbolisation. The task of the critic should then be to uncover the dream-work that has made the 'real' subject of the play, its anxieties and repressions, acceptable.3 The childlike world of the play is then, along such a line, part of its attempt to avoid the repressed conflict or to resolve it through the fantasy of fictitious solutions 'that are marked by infantile characteristics and are often contradictory among themselves'.4

For Jungians, this approach to decoding the secrets of a dream is mistaken. There is for Jung no latent dream since the manifest dream is not a disguise: 'dreams are a part of nature, which harbours no intention to deceive our eyes, but expresses something as best it can'.5 Our problem, as spectators and critics, is then to learn how to read the dream. If we cannot understand the text, the fault lies in the reader, not the text, since 'the dream attempts to reveal rather than conceal'.6

But modern scientific analysis of dreams has moved from the psychoanalytic to the psycho-physiological, finding the source of dreams in neural activity. The most delightful surprise in such research turns out to be its emphasis on the pleasure of dreaming. Dreams can be seen as a form of entertainment and their function a form of relaxation. As Hobson argues: 'Why can't we accept the autocreative function of dreams as something given to us . . . for our own pleasure?'.7

This introduction will sometimes try to uncover the latent in A Midsummer Night's Dream; it will more often accept that the play reveals rather than conceals; and it will, I hope, always try to keep in the foreground the pleasure of watching or reading the play. The opening sections of the introduction set out a late sixteenth-century context for dreams and dreaming. Since dreams, even dramatic ones like A Midsummer Night's Dream, are constructed out of odd scraps of different material, the next sections explore the play by setting out from the 'day-residue', the sources which fed this particular dream. . . .

Dreams and Dreaming. Wittgenstein, worrying how to pinpoint his sense of disliking Shakespeare, tried comparing his work to dreams:

Shakespeare and dreams. A dream is all wrong, absurd, composite, and yet at the same time it is completely right: put together in this strange way it makes an impression. Why? I don't know. And if Shakespeare is great, as he is said to be, then it must be possible to say of him: it's all wrong, things aren 't like that—and yet at the same time it's quite right according to a law of its own . . . [Shakespeare] is completely unrealistic. (Like a dream.)8

There is no evidence to indicate whether Wittgenstein knew A Midsummer Night's Dream and yet this passage could in so many ways be an anxious paraphrase of the exchange between Theseus and Hippolyta at the opening to Act 5. Wittgenstein's description of a dream as 'all wrong, absurd' belongs firmly within the rationalist framework of Theseus's 'More strange than true' (5.1.2); his awareness that it can also be 'composite' and 'completely right' shares Hippolyta's understanding that, however strange it may be, it 'grows to something of great constancy' (5.1.26). Theseus wants it to 'be possible to say of the events of the night in the wood that 'things aren 't like that' but the night-world has, as the audience by this stage is well aware, laws of its own that he does not understand. Indeed, like a dream, which has its own internally consistent sense of realism, an awareness of reality that communicates itself to the dreamer, or that the dreamer creates in creating the dream, the play as a whole is both 'completely unrealistic' and yet 'at the same time . . . quite right'.

How true the play is, how far it can be described as 'quite right' I shall come back to frequently. But, however much A Midsummer Night's Dream is 'like a dream', it is not one.9 It contains only one description of something that may unequivocally be taken to be a dream, one 'real' dream, Hermia's dream of the serpent:10

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


Everything else that is recounted by mortals or fairies as having been part of a dream is not a dream at all. The experiences have been turned into dream, experienced as if they were dream—but they were not. Titania, waking, tells Oberon 'what visions have I seen' but her 'love', the image she ascribes to her dream of an ass she had fallen in love with, lies rather solidly beside her (4.1.75, 77). The lovers return 'back to Athens' assuming that 'all this derision' that they experienced in the wood is perhaps, as Oberon promises, nothing more than 'a dream and fruitless vision' (3.2.370-1), though they worry about whether it is indeed fruitless. Bottom wakes having had what he without hesitation describes as 'a dream past the wit of a man to say what dream it was' (4.1.202-3). Robin even gives the whole audience the option of considering the entire play as a dream in his epilogue:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear


If we wish to dismiss the play, we can choose to treat it as a 'weak and idle theme, / No more yielding but a dream' (5.1.418-19). This is the final, largest-scale version of this recurrent device in the play, reducing vision to dream or reaccommodating an accurate perception of experienced reality into the more comfortable framework provided by dream.

Oberon and Robin make it possible for the other characters—and the audience—to see the play as a dream, not, that is, like a dream but as a dream itself, a true dream experience not a similitude. This extraordinary ability to transform experience into dream needs to be placed against an understanding of what dream was, where it came from and what it signified.

Oneiro-criticism, to give it its pedantic title, was a standard and important part of classical divination. Only one major account of early Graeco-Roman interpretation has survived: the Oneirocritica by Artemidorus of Daldis, written in the second century AD.11 Artemidorus emphasizes throughout that dream-analysis must not only take into account what happens in the dream but also the name of the dreamer, his or her occupation, habits and attitudes. His method is non-superstitious and he scrupulously refuses to distinguish between dreams sent by the gods and dreams that are products of the dreamer or even to indicate whether dreams could be so divided.12

Artemidorus is, from the start, concerned to classify dreams, providing a system of significance within which all dreams may be easily placed.13 The process of classifying a dream-experience, pigeon-holing it conveniently or troublingly, is central to the way that characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream relate to their forms of dream and Artemidorus' system is fundamental to Western thinking about dreams until well after the date of Shakespeare's play. His basic distinction is between a predictive dream, which he terms oneiros, and a non-predictive one, termed enhypnion. The latter are simply 'anxiety-dreams and petitionary dreams' (1.6). There is for him nothing at all interesting in the fact that a lover may dream of the beloved, hungry people dream of food and thirsty people dream of drink. Such dreams, clearly generated by what will later be termed 'day-residue', are not for interpretation. These dreams, belonging with apparitions and phantasmata, lie outside his professional concerns. Dreams of the past and present are necessarily less interesting to his clients; they will also lie outside the concerns of most subsequent dream-analysis.

But if enhypnion dreams can be disregarded as insignificant or irrational fantasies, oneiroi matter enormously. These dreams or visions, occurring to people who are not anxious, are the stuff of his analysis, the raw material on which he can work, using his simple technique: 'the interpretation of dreams is nothing other than the juxtaposition of similarities' (2.25). Such proper dreams can be further subdivided into two groups: direct or theorematic and indirect or allegorical. Direct dreams show without metaphor what will occur: a dream of a shipwreck may indeed mean that the next day the dreamer will be shipwrecked. Allegorical dreams signify by replacement. A dream is, for Artemidorus, a claim by the mind; 'in a way it cries out to each of us', he writes, 'look at this and be attentive, for you must learn from me as best you can' (1.2).

His attempts to categorize dreams are full and inventive. Some features of a dream are treated as tightly defined within their range of meanings. Other dream-features may have multiple possibilities. A serpent such as appeared to Hermia could signify a king, because of its strength, or time, because of its length and skin-changing, or wealth, because it often guards treasure, or any of the gods who use it as a symbol of their sacredness. A serpent is not the same as a snake: snakes signify sickness or an enemy; if a man dreams that his wife has a pet snake which she keeps in her bosom it signifies that she is adulterous. Artemidorus even analyses the different meanings for watersnakes and blindworms.

At the same time he is concerned to emphasize that the same dream may have different meanings according to the circumstances of the dreamer. He gives examples of seven women who had the same dream, during pregnancy, of giving birth to a serpent. In each case the relationship between the serpent of the dream and the son varied. One child became a famous public speaker, because speakers share with serpents the advantages of forked tongues. One son became a priest because the serpent is a sacred animal and the dreamer was a priest's wife. A prostitute's son was wanton because a serpent is slippery. A bad woman's son was a thief and beheaded because serpents are beheaded when caught. A slave woman's son became a runaway slave because serpents do not follow a straight path. Artemidorus does offer a precise explanation for Hermia's dream; dreaming that a serpent is 'entwined about someone and binds him . . . foretells imprisonment' and 'portends death for the sick' (2.13).

There were sixteenth-century translations of Artemidorus into Latin, Italian, French and German. A fairly full English translation by Robin Wood—from the French translation of the Latin translation—was first published in 1606 as The Judgement or Exposition of Dreams and had reached its twenty-fourth edition by 1740.14

The major late-classical statement on dreams is by Macrobius, part of his enormous commentary on the dream of Scipio in Cicero's De Re Publica written around AD 400.15 The popularity of Macrobius ensured that his dream-classifications became the basis of much early medieval dream-theory. Hence Chaucer includes a lengthy summary of the dream of Scipio in The Parliament of Fowls (11. 29-112) and it is to Macrobius that Chauntecleer turns in 'The Nun's Priest's Tale' (11. 3123-6).16 Macrobius plainly derives his ideas from Artemidorus and translates his divisions and classifications into Latin. Oneiros dreams are broken down into three types: somnium, visio and oraculum (enigmatic, prophetic and oracular). These are for Macrobius, as for Artemidorus, the only significant kinds of dream. Enhypnion dreams are divided into insomnium and visum (nightmare and apparition); neither is prophetic.

But medieval writers were less concerned with a classificatory system for a Macrobian typology of dreams than with the means to decode those dreams that could be seen as visionary, oneiric or somnium dreams; the means to do it acquired greater sophistication. There were four types of medieval dreambooks: chancebooks often used with psalters, physiological dreambooks defining dreams as indications of physiological ailments, dream-lunars which (intriguingly for A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play recurrently and almost obsessively concerned with the moon) interpreted dreams differently according to the day of the lunar month and hence the phase of the moon, and alphabetical dreambooks.17

It is the last category that were most common, particularly the Somnia Danielis, the dreams of Daniel. Known in hundreds of different manuscripts from the ninth century to the fifteenth, the Somnia Danielis, an alphabetical list of dream topics, is 'a library of ancient dream topoi',18 far more reliable as a guide to medieval use of dream topoi than Artemidorus whose work was at that stage only available in Greek and Arabic. In different versions of the Somnia, Hermia's serpent most often indicated enemies, conquered or victorious according to what happened to the dream-serpent, though it could also indicate deception by a woman.19 To dream of an ass usually signified hard work.20

What the long tradition of dream-theory suggests above all is that the indecipherability of dreams, the ambiguity of their sources, underlines the danger for the dreamer. As Steven Kruger comments,

The dreamer stands in a precarious position The realm of dreams, poised between truth and fiction, is also torn between good and evil; it provides a ground . . . in relation to which human beings must make complicated decisions—decisions with crucial implications for their moral lives.21

But the tradition also emphasized, particularly in late medieval theory, the extent to which dreams underline the humanity of the dreamer: 'The dream stands . . . in a quintessentially human position: between brute animals on the one hand and God and the angels on the other; between the mundane and divine, body and idea, deception and truth'.22 Bottom and the other 'dreamers' are all the more human for having dreamed, Theseus, in his rejection of the dream-world, all the more limited.

Renaissance Dreams. English Renaissance texts on dreams, their causes or interpretations, are rarely original. They derive their classificatory systems and their analysis of causality from the kind of works I have already referred to, as well as such sources as Aristotle's brief studies of dream in the Parva Naturalia and Aquinas's distinction between inward and outward causes. The conventionality of Renaissance thinking on the subject provides the framework within which the experiences within A Midsummer Night's Dream and that of the whole play by the audience would have been understood. How the lovers understand their dream or the audience the play depend on reconciling the experience with the forms of dream with which Oberon (for the lovers) or Robin (for the audience) align the action.

Thomas Hill, in The Most Pleasant Art of the Interpretation of Dreams (1576), made perhaps the most coherent attempt in the period to provide an orthodox presentation of dream-science in English, deriving his work from Averroës, Aristotle, Artemidorus and Aquinas, filtered through Italian sources. For Hill, true dreams 'only happen to such, whose spirits are occupied with no irrational imaginations, nor overcharged with the burthen of meat or drinks, or superfluous humours, nor given to any other bodily pleasures' (sigs. [A] 2r-v). Any others are, as we would expect, 'vain dreams, no true signifiers of matters to come but rather showers of the present affections and desires of the body' (sig. [A]2V). Hill provides four categories according to whether the causes are bodily or not and new or not; causes can be categorized as food, humours, anxieties and, the most important group, those 'which frame the superior cause come unto the soul' or are divinely caused (D7r). But all natural dreams, inwardly caused, are generated by the soul; as Wood's Artemidorus states, 'a dream therefore is a motion or fiction of the soul in a diverse form' (p. 1). They are created through the operation of the imagination, one of the three internal senses of the sensitive part of the soul, on material provided by the other two internal senses (common sense and memory) or by the 'vegetative' soul, while the external senses are quiescent. The memory provides images derived from the events that immediately preceded falling asleep; the vegetative soul provides images from the state of the body during sleep, for example, cold, thirst, sexual desire.23 Thomas Nashe, the most contemptuous of Renaissance commentators on dream-theories, puts it even more forcefully:

A dream is nothing else but a bubbling scum or froth of the fancy, which the day hath left undigested; or an after-feast made of the fragments of idle imaginations . . . our thoughts intentively fixed all the daytime upon a mark we are to hit, are now and then overdrawn with such force, that they fly beyond the mark of the day into the confínes of the night.24

Such dreams are unlikely to be true, or as Nashe puts it, 'there is no certainty in dreams',25 since the soul is working without the active support of the external senses; as Vandercleeve suggests, in The Wisdom of Doctor Dodypoll, an anonymous play of 1600, 'these present our idle fantasies / With nothing true, but what our labouring souls / Without their active organs, falsely work' (D2r). But, as Alphonso answers Vandercleeve there is always the other category of dream:

My lord, know you, there are two sorts of dreams,
One sort whereof are only physical,
And such are they whereof your Lordship speaks,
The other hyper-physical: that is,
Dreams sent from heaven, or from the wicked fiends,
Which nature doth not form of her own power,
But are extrinsicate, by marvel wrought,
And such was mine.


Wood's Artemidorus and Hill's accumulation of fragments of Renaissance theory are, as one would expect, full of curiosities, such as the belief that dreams dreamed 'in the hour of the full moon or change' will come true 'within 15 days after'.27 But, however fascinating such a timetable may be for A Midsummer Night's Dream, it seems less significant than, for instance, the confident assertion of that sense of true understanding that comes through the dream. As Hill puts it, 'And a man also doth more comprehend in his dream than waking in the day-time, because in a dream is more resolved than that in the day which is troubled through the doings of the outward sense' (B2V). Or, as Timothy Bright will later phrase it, 'in sleep our fantasy can perceive those truths which are denied to it when we are awake'.28 All one then has to do is to recall the dream: Wood recognises that 'before the attempting to interpret he willeth that one should have perfect remembrance of the beginning, the middle, the end, and all the circumstances of his dream' (A6V). As Demetrius will say in Act 4 of A Midsummer Night's Dream, 'And by the way let us recount our dreams' (4.1.197). Similarly, Nashe's venom for dream-interpreters matters less than his sense of dreams as part of the curative function of sleep: 'You must give a wounded man leave to groan while he is in dressing: Dreaming is no other than groaning, while sleep our surgeon hath us in cure' (C2r). But even Nashe carefully preserves the distinction between the impenetrability and untrustworthiness of dream, Artemidorus's enhypnion or Macrobius' insomnium, compared with the power of vision, oneiros or somnium, even while he is lambasting Artemidorus and others:

Could any man set down certain rules of expounding of Dreams, and that their rules were general, holding in all as well as in some, I would begin a little to list to them, but commonly that which is portentive in a King is but a frivolous fancy in a beggar . . . Some will object unto me for the certainty of dreams, the dreams of Cyrus, Cambyses, Pompey, Caesar, Darius and Alexander. For those I answer that they were rather visions than dreams, extraordinarily sent from heaven to foreshow the translation of Monarchies. (D4r)

Lodge, too, is reminded to prove that

spirits either good or bad,
In forms, and certain apparitions clad,
Can further force, or else infuse by right,
Unfeigned dreams, to those that sleep by night.(Flr)

His reminder is Apollo, for, as Wood states, 'dreams and their interpretations seem particularly to agree and belong to poets, because that to their Apollo . . . is attributed and dedicated, not only the art of Poetry, but also the knowledge and interpretation of dreams' (A2V-A3r), a more sympathetic insight into the poet's imagination than that offered by Theseus.

Not all dreams have such divine sources. Hermia's dream appears to have a straightforward and direct cause. When Hermia and Lysander prepare themselves for sleep, Lysander is determined to be as close to Hermia as possible, while she, modestly and accurately, distrusts his intentions and wants to be sure he keeps his distance. Tired and lost though he may be, Lysander sees the opportunity of being alone with Hermia in the woods as too good to pass up. For all the elegant virtuosity of his reasoning (2.2.47-52) it is clear he has sex al fresco in mind and Hermia has to be fairly insistent in giving him the verbal equivalent of a goodnight peck on the cheek (2.2.62-7). Most Lysanders; however, manage to find in 'Here is my bed' (2.2.70) a certain begrudging indication of just how uncomfortable that spot of the stage is.

Eighteenth-century productions had difficulty with this part of the scene. Francis Gentleman, in 1774, marked the lines for omission, for, 'though founded in delicacy, they may raise warm ideas'.29 The Morality of the moment was troubling: how could Lysander, a gentleman, be seen to be suggesting premarital sex and how could Hermia, a virtuous maid, understand what he had in mind? In the version David Garrick prepared with George Colman the Elder in 1763, the passage is substantially rewritten. Barely into his stride, Lysander's attempt at seduction is halted by Hermia's firm request and he offers to stand guard:

My honor is the best security for thine.
Repose thee, love; I'll watch thee thro' the night,
Nor harm shall reach thee—
Sleep give thee all his rest.

Garrick's Robin has to produce some fairy music to 'throw this youth into a trance', a 'sweet enchanting harmony' that Lysander cannot resist. Shakespeare's awkward morality is rendered acceptable and a convenient opportunity for music found in the process, cultural adjustment combined with theatrical efficiency.

But such rewriting removes the primary source of the dream. It did not need Freud to identify the serpent of Hermia's dream as a phallic threat. Lysander has presented Hermia with the problem of his sexual desire, and her dream enacts her anxiety about it. At the same time the dream represents Hermia's careful disjunction of Lysander as phallic serpent from Lysander himself, who sits smiling and separate from the actions of his penis, thereby ensuring that the phallic threat from Lysander is dissociated from the 'person' Lysander to some extent. A Freudian reading of the dream would find in the object of the phallic attack, Hermia's breast and heart, a displacement from her vagina. Lysander, in this reading of the dream, is both passive and complicit, accepting, in effect, the sexual desire that Hermia has for him but that she has refused to acknowledge.31 In Alexandru Dane's production for the Comedy Theatre of Bucharest (1991), it was only with great difficulty that Hermia kept her modesty and her clothes on, so strong was her desire for Lysander.

But Hermia offers her own explanation of the dream when she wakes. Accusing Demetrius of having murdered Lysander she turns him into a serpent:

And hast thou killed him sleeping? 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.


Demetrius has, in effect, eaten Hermia's heart out by killing her love Lysander. In her comparison with the adder and its double tongue, Demetrius' protestations of innocence, which she sees as lies, intensify his status as serpent. Rather than facing the problem of her repressed desire and Lysander's sexuality as represented by the dream, she displaces the fear of Lysander into fear for Lysander and fear of Demetrius. The dream is now somehow Demetrius' fault.

This is grotesquely and comically unfair to Demetrius for, if Hermia's dream has obvious cause in the events preceding sleeping, it is also oneiric in its warning of an event taking place as Hermia dreams: for Lysander, drugged by Robin, has transferred his affections from Hermia to Helena and is therefore the classic betrayer, smiling on another. Lysander is, of course, a passive actor in this change and his passivity in Hermia's dream seems to mimic this. The dream is then also an inner experience for Hermia reflecting the action that takes place during her sleep.

But this does not quite explain why Hermia should dream of a serpent. Where in effect does the dream come from? There seems to be something about the place where Hermia dreams that makes a dream about a serpent both likely and richly resonant. The bank where Titania sleeps has been defined by the fairies' lullaby as a place to be guarded against snakes: 'You spotted snakes with double tongue' (2.2.9). Oberon had already defined it as a place where 'the snake throws her enamelled skin' (2.1.255), defining this beneficial snake that is a source of fairy clothes ('Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in', 1. 256) as female. This useful female snake contrasts with the male snakes/serpents elsewhere in the play. Lysander as the serpent of the dream and Demetrius as the serpent of Hermia's accusation belong with the spotted snakes of the lullaby.

Demetrius is accused by Hermia of having a 'doubler' tongue than an adder; he has also, in Act I, been accused by Lysander of being 'spotted and inconstant' (1.1.110) for changing from Helena to Hermia. The line links 'spotted' with inconstancy; the lullaby links 'spotted' with snakes. Hermia's dream turns Lysander into a serpent at the very moment that he is being 'spotted and inconstant'. The atmosphere around Titania's bank is full of links back to the world of Theseus' court. It is a place full of suggestions sufficient to generate the precise terms of Hermia's dream.

The richness of this suggestiveness even allows the dream to transfer from one person to another. When Hermia does find Lysander again, now changed and spotted, she hangs on to him as he tries to shake her off: 'Hang off, thou cat, thou burr; vile thing, let loose, / Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent' (3.2.260-1). He has now turned her into a serpent entwined around him. Hermia has not had a chance to tell Lysander her dream; the dream seems to have caught him, entwined him into it. His first line here contains an odd and magical echo of Oberon, half-heard by a character who could not have heard it at all. Oberon's spell on Titania conjures up her possible objects of desire: 'Be it ounce, or cat, or bear, / Pard, or boar with bristled hair' (2.2.36-7). 'Or cat, or bear' has now become for Lysander 'thou cat, thou burr'. The echo is imprecise, as echoes are wont to be. The effect is of sounds and serpents inhabiting the place, the language and the minds of characters who stray near there.

Dramatic Dreams. Hermia's dream may, from this perspective, be a rich oneiros such as Artemidorus would have been proud to interpret, a dense enigma to be read across the whole play. But the whole play, of course, calls itself a dream. The fascination with dream as an overarching device, an embedding form for poetry is an immense and powerful tradition in English medieval poetry.32 It may indeed be because the Chaucerian form of dream-vision was so overwhelmingly successful, so broad in its imaginative sweep and magnificent in its application of literary form to its concerns, that the device is comparatively rarely used in the Renaissance. Dream is, in any case, a mode no longer to be comfortably trusted. Thomas Churchyard's poem 'A Dream', in Churchyard's Challenge (1593), rehearses all the warnings about dreams as the product of 'the roving thoughts of idle braine', ending uncertainly,

Well, be thy visions good or bad,
or swevens [dreams] of the night:
Such idle freaks as fancy had,
now shall you hear aright.

(p. 179)

before going on to give a serious dream-warning about death, vanity and the deceptiveness of the world.

Dream-poetry and dream-narrative seem, however, to have been of particular recurrent interest only to Robert Greene, in works like A Quip for an Upstart Courtier (1591), 'A Maiden's Dream' (1591), Greene's Vision [1592], 'A most rare and excellent dream' (in The Phoenix Nest, 1593), and, published after the date of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Greene's Orpharion (1599.33) At his best he considers the paradoxes of dream in terms worth considering alongside Shakespeare's play:

Why art thou not (O dream) the same you seem?
Seeing thy visions our contentment brings;
Or do we of their worthiness misdeem?
To call them shadows that are real things?
And falsely attribute their due to wakings?


Dream-plays had always been a much less common device. Robin's offer to the audience to consider the whole play as something that has taken place while they have been asleep (5.1.414-19) had been made twice before in plays by John Lyly. For Sapho and Phao (1584), Lyly offered an apologetic prologue for performance at court, speaking directly to the Queen:

Whatsoever we present, whether it be tedious (which we fear) or toyish (which we doubt), sweet or sour, absolute or imperfect, or whatsoever, in all humbleness we all, and I on knee for all, entreat, that your Highness imagine yourself to be in a deep dream, that staying the conclusion, in your rising your Majesty vouchsafe but to say, And so you awaked.35

Lyly's elaborate humility is an artful piece of modesty. While Sapho and Phao has some passages on dreams there is no need to consider the whole play as a dream, except as a means of excusing its weaknesses. The dramatic device is no more than a conventional ritual of excuse. In The Woman in the Moon (performed c. 1591-3), Lyly uses the prologue to extend the notion of dream from an excuse for the experience of the play in performance to an excuse through a recognition of the play's origin:

Our Poet slumbering in the Muses' laps,
Hath seen a woman seated in the moon, . . .
This, but the shadow of our Author's dream,
Argues the substance to be near at hand: . . .
If many faults escape her discourse,
Remember all is but a Poet's dream.


The entire play is now a product of the poet's dream "in Phoebus's holy bower'37 and the audience's toler ant response is to be the result. But Lyly does not combine the two ploys, treating the performance as a dream and recognizing the poet's work as the product of a dream.

The most intriguing version of a dream-play, not least because of its vexed relationship to Shakespeare, is the ending of The Taming of A Shrew (1594), the play that is somehow connected with Shakespeare's The Taming of The Shrew.38 Shakespeare's Induction has Sly who has fallen drunkenly asleep found by a Lord who, for fun, has Sly carried off, transformed into a gentleman and made to sit and watch a play. At a point equivalent to Shakespeare's 5.1.102 A Shrew's Sly falls asleep again. When the play performed for him is over, the Lord has Sly changed back into his own clothes and put back 'in the place where we did find him' (passage D, 1. 4).

As. in the experience of the mortals who enter the wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the play's events can be taken to be nothing more than a dream, in this case a dream of metamorphosis of social status that is subordinated in the play to the dream-play that is presented for Sly. Unlike Bottom, Sly is only too keenly aware of the person he was (is) outside this 'dream-experience: 'What, would you make me mad? Am not I Christopher Sly—old Sly's son of Burton Heath' (Induction 2.16-17). Only as the others insist does he convince himself that this state is true reality and his previous existence only a dream in its turn:

Am I a lord, and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?
I do not sleep. I see, I hear, I speak.
I smell sweet savours, and I feel soft things.
Upon my life, I. am a lord indeed,
And not a tinker, nor Christopher Sly.

(Induction 2.67-72)

Sly, of course, much prefers this new reality and 'would be loath to fall into my dreams again' (Induction 2.123).

The Lord had assumed that the experience will be for a reawakened Sly nothing more than 'a flatt'ring dream or worthless fancy' (Induction 1.42). But, as Sly explains to the Tapster who wakes him up at the end of the play, this dream, 'The bravest dream . . . that ever thou / Heardest in thy life' (passage E, 11. 11-12), will have unexpected results:


Ay, marry, but you had best get you home,
For your wife will curse you for dreaming here tonight.


Will she? I know now how to tame a shrew.
I dreamt upon it all this night till now,
And thou hast waked me out of the best dream
That ever 1 had in my life. But I'll to my
Wife presently and tame her too,
An if she anger me.

(passage E, 11. 14-21)

Sly's assumption that he can put the dream-play into effect against the unseen stereotype of the wife waiting for the drunken husband with the Elizabethan equivalent of the rolling-pin may be comic bravado. But in A Midsummer Night's Dream the question of what will be the consequence of the dream-play in the woods is far from simply comic. Where in A Shrew the events after awaking from the 'dream' occupy a brief epilogue scene, in A Midsummer Night's Dream there is the whole of Act 5 to come. The reaccommodation of the people to the post-dream world is now not only comic but also complex and worrying.

We would expect that a play with the word 'dream' in its title would make fairly frequent use of the word. But Shakespeare seems to have been particularly interested in the word at this stage of his career: nearly a third of all Shakespeare's usages of the word 'dream' occur in only three plays, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, plays written close in time to each other.

In Romeo and Juliet, written, most probably, immediately before A Midsummer Night's Dream,39 Shakespeare makes the matter of dreams Mercutio's and places it in the world of Queen Mab. Romeo, trying to quiet the wild exuberance of Mercutio's description of Mab, advises him 'Thou talk'st of nothing' (1.4.96) but Mercutio turns the nothing of dreams into its own fantasy:

True. 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

(11. 96-100)

Dream, that nothing that is so powerfully something, may be mocked and belittled—throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream it often is—but it strikes back at those who mock it. Lysander defines true love as 'short as any dream' (1.1.144) but the play will make the true love of Lysander and Hermia endure much longer than a night of adventures in the wood. Hippolyta reassures Theseus that 'Four nights will quickly dream away the time' (1.1.8) before their wedding but the time will be dream in senses other and far richer than her lines suggest. Oberon may say of the lovers, 'When they next wake, all this derision / Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision' (3.2.370-1); yet his next line suggests that this dream is not a fruitless vision at all, since the result will be that 'back to Athens shall the lovers wend / With league whose date till death shall never end' (11. 372-3), exactly the same contrast between the supposed empty brevity of the nothing of the dream and the enduring consequences that hover over Lysander's 'short as any dream'. Viewed in this light, Oberon's line suggests a different emphasis: it is not that the derision is a dream, but that it should seem so.

Oberon's line has combined dream and vision. If the lovers may find the experience a 'fruitless vision', for Bottom it was 'a most rare vision' (4.1.202). Even Robin advises the audience that it has seen 'visions' (5.1.417). The audience can choose to take them as trivial, 'No more yielding but a dream' (5.1.419), but, if we have responded to the play fully, we will share with Bottom the sense of vision, of something revealed from out there, from the world of fairy, not the false or trivial world of dream but a revelation of another reality. The obligation on the audience is to treat the play as a benevolent oneiros, a true prophetic dream. This dream is an attempt to resolve the great puzzle of dream-theory, the source of dreams, for this dream is not the product of the dreamer's imagination or the reformulation of the experiences of the day but a phenomenon generated by extra-human forces. Such dreams matter greatly. . . .


1 Ulrich Bräker, A Few Words about William Shakespeare's Plays, ed. Derek Bowman (New York, 1979), p. 29.

2 Among the many texts on modern dream-theory, I have found the following most helpful: Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Penguin Freud Library, 4 (Harmondsworth, 1976); C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963); James A. Hall, Clinical Uses of Dreams (New York, 1977); James L. Fosshage and Clemens A. Loew, Dream Interpretation: A Comparative Study (New York, 1978); David Foulkes, A Grammar of Dreams (Brighton, 1978); Charles Rycroft, The Innocence of Dreams (1979); Liam Hudson, Night Life: The'Interpretation of Dreams (1985); J. Allan Hobson, The Dreaming Brain (New York, 1988).

3 For a full-blown psychoanalytic reading see James L. Calderwood, A Midsummer Night's Dream (Hemel Hempstead, 1992).

4 Angel Garma in Fosshage and Loew, p. 28.

5 Jung, p. 185.

6 Edward Whitmont, 'Foreword' to Hall, p. xv.

7 Hobson, p. 297.

8 L. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, trans. P. Winch (Oxford, 1980), p. 83e.

9 For approaches to the play in the context of dream see Marjorie B. Garber, Dream in Shakespeare (1974), pp. 59-87, and John Arthos, Shakespeare's Use of Dream and Vision (1977).

10 For a discussion of different performances of Hermia's dream see H. R. Coursen, Shakespearean Performance as Interpretation (Newark, Del., 1992), pp. 74-84.

11 Artemidorus, The Interpretation of Dreams: Oneirocritica, trans. R. J. White (Park Ridge, N. J., 1975): references are by chapter and section; see also S. R. F. Price, 'The Future of Dreams: From Freud to Artemidorus', Past and Present, 113 (1986), pp. 3-37.

12 See Ruth Padel's review of White's ed. of Artemidorus, TLS, 23 April 1976, p. 494.

13 See further A. H. M. Kessels, 'Ancient Systems of Dream-Classification', Mnemosyne (4th series), 22 (1969), pp. 389-424.

14 Price, p. 32.

15 See Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, trans. W. H. Stahl (New York, 1952). The somnium Scipionis itself was available in English translation in, e.g., Thomas Newton's translation of Fowre Severall Treatises of M. Tullius Cicero (1577).

16 See also The Book of the Duchess, 11. 284-9; Alison Peden is however sceptical about the extent of the influence of Macrobius on Chaucer: see her 'Macrobius and Medieval Dream Literature', Medium Aevum, 54 (1985), pp. 59-73, esp. pp. 67-9.

17 See Steven R. Fischer, 'Dreambooks and the Interpretation of Medieval Literary Dreams', Archiv für Kulturgeschichte, 65 (1983), pp. 1-20; his The Dream in the Middle High German Epic (Bern, 1978) and his edition of the Somnia Danielis as The Complete Medieval Dreambook (Bern, 1982); see also Lynn Thorndike, 'Ancient and Medieval Dreambooks' in her A History of Magic and Experimental Science (1923), vol. 2, pp. 290-302, and Jacques Le Goff, 'Dreams in the Culture and Collective Psychology of the Medieval World', in his Time, Work and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. A. Goldhammer (Chicago, 1980), pp. 201-4.

18 Fischer, 'Dreambooks', p. 7.

19 Fischer, Complete Medieval Dreambook, pp. 134-5.

20 Ibid. p. 27.

21 Steven F. Kruger, Dreaming in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 52-3.

22 Ibid. p. 82.

23 Neatly summarised by Sears Jayne, 'The Dreaming of The Shrew, SQ 17 (1966), pp. 41-56, esp. pp. 43-4. See also Thomas Lodge's distinction between bodily and mental causes in 'To Master W. Bolton, Epistle 2', in A Fig for Momus (1595), sig. E4r.

24 Thomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night (1594), sig. C3V.

25 Ibid., sig. F2r .

26 There are exceptions to this general theory, of course. See, e.g., Stephen Bateman's notion that 'the air is the cause of dreams' (S. Bateman, Batman uppon Bartholome (1582), sig. 2F5r) or Christopher Langton's straightforward approach, as befits the author of An Introduction into Physicke [1547]: 'A dream is nothing, but an imagination made in the sleep' (quoted by Carroll Camden, 'Shakespeare on Sleep and Dreams', Rice Institute Pamphlets, 23 (1936), p. 121).

27 Hill, sig. E2r.

28 Quoted by Camden, p. 122.

29Bell's Shakespeare (1774), viii. 159.

30 David Garrick, The Plays, ed. Harry W. Pedicord and Frederick L. Bergmann (Carbondale, 111., 1980-2), iv. 199. I have corrected their 'reach the' to 'reach thee', the clear reading of the MS (Folger prompt-book MND 6).

31 For Freudian readings of this dream see, among many M. D. Faber, 'Hermia's Dream: Royal Road to A Midsummer Night's Dream', Literature and Psychology, 22 (1972), pp. 179-90, and Norman N. Holland, 'Hermia's Dream', in Murray M. Schwartz and Coppèlla Kahn, eds., Representing Shakespeare (1980), pp. 1-20.

32 See for example A. C. Spearing's brilliant study Medieval Dream Poetry (Cambridge, 1976); for Chaucer see B. A. Windeatt, Chaucer's Dream Poetry: Sources and Analogues (Cambridge, 1982) and Piero Boitani, 'Old Books Brought to Life in Dreams: the Book of the Duchess, the House of Fame, the Parliament of Fowles', in Piero Boitani and Jill Mann, eds., The Cambridge Chaucer Companion (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 39-57.

33Greene's Orpharion was entered in the Stationers' Register on 9 February 1590. Thomas H. McNeal, in 'Studies in the Greene Shakspere Relationship', Shakespeare Association Bulletin, 15 (1940), pp. 210-18, argued unconvincingly for Greene's poems as an object of Shakespeare's satire in Bottom's dream.

34 'A most rare, and excellent Dreame' in The Phoenix Nest (1593), p. 43 (ed. H. E. Rollins (Cambridge, Mass., 1931), p. 51).

35 Lyly, Works, ii. 372.

36 Lyly, Works, iii. 241, 11. 1-2, 12-13, 16-17.

37 Ibid. 1. 18; compare the bowers of Oberon and Titania (3.1.186, 3.2.6-7 and n., 4.1.60).

38 The precise relationship of A Shrew and The Shrew is irrelevant here but I share Oxford's assumption that the additional Sly passages, present in A Shrew and not in The Shrew, could have existed in some form in a version of Shakespeare's text; certainly productions of Shakespeare's play have often very successfully incorporated the other Sly comments and particularly the ending. I use the text of the passages printed as Additional Passages to Oxford's text of The Shrew.

39 See below, p. 110.

Love And Marriage

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Jane K. Brown (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "'Discordia Concors': On the Order of A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1, March, 1987, pp. 20-41.

[In the following essay, Brown explores the relationship between the themes of imagination and love in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and argues that the play is allegorical rather than mimetic in its emphasis on the importance of love as means of knowing a higher truth.]

A Midsummer Night's Dream is concerned with marriage, relations between the sexes, creativity and imagination, fancy, and love. The themes of love and imagination are so pervasive in the play that their relation has seemed almost too obvious to merit analysis. Recent readings have tended to focus either on the theme of love and marriage (sometimes "sexual politics") or on the theme of imagination, but not on the link between the two.1 This essay will explore the connection between love and mental activity in the play and locate it in the popular Neoplatonist doctrine of love described by Edgar Wind.2 Not only does this Neoplatonist "mystery" permeate A Midsummer Night's Dream, but it also organizes the play in terms of plot structure, cast, and imagery. Analyzing A Midsummer Night's Dream in this context leads to the conclusion that the play is fundamentally allegorical rather than mimetic. In other words, the play "bodies forth" ideas, and these ideas take primacy over character and plot as organizing principles. Thus, the play represents neither the views on sex and marriage nor the views on fancy held by Shakespeare and his contemporaries; instead, it presents the significance of love as a way of knowing higher truth. Because love becomes an analogue—indeed a metaphor—for what the play also calls fancy or imagination, A Midsummer Night's Dream ultimately is concerned with the nature and location of truth.

Occasional critics have recognized Neoplatonist thinking on the nature of love and art in the play and have even offered more extended readings in this vein.3 But these studies suffer from two difficulties. First, even the main highways of Renaissance Neoplatonism are tortuous in the extreme; the better informed the Neoplatonist reading, the less accessible it is.4 Second because Neoplatonism has entered and reentered the tradition at so many different times and in so many different ways, it is a particularly ill-defined movement. Indeed, it is less a movement than a way of thinking. For these reasons, rather than examining specific Neoplatonist ideas or themes, or recognizing particular Neoplatonist myths and motifs (such as Orpheus, the wise fool, or Midas), I will outline more general Neoplatonist structures and patterns of thinking and identify where and how Shakespeare goes beyond the fashionable clichés of the period.

I will introduce the relevant structures by describing what Edgar Wind called the "mystery of love" in his discussion of Neoplatonist themes in Renaissance painting. Wind uses the term mystery to identify the "serious games" of Renaissance Neoplatonists, the paradoxical allegories that expressed profound religious truths to those initiated into their secrets. But the most paradoxical aspect of these secrets is that they were not really secrets; they were rather, as Wind implies in passing, widely known among Renaissance intellectuals.5 Despite the lack of positive evidence that Shakespeare knew the work of either Ficino or Pico, the fact that these "esoteric mysteries" were widely known, their pervasiveness in the play, and the coherence of the interpretation to which they lead justify my approach.

For the Renaissance Neoplatonist, love is the force that mediates between the world and divinity, just as Plato had defined it in the Symposium. There Plato develops a theory of two kinds of love based on the two different myths of the birth of Aphrodite. The first is worldly love, Aphrodite Pandemos, daughter of Dione and Zeus. This love is sensual, vulgar. The other, higher or spiritual love is Aphrodite Urania, born from the foam that arose after the genitals of the castrated Uranus fell into the sea. By virtue of her birth, she is a mediator or connecting link between the sensual world embodied in the sea and the spiritual sphere, the divine spark of Uranus's semen. The two Venuses are not simply opposed, but the lower one is in fact an image or metaphor for the other: sensual love thus can be a steppingstone to a purer, spiritual love, which in turn can lead the votary to perception of the divine itself. Ficino and Pico elaborated this theory into complex systems that need not concern us here. Rather, my concern is the emphasis on the metaphoric aspect of sensual love. In the Renaissance, sensual love is not only a steppingstone to love of the divine, as in Plato, but can also represent spiritual love in the world: it can be its second face.

The Neoplatonist rarely stepped directly from lower to higher love, however; instead the movement toward transcendence proceeded through a rather fluid dialectic known as the coincidentia oppositorum, the harmony of opposites. Such harmonization—of sensual and spiritual love, of sensual love and chaste love, of world and spirit, of the all and the one—was the ideal in every respect for these thinkers, so that finally any one of these dichotomies could stand for all. By analogy, an enormous vocabulary of signs could represent the opposition and relation of the two kinds of love: sensual love versus absolute chastity, sensual love versus chaste married love, earthly Venus versus heavenly Venus, Venus versus Diana, the bow of Cupid versus the bow of Diana—to choose examples relevant only to A Midsummer Night's Dream. For Renaissance Neoplatonists, however, these pairings represent conjunctions as well as oppositions. The bow is ambiguous because it is the attribute of both Cupid and Diana; Venus-Diana figures abound in Renaissance iconography, and Diana herself, as the moon, embodies the conflicting attributes of chastity and lunacy.6 Ultimately, both opposition and conjunction are signs of the same harmony of opposites in which higher truth was understood to be veiled.

A second, equally important aspect of the mystery of love is the epistemological dimension of the theory. Love is the force that enables man to transcend the world and perceive the divine One. In this context "perceive" means "enter into mystical unity with," for the One cannot be perceived through the senses, but only by submersion into it of the entire mind. Higher love is not sensual in the most literal terms; as Helena articulates, heedless of the higher significance of her words, "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind; / And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind" (I.i.234-35).7 Two important and quite different implications follow from this view of love. The first is that love is an epistemological mode; only the lover has access to the most profound truths of human existence. Thus a play that deals with love in the Neoplatonist sense is a play about knowledge and truth. The second implication is really the first turned inside out: because access to truth is through the metaphoric transformation of love from sensual to spiritual, any statement about knowledge or truth accessible to the senses is not itself truth, but only metaphor or distant image. Thus, the fact that A Midsummer Night's Dream is preoccupied with its own illusoriness can be read as a concern about its own truthfulness.

We may begin, as Shakespeare does, with Theseus and Hippolyta. In the first scene Theseus is impatient and Hippolyta patient regarding their approaching marriage: their attitudes immediately define the topic of the play as the opposition between sensual and chaste love. The repeated references to the moon, especially Hippolyta's "like to a silver bow / New bent in heaven" (I.i.9-10), invoke Diana as huntress, that is, the moon in its aspect of chastity. This opposition will be resolved in their marriage, for Hippolyta's chastity is not the absolute virginity of the nun, but the chastity of faithful married love. Similarly, this marriage represents the end of warfare between Athenians and Amazons, thus social as well as spiritual harmony. And harmony is the proper word here, for Theseus plans to wed Hippolyta "in another key" (18): after all the co fusions are sorted out, Hippolyta and Theseus will arrive to the musical discord of their hounds in Act IV, awaken the lovers with the music of their hunting horns, and thus resolve the love conflicts of the play in harmonious discord.

Yet it would be too simple to describe Hippolyta and Theseus as simply chaste and sensual love or higher and lower love uniting to realize an image of truth in marriage. In Act II, Titania describes Hippolyta to Oberon as "the bouncing Amazon, / Your buskin'd mistress, and your warrior love" (II.i.70-71), while dismissing parallel charges that she herself loves Theseus as "forgeries of jealousy" (81). The opposition is maintained, while the polarity, so to speak, is reversed. Similarly, in Act V, Hippolyta is now impatient for the change of the moon ("I am a-weary of this moon. Would that he would change!" [251-52]) and Theseus patient ("It appears, by his small light of discretion, that he is in the wane; but yet in courtesy, in all reason, we must stay the time" [253-55]). The issue is not constancy or development of character, nor is it how either feels about the wedding, but that the two between them maintain that state of harmonious discord to which the play gives the name marriage8

The rest of the love plot elaborates the initial opposition between chaste and sensual love. The conflict between Hermia and her father is identified by the language of the scene as a conflict between fancy or imagination and law—a familiar enough conflict from Shakespeare's comedies of this period. Many recent readers have focused on Hermia's oppression by patriarchal power structures in and outside the play.9 But the conflict is neither strictly intellectual nor strictly sexual; it is actually a variation—one of the many metaphors—of the pattern already established in the dialogue between Theseus and Hippolyta. Consider for a moment Hermia's actual alternatives. She is offered marriage to Demetrius, death, or eternal chastity. Although Egeus demands her death, Theseus and Hermia really consider only marriage to Demetrius or entering a cloister. It is clear to everyone in the scene—except Egeus and Demetrius, who are blinded by the language of law—that the second alternative is better: "Thrice blessed they that master so their blood" (I.i.74), says Theseus, unconsciously echoing Hippolyta's position from the first scene. The other alternative is "earthlier happy" (76), but "earthlier" must carry equal weight here with "happy." Theseus has identified Hermia's alternatives as the two loves of Plato. Indeed, were Hermia to marry Demetrius, whom she does not love, their relationship would be strictly physical; as a nun her love of the divinity would be strictly spiritual. As she puts it, her soul denies Demetrius's sovereignty (82). The law of Egeus and Demetrius is thus a social manifestation of the worldliness of sensual love, and fancy becomes a way of connecting physical and spiritual generation, of connecting carnal and spiritual knowledge. As the scene progresses, the Demetrius-nunnery opposition is substituted for the Demetrius-Lysander opposition; at the end of the scene, marriage to Lysander, or chaste married love, returns as the mediating possibility. But even the union of Hermia and Lysander couples oppositions, for to Lysander's distress, Hermia chastely insists that they sleep apart in the wood, since they are not yet married: like Hippolyta's, her chastity opposes the more sensual haste of her beloved.

The uneasy opposition between the two kinds of love also manifests itself in the relationship between the two pairs of young lovers. Often they seem indistinguishable from one another. Lysander and Demetrius have remarkably similar taste, for until the denouement both always love the same girl simultaneously. Nor is this surprising, since Hermia and Helena, "Like to a double cherry, seeming parted, / But yet an union in partition" (III.ii.209-10), are longtime friends and apparently distinguishable mainly in respect to height. Though for most of the play Hermia seems gentler and more serious than Helena, the confusions of III.ii show that under the right circumstances they can exchange roles. Yet the pairs of lovers are undeniably different from one another. If Lysander and Hermia sound rather like Romeo and Juliet, Demetrius especially speaks in a parody of that language.10 Hermia and Lysander are associated with fancy and imagination, but Helena's language, when she first appears, is less fanciful than it is witty.11 Thematically she reverses Hermia's insistence on the identity of sight and judgment. In the famous exchange between Hermia and Theseus, Hermia wishes her father looked at Lysander and Demetrius with her eyes, and Theseus responds that she must rather see with her father's judgment. Later Hermia cries out, "O hell, to choose love by another's eyes!" (Li. 140). For Hermia, vision and judgment coincide, and the end of the play validates her vision by according her her chosen lover. Helena, by contrast, insists upon the blindness of love: "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind" (I.i.234). In the context of Neoplatonism, the phrase refers to the total spirituality of true love, which is love of God. But Helena—and this is her mistake—intends to castigate the total arbitrariness of sensual love; she divorces love entirely from judgment—"Nor hath Love's mind of any judgment taste" (236), she continues. Indeed, Helena loves Demetrius not with judgment, but like a spaniel (203). The thematics of animal love continues when Helena compares herself to a bear and a monster (II.ii.94, 97) and when Hermia rejects Demetrius as a dog (III.ii.65). Helena's love is not the higher, chaste love of Hermia (Demetrius's threats to her virginity daunt her not a whit) but the lower, sensual love—what the Italian humanists called Venere bestiale.

The adventures of Oberon and Titania embrace these oppositions between sensuality and chastity in the greatest complexity of all. The contest over the Afric boy is to some extent a contest for control rather than one between opposing kinds of love. Yet Titania and Oberon still express their positions using the vocabulary of love. Oberon is "jealous" (II.i.61), while Titania's love for the child is entirely disinterested, for she raises him as an act of generosity to her dead friend. If Titania's generosity seems higher, more "Platonic," than Oberon's jealousy, it is strange that Titania's description of the mother is a sensuous paean to nature's fecundity. And Titania's sensuous memory of the mother is immediately juxtaposed to Oberon's chaste memory of how Cupid's arrow missed the virgin of the West. Once again the polarity is reversed while the opposition between sensuality and chastity remains. The way the fairy rulers love in the play maintains the same complexity. Oberon incites Titania to love the ass-headed Bottom, literally to love a beast (as Helena, like a dog, loves the beastly Demetrius). Yet the nature -spirit Titania responds to this love by tender care for the beloved and, more important, by patience and generosity to Oberon when he next demands the Afric boy (reported by Oberon, IV.i.57-61). Similarly, Oberon, who seems to degrade and mock his wife, is yet the most compassionate figure in the play.12 He wants to rectify the relations among the mortals to restore true love; he takes pity first on Helena, before he has gained the boy, and then on Titania. Except for Hermia, who continues to worry about Lysander's safety even after he has abused and abandoned her (III.ii.447), only Oberon and Titania clearly rise above concern for self in their love. Such disinterested love is another version of Hermia's spiritual love. Thus, neither Oberon nor Titania is perfectly spiritual or perfectly chaste, for perfection is invisible to the Neoplatonist. Even spirits, if they are visible to human eyes, must combine the two modes of love within themselves: they must be natural (physical) as well as spiritual; they must be nature-spirits.

All of the couples in the play embody in different ways the harmony of opposed forms of love. Furthermore, they can be ordered according to where they fall on a scale between the two kinds of love. Oberon, the spirit king, and Titania occupy the highest, most spiritual position. They fall out over who is to bring up the Afric boy: the issue is a version of what the Symposium defines as the highest form of human love, the love between an older man and a youth, which manifests itself in the act of education. While Oberon and Titania's relationship maintains a constant opposition between passionate, physical love and spiritual love, their alternate acts of generosity and compassion represent the most spiritual, indeed most Christian versions of love in the play.

Next come Theseus and Hippolyta, highest representatives of the mortal realm, the success of whose marriage is to guarantee not only the order of their own previously less chaste lives, but also that of the world they rule. Theseus, who had been too self-involved to control the erring Demetrius, in the last act has seemingly infinite patience and kindliness for the bumbling mechanicals. The appearance of Hippolyta in hunting dress, surrounded by the musical discord of her hounds, is the closest the play approaches to a theophany: Hippolyta is the earthly image of that pure ideal to which we give the name Diana.

Hermia and Lysander are next in line: they remain faithful to one another in adversity and chaste in their wanderings in the forest. Lysander turns to Helena only under the influence of the juice of the purple flower, which is administered to him by mistake. The flower derives its power from Cupid's arrow, and its color, "Before milk-white, now purple with love's wound" (II.i.167), further associates it with lust and sensuality.

Lysander is healed to his "wonted sight" (III.ii.369) by the juice of another herb, perhaps the unstained flower, whose whiteness, closer in color to the silver bow of Diana, would signify chastity.

Toward the lower end of the scale come the less pure Helena and Demetrius. Demetrius is treated only with the purple flower, not at all with the other one: by himself he does not even achieve the level of the healthy, sensual love that animates the natural world of the play, as his initial unfaithfulness to Helena shows. The bottom of the scale is occupied not by the spaniel-like Helena, but by the literally bestial Bottom, whose name not only turns out to be very eloquent in its own right, but also calls attention to the hidden eloquence of another name, Oberon.

That Titania is Bottom's consort provides a doubly ironic closure. Titania appears at both the top and the bottom of the scale, as the consort of both Oberon and Bottom, as the embodiment of pure [step]motherly love and bestial sensuality. But in this duality she is the living image of the discordia Concors, the unity of chaste and sensual love, the natural spirit, better known as the spirit of nature. The other irony arises from another literary allusion, for Bottom derives from The Golden Ass of Apuleius, which was considered a significant and specifically Platonist text in the Renaissance. There Lucius is freed from his ass's shape by the goddess Isis, who has appeared to him; the return to human form is associated with an epiphanic insight. Bottom's famous speech about his inarticulable dream (IV.i.204-19) parodies the standard Neoplatonist stance on epiphany—that God cannot be perceived by the senses or articulated in the language of the senses, but only in paradox.13 Thus Bottom, in some sense, also moves to the top of the hierarchy to establish the Christian paradox that the bottom shall be top.

Such a hierarchy implies a static plot structure, for, with the exception of Bottom and Titania, the characters move about relatively little on this scale. The action consists not of their movements on the scale—not of their development—but rather of the revelation of their proper positions on it. Under the influence of Frye and the discoverers of medieval plot structures in the comedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream has been read, I believe, too much in terms of purification and conversion.14 It is hard to talk about a purification of love or realignment of love and reason in the play when in fact the couples are scarcely realigned. In the initial conflict between Hermia and her father, the love-struck maiden turns out to be right: the father is not converted; he simply disappears from the play after he is overruled. Only one lover must have his sight permanently adjusted. The fact that Demetrius's vision is adjusted only by the purple flower indicates that his real problem is not impure or unreasonable love, but inability to love at all. The couples are not purified or permanently transformed. Rather, the implicit nature of their relationships is revealed to us, the spectators; the forms of things unknown are "bodied forth" to us.

Yet what does it mean to call this play, which has been so successful as a ballet, "static"? It is hard to imagine a comedy with a surer progression from the disorder of the human and fairy realms, through a green world, to restored order in Act IV, when Theseus and Hippolyta, the highest earthly representatives of divine order, receive their reordered world from the hands of the nature-spirits. The play moves to order or harmony, but harmony in the plot—in the love relationships, for example—is not stable peace; it is, rather, the paradoxical coincidentia oppositorum, the discordia Concors of the Neoplatonists. The play insists on this definition of order precisely at the moment when the lovers pass from the control of the spirit king back to that of the earthly king in Act IV. There Theseus appears with Hippolyta, she in hunting garb as an earthly Diana, and they discuss at length the music of their hounds. The discussion bears no connection to the explicit themes of the play (love and nature), but makes perfect sense in the implicit context with its repeated formulas for discordia Concors:

We will, fair queen, up to the mountain's top,
And mark the musical confusion
Of hounds and echo in conjunction

for besides the groves,
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seem all one mutual cry. I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.

(IV.i. 109-18; my italics)

The movement in the passage to the past tense emphasizes the impermanence of this orderly disorder. All order, like all insight, must be constantly reestablished anew. It is equivalent to the order of the dance that has just celebrated the reunion of Oberon and Titania. To be sure, dancing is a symbol of order and harmony, but it is a dynamic symbol; just as in Sir John Davies's "Orchestra," concord is continuously reestablished in a series of mutual movements in which a single misstep would return the order of the dance to chaos. Because the harmony of the play's conclusion is a harmony of disorder, the true plot is not the progression from disorder to order, but the revelation of the order implicit in the disorder.

It is now possible to see that the play's hierarchy of lovers is implicit in the characters' names. It has always been obvious that the names of the mechanicals playfully suggest their various crafts, but the apparently conventional classical names of the lovers are equally suggestive. The names Hermia and Demetrius derive from Hermes and Demeter. During the Renaissance, both divinities were most important for their association with pagan mystery cults, Demeter with the famous mysteries at Eleusis, Hermes with Hermes Trismegistus, the variously supposed author, collector, or codifier of a great body of mystical, magical writings from whom our word hermetic derives. At the same time both divinities are fertility principles—Demeter is the earth mother, known in mythology as the giver of grain, visible in this capacity under her Latin name, Ceres, in Prospero's masque in The Tempest; Hermes is a phallic principle.15 The names of these two lovers thus evoke the doubleness of love in the play, physical and generative on the one hand, spiritual and mystical on the other. Hermia is the most spiritual and Demetrius, the most physical, of the four young lovers; thus the similar names do not characterize them as individuals but articulate the themes the characters are made to embody. Similarly, the fact that Hermia's name derives from a male god and Demetrius's from a goddess both dissociates the individuality of character from the name and offers yet another example of the all-pervasive harmony of opposites in the play.

The names of these characters' partners also elaborate the dual nature of love. Lysander, a conventional name, etymologically means liberator. By convincing Hermia to run away with him, Lysander does in fact liberate her in the name of imagination from the tyranny of her father and the law. To the extent that this liberation sets imagination or fancy over the narrow legalism of Egeus and Demetrius, it shares in the higher, spiritual aspect of love. Yet as Hermia is well aware when she will not let Lysander sleep too close to her, too much liberation can degrade love to its strictly physical aspect; this danger is immediately afterward realized in the most literal way when Puck sprinkles the juice of the purple flower in Lysander's eyes and he falls in love with Helena. Similarly, Helena is the name of the woman who was both an inspiring beauty—"the face that launch'd a thousand ships"—and a demonic paramour who tempted great men to their doom. Indeed, Demetrius must be brought up to Helena's level, while Lysander seems to "fall" in his love for Helena and must be purified again by the juice of the other flower. Once again the names articulate thematic possibilities.

In mythological terms, Theseus and Hippolyta vary this pattern. Theseus was one of the great lascivious men of antiquity: Plutarch lists nine other wives or mistresses besides Hippolyta and suggests that his many rapes "dyd geve men occasion to suspect that his wommanishenes was rather to satisfie lust, then of any great love."16A Midsummer Night's Dreamappropriately begins with Theseus's impatience to consummate his marriage. Like those of the other mortal lovers, the name Theseus implies a strong tendency to sensual love; like the others, it implies something higher as well. For myth and poetry know also of a tragic Theseus whose virtue abhorred Phaedra's lust for Hippolytos; Plutarch knows also of a generous and noble Theseus who renounced his royal power to establish the Athenian commonwealth.17 Thus in A Midsummer Night's Dream the same Theseus impatiently awaits the consummation of his own marriage yet tells Hermia that the unmarried state is "thrice blessed" (I.i.74). Hippolyta's patience in that first scene similarly emphasizes her fundamental mythological attribute, chastity. As queen of the Amazons she was by definition a votary of Diana, dedicated to the virgin goddess whose silver bow she mentions in her first speech, and whose hunting costume she dons in Act IV.18 Shakespeare follows Plutarch in his preference for the name Hippolyta (over the name Antiope, which Plutarch mentions as an alternate name for the Amazon bride of Theseus), doubtless because the name itself means "looser of horses," and horses are a standard Platonist symbol for the passions. In the tragedy of Hippolytos and Phaedra, the main quality of Hippolytos is his chastity. Yet Amazons were hardly totally spiritual beings. They were renowned warriors, so renowned and effective that Plutarch doubts they were women.19 For the Elizabethans they signified "a false usurpation of the duties of the male reason by the lower, female passions."20 Thus as an Amazon, Hippolyta is an ambiguous sign that points to both a lower, sensual love and a higher, spiritual one. Shakespeare emphasizes, it seems to me, Hippolyta's Diana-like aspects, yet there is enough of the Amazon in her for other critics to stress her role in power struggles between the sexes. Again, the play itself draws out the possibilities implicit in these names.

The names of the fairy rulers close this scheme neatly. Titania is an Ovidian epithet meaning daughter of the Titan; the name refers both to Circe (in Book 14) and to Diana (in Book 3) in the Metamorphoses. Titania-Diana appears in the Actaeon story, where the chastity and purity of the goddess are the central issues. By contrast, Titania-Circe appears as a lustful man chaser in Ovid, and through him, is characterized similarly throughout the Renaissance. The name is thus associated with the extremes of lust and purity, of physicality and spirituality; indeed, Titania consorts alternately with the semibestiai Bottom and with Oberon, ruler of nature. The sources that Shakespeare drew on for Oberon show a similar doubleness. In the epic Huon of Bordeaux, the fairy king Oberon is a mischievous trickster, but Spenser associates both Huon and Oberon with Sir Guyon, his knight of temperance.21 As I have suggested, the name Oberon puns on over. He is indeed the ruler over the others in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and his name speaks most clearly of all.

It is scarcely surprising that the manipulations of Oberon and Puck so freely disrupt whatever constancy of character Shakespeare allows his lovers, for the significance of the plot has nothing to do with what happens to particular characters or with how they grow and develop. Rather, the significance of the play is implicit in their names, and the plot reveals this significance through its symmetrical juxtapositions and rearrangements of figures to illuminate the order of love implicit in the dark wood of the world. This is the sense in which they play is allegorical rather than mimetic.

The imagery, too—I will consider eyes, tears, and mythological references—involves a process of revelation. Kermode has identified how the association of eyes and judgment begins as a playful figure of speech, then becomes literally important with the manipulations of Oberon and Puck (p. 210); but he overlooks the pattern that the association follows. At both the beginning and end of the play, vision and judgment are identical. But in the middle, they separate because supernatural powers intervene: this is the season for lunatics, lovers, and poets; it is also the time of "Dark night, that from the eye his function takes" (III.ii.177). In the woods the lovers are literally and figuratively blind. Literal blindness, Hermia tells us, sharpens the hearing (III.ii.178); figurative blindness, Helena has told us in Act I, sharpens the mind to perceive higher truth (I.i.234-35). In Act III there emerges a brief moment of reciprocity: human eyes stop looking and instead the stars, "eyes of light" (III.ii.188), shine down upon the lovers. When judgment is in abeyance, the mind is open to a higher radiance. Returning to the world in Act IV, we also return to vision as judgment, but we do so with our judgment enriched by that higher radiance that can sometimes shine in, by an implicit faculty of the eyes higher than judgment.

Tears work in a similar way. At the beginning of the play they appear in conventional witty formulations as the "tempest" of the eyes (Hermia, I.i.131; Bottom moving storms in the eyes of the audience, I.ii.27). At the end of the play the clowns raise tears of merriment (V.i.69). But in between there are tears, especially Helena's, of genuine sorrow (II.ii.92-93, III.ii.158). More important, tears are seen as a quality of the moon, which governs the action of the play: the moon governs floods (II.i. 103) and beholds her visage "in the wat'ry glass" (I.i.210); the "chaste beams of the wat'ry moon" quench the fire of Cupid's arrow (II.i.162); and when the moon weeps, "weeps every little flower, / Lamenting some enforced chastity" (III.i. 199-200). If tears designate the moon—the principle of heavenly love—then when Helena weeps she is indeed out of her usual witty worldly self. Finally, tears unite nature and the heavens at the moment Oberon begins to pity Titania:

And that same dew which sometime on the buds
Was wont to swell like round and orient pearls,
Stood now within the pretty flouriets' eyes,
Like tears that did their own disgrace bewail.


If dewdrops are the tears of nature, man's tears allow him to participate in the generative transforming powers of nature. Once again this excursion into creativity occurs in the hiatus in the play; poets are indeed like lunatics (followers of the moon) and lovers. When we return to the play of the clowns and Philostrate's tears of merriment, this power is once again only implicit, but not forgotten.

Nowhere is this implicit higher harmony more important in the play than in the mythological references, for the opposition of the two kinds of love is also expressed through the opposition between Cupid and Diana. It appears first in the ambiguity of the bow: the moon is likened to a silver bow, the attribute of Diana, in the first exchange between Hippolyta and Theseus; later Hermia swears to Lysander by Cupid's strongest bow (I.i.169). The moon is indelibly associated with the chastity of Diana; nevertheless, so much emphasis is laid upon its mutability and its beneficent interaction with the world that it equally implies Diana's opposite, the generative power of the physical world. Cupid and Diana are more obviously opposed in the two flowers, on which the action turns. The purple flower originally receives its power when it is struck by Cupid's arrow. The arrow, though it is aimed at the fair vestal of the west, is quenched by "the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon" (II.i.162). When the resolution approaches, the fair vestal has become, in effect, the white companion flower that quenches the potency of the purple one. But not only Cupid opposes Diana; Venus does as well, for Hermia also swears by the doves of Venus (I.i. 171). Venus returns in Act III as the morning star, the harbinger of dawn and of the final harmony. Whether Venus seems to be the morning star ("Aurora's harbinger" [III.ii.380], "yonder Venus in her glimmering sphere" [61]) or explicitly the goddess ("the Venus of the sky" [107]), the goddess is present in all these formulations, for the "Venus of the sky" is Venus Urania, the heavenly Venus, embodiment of the love that is the harmony of the cosmos. She is here not the opposite of Diana but the glorious synthesis of the opposing tendencies represented by Diana and by the lower, earthly Venus of the doves. It is in this part of the play that the eyes of the lovers light up into stars. This Venus embodies the true love of Renaissance Neoplatonists—love that embraces vulgar and heavenly love. Diana-Venus and Diana-Cupid are again aspects of one another, implicit in one another and, as moon and stars, in nature as well.22

Two aspects of these patterns of imagery are important. The first is that the moments of revelation of the higher, spiritual truth implicit in the image tend to come in the middle of the play. We are offered flashes of insight and then a return to more ordinary uses of the image at the end, just as we are taken from the fairy forest back to the more "real" court at the end of the play. We learned from the love stories that the "plot" of A Midsummer Night's Dream is really the revelation of implicit order in disorder, and the imagery shows the mechanism of that revelation: epiphanic moments (the "dreams" of the characters), whose radiance, internalized by the spectator, continues to illuminate the world long after the moment has passed. The second important aspect is the way figures and images, with seemingly endless capacity to substitute for one another, are woven in an elaborate web of analogy. This fluid and rich signifying capacity of the world is typical of the Neoplatonist mode, as is the temporal dynamic of the imagery. In the seemingly limitless ability of the world and love to signify more than what appears to the eye lies access to higher truth.

By the end of the fourth act, A Midsummer Night's Dream thus appears to have established its hierarchy of the Neoplatonist mystery of love and its typically Neoplatonist mode of communicating its higher truth. What remains for the rest of the play? Is the mechanicals' play to be understood as a burlesque of the Neoplatonist theme, as it clearly is of the love story at the level of plot? Or does it elaborate the Neoplatonist order of the play by extending it explicitly to the realm of poetics? Or does it go off in some new direction altogether? The difficulty, and the triumph, of the play is that all three of these alternatives seem to be the case.

It is not difficult to identify the burlesque elements in the clown plot. Just as the absurd traged reverses the only slightly less absurd comedy of the love plot, the famous results of the tragedy in Ovid (that the berries of the mulberry tree turn forever after from white to purple) reverse the hierarchy of the plain, presumably white flower over the purple one in the main plot. Bottom's report of his supposed vision in the wood parodies, as we have already seen, the Neoplatonist insistence on the ineffability of knowledge of higher truth. But the confusion of the senses that constitutes the humor of Bottom's speech ("The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen," etc. [IV.i.211-14]) pervades the entire play of the mechanicals: Pyramus sees a voice and tries to hear his Thisby's face (V.i. 192-93); by the "sunny beams" of the moon he asks his eyes if they can see (V.i.272-79); he dies crying "Tongue, lose thy light" (V.i.304); and Lion offers the audience the choice of seeing the epilogue or of hearing a Bergomask dance (V.i.352-54). The themes of light and darkness, and seeing and judgment, so richly variable in the main plot, remain uniformly confused and absurb for the mechanicals. Similarly, Oberon renders the abstractions of the hierarchy of love concretely visible in the two flowers; when Puck renders Bottom's foolishness equally visible by giving him an ass's head, we seem to be once more in the realm of the burlesque.

Yet precisely this motif shows the ambiguity of the burlesque in this play. As we have already seen, in Apuleius the theme of the fool turned into an ass had serious import for the Neoplatonists. Indeed, the fact that the clowns perform so badly—the essence of their burlesque—also has a positive function. The theory of love embodied in the play treats the lower sensual love as a metaphorical steppingstone to the higher love of the divine and thus to the experience of the divine. But the earthly lover who overlooks the metaphorical nature of sensual love and remains caught in it, who mistakes it for the only or the "real" love, is little better than a beast.23 Similarly, the error of the ass Bottom is that he mistakes the literal level of the text for its significance. But so gross is this error that it paradoxically emphasizes the truth that Bottom overlooks—the metaphorical nature of the text. The clowns' play is so bad that no one could possibly mistake it for reality, for something known, and thus fail to see that it "bodies forth / The forms of things unknown" (V.i. 14-15). The destruction of illusion in the play frees us from the illusion of the world and reminds us of its—and the text's—allegorical nature.24 The text suggests that the improbable, dreamlike nature of the play, its disjointed plotting, and its lack of differentiated characters are its greatest strengths.

Nor must we overlook the mediating function of the clowns. Bottom becomes, willy-nilly, the instrument of mediation between Oberon and Titania.25 Titania' s love for Bottom evokes both Titania's generosity and Oberon's pity, what we have identified as the highest forms of love in the play, and the two actions about which the plot turns. Bottom's "election" to this role appears to be quite random; but, for a Neoplatonist, chance must of necessity rule in a world not illuminated by divine truth. In any case, it is not entirely by chance, for Bottom has already demonstrated an extraordinary willingness to play any role the world or Quince might have to offer. The fact that the occupations of the mechanicals all involve repair and/or joining together is surely significant; they are all by definition mediators. And of these occupations, the one that can serve as a metaphor for poetry is Bottom's—weaving. It is only appropriate, then, that their play should tie the knot of the marriages at the end of the play. Indeed, the play is another of these knots, for in terms of the thematics of A Midsummer Night's Dream both marriage and play constitute a harmony of opposites: marriage is a human metaphor, a union of male and female; the play is an aesthetic metaphor, the union of literal and figurative, physical reality and higher truth.26 Theseus even asks, after reading the title of the play "How shall we find the concord of this discord?" (V.i.60). The thematics of the clown plot thus extend the concord/discord theme to the realm of poetics, where the poles are not two kinds of love, but two kinds of reality; for the humor turns on the clowns' inability to separate the physical reality of their play from the "truth" it represents. But if love and play are equivalent, if true love is knowledge of truth, then A Midsummer Night's Dream is not most usefully thought of as a play about marriage. It is better thought of as a play about how we know.

The exchange between Theseus and Hippolyta on the strangeness of the lovers' story that immediately precedes the play within the play would appear to fit with this extension into the realm of poetics. Poetry in this play indeed "bodies forth / The forms of things unknown" and transfigures minds. But the very interest of Hippolyta and Theseus's exchange depends on the shimmering tension between reality and illusion that is central to the clown plot. Theseus and Hippolyta are, the first scene has told us, the Theseus and Hippolyta of Greek myth. Theseus reminds us again of this fact when he refers to his kinsman Hercules and his own conquest of Thebes (V.i.46-51). It is not a little curious, then, that Theseus is unwilling to believe these "antic fables" (V.i.3). It is even more curious when we note that Plutarch, Shakespeare's source, begins his biography of the hero by saying:

. . . I would have wished that the fables of antiquity had been set out so in our writings, that we might yet have graced them with some appearance of historical narration. But if by chance in some places they range a little too boldly out of the bounds or limits of true appearance, and have no manner of conformity with any credibleness of matter, the readers in courtesy must needs hold me excused, accepting in good part that which may be written and reported of things so extremely old and ancient.27

Shakespeare's Theseus derives his power and centrality in this play precisely from his paradoxical union of the mythic with the rational. Puck reformulates Plutarch's apology in the epilogue, significantly transforming the stories of antiquity—antic fables—into dreams and visions, Neoplatonist vehicles of higher truth. Both Puck and Theseus refer in these passages to the love plot, not to the clown plot. Nevertheless, the strategic location of these passages as a frame to a play whose whole interest turns on the relation of reality to illusion identifies clearly enough the serious aspect of the clowning. The central issue in the play is the relation of reality to illusion, of reality to higher significance, and that significance is accessible only in the visionary dream of the play.

Yet if the play really proposes such a poetics, as it seems to do, why should Theseus, who rejects the madness of the visionary poet, emerge as the defender of the mechanicals? For Theseus insists, over the opposition of Philostrate and Hippolyta, that their play be performed, claiming that his own imagination will mend their defects. Such a poetics of complicity is surely typical of Shakespeare—one need only think of the prologues to Henry V—but it goes beyond Neoplatonism in significant ways. When Theseus concludes "Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity / In least speak most, to my capacity" (V.i. 104-5), the inadequate expression of the actor would seem to be an imperfect, typically Neoplatonist metaphor for an ineffable truth; but when the imperfect metaphor must be supplemented from the imagination of the spectator, we have moved into a new realm. Neoplatonist higher truth is there, transcendent and ineffable though it may be, always ready to be apprehended in some moment of ecstasy and insight; it is apprehended in dreams and visions. But the willed imaginative act of the spectator is not a moment of revelation that transforms the spectator into a passive vessel of the truth. Were the spectator a frenzied poet, such might be the case. But Theseus, Hippolyta, Demetrius, and Lysander are not poets, and most certainly not while they are commenting on the play of the mechanicals. The imaginative aid Theseus brings to the play within the play is not higher insight, but human reason. The locus of its truth is not transcendent but in the human mind.

In one sense this doubling of the truth is typical of the pattern we have seen in the play. As there is a pure, spiritual love, there is also physical love, Diana and Cupid, healing flower and purple flower. Here is but another discord of which the play itself is the concord. This discord is resolved for the last time 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.


Whether these visions are understood to embody Neoplatonist truth or nothing at all, they nevertheless appear to a slumbering, passive audience, while Puck's call "Think but this" engages the active complicity about which Theseus spoke. This synthesis seems to me deliberately weak (the visionary moment is much stronger than the active, imaginative one) and therefore discordant. It is also weakened by its irony. Theseus has appeared as a rationalist whose point of view the play largely discredits. His "poetics" is synthesized here with that of the incompetent mechanicals by the trickster Puck. Yet as a trickster, liar, and mis-leader of souls in the dark, Puck is a dark reflection of Hermes, mystic synthesizer of the wisdom inherited by the Neoplatonists. The obvious playfulness emphasizes the real discord. It suggests that these two kinds of truth are not simply Plato's call for an expositor to interpret the visions that can come only to one who is out of his wits (Timaeus 72a). Theseus's imaginative supplementation far exceeds anything Plato says about interpretation in the Timaeus: there is no synthesis between these opposing truths except the play itself.28

Thus the doubleness of truth is, despite Puck's epilogue, more than Neoplatonist playfulness. It offers a way of describing what we often perceive vaguely as Shakespeare's universality. The play unambiguously locates truth both in the transcendent realm—in the mind of the Neoplatonist God—and simultaneously in the mind of the spectator. Such doubleness is astonishing but does occur in the work of Shakespeare's Spanish contemporaries. Don Quixote balances between a world in which the givens come from without (in part 1) and within the fiction (in part 2). Similarly, Lope de Vega is capable of leaving deliberately unclear at the end whether certain fundamental truths, on which the validity of an entire play depends, are grounded in anything more than the will of certain characters in the play and, ultimately, of the play's spectators.29 In Cervantes and Lope de Vega the complicity of the spectator is a tantalizing game, an intriguing and entertaining twist; but in A Midsummer Night's Dream, it is neither a problem nor tantalizing, it is simply there. Truth is both transcendent and immanent in A Midsummer Night's Dream and because it is unproblematically everywhere, the play itself embodies a kind of universal order, the concord of all discord.


1 On fancy and imagination see C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), pp. 116-62; and Marjorie B. Garber, Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), pp. 59-87. On marriage and sexual politics, see Paul A. Olson, "A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage," ELH, 24 (1957): 95-119; Louis Adrian Montrose, "'Shaping Fantasies': Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture," Representations, 1 (Spring 1983): 61-94; and Shirley Nelson Garner, "A Midsummer Night's Dream: 'Jack shall have Jill; / Nought shall go ill,'" WS, 9 (1981/82): 47-63.

2Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, rev. ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968); on the centrality of love in the Neoplatonist mysteries, see p. 38. The description of this "mystery" below is a condensation of issues relevant to A Midsummer Night's Dream from Wind's discussions in the first chapters.

3 Challenging discussions of the poetics of the play in the context of Renaissance Neoplatonism may be found in Richard Cody, The Landscape of the Mind: Pastoralism and Platonic Theory in Tasso's "Aminta " and Shakespeare's Early Comedies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 127-50; and in Jackson I. Cope, The Theater and the Dream: From Metaphor to Form in Renaissance Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), pp. 219-25. Neoplatonist thematics in A Midsummer Night's Dream are also addressed in John Vyvyan, Shakespeare and Platonic Beauty (London: Chatto & Windus, 1961), pp. 77-91, and, briefly, in Frank Kermode, Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), pp. 207-9, and Howard Nemerov, "The Marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta," KR, 18 (1956): 633-41.

4 The line of transmission to Shakespeare would be through Ficino's translations into Latin and Italian, with commentary, of Plato and Plotinus—possibly directly, certainly at least through the transmission of Castiglione and Spenser (Vyvyan, pp. 33-61); Cody also traces lines of transmission through Sidney, Montemayor, and Tasso, pp. 81-82. Cody communicates, passim, a good sense for the bewildering complexity of Ficino's thought, as does Michael J. B. Allen in The Platonism of Marsilio Ficino: A Study of His "Phaedrus" Commentary, Its Sources and Genesis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

5 E.g., pp. 73-77, 97; Shakespearean wordplay on Neoplatonist phraseology is discussed on pp. 58 and 92. See also Cody: "To an audience familiar with Ovidian mythology and how the Platonists read it, the esoteric sense of the fairy plot [of A Midsummer Night's Dream] is quite as overt as its absurdity" (p. 136).

6 On the ambiguity of the bow, see Wind, p. 78; on Venus-Diana and the unity of chastity and love, see pp. 77-79, 200. Compare also the extended discussion of the unity of the three graces (Beauty, Chastity, and Pleasure), pp. 73-75.

7 All quotations of Shakespeare are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). Wind points to the Neoplatonist significance of this line (p. 58).

8 David Marshall, "Exchanging Visions: Reading A Midsummer Night's Dream" ELH, 49 (1982): 543-75, justifiably criticizes the tradition of "Thesean" readings of the scene, but offers, as he admits, a "Hippolytan" one, pp. 549-52. My reading is instead dialectical. Cf. also Cody, p. 146.

9 See Marshall, pp. 551-54; cf. also Montrose, pp. 61-94, and Garner, pp. 52-59.

10 N.B. III.ii. 137-44: "O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!" etc., which is broad parody of Petrarchan language. Lysander uses this language briefly, while he is under the influence of the purple flower; Demetrius, however, remains under its influence until the end of the play.

11 In her elaborate word play she is much closer to the language of Love's Labor's Lost than any of the others; it is she who introduces rhymed couplets into the play.

12 Garner argues that Oberon humiliates Titania, citing only Titania's line "O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now!" (IV.i.79) in support, pp. 49-51. Nothing in the text warrants extending this loathing of Bottom's face into self-loathing.

13 The specific object of the parody is 1 Corinthians 2: 9-13, an extremely Platonist moment in that text. See Kermode, pp. 208-9.

14 Kermode, for example, reads the play as a purification of vision; Olson sees a triple structure of order, a "fall" into "unbridled passion," and a return to order (see especially p. 101).

15 Recognized as such in hermaphrodite (see Wind, p. 200), and in the sacred marriage of the alchemists, in which the element mercury (Mercury = Hermes) was the male lover. In the Renaissance alchemy functioned as a debased form of Neoplatonism—applied mysticism, so to speak; see Wind, pp. 214-15. Cf. Wayne Shumaker, The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 196.

16 Cited from Sir Thomas North's translation in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957-75), 1: 388.

17 Bullough, pp. 385, 388.

18 Such a connection appears explicitly in William D'Avenant's Salmacida Spolia, where the queen appears as an Amazon and is connected to Diana and her purity (The Dramatic Works of Sir William D'Avenant, 5 vols. [Edinburgh and London, 1872], 2: 323-24).

19 Bullough, p. 386.

20 Olson, p. 102.

21The Faerie Queene, II.i.6. The chaplet from the fairyking Auberon presented to Elizabeth under the name of Phoebe in "The Entertainment at Elvetham" (1591; in John Nichols's Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, 3 vols. [London, 1823], 3:100-121) also documents the accepted logic of connecting Oberon with chastity in the late sixteenth century.

22 See Wind on Venus-Diana and on the intriguing possibility that the cult of Elizabeth as Diana was in fact also a cult of her as Venus, pp. 77-78.

23 This is precisely the problem of Apuleius's Lucius who lives his life as an ass until he transfers his love from women to the goddess Isis.

24 Cf. Cope's contextualization of the dramaturgy of the mechanicals in the Renaissance controversy on the significance of dreams, pp. 222-24, and Marshall's discussion of the play as being about figuring, p. 569.

25 Cf. Cody on Bottom as Midas, read by the Neoplatonists as a version of the "wise fool," pp. 136-38.

26 Cf. J. Dennis Huston's observation that the mechanicals, like the lovers, also flee to the woods in his excellent discussion of the mechanicals' plot as parody of the love plot in Shakespeare's Comedies of Play (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), p. 108.

27 North's translation, cited from Shakespeare's Library, ed. W. C. Hazlitt, 6 vols. (London, 1875), 1:8.

28 For a different, more psychologically focused reading of the need for participatory imagination in this play, see James L. Calderwood, Shakespearean Metadrama: The Argument of the Play in "Titus Andronicus, " "Love's Labour's Lost, " "Romeo and Juliet, " "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Richard II" (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), pp. 135-38.

29 In El perro del hortelano, for example, Teodoro wins the countess Diana because his valet tricks everyone into believing the hero to be a nobleman. In a fit of honesty Teodoro reveals that his parentage is in truth unknown, but the countess does not care, so long as the valet and the audience will keep the secret. Here the play ends.

Jeffrey Shulman (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Bottom is Up: The Role of Illusion in A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Essays in Arts and Sciences, Vol. XVI, May, 1987, pp. 9-21.

[In the following essay, Shulman studies the relationship between illusion, love, and art in A Midsummer Night's Dream, arguing that the "process of illusion" offers insight into both love and art, and that Shakespeare uses illusion to guide his characters to more mature perspectives about love and marriage.]

Like Hermia, the student of A Midsummer Night's Dream needs to see "with parted eye" (IV.i.188)1 for the Dream has a double focus. It is on the one hand about love and the relationship of the varieties of love experience to marriage; on the other hand, it is about art and the uses and abuses of artistic expression, and particularly the dramatic experience. The "concord of this discord" (V.i.60) lies in the concept of illusion, which, at least in the world of the Dream, is the common denominator of love and art. In both cases, the process of illusion is the vehicle of insight. In both cases, the process of illusion involves the surrendering of one way of seeing, of one identity, for a new and more mature perspective. That surrender of identity is a difficult though equally comic experience. The path to maturity is a woodland track fraught with the magical tumult of delusion, madness, blindness, and nonsense.

The volume of interpretation on the twin themes of love and art in the Dream is, to say the least, imposing. While this paper borrows from much past criticism,2 I have tried to examine an aspect of the Dream 's coherence which has received relatively little attention. In the context of the Dream, the problems of both true love and good art may be seen as problems of perception, of finding the focal distance between object and subject, between the mere literalism of strict objectivity—seeing only with the eyes—and the sheer madness of extreme subjectivity—seeing only with the mind. Proper lovers and artists see with what Sydney calls the "eyes of the mind."3 This vision entails a meeting of subject and object in a creative perceptual act, synthesizing other and self, the literal and the imaginative (or, in Theseus' words, the faculties of comprehension and apprehension) and thus offers us a new and more complete reality. Shakespeare's Dream uses illusion to motivate, bewilder, and ultimately lead his lovers—and his readers—to a better understanding of this creative synthesis both in marriage and drama.

A Midsummer Night's Dream moves in two directions. It moves chronologically and, as it were, horizontally through the action of the drama. This movement employs the familiar comic patterns of Saturnalian release which Barber finds to be the mechanism of clarification in the "festive" plays of Shakespeare. Barber identifies the particular pattern of the Dream as "a release of shaping fantasy which brings clarification about the tricks of strong imagination":

As in Love's Labour's Lost the folly of wit becomes the generalized comic subject in the course of an astonishing release of witty invention, so here in the course of a more inclusive release of imagination, the folly of fantasy becomes the general subject, echoed back and forth between the strains of the play's imitative counterpoint.4

The horizontal pattern of sexual clarification is tripartite: it involves the movement from a stage of youthful bonding preliminary to the action of the drama, through the literal or metaphoric battle of opposite sexes, to the eventual "conjuction [of] natural opposites" in marriage.5 As we move from Athenian daylight to the moonlit woods, the poetic terms of the clarification movement change from the literal to the symbolic, but the process of clarification remains the same.

The Dream also moves vertically through a psychological hierarchy of love. As Andrew Weiner has noted, the four sets of lovers form a composite picture of the varieties of love experience:

Through these four sets of characters and their interaction, Shakespeare anatomizes various facets of the relationships between men and woman (taking, for a moment, Oberon and Titania as man and woman) as they progress towards the state of husband and wife or struggle to remain husband and wife or fail to become husband and wife.6

Equally important is the fact that the eight lovers form a composite picture of the reasoning and imaginative faculties of the human psyche. The worlds of cool reason and heated fancy are links in a common chain; as we shall see, Theseus himself is inextricably tied to the fairy world he so disdains. Though Shakespeare does not intend a formal psychomachia, the Dream deals less with personality and motive than with states of mind. Perhaps I should add states of a single mind whose multiple perspectives are not the static stage properties of set characters but the natural propensities of the mind at different stages of human growth.

Moreover, Shakespeare has interrelated the top and bottom rungs of the psychological hierarchy—the courts of the real and fairy worlds—in his revelation of the amorous histories of the royal couples: Titania's attachment towards Theseus and Oberon's enchantment with Hippolyta. Besides framing and somewhat paralleling the mixed matches of the young lovers, this arrangement significantly presents the world of forest fancy as a force operative in, and perhaps subversive of, the royal reign of reason. The intricate and unsuspected tie between the rational and the imaginative spheres of the human psyche is given climactic expression in visual representation as the train of fairies, its peace again restored, sings and dances round the sleeping royal household in a prophetic vision of harmony and fruition.

Of course, these two structures overlap; they are in fact one structure, and their very simultaneity makes the dramatic point. In the world of the Dream, the clarification of attitudes towards love and marriage is realized only through a necessary psychological descent to the "folly of fantasy," to the magic of illusion. Perspective about love can be achieved only through illusion, through loss of perspective. In this play, love and reason keep little company. Most critics emphasize one aspect of the total structural design over the other and fail to see the fall into fantasy as the fortunate means of sexual clarification. Thus they either simplify the Dream as merely the folly of imaginative abuse or trouble themselves with Platonic allegories or Christian moralisms in looking at the meaning of the love design within the Dream. The assumption that the main action of this midsummer night is Shakespeare's wry comment on the irrationality of heady love has seemed self-evident to most critics. However, the influence of irrational love is, in fact, the force which conducts the lovers from their preliminary stages of love experience to the maturity of marriage. It is the illusive power of dotage which enables the lovers to escape the confines of self and past. To understand why illusion should play such a central role, it is first necessary to examine the hierarchy of the imagination against which we may evaluate the constancy of the lovers' "story of the night" (V.i.24).


Naturally enough, the forest world of irrational misadventure has attracted a considerable volume of critical effort intent on pinning down its exact nature. It has been seen as a world of Platonic norms, of Christian grace, of the Freudian subconscious, of elemental nature, of primitive folklore—the list has no end.8 When Bottom tells us "Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream" (IV.i.203-4), to a certain extent, he is right; elusiveness is the nature of dream. However, if the critic can resist the imposition of his own forms, the fierce vexation of the midsummer night might yield more than weak and idle themes. In fact, objectifying experience by the impostion of preconceived form is precisely what characterizes the world of Theseus and Egeus. Egeus conceives of romantic love in terms of this process:

Thou has by moonlight at her window sung
With feigning voice verses of feigning love,
And stol'n the impression of her fantasy.


Theseus echoes Egeus' "aesthetic" in his conception of filial love:

What say you, Hermia? Be advised, fair maid.
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.


They both see love and obedience as a stamping process, in which the love-object is made to conform to the will of the maker, in this case, to enforced marriage or enforced chastity. There is no illusion involved in this aesthetic of love; Theseus and Egeus want a literal change in Hermia.

Diametrically opposed to this extreme is the treatment of love as totally independent of the will of the perceiver and the literal reality of the love-object—a thoroughly subjective operation of the fantasy. This is the virtue of love-in-idleness, which "will make or man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature that it sees" (II.i.171-2). It is, of course, the extreme subjectivity of Titania's response to this potion that makes even Bottom aware of the ludicrousness of enchantment: "Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company nowadays" (Ill.i. 129-31). In one sense, however, Titania's victimization by illusion is not so absurd. She is the denizen of a moonlit world where forms are not fixed, where objective reality is everywhere subject to constant change. The genial spirits of the forest, Oberon and Puck, are masters of illusion, both in transforming themselves and others. Oberon is director of Puck's performances; like Peter Quince, though, he has his difficulties controlling his actor once the spirit of illusion is freed. Titania herself is identified in Shakespeare's Ovidian sources (particularly, Met. III, 173) with Diana, goddess of the changing moon. As the many guises of Puck remind us, to describe the inhabitants of the fairy world as divine, human, vegetable, or mineral, is to delimit, not to define:

I'll follow you; I'll lead you about a round
Through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier.
Sometime a horse I'll be, sometime a hound,
A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire;
And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn,
Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn.


These are the symbols of illusion and illusion's power to alter reality.

Between the objective world of law and war and the subjective world of change and confusion exist the two sets of lovers. Theirs is a progress to a new view of love as a creative act of perception, neither grossly literal in its demands nor patently absurd in its subjective assertions. True love blends subject and object in a new union, a new identity. It is illusion, it is the elfish Puck, which confuses subject and object and, by doing so, makes us question who we are. The medium of Puck's power is love, and its effects are two-fold. It compels the women into a reversal of their customary roles, with both positive and negative results, and it also suggests to the men the indiscretion of love that looks only with the eyes.


It is in the women of the Dream that we most clearly find evidence of a preliminary stage of youthful association, in this case, same-sex bonding. Hippolyta is the former Amazonian queen. Helena is appalled when she assumes that Hermia has joined the confederacy of men; she calls forth the memory of a bygone corporate identity:

We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have 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. So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition—
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart;
Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,
Due but to one, and crowned with one crest.


Not only does Titania recall the moment of feminine alliance, but the memory evokes a sense of the continuing responsibility of sisterhood:

Set your heart at rest.
The fairyland buys not the child of me.
His mother was a vot'ress of my order,
And in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossiped by my side;

And for her sake do I rear up her boy;
And for her sake I will not part with him.

(II.i.121-4, 136-7)

Barber sees in this passage "a glimpse of women who gossip alone, apart from men and feeling now no need of them, rejoicing in their own special part of life's power."9 The effects of this sororal loyalty are well known, but it should always be kept in mind that the main action of the Dream—the lovers' adventures—is framed not only by marital ordering in the social world but by marital disorder in the underworld of psychic symbols. The connections between these worlds are intimate enough so as to make the movement to sexual clarification in society dependent upon the restoration of sexual harmony in the psychic order.

Oberon's semi-rhetorical query to his queen—"Am not I thy lord?" (II.i.63)—reinforces another consideration of particular importance to Shakespeare's women in this preliminary stage of the Dream's sexual movement—the question of possession. Athenian law says that the unmarried woman belongs to the father. The law speaks through Egeus:

Be it so she will not here before your Grace
Consent to marry with Demetrius,
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens:
As she is mine, I may dispose of her.

And again:

Scornful Lysander, true, he hath my love,
And what is mine my love shall render him.
And she is mine, and all my right of her
I do estate unto Demetrius.

(I.i.39-42, 95-8)

Possession is, at least, a form of identification and definition. However, as the pattern of sexual clarification proceeds and we leave the world of father and law and struggle toward a new identity in marriage, we must leave behind our sense of who and what we are. This feeling of dispossession characterizes Hermia and Helena as they are alternately pursued and abandoned.

Obviously enough, the women are not helped in their confusion by the male characters, who are undergoing changes of their own. The youthful associations of the males are marked not by same-sex bonding but by a cavalier attitude of fickleness, unfaithfulness, even treachery towards the opposite sex. The legendary exploits of "Thesea crudelem"10 are alluded to:

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 Perigenia, whom he ravished?
And make him with fair Aegles break his faith,
With Ariadne, and Antiopa?


Oberon's past proclivities have set no model of princely decorum:

Then I must be thy lady; but I know
When thou has stolen away from fairyland,
And in the shape of Corin sat all day,
Playing on pipes of corn, and versing love
To amorous Phillida. Why art thou here,
Come from the farthest steep of India,
But that, forsooth, the bouncing Amazon,
Your buskined mistress and your warrior love,
To Theseus must be wedded, and you come
To give their bed joy and prosperity?


And Demetrius shares the taint of the general censure:

Demetrius, I'll avouch it to his head,
Made love to Nedar's daughter, Helena,
And won her soul; and she (sweet lady) dotes,
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,
Upon this spotted and inconstant man.


Only Lysander is unmarred by actions preliminary to the play, but his exemption is short-lived.

The males at this state are as far removed from heterosexual marriage as the women "rejoicing in their own special part of life's power." Their untrustworthiness itself must seem excuse enough for the perpetuation of sororal relations. Certainly, Hermia is aware of this obstacle to the course of true love when she swears "by all the vows that ever men have broke" (I.i.176). For the men at this stage, woman has become objectified, impersonalized—a something to have, to possess, without fear of the investment of the self. Theseus, who has literally won Hippolyta with his sword, is unable to see Hermia other than as an object of her father or the law: "Be advised, fair maid. To you your father should be as a god." It is an exaggerated willingness to subjectify love experience, to invest the self in the love object, that characterizes the fumbling efforts of Lysander and Demetrius in their groping towards the union of subject and object in marriage. That same willingness, however, will ultimately insure their success.

Criticism of the Dream invariably treats the four lovers as common victims of love-sickness. While it is true that they are not differentiated as individuals, there are distinctions to be made. Most noticeably, the women are constant in their attachments; they are not the victims of "fairy ointments." They sense very early in the play that love is not a mere question of objective experience. Hermia wishes Egeus could see Lysander "with my eyes" (Li.56), that is, from her subjective point of view, and Helena gives a fuller exposition of the same idea:

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.


This is why the physical differentiation of the males is so insignificant; we need to see them with the eyes of Helena and Hermia. Furthermore, the women are aware of the dangers involved in such subjectivity. Helena's words recall Hermia's "false Troyan" oath:

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


Hermia's dream of the serpent at her breast leaves her quaking with the fear of premonition.

Nevertheless, love comples the women to abandon the situations by which they were previously defined and to seek a new, more aggressive, more fully human role. The power which motivates Hermia is not consciously understood; it carries the strength of a deeper conviction:

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.

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.

(I.i.58-64, 79-82)

Though Helena wants to be used as Demetrius' spaniel, love's complexities put her in the position of pursuit:

Run when you will. The story shall be changed:
Apollo flies and Daphne holds the chase,
The dove pursues the griffon, the mild hind
Makes speed to catch the tiger—bootless speed,
When cowardice pursues, and valor flies.


When they are faced with rejection, however, the women become the victims of their lovers' exaggerated subjectivity, despising and questioning their own identities. This is Helena's situation from the start of the play:

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 eye,
My tongue should catch your tongue's sweet melody.
Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I'd give to be to you translated.


It is the feeling of dispossession to which Hermia succumbs:

O me, what news, my love?
Am not I Hermia? Are not you Lysander?
I am as fair now as I was erewhile.
Since night you loved me; yet since night you left me.


This sense of loss of objective being is fortunately only the prelude to a union beyond self and possession—the union of true marriage.

Demetrius and Lysander, on the other hand, lose themselves in the excess subjectivity of love until they actually do lose themselves in "drooping fog as black as Acheron" (III.ii.374), until they are literally as well as figuratively blind. They never question the objective reality of their experience; their changes of affection never lead to self-doubt. The opposite physical differentiation of the women—blond and black, tall and short are equally beautiful—makes the males' conversions the more ridiculous, but that is lost on them. They are not alone in their oblivion, however, for none of the lovers is really certain of the nature of the transformations of the night. Demetrius echoes Hermia in his explanation of what appears to be unmotivated behavior:

But, my good lord, I wot not by what power
(But by some power it is) my love to Hermia,
Melted as the snow, seems to me now
As the remembrance of an idle gaud
Which in my childhood I did dote upon;
And all the faith, the virtue of my heart,
The object and pleasure of mine eye,
Is only Helena.

(IV.i. 163-70)

What the lovers do realize upon awakening is that things look (and of course feel) differently:

These things seem small and undistinguishable,
Like far-off mountains turned into clouds.

Hermia Methinks I see these things with parted eye,
When everything seems double.

So methinks;
And I have found Demetrius like a jewel,
Mine own, and not mine own.

Demetrius Are you sure
That we are awake? It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream.


The language of this confusion is significant. We have travelled from the world of daylight perception through the increasing blindness of the forest darkness. With the dawn, however, emerges a new way of seeing, something between literal eye-sight and subjective dream-sight. And with a new perspective comes a new love, a union sanctioned by both Oberon and Theseus, in which our partners are and are not our own—a "league whose date till death shall never end" (III.ii.373).

What the lovers do not know, we do. We know that the restoration of harmony in the fairy world has allowed the cycle of growth to continue—visually symbolized in the royal dance round the sleeping couples—and need not ask for rationality in last-minute changes of heart. Reminding us of the role of perceptual confusion and loss in this process in Bottom's verbally confused version of Corinthians: "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, not his heart to report what my dream was" (IV.i.208-211). His rendition of Scripture suggests that to the degree dream-magic makes us doubt our senses and sense of self, it partakes of mystery. There is another kind of magic in the play other than love—the illusory magic of art. The mechanicals' sub-plot, in fact, forms a kind of running commentary on the romantic antics of the lovers, and it is to this ironic critique that we turn for the last laugh.


Shakespeare embroiders his love story with metaphors of art as symbols of aspects of illusion, but he also juxtaposes it with the presentation of the analogous story of Pyramus and Thisbe by the mechanicals. As the love story suggests the usefulness of illusion in extending the boundaries of the self, so the playlet's failure to appeal to the "eyes of the mind" suggests the folly of exteme literalism on the one hand and extreme subjectivity on the other. In his excellent analysis of imaginative failure in the playlet, Robert W. Dent discusses the curious combination of these follies:

Except for a few lines of actual rehearsal . . ., the whole rehearsal is concerned with how the mechanicals abuse their own imaginations by a failure to understand those of the audience. On the one hand they fear their audience will imagine what it sees is real, mistaking "shadows" for reality; on the other, they think the audience unable to imagine what it cannot see. Paradoxically, although they lack the understanding to think in such terms, they think their audience both over- and under-imaginative, and in both respects irrational.

Dent goes on to argue that proper illusion, the magic of Shakespeare's own play, insures the imaginative involvement of the audience by avoiding either extreme:

Significantly, Shakespeare opens the rehearsal scene as follows:

Bottom. Are we all met?

Quince. Pat, pat; and here's a marvail's convenient place for our rehearsal. This green plot shall be our stage, this hawthorne brake our tiring house . . .

The stage is a stage, not a green plot; the tiring house is a tiring house, not a hawthorne brake. The Lord Chamberlain's Men ask us to imagine a green plot and hawthorne brake; . . . The play perpetually makes such demands upon us, and even greater ones. . . . Most basic of all, it asks us to enter imaginatively into a world dominated by fairies, and to accept them as the ultimate source of disharmony and harmony, while at the same time not asking us to "believe" in them at all.12

This is certainly true, but there is more to it. Dent's thesis rests on his view of Shakespeare's "thematic distinction between the worlds of imagination and 'reality.'" Fiction is, after all, only fiction.13 But if we look more closely at the rehearsal scene, it seems to involve a more complicated thematic distinction than Dent proposes. "The Lord Chamberlain's Men ask us to imagine a green plot and hawthorne brake. . . . " Yes, but they then ask us to go one step further: "This green plot shall be our stage, this hawthorne brake our tiring house" (III.i.3-5). We start with reality (a real stage), replace it with fantasy (a green plot and hawthorne brake), and then substitute a further fantasy (a stage) which exactly duplicates the reality. The formula of this metamorphosis is simple: illusion equals reality.

Yet Shakespeare is illusion's advocate in a far bolder way. The significance of the fifth act lies in the irony of the court audience's reaction to the playlet. As we watch these creations of fancy who, in their limited understanding, either condescend to fancy (Theseus) or fail to see its relevance (Lysander and Demetrius), even the faulty illusion of the playlet comes to embody more of the truth than its audience. We recognize in the "tragical mirth" (V.i.61) of the mechanicals' shadow Shakespeare's parody of the lovers' misadventures; they do not. Furthermore, the imaginative folly of the mechanicals transforms the tragic potential of the Pyramus and Thisbe story into a comic statement of reconciliation (the wall is down) and regeneration (Bottom is up). Barber's note places Bottom's resurrection in the perspective of Tudor popular comedy:

Perhaps when Bottom starts up, very much alive despite his emphatic death, to correct the Duke in the matter of the wall, his comic resurrection owes something, directly or via the jig, to the folk play. When the St. George, or Fool, or whoever, starts up, alive again, after the miraculous cure, the reversal must have been played as a moment of comical triumph, an upset, more or less grotesque or absurd, no doubt, but still exhilarating—to come back alive is the ultimate turning of the tables on whatever is an enemy of life.14

From our perspective as Shakespeare's "real" audience we know that the playlet's "tragical mirth" parallels the escape of the lovers from the potentially fatal rigor of the law and their regeneration in love through imaginative folly. Illusion replaces reality as Shakespeare works through shadow to reveal substance. The effect on the "real" audience is not lost; by the time of the fifth act, we are no longer permitted to watch this drama with the casual condescension of the Athenian court. We are no longer permitted, in other words, to ignore the role of illusion in life and life's artistic mirror. Shakespeare's Dream demonstrates the power of illusion to teach and to transform, and we ought not to forget that the play's final word belongs to Puck.


1 All citations from A Midsummer Night's Dream in my text are to the Pelican Shakespeare edition of the play, ed. Madeleine Doran (Baltimore, 1962).

2 I am particularly indebted to the following: Paul A. Olson, "A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage," ELH, 24 (1957), 95-116; R.W. Dent, "Imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream," SQ, 15 (1964), 115-129; Andrew D. Weiner, "'Multi-formitie Uniforme': A Midsummer Night's Dream," ELH, 38 (1971), 329-349; and C.L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1959), pp. 119-162.

3The Defense of Poesie, in The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge, 1963), III, 7.

4 Barber, p. 124.

5 R. A. Zimbardo, "Regeneration and Reconciliation in A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shakespeare Studies, 6 (1970), p. 46.

6 Weiner p. 344.

7 Barber limits the play within the confines of "unshadowed gaiety" (p. 161) while Olson and Weiner tend, I think, to exaggerate its Platonic and Christian implications, respectively.

8 Platonic and Christian interpretations have already been discussed. For a Freudian point of view, see Melvin Goldstein, "Comedy as Terror in Disguise: Identity Crises in A Midsummer Night's Dream" Psychoanalytic Review, 60 (1973), 169-204. Zimbardo and Barber discuss the importance of the forces of elemental nature and primitive folklore, respectively.

9 Barber, pp. 136-7.

10 Ovid, Ars Amatoria, I, 531. See D'Orsay W. Pearson, "'Vnkinde' Theseus: A Study in Renaissance Mythography," ELR, 4 (1974), p. 297.

11 Dent, p. 126

12 Dent, p. 126

13 Dent, p. 129. Cf. Barber p. 161-2.

14 Barber, p. 154.

William T. Liston (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Paradoxical Chastity in A Midsummer Night's Dream," in The University of Dayton Review, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 153-60.

[In the following essay, Liston claims that the Protestant idealization of marriage is a theme of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and that this theme is explored through the conflicting image of the moon as barren or fertile, for example, and through Oberon's restoration of Titania's sight as a signal of "the triumph of chastity over erotic love."]

Chastity, said one of the early feminists more than a decade ago, is the only sexual perversion. Neither Shakespeare nor any of his contemporaries would have agreed with her. To the Elizabethans, according to Nancy Cotton Pearse, "Chastity . . . [was] a woman's only honor" (56). And whereas "In the Middle Ages lechery ran a poor and rather venial seventh in the lists of deadly sins," during the Elizabethan period it was second or third after pride." The extreme opposition of chastity and lechery in Elizabethan theory was an outgrowth . . . of the vigorous idealization of marriage" (59).

In A Midsummer Night's Dream lechery is hardly an issue, but Shakespeare establishes chastity as one of the major issues in the first scene, and certainly it is of central importance to the action in the forest scenes. And through the imagery of the play, chastity is insistently, and paradoxically, linked with the moon and with water. The paradox is that the moon, especially through its personifications as Diana, the goddess of chastity, is also the symbol of fertility (Brooks, Arden ed., cxxix-cxxx; all citations are to this edition). This paradoxical and ambiguous yoking of apparently opposed ideas within the symbol reflects, no doubt, an ambiguous attitude toward chastity and sexuality among the Elizabethans: and it strongly implies that chastity is not to be equated with virginity, though there is no doubt that that equation obtains often in Elizabethan—including Shakespearean—literature.

C. S. Lewis pointed out some years ago that "Celibacy and the praise of virginity are Catholic; the honour of the marriage bed is Puritan" (117). My point is not to assert that Shakespeare was a Puritan, but that chastity is not virginity, and that the Protestant "vigorous idealization of marriage" is one of the themes of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Certainly Puritanism was a middle-class movement; and certainly the values of the play, especially with respect to the four young lovers, are middle-class values. But Theseus and Hippolyta, and even Oberon and Titania, share the same values, as do the rude mechanicals ("You must say paragon. A paramour is, God bless us, a thing of naught" [4.2.13-14]).

In their opening exchange, Theseus and Hippolyta mention the moon explicitly three times and once by allusion ("pale companion," 1. 15). The moon in its movement is their measure of time. Further, in these references to the moon they establish metaphors that appear again and again in the play. Theseus likens it in its slow movement "to a step-dame or a dowager / Long withering out a young man's revenue" (an image of sterility and barrenness), and Hippolyta replies:

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.


There is an implicit sexual image in steep in her first line, the events that give the play its title are anticipated in the second line, and the silver bow, of course, anticipates the Cupid's bow of 2.1, whose "fiery shaft," missing its target, produced the magic love potion in the "little western flower" (155-74); and maybe, as Brooks states in his note to the line, the bent bow "is an archetype of fruitful union: the woman draws the man but follows him; together they protect the child."

A few moments later, when Hermia asks Theseus what penalty may befall her "If I refuse to wed Demetrius" according to her father's wish, Theseus replies:

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


And death is preferable to the alternative:

To live a barren sister all your life,
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.


The moon in this image is, as often in the play, barren; the blessed life of a virgin is unblessed. And on the contrary, the rose distill'd—the flower whose lively juice is used—is "earthlier happy." Again we have a paradox in "the virgin thorn," a phallic image applied to a female; and "withering" alludes to Theseus' earlier reference to his unmarried state. But most important, probably, is the phrase "earthlier happy." As in Measure for Measure, virginity is unnatural, a cold condition that denies human warmth and growth and therefore happiness. Before leaving, Theseus repeats, in equally forbidding terms, the fate to which Hermia is subject if she does not bow to her father's will: death.

Or on Diana's altar to protest,
For aye, austerity and single life.


A short while later, the moon takes on another aspect when Lysander reveals what he and Hermia intend:

Helen, to you our minds we will unfold:
Tomorrow night, when Phoebe doth behold
Her silver visage in the wat'ry glass
Decking with liquid pearl the bladed grass
(A time that lovers' flights doth still conceal).
Through Athens' gates have we devis'd to steal.


Here the moon, seen through lovers' eyes, takes on an entirely different aspect. "Wat'ry" and "liquid pearl" (swelling rotundity) imply life and fruitfulness, and the mere allusion to Phoebe's beholding "lovers' flights" and stealing implies at least connivance and probably blessing of their act by the moon goddess—as if it were a habitual act for lovers.

These images anticipate exactly our introduction to the forest scenes and fairy plot. In answer to Puck's "How now, spirit! Whither wander you?" the Fairy answers.

I do wander everywhere
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
And I serve the Fairy Queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.

I must go seek some dew-drops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear.


Here we have the moon combined with rotundity in sphere and by extension in orbs, the same pregnant shape combined with water in the dew images, and the liquid pearl again.

With the entrance of Oberon and Titania, all these images swell to their fullest development. Before replying fully to Oberon's "Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania" (60), Titania tells the fairies that "I have forsworn his bed and company" (62), making explicit the disruption of natural, marital sexuality. Titania goes on to assert that their marital discord has engendered discord in nature:

Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which, falling in the land,
Hath every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.


Of these lines, Brooks notes that "Waters rising over their 'continents', the bounds which should contain them, are Shakespeare's recurrent image for anarchical insubordination." For several lines, Titania continues to list the perverted fecundity—the crops rotted by the floods, e.g.—and the resultant failure of human joy, until she asserts

Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound.


The seasons are disordered,

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


The final image of the section emphatically asserts the generative power of the Fairy King and Fairy Queen gone awry; efficacious, but misused.

At this point, Theseus begs the changeling boy, and in denying Theseus the boy. Titania recalls the boy's mother in the last months before his birth. The images are all of water and rotundity, and what seems to be impregnating wind (Louis Montrose notes that "in Titania's description, neither genitor nor pater plays a role in the making of a son," as "neither biological nor social mother—neither genetrix nor mater—plays a role in the making of a daughter" in Theseus' assertion to Hermia that she was "imprinted" by her father at 1.1.47-51 [75]):

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 squire),
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles, and return again
As from a voyage rich with merchandise.


But having denied Theseus the boy, Titania offers a measure of reconciliation:

If you will patiently dance in our round,
And see our moonlight revels, go with us.


The dance is, as always, an image of harmony, and the round in the moonlight continues the image of pregnancy.

When Titania leaves, Oberon tells Puck of the time he saw,

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 moon;
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 wound:
And maidens call it 'love-in-idleness'.


Though these lines have received enormous quantities of comment, especially with respect to the possibility that the "fair vestal," the "imperial votress," refers to Queen Elizabeth, there seems to be no comment, at least to my knowledge, on one aspect of what happened to "Cupid's fiery shaft." The image of 1. 162 suggests that the lovearrow was quench'd in flight, by watery beams of the watery moon, thereby losing its motive power; and it was this failure of power that caused the shaft to fall upon the "little western flower." But why should the "chaste beams" quench the shaft? (The image here, like many others in the play, is paradoxically sexual—the quenching of the love-shaft in something moist, and therefore endowed with fecundity.) The only answer, I think, is that the fair vestal had chosen her state freely, and the shaft aimed at her would have violated her own elected chastity—more specifically, virginity. This is essentially the view of Brooks in his Arden Introduction:

The freely chosen virginity it [the myth of the imperial votaress] exalts is, moreover, in contrast with the virginity to be enforced, if Theseus' sentence stands, upon Hermia. To find place for a noble virginity in his marriage-play must have been deeply satisfying to Shakespeare's 'comprehensive soul', (cxxxii)

The theme of elected chastity under pursuit is picked up immediately in another plot:

Enter DEMETRIUS, HELENA following him.

(187 s.d.)

In the topsy-turvy state of this pair of young lovers, Demetrius is in the position of the chaste vestal, at least with respect to the lover who is pursuing him.

When, in the following scene, the exhausted Hermia and Lysander appear, Hermia has little trouble in persuading him to "lie further of f with

Such separation as may well be said
Becomes a virtuous bachelor and a maid.


Despite their running off from the constraints of Athens with respect to their particular marriage—that she accede to her father's will—their values are Athenian public values with respect to marriage and sexuality. And, in fact, there hardly seems to be an overt sexual dimension to their relationship: what interests them is a marriage fully in accord with all of the constraints of English society (and middle-class Protestantism) except for the lack of fatherly consent.

There follows the scene in which Bottom is translated into an ass, and it closes ambiguously. Having directed her attendants to lead Bottom to her bower, Titania then comments:

The moon, methinks, looks with a watery eye,
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,
Lamenting some enforced chastity.
Tie up my love's tongue, bring him silently.


What is it that the moon and the flowers lament? Most annotators gloss enforced as "violated" (Arden and Riverside, e.g.), but Bevington glosses as "forced, violated; or, possibly, constrained (since Titania at this moment is hardly concerned about chastity)." The first meaning is the more conventional—that the moon and flowers weep because of a rape, a deflowering; but the second meaning, according as it does with Titania's mood at the moment, also accords with Theseus' sentiments in Act 1 : chastity is a lamentable penalty when imposed on a person who has not freely chosen it herself. Note also Brooks' "enforced" virginity in his comment on "the myth of the imperial votaress," cited above (155).

The final line here, Titania's direction to the fairies to enforce silence on Bottom, is full of ramifications. Many scholars in recent years have shown that chastity and silence were often synonyms in Elizabethan England. In Chaste, Silent, and Obedient: English Books for Women, 1475-1640, Suzanne W. Hull writes:

The message in the title of this book—be chaste, silent, obedient—comes through time and time again in the women's literature. . . . Church rules (including St. Benedict's) include the message; philosophers repeat it:

. . . let her kepe silence. For there is nothinge that doth so much commend, avaunce, set forthe, adourne, decke, trim, and garnish a maid, as silence. (Thomas Becon, Worckes. [London: 1560-64])

Bibliographies, traditional tales, and prayers reinforce it:

There is nothing that becommeth a maid better than sobernes, silence, shamefastnes, and chastitie, both of bodie & mind. For these things being once lost, she is no more a maid, but a strumpet in the sight of God. (Thomas Bentley The Monument of Matrones. [London: 1582]) (Hull 142)

What is the segue in Titania's thinking in her final two lines that makes her connect chastity and silence? Clearly, as Bevington states, she is not interested in chastity at the moment. Is it possible that a culturally indoctrinated woman instinctively associates the terms? Or, as is more likely, is it that Bottom's continued asinine talking will prevent her from accepting him as a lover? David Marshall equates the silence here with that in other scenes; for example, Hippolyta's silence in the opening scene that prompts Theseus' "What cheer, my love?" (122):

Hippolyta is, I believe, tongue-tied, as if she were the serious reflection of Bottom at the moment when Titania comically ravishes him with the command to the fairies: "Tie up my lover's tongue, bring him silently." (94)

In an unequal love-match, the lesser must be silent.

If Bottom and Titania consummate their extra-marital love, they do so off stage. When we next see them, Bottom is about to go to sleep, and Titania will wind him in her arms as "the female ivy so / Enrings the barky fingers of the elm" (4.1.42-43). Certainly there are sexual overtones here; but these tones are much more present in Oberon's narration, a few lines later, of one of their love scenes (possibly this one) as he tells Puck that he "will undo / The hateful imperfection of her eyes" (61-62). He says that

meeting her or late behind the wood
Seeking sweet favours for this hateful fool,
I did upbraid her and fall out with her:
For she his hairy temples then had rounded
With coronet of fresh and fragrant flowers;
And that same dew, which sometime on the buds
Was wont to swell like round and orient pearls,
Stood now within the pretty flowerets' eyes
Like tears, that did their own disgrace bewail.


What is particularly interesting in this description is that we have, as often, the fecund images of dew swelling to pearlish rotundity, but now these pearls are like tears in the flowerets' eyes, signifying the abuse of fecundity in the abuse of chastity. When "she in mild terms begg'd" his patience and then gave him the changeling child (57-59), acceding to his will in all things, he was moved to forgive her earlier disobedience. We are moving back to the patriarchal system of values so prized by the conservative middle-classes of Elizabethan England.

In restoring Titania's proper sight a moment later with the power of "Dian's bud o'er Cupid's flower" (72), Oberon is clearly signifying the triumph of chastity over erotic love. This antidote (which Puck had applied to Lysander's eyes at Oberon's direction earlier [3.2.450-52]), Frank Kermode asserts, "by keeping men chaste keeps them sane" (218).

The more or less explicit statements concerning the chastity theme almost disappear after this point in the play. From this point on, statement is replaced by fulfillment—by the working out of the theme in action. For the young lovers, the chaste experiences they have undergone during their night in the forest prefigure something of great constancy in their marriages; the mature demeanor of both Theseus and Hippolyta implies the same for them.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Ed. Harold F. Brooks. New York: Methuen, 1979 (Arden).

Hull, Suzanne W. Chaste, Silent, & Obedient: English Books for Women, 1475-1640. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1982.

Kermode, Frank. "The Mature Comedies." Early Shakespeare. Ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris. New York: Schocken, 1966, 211-27.

Lewis, C.S. "Tasso." Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966.

Marshall, David. "Exchanging Visions: Reading A Midsummer Night's Dream." William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream": Modern Critical Interpretations. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987, 87-115. Reprinted from ELH 49 (1982), 543-575.

Montrose, Louis Adrian. "A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Shaping Fantastes of Elizabethan Culture: Gender, Power, Form." Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe. Ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986, 65-87.

Pearse, Nancy Cotton. John Fletcher's Chastity Plays: Mirrors of Modesty. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1973.


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René Girard (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Bottom's One-Man Show," in The Current in Criticism: Essays on the Present and Future of Literary Theory, edited by Clayton Koelb and Virgil Lokke, Purdue University Press, 1986, pp. 99-122.

[In the following essay, Girard maintains that Bottom's transformation, as well as the world of the fairies, are products of the mimetic process acting on the mechanicals and the four lovers. Girard explores in particular how Bottom's eagerness to take on so many theatrical roles contributes to his metamorphosis.]

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, two groups of human beings spend the night in the wood. The first consists of four unhappy lovers who tear each other apart, the second of some local craftsmen who prepare a play for the celebration of Theseus's wedding.

Wretched as it is, their stage adaptation of Pyramus and Thisby remains beyond the capacities of these illiterate amateurs. But their passion for the theater is intense, especially in the case of Bottom, a born actor with an enormous appetite for impersonation.

At the craftsmen's first meeting—in act 1, scene 2—Quince, the director, distributes the various roles. Bottom gets asked first. He will play the leading man, Pyramus. He wishes it had been "a tyrant," but it is a lover and a lover will do. Bottom feigns indifference, but he is so eager to act, so excited by the prospect, that he will grab any role. Speaking compulsively, he announces that he will "move storms." Eager to stop this ranting, Quince turns to Flute and asks him to play Thisby.

Flute feels awkward at the thought of a woman's role. He tries to excuse himself on the ground that he has "a beard coming." Bottom begs Quince to let him have the role of Thisby. He will not give up playing Pyramus; yet he wants the other role as well, and immediately, even though he knows nothing of the story, he tries to show what he can do with it:

And I may hide my face, let me play Thisby too. I'll speak in a monstrous little voice. "Thisne! Thisne! Ah, Pyramus, my love dear! thy Thisby dear, and lady dear!"1

Quince disagrees. He thinks that the hero and the heroine should be played by different actors:

"No, no, you must play Pyramus; and, Flute, you Thisby."

In order to avoid further trouble, Quince hurriedly proceeds to assign two more roles, Thisby's mother and Pyramus's father, with no interference from Bottom this time, but then comes the turn of the lion. The role goes to Snug, who complains that he is "slow of study" and requests "a written score." You may do it "extempore," Quince replies, "for it is nothing but roaring." To Bottom, this reluctance of the prospective lion is an irresistible temptation and, once again, he asks for the role:

Let me play the lion too. I will roar, that I will do any man's heart good to hear me. I will roar, that I will make the Duke say, "Let him roar again; let him roar again."

The role leaves little room for interpretation, but Quince is so irritated that he challenges Bottom's understanding of it:

An you should do it too terribly, you would fright the Duchess and the ladies, that they would shrike; and that were enough to hang us all.

All That would hang us, every mother's son.

The craftsmen hang on every word of their leader and then always mimic him in a chorus. In the face of unanimous opposition, Bottom makes a hasty retreat. He is too much of a mime not to give an audience what it requests:

I grant you, friends, if you should fright the ladies out of their wits, they would have no more discretion but to hang us; but I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove; I will roar you and 'twere any nightingale.

As long as Bottom gets his role, whatever the populace wants, the populace will get. But even if the lion, now, sounds like a nightingale, it must retain some features of the former beast or it would not be identifiable as such. Bottom is turning it, therefore, into a birdlike lion, a warring conflation of opposites, some kind of monster.

Too much mimetic adaptability is seen as unfavorable to the creative imagination. It would seem to stifle it, but beyond a certain threshold—which Bottom is crossing—the two tend to merge. With his most remarkable talent for changing anything into anything else, Bottom's handling of his various roles already resembles the process of mythological metamorphosis. Unlike Alberich of The Ring, Bottom has no need of magical contraptions such as the Tarnhelm. At the slightest signal from his public, he can transform himself, now into a ferocious dragon, now into the sweetest little nightingale.

An exasperated Quince repeats in no uncertain terms that Bottom will play no part but Pyramus. Next, the question arises of how the moon should be represented, and also the dreadful wall, the famous wall that cruelly separates the two lovers. The solution almost goes without saying. Let an actor impersonate the wall, let an actor impersonate the moon.

Bottom would love to be that moon, Bottom would love to be that wall. To play the beloved as well as the lover does not satisfy his appetite for acting; in addition, he wants to be the obstacle that stands between the two. He and his fellows can passionately embrace even those objects that seem to lie beyond the wildest dreams of impersonation, turning them into an infinite number of theatrical parts. All of these Bottom would like to keep for himself, and even the most insignificant ones he can relinquish only with the sense of a huge personal loss.

Try as he may, Quince will not find a role that does not suit Bottom's talent. Mimesis is running wild. Even the slightest hint, now—almost any gesture—can trigger new impersonations. The man reminds us of a suggestible subject in the hands of a clever hypnotist. The only difference is that he needs no hypnotist; he is gifted and mixed up enough to play both roles, the hypnotizer and the hypnotized. He enters into all conceivable and inconceivable roles with such passion that he is losing sight of his own personality.

The first scene with the craftsmen, as well as the first scene with the lovers, takes place in the city, whereas the second takes place in the woods. Each group seems to have some business out there, but the real business is the midsummer night madness.

We can see right away that, in the interval between act 1 and act 3, the bumpkins' excitement has not abated but increased. Bottom is the first to speak, as always, and he finds a way to compel the attention of Quince:

Bottom. There are things in this comedy of Pyramus and Thisby that will never please. First, Pyramus must draw a sword to kill himself; which the ladies cannot abide. How answer you that?

Quince was the one, earlier, who conjured up the specter of the frightened ladies à propos of the lion. Bottom cleverly extends this concern to the suicide of Pyramus. He mimics the argument of Quince and wraps himself up in the mantle of the metteur en scène. The better to manipulate Quince, he surrenders once again to his hysterical penchant for mimicry and shows us that his talent for impersonation is not limited to theatrical roles. He undermines the authority of Quince by turning himself into a second Quince and a contagious example to everybody else. Quince cannot silence him, this time, without silencing himself.

Snout. By'r lakin, a parlous fear.

Starveling. I believe we must leave the killing out, when all is done.

Bottom. Not a whit! I have a device to make all well. Write me a prologue, and let the prologue seem to say we will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus is not killed indeed; and for the more better assurance, tell them that I Pyramus am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver. This will put them out of fear.

Once again, of course, the only purpose of Bottom is to monopolize the stage. He wants to be the prologue and the epilogue and everything in between.

In his desire to prevent any confusion between a simulated death and a real one, Bottom wants the fictional Pyramus—himself—to emphasize his real identity; but he devises his prologue in such a way as to suggest the opposite of what he means.

The prologue should say: "My name is Bottom and I am merely pretending to be a certain Pyramus whose suicide is feigned"; but Bottom names Pyramus first, in the first person, saying in fact: "I Pyramus" as if it were his real identity and wishing, no doubt, that it were. And then, when his real name, Bottom, finally shows up, it is treated as an actor's part in the title page of a printed play; it is followed by a mention of the man's trade. The prologue says: "Bottom the weaver," which is the way the name appears in the listing of roles at the beginning of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

We are listening, we feel, to an actor named Pyramus who has to play a fictional weaver named Bottom, a modest role with which he is not very pleased. Inside the play, this belief is wrong but, from the spectators' standpoint, it makes good sense. We are actually watching a play that includes a fictional weaver named Bottom. It is quite possible that the actor might be named Pyramus.

Bottom contaminates us with his own madness; we share in the general dizziness, but so mildly that not even the most timid ladies can be frightened. It feels like a few bubbles of champagne on an empty stomach.

In order to describe what is going on here, the grayish jargon of "identity crises" and "split personalities" will not do. It may be appropriate to the static condition of the contemporary neurotic, patiently rehashing his various "problems" and the interminable "analysis" of the same, until death do them part. It is ridiculously inadequate here. Bottom's crisis is more tempestuous and critical than the neurotic's condition but, unlike that of the psychotic, it will leave no traces. It is temporary, and it will have a resolution. It is also collective. Bottom is only the supreme exemplification of what happens to all his companions.

This crisis is an attenuated or partly ritualized version of the mimetic crisis described in Violence and the Sacred.2 All words, images and gesticulations intended by the craftsmen as a preventive against the imaginary panic of the ladies are really worsening symptoms of that crisis. As they exhibit their mimetic symptoms to one another, they also mimic them, bringing them to fever pitch. The entire scene describes a mimetic contagion of lost identity that affects Bottom most spectacularly but not him alone, as we soon shall see.

The "I Pyramus" is only a portent of things to come. It represents a transitional phase on the road to a collective hallucination similar to the climax of a primitive ritual, because all rituals are the more or less ritualized reenactment of the real crisis that precedes.

Shakespeare is aware that the theater is itself a form of ritual, and—like all rituals—it can go wrong, it can revert to the real mimetic crisis in which it originates. This is what happens with the craftsmen, but only to a certain extent. The comedy will not turn into a tragedy.

A few lines down we have another clue to the rapid disintegration of Bottom's normal handling of reality. Our old friend the lion once again serves as a catalyst. We can surmise that, between the two meetings, this lion has haunted the imagination of the mechanicals. Now even the quiet ones, Snout the tinker and Starveling the tailor, begin to evince panic.

Snout. Will not the ladies be afeard of the lion?

Starveling. I fear it, I promise you.

Bottom. Masters, you ought to consider with your-[selves], to bring in (God shield us!) a lion among ladies, is a most dreadful thing; for there is not a more fearful wild-fowl than your lion living; and we ought to look to't.

Snout. Therefore another prologue must tell he is not a lion.

Bottom. Nay; you must name his name, and half his face must be seen through the lion's neck, and he himself must speak through, saying thus, or to the same defect: "Ladies," or "Fair ladies, I would wish you," or "I would request you," or "I would entreat you, not to fear, not to tremble: my life for yours. If you think I come hither as a lion, it were pity of my life. No! I am no such thing; I am a man as other men are"; and there indeed let him name his name, and tell them plainly he is Snug the joiner.

Just as Bottom imitated Quince a little earlier, now Snout imitates Bottom. His turn has come to emulate Bottom and demand still one more reassuring prologue after the style of his hero. But Bottom does not recognize the idea as his own when he hears it from the mouth of someone else. Great artists do not like to be copied. Just as he had been interrupted by Quince, he now keeps interrupting Snout; he has a brighter idea: a speech by the dumb beast himself. As the actor will "name his name" and fasten himself solidly to his real identity, "half his face must be seen through the lion's neck."

The first metamorphosis of the lion was not scary enough. Now we have a second one. A creature halfman, half-beast is uncannier than a combination of beast and beast, uncannier, a fortiori, than the honest-to-goodness lion demanded by the original script. The mere invention of this improved monster sends shivers down the spine of the inventors.

This fragment of a human face surrounded by leonine features looks strikingly like the sort of primitive mask that Shakespeare had probably never seen but that his genius invents almost ex nihilo. The playwright's sense of timing is excellent. We have reached the moment when the participants in an orgiastic ritual would put on masks quite similar to the one imagined by Bottom: weird compositions of animal and human features. The inspiration is very much the same because the experience is the same. Bottom and his friends are going through the type of crisis after which rituals are patterned.

Bottom's compulsive impresonations resemble the possessive trance as much as the resulting images resemble primitive masks. The craftsmen live in a culture that does not encourage such phenomena. But perhaps the distant past was different. At one time, the midsummer festival may have been a ritual similar to the orgiastic rituals in ancient and primitive cultures.

Turn-of-the-century anthropologists such as Sir James George Frazer thought that they were the first to rediscover that origin, but, two and three centuries ahead of modern research, Shakespeare already thought along similar if not identical lines. The midsummer festival figures only in the title. The play itself contains one single mention of "the rites of May," and that is all. This inconsistent vagueness does not really matter. All these festivals were similar; any one of them can provide the ritual framework in which the experience of Bottom and the craftsmen can be fitted because they were all generated by the type of mythical genesis that Shakespeare describes.

The possessive trance may closely resemble playacting, but it is an error simply to equate the one with the other, as some researchers such as Michel Leiris have been inclined to do. When genuine, the trance represents a degree of involvement so great that the impersonation becomes involuntary and cannot be stopped at will. Correspondingly, it represents a high degree of self-dispossession, higher, no doubt, than what normally happens in the Western theater.

It all happens to Bottom. Shakespeare seems to regard the theater as a mild form of the trance, one that must derive from the "real thing" originally and can revert to it on occasion—with highly predisposed individuals such as Bottom, or when the circumstances are favorable.

All our craftsmen tacitly assume that the weaker sex in their audience—which really means the queen of the Amazons and her attendants—will be extremely prone to panic. Their principal reason for thinking so is that they themselves are on the verge of a panic. It is normal for people in that condition to project it outside of themselves. They detect a threat of imminent panic somewhere in the vicinity and devise hasty measures against it. As they try to implement these measures, they make one another believe that the panic has already arrived, which indeed it has, as soon as everybody believes that it has. Their strategy is the one an infinitely clever man would select if he had joined a group of terrorists with the express intention of triggering a mass panic.

The solicitude for the ladies is a facade behind which the craftsmen can unleash their imaginations and produce more and more horrifying monsters. As the craftsmen try to reassure the hypothetical fears of others, they only succeed in scaring themselves out of their wits, and there is not the slightest difference between their self-induced but nevertheless objectively real panic, which is a sociological event occurring in the real world, and the ritual pattern to which that panic necessarily conforms, because all ritual originates in some event of this type.

A transitional product of Bottom's "seething brain," the humanlike lion belongs to a phase more advanced than the birdlike lion of the previous phase; it corresponds to an intensification of the crisis, a greater loss of "self-identity." But the final and climactic phase is still to come.

In the second phase, we already have full-fledged monsters—creatures no longer "species-specific," as the modern specialists would say (rather redundantly and mimetically, being threatened themselves with undifferentiation). But the craftsmen do not yet quite believe in the reality of their own creations.

Give them one more minute and they do. This is the only difference between the ass-headed Bottom and the shenanigans that precede this not-so-mysterious apparition. To all his friends, Bottom has become a real monster. And we are apprised of the fact in a manner so strikingly suited to the force of the hallucination that we are likely to miss the point entirely.

Shakespeare treats Bottom's amazing translation both as if it were "the real thing" and also as if it were a prank that Puck is playing on the bumpkins. But Puck is no one but the spirit of the entire midsummer night. And the progress of its spirit can be traced both in an irrational manner by following the evolution of Puck, which pleases the light-hearted and absent-minded spectators, and in the slightly less transparent manner of our analysis, which does not uncover anything that Shakespeare has not intentionally written into his text. The anthropological genius of the playwright displays itself openly from the beginning to the end of this magnificent text.

The apparition walks upon the stage. The imaginary products of Bottom's "seething brain" have been elevated to the status of "real" characters. This shift in the dramatic handling of the theme expresses the climax of the crisis with such power that it makes it invisible to the average spectator. Even the best critics have yet to understand what their author is really up to.

If the spectator has missed the manner in which the monstrous gradually insinuates itself among the near-hysterical craftsmen, he/she will take Puck, Oberon, Titania, and their cortege of fairies at face value, mistaking them for the heroes and heroines of one more subplot that is just as independent of the other two as these two are, or rather seem to be, of one another.

From the simultaneously structural and genetic standpoint of our "neo-mimetic" criticism, the "translation" of Bottom and the intervention of the "fairies" mark the culmination of the dynamic process triggered by the collective decision to perform a play. It is not a magical irruption, a sudden and inexplicable disturbance in a static situation of bucolic peace among people going peacefully about their business of acting, it is the climax of successive structural transformations that are related to one another in such a way that, ultimately, they must be regarded as a continuous process. This precedence of continuity over discontinuity is not a return to a pre-structural perspective.

Out of mimetic sympathy with Bottom, mixed with a good deal of exasperation, the craftsmen all cross the threshold of hallucination simultaneously in act 3, scene 1:

[Enter Puck, and Bottom with an ass's head.] Bottom. "If I were fair, Thisby, I were only thine." Quince. O monstrous! O strange! We are haunted. Pray, masters, fly, masters! Help! [Exeunt Quince, Snug, Flute, Snout, and Starveling.]

Quince. Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated.

Quince is first to tip over the brink, and he takes everybody with him; or rather, everybody follows him into the abyss of unreason because everybody imitates him. Until then, Quince had seemed the most clear-headed of the lot; the asinine interruptions of Bottom must have undermined his strength. In a sense, he does not lose his mind: he finally sees with his own eyes the ass-headed monster that keeps persecuting him.

Half the face of an ass can be seen through Bottom's neck. The body remains mostly human, being that of a great lover, but it takes more than a mere Thisby to conquer this Pyramus. It takes the queen of the fairies whom, to a large extent, Bottom himself has become. She talks as wittily as a prologue, but he retains a curious predilection for hay, as well as the immobility of a brick wall, another well-known characteristic of the ass.

If we do not see the mimetic process behind the weird metamorphosis of Bottom, we will have to believe that someone rather than something is responsible, and we will have to reinvent Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, the hobgoblin of English folkore, or perhaps Oberon, Titania, etc. They can all be metaphors for the entire process because they all are the products of Bottom's "seething brain."

That is why they reproduce the antics of the craftsmen and of the lovers at their own supernatural level. And since Puck is supposed to plant only a cardboard asshead upon the real head of Bottom, even the ladies and the critics that would be most offended by any degree of mimetic undifferentiation between violence and the sacred do not have to understand anything and therefore fear nothing.

The habitual reading is that the intervention of Puck and the intersection of the three plots depend on no rationally intelligible sequence. Shakespeare is "playing" in haphazard fashion. Puck provides a welcome break with the trivial realism of the craftsmen, a delightful diversion but no more. The important thing, today, is that the play should make no sense at all. The play must be as senseless as the lovers and the craftsmen imagine their experience to be. It must be the child of a capricious and unmotivated imagination. If we tried to make sense out of it, we would spoil the pleasure of the text.

The chaotic and the discontinuous are present at the dramatic level only, for the spectators who watch the play as naively as the craftsmen and the lovers experience it. There is another rationale for the various incidents that Shakespeare has deliberately inscribed into the play, but he has done so in such a fashion that only a certain type of attention will see it.

When Bottom turns into an ass and marries Titania, the panic that had been brewing for a while reaches ebullition. The same generative force produces the entire world of the fairies that earlier had produced the still-half-believed "translations" and conflations of various beings, the monstrous mixture of a lion and of a man, and the metamorphosis of the lion into a nightingale.

If Bottom could choose one theatrical role and stick to it, he would not lose his mind. One single impersonation would have enough stability and permanence to prevent the generation of monsters. The weaver becomes drunk on a kaleidoscope of impersonations that keeps revolving faster and faster.

He resembles these clowns whose act consists in changing suits so fast that they seem to be wearing the same suit all the time, but it is made up of many colors and shapes all jumbled together. Bottom ends up with a very strange costume, indeed. Maybe it is Joseph's "coat of many colors."

Bottom's roles are too different from each other to be arranged into a harmonious "synthesis," Hegelian or otherwise, and yet Bottom assumes them all almost simultaneously and with such passion each time that he commits himself totally to each one simultaneously.

Inside Bottom, as in the uterus of their mother, there are always a Jacob and an Esau fighting for supremacy, and many other twins as well. Bottom cannot fail to be torn apart, literally shredded by all these totalitarian claims upon his undivided attention. His is the diasparagmos of the actor, his mimetic passion.

Beyond a certain threshold, the feverish impersonations of Bottom impinge upon one another as the multiple images in a cinematic film and breed a whole host of monsters. Then the swirl becomes so dizzying that another threshold is reached, and Bottom himself becomes the monster, first in the eyes of his fellows, then in his own eyes as well, mimetically.

As new impersonations keep crowding in, the whole system becomes destabilized, then explodes into fragments that tend to reorganize in weird bits and pieces like a mosaic of broken glass. Bottom is "translated" into a sparkling jumble of fragments from his various roles, with a unifying preponderance of the original ass.

What is the relationship between the two subplots? Can the craftsmen have anything in common with the four mixed-up lovers? The first have gathered to perform a play, the others to love and hate one another. Does their Eros have an affinity for the frantic theatrical impersonations of a half-crazed Bottom?

It certainly does. In order to justify this assertion, I must summarize the argument of an earlier essay about the four lovers.3

With the help of Theseus, Hermia's father seeks to prevent his daughter from marrying Lysander. The boy and girl flee to the woods. On their heels comes Demetrius in hot pursuit of Hermia, whom he still loves even though she no longer loves him. On his heels comes Helena in hot pursuit of Demetrius, whom she ardently loves even though he has never loved her.

It seems that the first two lovers have a sound enough reason to flee their Athenian homes. Fleeing one's parents and other oppressive political forces is a comic prop so traditional that it is taken at face value. It is never examined, and yet this time the theme is deceptive in the sense that there is a more convincing cause for the troubles of the lovers. The parental figures are no more responsible for getting the frenzy started than the fairies, a little later, for making it worse.

Even in the case of Lysander and Hermia, "true love" needs no parental or supernatural interference to run into trouble. Shakespeare slyly informs us that, until Lysander appeared upon the scene, Hermia was happy enough to marry Demetrius. Her father's choice was her own choice.

This information is unnecessary to the plot, but it is highly suggestive of an instability among the four lovers that cannot be blamed on the older generation or even on the disruptive influence of the midsummer spirit.

Lysander may well be the original troublemaker. It would be wrong, however, to attach too much importance to him personally, or to anyone else for that matter. In this play, individuals as such do not matter. The traditional critics correctly observed their lack of personality and their interchangeability, but they mistakenly regarded it as a weakness of the play, as something unintended that Shakespeare would have remedied if he had been able to.

In reality, Shakespeare is in complete control of his literary effects, but his goal is the opposite of the only one these traditional critics could conceive, which was the creation of stable character differentiations. Shakespeare wants to show the pressure of fads and fashions inside a group of idle young aristocrats. It can become so intense that it extends to matters of the heart.

Shakespeare portrays what happens to adolescents who read too many romances and choose to live in a world of literary imitation. Taking fictional heroes as models predisposes them to real-life experiments with erotic mimicry, and the results can be simultaneously disastrous and comical. They become a "living theater."

Everybody feels compelled to choose what everybody else has already chosen. The two boys are never in love with the same girl for long, but at any given time they are both in love with the same girl—Hermia first, Helena later. Neither one can desire anything that the other one will not immediately desire as well. Even the girls are carried away in the end by the dominant desire—the one fashionable desire—and compelled to yield to the mimetic pressure of uniformity. This is the reason Helena, at the beginning, seems to desire Hermia even more than Demetrius. The reason is that Hermia is already desired by the two boys; she is the star of the entire show, and Helena feels irresistibly attracted by her success.

All characters do their falling in love according to the falling in love in the vicinity. They remind us of these modern consumers who already have everything and never experience a real need, therefore, but who cannot hear that a product is "popular" or see people standing in line to buy something without rushing themselves to join that line. The longer the line, the more valuable the prize seems at the end of it. But the line can dissolve as quickly as it will re-form behind something else. The queue that forms behind Hermia at the beginning will shift to Helena in the middle of the night for no reason whatever.

Let us listen to the first encounter of Helena and Hermia in act 1, scene 1:

Hermia. God speed fair Helena! whither away?

Helena. Call you me fair? That fair again unsay.

Demetrius loves your fair, O happy fair!

Your eyes are lodestars, and your tongue's sweet air

More tuneable than lark to shepherd's ear

When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.

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 eye,

My tongue should catch your tongue's sweet melody.

Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,

The rest I'll give to be to you translated.

The homosexual flavor is undeniable. Shakespeare certainly wanted it there. For this, we cannot pin the blame or the merit—whichever term we choose—upon some authorial "unconscious." The only serious critical question is: why did the author do it? I doubt very much that he wanted to demonstrate the cleverness of Jacques Lacan, or even of Sigmund Freud. I also doubt that he wanted to promote an "alternative life-style." Shakespeare must have had a purpose of his own when he wrote these lines.

There is a passage in Coriolanus with an even more unmistakable homosexual flavor, but this time the two characters are male. Vis-à-vis Coriolanus, his sworn rival, Aufídius expresses sentiments similar to those of Helena for Hermia.

If you compare the two passages, you will see that the only common feature is the mimetic rivalry of two characters, male or female. The gender makes no difference at all. Quite as ardently as Helena, Aufídius desires something his rival possesses in great abundance, military glory. Aufídius wants the many victories of Coriolanus. Helena wants the many lovers of Hermia, her superior erotic glory. In front of Coriolanus, Aufídius feels like a failure. In front of Hermia, Helena feels like a failure.

A few lines after our passage, Helena is alone and, in a soliloquy, vents her bitterness against her rival. She claims that she is just as pretty as Hermia. Should we conclude that her mood has changed, or that she was a hypocrite in the previous scene? The answers are a little more complicated. Helena's worship of Hermia is more than a polite compliment. It is just as genuine as the hatred of a moment later. Aufídius also feels ambivalent towards Coriolanus.

The mimetic model is worshipped as a model and hated as a rival. The duality is inescapable; desire cannot mimic its friends without turning them into irritating obstacles, but the mimetic lover never seems to understand the self-generated process of his/her own frustration and keeps complaining that someone else is interfering with "true love."

To Helena, Hermia is perceived as a paragon of success, the true goddess of everything a normal girl may wish—elegance, wit, glamor, erotic triumphs . . . How can Hermia fail to be more interesting than either of the boys since she dominates both of them, at least for the time being . . .

The homosexual connotations must be acknowledged but must not blind our critical eyes to the context. Helena's fascination for Hermia is part of a larger story, the story of the mimetic rivalry. In an erotic triangle, the obsession can become so acute that the rival of the same sex tends to supersede the object of the other sex.

Demetrius, the object of Helena's desire, rates only half a line in this passage, which is not much compared to the eleven lines dedicated to Hermia. This type of inbalance gets worse and worse as the mimetic crisis intensifies and the obsession for the rival increases. Here again, the midsummer night is a description of a deepening crisis.

Beyond a certain threshold of intensity, the veritable object becomes the model. If we conclude that Helena has to be a homosexual in the same sense that she is a tall, blonde girl, or Hermia short and a brunette, we freeze solid a relationship that should be kept light and airy. We surrender our wits either to the current pedantry of sexuality or to the former puritanism. The two are equally disastrous for the understanding of what Shakespeare is talking about, which we would all understand intuitively if we were dealing with it in a real-life situation.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is much more like a real-life situation than people with their heads full of nihilistic critical theory will ever realize. The final predominance of the model means that the ultimate goal of mimetic desire is that model's "being." This ontological mirage is a must, of course, in a play that is a veritable encyclopedia on the subject, written by the greatest expert ever:

Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I'll give to be to you translated.

The last verse sums up and transcends the erotic poem that we quoted before, in the same sense that the metaphysical dimension sums up and transcends the more physical aspects of mimetic desire.

Those who desire mimetically are really trying to exchange their own despised being against the glorious being of their victorious model. Like Bottom, they seek a total metamorphosis, and ultimately their wish will be granted in the same paradoxical fashion.

How can Helena hope to reach her goal? How can she be translated to Hermia? Through imitation, of course: the exchange that follows makes it abundantly clear that the only technique of metaphysical desire is mimesis:

O, teach me how you look, and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius' heart.

We must take this language literally.-"Teach me how to impersonate you" is what Helena is asking Hermia. We should not regard this effort at impersonation as a mere consequence of some preexisting desire. We should not regard it only as a cause, either. It is really a circular process in which Hermia's choice of Demetrius, before Lysander's arrival upon the scene, is both a cause and a consequence of Helena's own choice.

Helena would like to resemble her model in everything; she wants every feature of her body to be an exact replica of Hermia's. Her ultimate desire is to worship herself rather than Hermia, but the only conceivable method to achieve that goal seems to be to worship the more successful Hermia first and to become a perfect duplicate of the person she really wants to be.

This is what magazines and books about fashionable people are, in our world anyway. They are how-to books. This is a recurrent problem with self-worship. The would-be worshipper always ends up worshipping someone else.

When Helena's hour of success finally arrives, it is too late for her; she can no longer enjoy it. She has been buffeted too much during the midsummer night. She believes she is the victim of some kind of hoax. Her newly found lovers are as sincere as they always were, and yet she is right not to trust eight one. Each new combination proves more unstable and short-lived than the previous one.

Everybody ends up equally frustrated. The final outcome is conflict, failure and despair for everybody. No desire is ever fulfilled, and no desire is ever reciprocated, because all desires are one and the same. In order to respond to one another, desires must be differentiated; identical desires will all converge on the same object and can only cross one another.

Why is the system of mimetic desire so unstable? Why must the long-suffering Helena finally exchange places with Hermia and become everybody's idol while Hermia now is universally loathed? The reason lies with the universal dependence on imitation. The unanimous mimetic convergence seems enormously convincing because it does, indeed, convince everybody. It seems destined to last forever, and yet it is anchored in a pure mimetic effect rather than in anything concrete and objective. It floats half an inch above the ground, and in one instant, the same wind of fashion will topple the idol that it had erected a few instants before.

Ultimately this universal snobbery of imitation constitutes a surrender to pure randomness. The dabbing of the "wrong eyes" with the magical potion is unnecessary as a method of accounting for the fickleness of the lovers, but, like all mythical themes, it half reveals the disquieting truth that it dissimulates. We choose to desire mimetically, but then mimetic desire chooses for us; it deprives us of all power to choose and discriminate. This is what the operation of the love juice suggests quite explicitly. It makes Titania as well as the young people fall in love at random:

Oberon. Having once this juice,
I'll watch Titania when she is asleep,
And drop the liquor of it in her eyes;
The next thing then she waking looks upon
(Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape),
She shall pursue it with the soul of love.

The name of the potion thus introduced in act 2, scene 1—love-in-idleness—is a satirical barb at the type of people portrayed in the play. Only youngsters with nothing to do, like the aristocrats of Shakespeare's time, or the entire well-to-do middle class in our day, can waste their time playing such self-destructive games as our four lovers.

The laws and patterns of mimetic desire govern the entire theater of Shakespeare, I believe, if only negatively, in such plays as As You Like It that do conform much more consistently than A Midsummer Night's Dream to the conventions of traditional romance. Much of the play runs completely counter to these laws, but in a spirit of caricaturally slavish obedience to the mystique of "true love" that really amounts to another form of satire, and therefore another assertion of mimetic desire.

Other plays of Shakespeare illustrate only certain aspects of mimetic desire, fragments of the entire crisis-and-resolution pattern. A Midsummer Night's Dream represents the whole dynamic cycle in a speeded-up version that can fit the time frame of a single night.

This is the same fundamental process as in the great tragedies. In their common desire to distinguish themselves from one another, the four lovers engage in a mutual imitation that brings about a warring confusion of everything and ultimately would result in violent murders, were it not for the "supernatural" intervention of Puck and Oberon.

The characters' interpretation of what happens is very much like that of the average spectator, totally blind to the logic of mimetic desire and open, therefore, to suggestions of scapegoating on the one hand and supernatural intervention on the other. The one and the other enable the victims of mimetic desire to not identify mimetic desire as the real culprit and to substitute someone or something else as an explanation.

Their view of the mimetic process is the very reverse of the truth. As all the characters become more and more alike in their undifferentiated frenzy, they perceive an immense difference between themselves and their models. As a result, they themselves feel more and more inferior, or beastly, and they perceive their models as more and more superior and divine. Between these two extremes, emptiness prevails and common humanity is on the way out. Physical violence enters the picture, and the four wander at the edge of the inhuman. Their language reflects the shift. When they speak of themselves they use images of animality and confuse their models with various supernatural figures and even gods.

As the night advances, these images become more insistent. During this last evolution, the four seem to lose control entirely; they feel dizzier and dizzier; their perception becomes blurred. They are moving closer to the trancelike condition of the participants in orgiastic rituals. Shakespeare is obviously writing his own playful reconstitution not so much of the rituals themselves as the type of hysterical mimetic conflicts that must lie behind them.

This is what we already observed in the case of the craftsmen. As the cauldron boils over, the lovers lose their ability to distinguish their overworked metaphors from real beasts and real divinities. Beyond a certain threshold, these metaphors assume a life of their own, but not an "independent" life in the sense of their being well separated from one another. The system is too unstable for that; the substitutions and recombinations are occurring too rapidly.

The youngsters start taking their beasts and their gods seriously at the point when they can no longer tell them apart. Gods and beasts are on the way to forming these weird assemblages that we call mythical monsters. As a result of the dismembering and disorderly remembering of normally differentiated creatures, with no regard for the original differentiation, all sorts of fantastic creatures appear.

We already know which ones actually appear. We are back with our old friends, the ass-headed Bottom, Puck, Oberon, Titania and all the fairies. The subplot of the four lovers constitutes a gradual genesis of the mythical metamorphoses that parallels the genesis in the subplot of the craftsmen.

This invasion of the four lovers' speech by animal images corresponds to the excessive preoccupation of Bottom and his companions with the lion and to the early metamorphoses of that terrible beast. In both subplots the images of infrahuman and superhuman creatures prepare the ground for a final metamorphosis that is the same in the two subplots.

After the four lovers wake up and leave the wood, they give Theseus and Hippolyta their own account of what happened during the night. This account is not given on the stage because it would be a repetition of everything that has occurred to both groups during the midsummer night. In other words, the four lovers end up "dreaming" more or less the same "dream" as Bottom and his friends. Even though the two groups are not aware of one another's presence in the woods, they both participate in the genesis of the same mythology, and that is why the fairies are supposed to interfere with both groups.

The craftsmen and the lovers take a not-so-different road to end up in exactly the same place. This comes as no surprise to us. We found, indeed, that the erotic desire of the lovers was no less mimetic than the impersonations of the actors. The tendency for the idolatrous imitatio to focus not on one adolescent permanently but on this one now, then on another, then on a third, constitutes the equivalent of Bottom's urge to play all the roles and turn Pyramus and Thisby into a one-man show.

In each case, it is the same hybris, the same desire to dominate everyone and everything, that ends up destroying the goal it tries to reach because it destroys the very order that makes domination significant. This is the demise of "degree" in Ulysses' speech in Troilus and Cressida. This is the essence of tragedy.

What Shakespeare sees better than the Greeks is the reason why hybristic pride is self-defeating at the individual level. Mimetic desire is a desire for self-centeredness that cannot be distinguished from mimetic "de-centering," from the desire to "be" the model. A more radical alienation cannot be conceived. It lies at the root of the subject and depends on no sexual, economic or other determinations—unlike all the partial alienations of Marxism, Freudism and other contemporary theories. The four lovers resemble Bottom in their desire for turning the group into a one-man show and their ultimate inability to do so.

We can understand why Shakespeare resorts to the same word to express what the lovers desire and what happens to Bottom in the middle of the rehearsal. The lovers desire to be translated to their models. When Bottom turns into the ass-headed monster, Quince says to him: "Bottom, thou art translated."

Translation expresses both the desire for the being of someone else, and the paradoxical "success" of that desire, the monstrous metamorphosis. In both subplots the metamorphosis is the reward or, rather, the punishment for this desire.

The two subplots are closely patterned on one another. In both instances, the first scene is a distribution of roles. In principle, each character is supposed to play a single role, but in each case, signs of instability and disintegration immediately appear.

In both instances, as the crisis worsens, we shift from the city of Athens to the wood nearby. This is what the young people in England were supposed to do on midsummer nights. The wilderness is the right place, ritually speaking, for the two escalations of mimetic frenzy and the commingling between human and supernatural beings, the temporary destruction of civilized differentiation.

In both instances we have the same two levels of interpretation that I distinguished à propos of the craftsmen: 1) the dramatic level takes the monsters and fairies at face value, regarding them either as a genuine apparition or as a gratuitous product of a purely individual imagination, which is what Theseus does in his great speech; 2) a "genetic" level sees these same monsters and fairies as the product of mimetic impersonation gone mad, mimetically affecting all the characters in the two subplots.

Everything is alike in both subplots. Shakespeare makes the whole scheme of mimetic desire obvious to the point of caricature, and then he channels it into a dramatic effect that disguises it, for the benefit of those—the immense majority—who would rather not acknowledge the existence of mimetic desire. As in the case of the actors, the mimetic behavior produces the very mythology that it needs to transfigure its own folly into the mischievousness of Puck.

The author must maintain the illusion that a "true" pairing of the quartet exists. There must be a "right" combination: the myth of "true love" demands it. If it does not have the permanence required, or if it cannot be found at all, we can always pin the blame on the "fairies," or, better still, on the Oedipal father represented by Egeus, or on the power of the state represented by Theseus. These are the only fairies in which a modern critic is allowed to believe, the Freudo-Marxist fairies.

The happy ending of a comedy is one of these conventions that must be respected. The author does not want to offend the possible censors in his audience, or the really pure at heart. Unlike our modern demystificators, even in his most daringly cynical plays, Shakespeare always allows for the possibility of innocence, as if there were no deep resentment in him, or as if it were somehow transcended.

The characters in the two subplots have no contact at all during the night. They come together only during the play within the play. The craftsmen are on stage and the lovers in the audience. It is traditional as a result to regard the two subplots as unrelated or loosely related. The comical antics of the craftsmen serve as an introduction to the play within the play, but their relevance to the work as a whole remains problematic.

The play is about monsters and has often been regarded as a trifle superficial, an elegant but somewhat empty fantasy, a mosaic of unrelated themes. The current fashion of incoherence and discontinuities has made this view more popular than ever, and yet it is completely false. But the formidable coherence of the play is of a sort that traditional criticism has never suspected.

With the blessing of its author, the play turns into a serious theory of its own mythological aspects, which most spectators and critics have always interpreted and will continue to interpret as a pure fantasy, arbitrarily superimposed on the more realistic aspects of the work. The force of the mythical metamorphosis ultimately stems from the craftsmen's and lovers' excessive taste for "translation," or for a type of "identification" that must be identified with mimesis, imitation, both because it is Shakespeare's view, and because it accounts for everything in the play. Shakespeare's own theory is the best theory of the play and of the anthropology behind it.

The proof that I have Shakespeare's blessing when I speak as I do is to be found in the smart reply of Hippolyta to the rather stodgy positivism of Theseus in act 5, scene 1, when he tells her what she should believe regarding the cause of the midsummer night. Like Polonius, Theseus does not say anything that is not true, and yet he understands nothing. Hippolyta understands everything. In my earlier article, I have quoted her in connection with the lovers only; I will quote her here once again more appropriately, in connection with the craftsmen as well:

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

Shakespeare reveals the patterns of mimetic desire and their relationship to mythic creation so powerfully in the subplot of the four lovers that the case for its presence can be made on internal evidence only. No help is needed from the other subplot, the theatrical mimesis of Bottom and his friends.

But this help is always available, and a comparison of the points the two subplots have in common is enormously enlightening. Mimetic desire remains controversial, no doubt, but since Plato and the Poetics of Aristotle, mimesis has been the major concept of dramatic criticism. In the Renaissance, the mimetic interpretation was not simply the preferred interpretation, it was just about the only one.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the presence of mimesis as a Shakespearean theme is unquestionable. I assume, therefore, that my readers will have no difficulty agreeing with me on this point: the subplot of Bottom and his friends entails a perpetual and perfectly explicit reference to mimesis.

Mimesis is certainly part of the picture in the case of the craftsmen, but something else is needed to complete that picture. The aesthetic mimesis of the philosophers and the critics does not explain why the craftsmen decided to perform Pyramus and Thisby: They are not professional actors. They did not embark on their theatrical enterprise for aesthetic reasons primarily, or to make a living, or even out of a sense of obligation to the duke. To celebrate the wedding of Theseus, they might have come up with something better suited to their cultural shortcomings. Why did they choose to do a play?

The obvious answer is: personal ambition, narcissism, desire, mimetic desire. Since all the craftsmen show up every time they are summoned, since not one of them is ever missing, the same desire for impersonation must possess each and every one of them, including the most timid, the ones who stand at the other extreme of Bottom and act out the part of the reluctant actor. The reluctance of the reluctant actor means the same thing, ultimately, as the extreme eagerness of Bottom.

Bottom, we found, could never settle on any role, not even the leading one, the most flattering to his ego. His avidity was finally punished, or rewarded, by his metamorphosis into a monster.

Most people enjoy watching a play, but the more they enjoy it, the more they also enjoy being watched by others and therefore performing as actors. The craving for impersonation corresponds to a perfect fusion of mimesis and desire.

The desire for the theater consists not in imitating some specific model but in the undifferentiated avidity of Bottom that inevitably conflicts with the pretentions of Quince and the other actors, just as the desires of the four lovers must necessarily "cross" one another.

In the case of the lovers, the one component that is identified most easily is desire. The critic does not have to demonstrate that desire belongs in the picture. But here again, this is not the whole picture; something more is needed to account for the systematic and almost algebraic aspect of the lovers' antics.

If we have mimesis plus desire in the case of the craftsmen, we must have desire plus mimesis in the case of the lovers. The second component must be imitation or impersonation. The picture is reversed, but to Shakespeare, obviously, it is fundamentally the same picture.

If mimesis is really present in the case of the actors, the case for a mimesis of desire that would belong to Shakespeare's own conception of both subplots and of the entire play becomes inescapable. A mimesis of desire can always reverse itself into a desire for mimesis. The two subplots are perfect mirrors of one another, and together, they breed the fairies. This triunity is the unity of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Unlike the ancient and modern students of imitation, unlike the Freudian students of desire, Shakespeare is not merely aware that imitation and desire cannot be divorced from each other; he realizes that, far from being the bland ingredient that the modern world sees in it, a source of sheepish gregariousness in society and of a platitudinous "realism" in the arts, mimesis (because of its admixture of desire) is an explosive combination. It constitutes the disruptive factor par excellence of human relations, the major reason for the fragility of even and especially the closest friendships and the most tender erotic relationships. The closer the friends, the more likely they are to imitate one another's desires and therefore to turn into enemies. This is Shakespeare's tragic as well as his comic insight par excellence, and it is undistinguishable from the fusion of mimesis and desire that he perpetually portrays.4


1 William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974). All subsequent quotations in the text are taken from this same source.

2 René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

3 "Myth and Ritual in Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Textual Strategies, ed. Josue Harari (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 189-212.

4 This essay should lead to a consideration of the play within the play. The theme is too rich, however, and too long for the present essay; it will be instead the subject of a separate essay, the third in a three-part study of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The author apologizes for his long delay in treating the fascinating encounter between the two types of mimetic actors.

Harold Bloom (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: An introduction to William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, written and edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 1-5.

[In the following essay, Bloom praises Bottom as the heart of the play, and as its most original figure. Bloom goes on to contrast Bottom's goodness, common sense, homeliness and humanity with Puck and his world, which threaten to "ravish reality away."]

On the loftiest of the world's thrones we still are sitting only on our own Bottom

MONTAIGNE, "Of Experience"

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.


I wish Shakespeare had given us Peter Quince's ballet (ballad), but he may have been too wise to attempt the poem. A Midsummer Night's Dream, for me, is Puck and Bottom, and I prefer Bottom. Perhaps we reduce to Puckish individuals or Bottoms. Pucks are more charming, but Bottoms are rather more amiable. Shakespeare's Bottom is surpassingly amiable, and I agree with Northrop Frye that Bottom is the only mortal with experience of the visionary center of the play. As the possible lover (however briefly) of the Fairy Queen, Bottom remains a lasting reproach to our contemporary fashion of importing sacred violence, bestiality, and all manner of sexual antics into Shakespeare's most fragile of visionary dramas. For who could be more mild mannered, better natured, or sweetly humorous than the unfailingly gentle Bottom? Titania ends up despising him, but he is simply too good for her!

Bottom, when we first encounter him, is already a Malaprop, inaccurate at the circumference, as it were, but sound at the core, which is what his name means, the center of the skein upon which a weaver's wool is wound. And surely that is his function in the play; he is its core, and also he is the most original figure in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Self-assertive, silly, ignorant, he remains a personage of absolute good will, a kind of remote ancestor to Joyce's amiable Poldy. Transformed into an outward monstrosity by Puck, he yet retains his courage, kindness, and humor, and goes through his uncanny experience totally unchanged within. His initial dialogue with Titania is deliciously ironic, and he himself is in full control of the irony:

TITANIA: 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 me On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee.

BOTTOM: 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. TITANIA: Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful. BOTTOM: Not so, neither; but if I had wit enough to get out of this wood, I have enough to serve mine own turn.

Knowing that he lacks both beauty and wisdom, Bottom is realistic enough to see that the faery queen is beautiful but not wise. Charmed by (and charming to) the elve foursome of Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed, Bottom makes us aware that they mean no more and no less to him than Titania does. Whether or not he has made love to Titania, a subject of some nasty debate among our critical contemporaries, seems to me quite irrelevant. What does matter is that he is sublimely unchanged, for worse or for better, when he wakes up from his bottomless dream:

BOTTOM: [Awaking.] When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer. My next is, "Most fair Pyramus." Heigh-ho! Peter Quince! Flute the bellowsmender! Snout the tinker! Starveling! God's my life, stol'n hence, and left me asleep! 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 [t'] 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. 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 a play, before the Duke. Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.

Bottom's revision of 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 is the heart of the matter:

Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.

But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit.


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.


Bottom's scrambling of the senses refuses St. Paul's easy supernaturalism, with its dualistic split between flesh and spirit. Our prophet Bottom is a monist, and so his dream urges upon us a synesthetic reality, fusing flesh and spirit. That Bottom is one for whom God has prepared the things revealed by his Spirit is made wonderfully clear in the closing dialogue between the benign weaver and Theseus:

BOTTOM: [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 company?

THESEUS: No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse.

Only Bottom could assure us that the wall is down that parted all our fathers. The weaver's common sense and natural goodness bestow upon him an aesthetic dignity, homely and humane, that is the necessary counterpoise to the world of Puck that otherwise would ravish reality away in Shakespeare's visionary drama.


Puck, being the spirit of mischief, is both a hobgoblin and "sweet Puck," not so much by turns but all at once. A Midsummer Night's Dream is more Puck's play than Bottom's, I would reluctantly agree, even as The Tempest is more Ariel's drama than it is poor Caliban's. If Puck, rather than Oberon, were in charge, then Bottom never would resume human shape and the four young lovers would continue their misadventures forever. Most of what fascinates our contemporaries about A Midsummer Night's Dream belongs to Puck's vision rather than to Bottom's. Amidst so much of the Sublime, it is difficult to prefer any single passage, but I find most unforgettable Puck's penultimate chant:

Now the hungry [lion] roars,
And the wolf [behowls] the moon;
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,
All with weary task foredone.
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide.
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecat's team
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic. Not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallowed house.
I am sent with broom before,
To sweep the dust behind the door.

Everything problematic about Puck is summed up there; a domestic, work-a-day spirit, yet always uncannily between, between men and women, faeries and humans, nobles and mechanicals, nature and art, space and time. Puck is a spirit cheerfully amoral, free because never in love, and always more amused even than amusing. The triple Hecate—heavenly moon maiden, earthly Artemis, and ruler of Hades—is more especially Puck's deity than she is the goddess worshipped by the other faeries. Hazlitt wisely contrasted Puck to Ariel by reminding us that "Ariel is a minister of retribution, who is touched with the sense of pity at the woes he inflicts," while Puck "laughs at those whom he misleads." Puck just does not care; he has nothing to gain and little to lose. Only Oberon could call him "gentle," but then Oberon could see Cupid flying between moon and earth, and Puck constitutionally could not. Puck says that things please him best "that befall preposterously," where I think the last word takes on the force of the later coming earlier and the earlier later. As a kind of flying metalepsis or trope of transumption, Puck is indeed what the rhetorician Puttenham called a far-fetcher.

The midsummer night's dream, Puck tells us in his final chant, is ours, since we "but slumb'red here, / While these visions did appear." What are we dreaming when we dream Puck? "Shadows" would be his reply, in a familiar Shakespearean trope, yet Puck is no more a shadow than Bottom is. Free of love, Puck becomes an agent of the irrational element in love, its tendency to over-value the object, as Freud grimly phrased it. A man or woman who incarnates Puck is sexually very dangerous, because he or she is endlessly mobile, invariably capable of transforming object-libido back into ego-libido again. Puckish freedom is overwhelmingly attractive, but the blow it strikes you will cause it no pain. Falling in love with a Puck is rather like turning life into the game of hockey.

Theseus, in the play's most famous speech, associates the lover with the poet and the lunatic in a perfectly Freudian conglomerate, since all forsake the reality principle, all assert the omnipotence of thought, and all thus yield themselves up to an ultimate narcissism. If Theseus is a Freudian, Bottom is not, but represents an older wisdom, the amiable sapience, mixed with silliness, of the all-too-natural man. Puck, quicksilver and uncaring, defines the limits of the human by being so far apart from the human.

How can one play contain both Bottom and Puck? Ariel and Caliban both care, though they care on different sides and in different modes. Puck has no human feelings, and so no human meaning; Bottom is one of the prime Shakespearean instances of how human meaning gets started, by a kind of immanent overflow, an ontological excess of being in excess of language. Only a dream, we might think, could contain both Bottom and Puck, but the play, however fantastic, is no fantasy, but an imitation that startles the reality principle and makes it tremble, rather like a guilty thing surprised.

Michael Schneider (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Bottom's Dream, the Lion's Roar, and Hostility of Class Difference in A Midsummer Night's Dream" in From the Bard to Broadway: The University of Florida Department of Classics Comparative Drama Conference Papers, Vol. VII, edited by Karelisa V. Hartigan, University Press of America, 1987, pp. 191-212.

[In the following essay, Schneider asserts that the issue of class tension and aggression is suggested in A Midsummer Night's Dream through the language of the working class characters (Bottom and his associates), and especially through the Bottom and Titania episode, whose source is "classical social satire."]

As the name itself could hardly suggest more emphatically than it does, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play that—on surface appearance anyway—has little to do with politics, let alone class conflict. Among Shakespeare's early comedies, MND is often seen as a precursor to the late romances, A Winter's Tale and The Tempest—an association which, at least traditionally, tends further to disassociate it from a socio-political reading. Shakespearean romance-comedy has been particularly amenable to twentieth-century critical work; Northrop Frye, as a notable instance, has elevated it to a privileged place. In A Natural Perspective, Frye's study of Shakespearean comedy and romance, Bottom's monologue in MND represents a definitive moment for the representation in language of the ineffable essence of dream (1965, 108-09):

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what a 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 patched 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. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of his dream: it shall be called Bottom's Dream, because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the Duke: peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.

(IV i 203-16)

Frye draws from Freud to maintain that dream at its bottom, so to speak, as expressed in this speech, forms a point of contact with the unfathomable, the incommunicable powers and paradoxes of which are, for Frye, the vital source of literature. "It is quite consistent," writes Frye, arguing for a wisdom born of folly, "with the use of incredible events and the demand for an uncritical response in Skakespearean comedy that such oracular things should be said, or hinted at, by characters even simpler than we are" (Frye, 1965, 109).

Frye's notion that the play demands an uncritical response coincides with his structural analysis of MND, and comedy in general, and the concomitant notion of comic catharsis—raising of sympathy and ridicule on the way to a redemptive calm of mind.1MND begins by raising desire for the fulfillment of desire—the plight of Hermia and Lysander—then thwarts it—the sharp Athenian law—creating a dissonance which verges toward nightmare in the bewilderment of the four lovers in the forest, only to be rescued and perfectly resolved—through the deus ex machina of Oberon's magic flower. As Puck proclaims it: "Jack shall have Jill; / Nought shall go ill; / The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well" (III ii 461-63). The last act revels celebrate the impending nuptial and powerfully evoke—especially in the context of May Day, with its echos of pagan festival—an uncritical sense of participation in the symbols of union both within the human and with the natural world. For Frye, it is a vision of transcendence, temporary but nonetheless realized, and Shakespearean romance-comedy for him represents comedy at the level of Christian myth: an enactment of redemption from the pain and chaos of the real (Frye, 1948, 171).

This reading of the play is not only Frye's; C.L. Barber's as well, arising as it does out of the anthropologically based work of the Cambridge school, is essentially congruent (Barber 119-62), and this way of reading, in broad terms, is implemented to a large degree in nearly all modern productions of the play. It is comedy, replete with happy ending and the wonderful comic effects of Bottom and Titania and the Pyramus and Thisby play. I would like in this paper to subvert and decenter this reading (and thereby enlarge possibilities for dramatic presentation) through a close reading that follows from the cultural-materialist approach of James Kavanagh, in particular, but also borrows heavily from Freud. As my reference to Marxist thought and Freud in the same sentence might suggest, my method is implied by Frederic Jameson's title: The Political Unconscious. I do not, however, presume to the structural-analytical rigor of Jamesonian theory and practice. To put it simply, if very reductively, much as a Freudian analyst studies dreams and slips of the tongue for signs of what is repressed or denied in the individual personality, one may see in the literary text signs of socio-political tension at the historical moment of production that the text—as part of its mediating function in culture—seeks to repress or deny.2

From the Marxist view of repression, what is almost always denied or understated or placed conveniently in the background of literary work, is class struggle. From this point of view, a romance-comedy, such as MND, which even by its title seems to deny the working day world, becomes suspect. From the modern view, even a reading like Frye's, drawing as it does on Freud, marks romance-comedy as a form of wish-fulfillment dream, which if we read as Freudians signifies its opposite as—what has been termed—present absence. The oxymoronic seeming illogic of "present absence" is, in fact, a fundamental logic of wish-fulfillment and desire—a child dreams of eating a candy bar when in waking life there is no candy bar to eat. What we "want" is what we don't have, what is absent in reality but present in thought, imaged as the object of desire. Elizabethan England of the mid-1590s, when MND was written and first produced, was (as I will develop) an extremely trying time even within the context of normal Elizabethan life, and suggests a rough analogy to the considerably less severe 1930s American depression, a period that produced its own popular romance-comedy, "The Wizard of Oz," as an enactment of escape from the working-class life inscribed within it. With respect to MND, several phenomena of the text offer concrete support for reading class struggle as a present absence. The language of the working-class characters, Bottom and his rude-mechanical colleagues, is a repository of verbal play—Bottom's monologue is only one instance—which hints at meaning beyond what is expressed. The play also contains, in Titania's monologue, a direct reference to the contemporary economic turmoil. It is also pertinent to this analysis that the Bottom and Titania episode has its source in classical social satire, Apuleius' Golden Ass. Each of these "nodes of meaning" points, as if the text were an overdetermined dream, toward class conflict as latent content of the play.

Many readers of MND are struck by what seems to be a fairly blatant aristocratic smugness in the derogatory remarks of Theseus and his coterie and Bottom and his working-class colleagues in the last act, and this action provides the entry-point for my analysis. When Philostrate, Master of Revels for Theseus' grand wedding celebration, describes to Theseus the production of Pyramus and Thisby which Peter Quince and his fellow amateurs have prepared, he ridicules their "tedious, brief scene" and find its pretensions to serious tragedy to be unworthy of the Duke:

And it is nothing, nothing in the world;
Unless you can find sport in their intents,
Extremely stretched and conned with cruel pain, to do you service.

(V i 78-81)3

Philostrate's scorn for the artisans—"hard-handed men," he calls them, "which never labored in their minds till now (72-73)"—reemphasizes the class demarcation already marked by Puck, who terms Quince and company "hempen homespuns" and "rude mechanicals." Philostrate also marks himself as a prig and pretentious poser; and even though his role is minor, he represents a type (along with Egeus) of the blocking character or alazon identified in Frye's analysis of comic structure (Frye, 1971, 172-73, 226-28). By urging Theseus not to see the mechanicals, he blocks the comic release which will be provided by their performance; and by insulting them, he draws antipathy on himself, at least from those elements of the audience sympathetically aligned with the mechanicals. Their clearly defined working-class status would tend by itself to arouse an identification response from many in a theater audience of the Elizabethan 1590s as well as now, and other factors also dispose us favorably toward them. By this stage of the play, they have entertained us three times. Their desire to appear before and please royalty seems ready-made to appeal to that part of each of us that wants to please our superiors (and thereby raise ourselves in social or economic status).4 As the play's broad comic relief, they are its best fun, and Bottom is the star comic role (probably played in the earlier productions by the famous Will Kempe).

As it turns out, Philostrate correctly anticipates the response of Theseus, Hippolyta and their coterie of young friends (who are happily anticipating conjugal bliss) to the mechanicals' performance. They view it as laughably amateurish. Nevertheless, Theseus dismisses Philostrate's objections and insists on hearing the play.

I will hear that play,
For never anything can be amiss
When simpleness and duty tender it.

(V i 81-83)

On one hand, the text at this point seems to intend that we participate in Theseus' generous sentiments. He has rescued the comedy from Philostrate, which releases the tension set up by Philostrate's bad review of the Pyramus-Thisby play. Philostrate's aristocratic snobbery, furthermore, makes him a foil for Theseus, authorizing us to see Theseus as the "good" Duke, a benign aristocrat who represents the "nobility" of his class and a ruler who like a loving parent appreciates his subjects' earnest desire to please regardless of their professional competence. Many in Shakespeare's audience may have responded in this way, and such a reading coincides with E.M.W. Tillyard's argument that faith in an ordered, hierarchic pattern in the cosmos and in socio-political relations constituted the prevalent Elizabethan ideology. Theseus' immediately succeeding homily on aristocratic graciousness (V i 89-105) further encourages us to feel harmonious reconciliation of class difference, a reconciliation consistent with the traditional analysis of comic structure.

Recent Marxist criticism of Shakespeare, however, tends to complicate such an ideologically stable reading (Kavanagh, Tennenhouse). From a twentieth-century point-of-view, furthermore, it is hard (at least for this reader) not to be irritated by the patronizing, far-from-benign smugness of Theseus' exhortations to simplicity and duty. The resemblance to the last line of Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper," in which an incipient working-class consciousness appears by way of ironic understatement, is rather striking: "So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm." My experience of teaching Blake's poem has been that it will not disturb the "innocent" reader who wants or needs to read it as properly pious Christian humility in the face of suffering. It tends, in fact, to corroborate the belief of such a reader, at least until he or she learns more about the poverty of London slums and the mortality rate of chimney sweepers, and reads some of Blake's more openly satiric verse. Even then, the Christian reading may persist in a provocative dialectic with the ironic reading, in a way which interrogates the meaning of "duty" and "harm" and deepens the resonance of the poem. A similar interrogative unease regarding the patriarchal order is inscribed within MND and stands in a provocative counterpoise against it, so that the play speaks in a double discourse similar to Blake's poem. It is more subtle and complex, however, in MND because the underside of the double discourse, which represents class struggle as an issue struggling to assert itself as presence in the text, is more repressed, more effectively defended against in this text than in Blake.

In Theseus and his coterie, the play presents a small model of Elizabethan aristocratic society, the dominant ideology of which is asserted at the beginning, when Theseus characterizes his conquest of Hippolyta—"I wooed thee with my sword" (I i 16) (see )—and also when Egeus invokes law to bind the arranged marriage of Hermia to Demetrius. In subversion of the patriarchy, which orders personal relations according to economic and political considerations, Hermia and Lysander invoke desire, their love for each other. But this "subversion," which instigates movement to an alternative domain, the "green world" as Frye terms it (1949, 169 et seq.), is reintegrated and contained within the final harmonius reordering represented by the wedding celebration. Ultimately, this "subversion" mounted by thwarted desire of young love doesn't seriously challenge dominant ideology as much as provide a context for its re-legitimization.5 In Bottom and the mechanicals, however, the text constitutes a genuine ideological threat to the dominant order, and because the threat is real it must be (and is) carefully submerged. The text figures this threat in various ways, but most insistently in the concern about the roaring of the lion before the ladies. The mechanicals' dialogue reveals that this threat must be presented with "discretion" or their lives are at risk, a risk which they unanimously acknowledge in their first scene—"That would hang us, every mother's son's" (I ii 71)—and which they acknowledge several times more in later scenes (I ii 57-70; II i 25-41). When Snug the Joiner makes his appearance as lion before the court, he follows Bottom's careful instructions for his speech (III i 32-41) nearly to the letter: "For if I should as lion come in strife / Into this place, 'twere pity on my life" (V i 222-23).

These tensions between courtly decorum and unconstrained expression enfigured by the lion's roar and the threat of being hanged repeat tensions which were inherent in the class differences of Elizabethan society,6 and which were particularly heightened during the years 1594-96 when A Midsummer Night's Dream was first performed. Three wet summers in succession caused disastrous grain harvests which sent food prices skyrocketing and created inflation—with speculation and profit for some, grain merchants in particular, and disaster for many of the artisan class, whose buying power decreased drastically. The price of grain, as compared to wages has in England probably not been as high before or since (Clay, vl 299; Gregg, 206; Walter and Wrightson). It is this situation of dearth and depression which Titania describes during her first appearance in the play:

Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have sucked up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Hath every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard.

(II i 87-95)7

Titania's speech dwells upon the calamitous weather which had disturbed the accustomed order of nature, but there were also outbreaks of rioting during these years; and the potential for large-scale social disorder was generally perceived as serious,8 as evidenced in particular by the enactment in 1597 of England's first Poor Law.9 These stressed social conditions form an element of the background to the production of MND which cast light upon the mechanicals and their discretion before royalty. It suggests that consciousness of class difference and, in particular, lower class resentment toward the aristocratic and rich might well have been a significant factor in contemporary response to the mechanicals' "naive" buffoonery.

The text tends to support this supposition. For instance, although Philostrate, Theseus, Demetrius and Lysander see the mechanicals as simpleton fools and laugh condescendingly at (not with) their antics, the mechanicals' dialogue reveals a certain degree of awareness about what they are doing and why. As Snug reveals at the end of Act IV, when Bottom has not yet arrived to join the others, they expect to be hand-somely rewarded for their effort, and they fear Bottom's absence will spoil their opportunity: "If our sport had gone forward," says Snug, in disappointment, "We had all been made men" (IV ii 16). Flute predicts that Bottom, as their star performer, would have been awarded "sixpence a day" for life, which in 1595 was a considerable addition to the daily wages of a weaver and may have been enough to live on (Furness 198n.25). This goes far in providing plausible motivation for the mechanicals to undertake the risk of offending nobility, particularly if it is understood as occurring under conditions of economic-social disorder considerably more dire than 1930s America. Flute's reference to Elizabethan units of currency, furthermore, would have had the immediate effect for the Elizabethan audience of locating the mechanicals' aspirations within contemporary economic conditions. The Athenian mythical setting, which provides a distancing from contemporary reality necessary to appreciate the fantasy-world love play, in effect falls away before Bottom and the mechanicals, whose needs and desires are grounded in basic economic reality.

It is apparent, furthermore, that the mechanicals expect to be laughed at when they perform. As Quince announces at his first appearance, their play is a "most lamentable comedy" (I ii 11). Bottom considers their Pyramus-Thisby play to be "a sweet comedy" (IV ii 39). Yet Philostrate and Theseus seem to miss the point. Philostrate describes the play to Theseus as if he believes it was intended to be tragical and that his "merry tears" and "passion of loud laughter" occur because "there is not one word apt, one player fitted" to its tragical pretensions (V i 61-70). As Theseus views the play, he follows Philostrate's lead and also speaks condescendingly, as if he believes the mechanicals are attempting serious tragedy: "This passion, and the death of a dear friend, would go near to make a man look sad" (V i 281-82). Neither Philostrate nor Theseus, nor others of the court party seem to realize they are watching a burlesque which parodies tragic love; they instead seem to assume that "hard-handed men" are incapable of acting with the depth of feeling appropriate to tragic love. In this respect, the text represents its aristocrats in accord with the hierarchic ideology which upholds their status; according to the dominant conception of ordered degree in nature and society, aristocrats are "better" than working-class artisans not because they are richer, but because they are inherently more refined specimens of humanity, closer to the angels, more capable, for instance, of a "noble" passion like tragic love.

At the same time, however, the text presents the mechanicals as acting in subversion of this ideology. Their Pyramus-Thisby play parodies romantic love in a play in which the aristocratic characters are actuated solely by romantic love (see ). The mechanicals, despite a certain degree of self-awareness granted to them by the text, are represented as naive and unaware before royalty. This is, of course, consistent with the behavior of an underclass.10 Furthermore, as Freud has recognized, the mechanicals' comic effect before royalty (and before us)—and thus their chance at being "made men"—depends upon appearing naive, i.e., without intention to make fun of romantic love (763 et seq.). It is only at perceiving naive lack of intention, says Freud, that we may release the inner inhibition that allows us to laugh at our own folly. Bottom recognizes the advantages of obsequiousness when he offers to moderate the lion's roar: "I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove" (I ii 75)"; and the mechanicals' discretion in general is, in effect, a representation of the text's astute awareness of the line between satire and saturnalia, (30, 37, 57)."11 This line defined a limit even to such authorized misrule as May Day. While authorities tended to recognize that the license permitted by festival enhanced their authority, this license did not include ridicule of public figures or even representation that openly implicated contemporary public events.12

The apparent naivete of the mechanicals as they enact a burlesque parody of the indulgence of the leisure class is one way in which the text of MND discretely submerges its subversive tendency, and this discretion points toward other interesting and less obvious textual discretions. There is within the language and action of the mechanicals considerable indication of the submerged aggression characteristic of class resentment. It is as if the text itself enacts an effort at repression or self-control that nevertheless, perversely and subversively, reveals itself in spite of itself. The repetitive word slips, for instance, that help to constitute—from the aristocrats' point of view—the naive laughableness of the mechanicals, form a consistent pattern; in every case, the word slips can be read as undercutting the sense that the mechanicals' play is offered in simplicity, duty, and loving obeisance. In rehearsal, Bottom tells Snug that his face should appear through his lion's neck and he should speak to the ladies "to the same defect" (III i 34). As Pyramus, Bottom speaks of "flowers of odious [instead of odorous] savors" (III i 73), and Quince says that Starveling should announce that he comes "to disfigure" moonshine (III i 52). The most remarkable instance of this subversive word-slippage, is the first part of Quince's prologue, which could hardly be more pointed in its double discourse. At each turn of phrase, class resentment and aggression undercut what appears on the surface as an obsequious desire to please:

If we offend, it is with our good will
That you should think we come not to offend,
But with good will. To show our simple skill
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then, we come but in despite.
We do not come, as minding to content you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent you,
The actors are at hand: and, by their show,
You shall know all, that you are like to know.

(V i 108-117)

If one thinks of the great chain of being as referent, Theseus' immediately succeeding comment on this prologue is especially apt: "His speech was like a tangled chain; nothing impaired, but all disordered" (V i 124-35).13

The text also couches its ideological threat in the form of submerged sexual aggression.14 The lion's roar itself suggests sexual threat, especially since it engenders repeated concern for the ladies—"to bring in (God shield us) a lion among ladies is a most dreadful thing" (III i 27-28), says Bottom. Bottom also concerns himself about the effect of his sword, which as Pyramus he must draw to kill himself—"which the ladies cannot abide" (IV i 10). Bottom's concerns about his sword echo the patriarchal phallicness of Theseus' "I wooed thee with my sword" (I i 16).15 With regard to phallic imagery, furthermore, it is notable that the mechanicals' rehearsal in the woods takes place "At the Duke's Oak" (I ii 98). It is on this plot of ground, or near it, that the text represents Bottom enacting, throught his night of love with Titania, what might be thought of as a male working-class fantasy of emasculating the patriarchy by cuckolding the king (in this case, the Duke).16 Bottom's magical transformation to an ass's head not only provides a ludicrous visual effect, it also presents a powerful symbolic image of working-class ethos. The ass as "beast of burden" suggests subjugation to a master as well as strength and steady, humble persistence at the tasks necessary to survival, values which contrast sharply with the leisure and self-indulgence of the aristocrats in the play. Furthermore, as Jan Kott has argued, the ass—as beast commonly credited with having the longest, hardest phallus—represents animal sexual potency (Kott 220).17 Titania's barely contained lust for Bottom, while he remains stolidly impervious to her charms (III i 124-86), plays out the fantasy of power. The subversiveness of this fantasy is well-submerged by its representation in symbolic imagery and its containment within a dramatic context of hilarious comedy. Nevertheless, even the comic effect of this scene has a subversive edge, to the extent that it arises from the representation of unrestrained lust in a "good" woman, especially one—who as the fairy queen—would be seen by some in the Elizabethan audience as a reference to Elizabeth herself.18

Though Shakespeare's text carries no explicit decoding of the ideological or sexual implications of the ass image, both are patently apparent in Apuleius' The Golden Ass, Shakespeare's probable source for Bottom's transformation and erotic adventure with Titania.19 Apuleius' protagonist, Lucius, is accidentally transformed to an ass by his lover, and in one episode is visited by a rich noblewoman who, enamored of his sexual equipment, has paid for the chance to spend the night with him. Her attempts at seduction while Lucius is unmoved parallel Titania with Bottom, though the description in Apuleius is considerably more explicit. Through his travels as an ass, Lucius experiences slavery and other examples of man's cruelty to man in the ancient world, and The Golden Ass is frequently read as a satire on social and economic patterns of the time (Frye, 1965, 106-07; Lindsay 22). As a probable source and background to MND, it provides an intertextual basis for finding that the language and action of the text are informed by class struggle.20

Furthermore, though the ass image is more explicitly marked as a sexual-ideological signifier in Apuleius, Shakespeare's text signals the cuckolding implications of Bottom's night with Titania. Bottom's singing about the "plain-song cuckoo," "whose note many a man doth mark," and his sexual punning—to "give a bird the lie"—are the first lines he utters after Titania's "What angel wakes me from my flow'ry bed?" (II i 116-123), and it is unlikely than many in an Elizabethan audience would miss the bawdy import of these lines. In the same vein, Quince's wordslip—"paramour" for "paragon" (IV ii 11-12)—describing Bottom's "sweet voice," (when his absence threatens to ruin their chance to be "made men") goes quite to the point of explaining his lateness. As if for emphasis, it is repeated and clarified by Flute: "You must say 'paragon.' A paramour is (God bless us!) a thing of naught" (IV ii 13-14). Once tuned to this sexual word play which provides the immediate context for Bottom's transformation, it is also hard to ignore Flute's line, during the rehearsal in the woods, which is Bottom's cue to return on stage. Speaking as Thisbe, Flute says: "O—As true as truest horse, that yet would never tire" (III i 92). In its context, spoken by Flute as Thisby to Bottom as Pyramus, as he appears for the first time "with the ass-head,"—the line strongly suggests sexual endurance and would very likely have been played for this laugh, a laugh which brings the power fantasy resonances of Bottom's transformation more to the surface of the play than is at first apparent.

Bottom's night of love instigates the unraveling of the discord between Oberon and Titania, and is also the pivotal point at which the mainstream comic action of the four bewildered lovers clarifies. Puck's lines at the end of Act III, which institute harmony among the lovers, also introduce the Bottom and Titania post-coital scene (IV ii) with another play on animal eroticism: "The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well" (III ii 463). Other commentators have noted the centrality of the Bottom and Titania action and have conferred privileged status on Bottom as a grounded center within the play's various levels of action and irony (Barber 154; Frye, 1965, 108-09; Young 186-187). He is the sole mortal character who directly participates in the fairy world. Unlike the Athenian lover, and even his fellow mechanicals, he is not frightened or bewildered but remains self-possessed, even to the point of blithely shedding Titania's declaration of love. "Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that" (III i 129-130). He is, as a representative of working-class consciousness, free from the "what fools these mortals be" antics of the aristocrat lovers.

Bottom's aplomb and unperturbed self-esteem are also a focal point for the text's repetitions of the word "ass," which establish an ironic interplay between the idea of being an ass and calling someone else one.

SNOUT O Bottom, thou art changed. What do I see on thee?
BOTTOM What do you see? You see an asshead of your own, do you?
QUINCE Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated.
BOTTOM I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of me, to fright me, if they could. But I will will not stir from this place, do what they can. I will walk up and down here, and will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid.

(III i 104-111)

Bottom has been translated; his friends and the audience see his ass-ness, and yet he doesn't waver in his steadfast sense of self. With the possible exception of Puck, who is himself (as Oberon's servant) a fairy-world evocation of working-class status, Bottom would seem to represent the character most immune to self-aggrandizing pretensions. Even in the childish enthusiasm of his aspirations to play all the parts in Quince's play, Bottom seems only to want to fulfill a role for himself as star player that his fellows, his social peers, are quite willing to grant him. Certainly in the sense of freedom from romantic illusion, Bottom is among the mortals the least ass-like; and he asserts his non-assness most when he is, in the literal sense, most an ass. Thus, when Demetrius refers to the mechanicals as asses (V i 152) and later Theseus specifically to Bottom as an ass (V i 304), we should be skeptical about their perception. I have already outlined the inability of Theseus and his coterie to perceive the parodic effect of the Pyramus-Thisby play. Theseus is also represented in his lunatic, lover, poet speech as blind to the fairy activities which govern the action of the play (V i 2-22). It would seem, therefore, that in representing the aristocrat characters as quick to apply the epithet "ass" to others, the play invites us to judge them as the more justly deserving of it themselves.21

To arrive at this class-conscious rendering of the text requires that one read through the polite surface to the aggressive gestures underneath. The text submerges and contains its class resentment behind a conventional comic structure which invites harmony and reconciliation of difference. In this way, the text, in effect, regulates itself before its audience. It seeks not to offend and in that very effort, in the careful awareness of limit, reveals its desire to transgress limit and to subvert order. This same gesture, an avowed desire to please which at the same time reveals underlying aggression, repeats in the relation which Puck's closing speech establishes between Shakespeare's play in performance and its audience:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumb'red here
While these visions did appear.

(V i 412-15)

This speech is a direct call for applause—"Give me your hands, if we be friends" (V i 426)—which echoes the mechanicals' desire to please and places the actors and playwright (in early performances at least) in the same economic and political relationship to their audience as Bottom and the mechanicals assume before Theseus' court. The first lines of Puck's speech ring clear echoes on Quince's prologue, and its double discourse is heard in the suggestion that the audience, if offended, should simply assume they have been sleeping.

Bottom's night with Titania, which heals the breach between her and Oberon, is directly linked, through Titania's Act II monologue, to redress of the economic chaos and disorder in mid-1590s, real-world England. "And this same progeny of evils," says Titania to Oberon, "comes / From our debate, from our dissension; / We are their parents and original" (II i 115-117). Bottom returns from his experience with a vague awareness of transforming vision, but retains only enough to know that the vision is beyond telling. "I have had a dream," says Bottom, "past the wit of man to say what a dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream" (IV i 203-05). "Perhaps Bottom," says Frye, "with what Puck calls his own fool's eyes, has seen something in the heart of comedy that our wisdom does not see" (Frye, 1965, 109). On the other hand, however, perhaps Bottom has experienced something which his discretion, his concern for the ladies and for his own neck, does not permit him to share. Bottom's bergomask, which closes the mechanicals' performance, is a rustic dance arising from folk tradition that expresses the working-class spirit of festival, a momentary freedom which must inevitably submit to necessity, as announced by Theseus: "The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve" (V i 352); but the roaring of the lion, the ideological threat of working-class resentment, is not quelled or reconciled by closure in this play. As Puck enters with his broom "To sweep the dust behind the door," he signals the prudent discretion and care for appearance which check the threat that lies as if behind the door of this text. His first words, describing the midnight dream world of "graves, all gaping wide" refer directly to the mechanicals' play: "Now the hungry lion roars" (V i 360).

In leaving this reading of MND with the lion roaring, my intention is not to valorize unreconciled hostility as an ideal of literary content; rather, I mean to crystallize with an image the notion that class hostility is an ever-present subtext of this play. I mean to suggest not that Shakespeare was a proto-Marxist so much as to devalue the notion, from Frye and elsewhere, that the "correct" response to Shakespearean comedy is uncritical participation in the symbols of union which the play invokes. Walter Benjamin has written that our cultural treasures "owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds who have created them, but also the anonymous toil of their contemporaries" (256-257). To aestheticize Shakespearean comedy as a moment of transcendence, a moment out of history, as Frye asks us to do, is in effect, I believe, a form of voyeurism that tends by its passivity to reproduce the oppressive social structures that defined Shakespeare's practice. Through an historical-critical awareness, such as this reading encourages, we may more responsibly participate in the hard-won moments of freedom from economic-necessity which our cultural treasures represent.


1 Both C.L. Barber and Frye (1948) find Shakespearean comedy to be structured so as to effect a comic catharsis. Barber's terminology is "Through Release to Clarification" (Barber 6-10 et passim.)

2 In using the word "text" as an active agent, I mean to signal that my argument regarding the representation in MND of class-issues at its historical moment does not depend upon the conscious intention of Shakespeare.

3 Quotations and text references are to Shakespeare The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (New York: Viking, 1969) 146-174.

4 Elizabethan popular literature and drama frequently represented the artisan class as wanting to appear before royalty and to imitate their manners and dress (Camp 99-148).

5 Marriage for love was an emergent ideology (and practice) in its own right in Renaissance England (Wright 201-09; Stone 178-95). And the gratification of this desire within the context of harmonious closure tends to validate (rather than to subvert) the authority structures that impinged on an Elizabethan subject (Montrose 69-70; Kreiger 47-51).

6 Elizabethan and Jacobean drama frequently repesented rivalry and hatred between the artisan and courtly classes (Camp 141 et seq.).

7 Because this speech refers to weather conditions like those of 1594-96 in England, it is one of the primary pieces of internal evidence relied upon to date composition of MND. Contemporary descriptions of this weather appear in Furness (Appendix 248-53).

8 There were instances of prosecution for sedition arising out of "rebellious" speeches made against the "cornmongerers" and urging the poor to organize against the rich (Greenblatt 14-15; Emmison 64-65). Sermons preached during the period also reveal concern about unruly elements of society which threatened good order, and a lecture by a Dr. King at York in 1594 refers to these unruly elements as "lion's whelps" (Furness, Appendix, 251), a metaphor that happens to coincide intertextually with "the lion's roar" in the reading of MND which I am advancing here.

9 The economic crunch also forced many rural poor to migrate into towns and cities, where strict vagrancy laws—which provided for ear-boring and hanging as penalties—were in effect and tended to be enforced with renewed stringency (Clay II 235-36, 240-41; Beier; Gregg 263-66).

10 Alice Walker in The Color Purple, for instance, has depicted Southern blacks feigning ignorance and submission before the dominant class as a way to get what they want. It is also demonstrated in the narratives of Frederic Douglass and in Latin American writing such as Manlio Argueta's novel One Day of Life (New York: Vintage, 1983).

11 Barber's discussion of Talboys Dymoke and the Martin Marprelate controversy illustrate the operation of this line between satire and saturnalia.

12 In addition to the sort of overt censorship to which Barber calls attention, the practice of Elizabethan theater was, of course, conditioned by implicit considerations inherent in the need to cultivate royal patronage and, at the same time, please a paying audience (see ). This reading of MND is, in effect, an attempt to identify and elaborate the traces of this overt and covert censorship.

13 It may be seen as consistent with the vanity and blindness to themselves of these aristocrats that Theseus, Lysander and Hippolyta dwell on Quince's "ignorant" punctuations and perceive no intended offense (V i 118-25). While I have no way to prove it, I strongly suspect that working-class aligned elements of an Elizabethan audience would have been greatly entertained by this prologue and the aristocrats' response.

14 Jan Kott's reading of this play focuses on its animal eroticism as a representation of social decadence, a reading I would amend principally by showing that Bottom and the mechanicals stand apart from the decadence and constitute an opposed, potentially corrective ideology.

15 The text also hints in other ways that "sword" is to be heard with sexual connotations. Bottom, for instance, on parting from his fellows in the first act, says that when they meet again in the woods they "may rehearse most obscenely" (I ii 97). The word slip, once again, is more than merely comic. Furthermore, when Bottom proposes a prologue to amend the potential frightening effect of his sword, he casts his noun in the plural rather than singular number: "let the prologue seem to say we will do no harm with our swords" (III i 16-17).

16 As Theseus' former lover Titania represents a fairy world double of Hippolyta, the mortal soon-to-be duchess, a doubling which is often played in performance and which literalizes the cuckolding of Theseus impicit in Bottom's night with Titania.

17 Though Kott does not document this assertion, it is well supported by a reading of Apuleius' The Golden Ass, the probable source. Lucius, the protagonist, observes that the "the only consoling part of this miserable transformation [to an ass] was the enormous increase in the size of a certain organ of mine" (Graves 71).

18 Louis Montrose's discussion of Simon Forman's dream of intimacy with Queen Elizabeth further develops the political implications of this fantasy (Montrose, 62-65) which are, of course, heightened by the relation between Elizabeth's mystique of virginity and political power, the question of an heir.

19The Golden Ass was translated into Engish by William Aldington in 1566 (Muir 68).

20 Apuleius functions in this play much like Montaigne's essay "Canibals" for The Tempest, i.e., as an intertextual support for reading political content as inscribed within the play.

21 This is, at least, consistent with the Shakespeare who has his good captain Antonio in Twelfth Night saying "In nature there's no blemish but the mind;/None can be called deformed but the unkind" (III iv 347-48).


C.L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972)

A.L. Beier, "Vagrants and the Social Order in Elizabethan England," Past and Present LXIV (August 1974) 3-29.

Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (1968; rpt. New York: Schocken, 1969).

Charles W. Camp, The Artisan in Elizabethan Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1924).

C.G.A. Clay, Economic Expansion and Social Change: England 1500-1700. 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

F.G. Emmison, Elizabethan Life: Disorder (Chelmsford: Essex County Council, 1970).

Sigmund Freud, "Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious," in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, ed. A.A. Brill (New York: Random House, 1938).

Northrop Frye, "The Argument of Comedy," in Modern Shakespeare Criticism, Essays on Style, Dramaturgy, and the Major Plays, ed. Alvin B. Kernan (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1970), 165-73, rpt. from English Institute Essays 1948, ed. D.A. Roberts (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949) 58-73.

N. Frye, A Natural Perspective, The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965).

N. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971).

Horace Howard Furness, ed., New Variorum Edition of MND (Philadephia; J.B. Lippincott, 1895).

Madelon Gohlke, "I wooed thee with my sword": Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms," in Representing Shakespeare, New Psychoanalystic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppella Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982). 170-187.

Apuleius, The Golden Ass, trans. Robert Graves (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1950).

Stephen Greenblatt, "Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre, and the Representation of Rebellion," Representations, 1983, 1-29.

Pauline Gregg, Black Death to Industrial Revolution, A Social and Economic History of England (London: Barnes and Noble, 1976).

The Political Unconsicious, Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981).

James H. Kavanagh, "Shakespeare in Ideology," Alternative Shakespeares, ed. J. Drakakis (London and N.Y.: Metheun, 1985) 144-65.

Jan Kott, "Titania and the Ass's Head," in Shakespeare, Our Contemporary (New York: Doubleday, 1964) 207-28.

Elliot Kreiger, A Marxist Study of Shakespeare's Comedies New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979).

Jack Lindsay, "Introduction," Apuleius' The Golden Ass (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967) 5-29.

Louis Adrian Montrose, "Shaping Fantasies. Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture," Representations I, 1983, 61-94.

Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Play (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).

Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977). Leonard Tennenhouse, "Strategies of State and Political plays; A Mid-summer Night's Dream, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VIII," Political Shakespeare, New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985) 109-28.

E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York: Vintage, n.d.).

J. Walter and K. Wrightson, "Dearth and the social order," Past and Present LXXI (May 1976) 22-42.

Louis B. Wright, Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1935).

David P. Young, "'A Midsummer Night's Dream': Structure" in Modern Shakespeare Criticism, Essays on Style, Dramaturgy, and the Major Plays, ed. Alvin B. Kernan (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1979) 174-189.

Language And Structure

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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 essay, Halio maintains that the language of the play, in its darkness, complexity, and in the contradictions it contains suggests that, contrary to the apparently happy ending, "benevolent providence does not always or inevitably enter into human affairs to make things right."]

In an essay called "On the Value of Hamlet," 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."1 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."2

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, 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."3 In "Titania and the Ass's Head" 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."4 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."5 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."6 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 choice,
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 moon—
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 queen
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 Leggatt says, and the joking does no harm.8 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.9

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 Moonshine" (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 Midsummer 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 double-speak 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."10 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'embarked 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 squire—
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—"spiced 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.11

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) described as a tendency to set artistic unity as a chief criterion of excellence.12 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 some years ago 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."13 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 high.


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.14 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"15 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. Oberson 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 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."16 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 nightmare terrors in "an illusion within an illusion," as James Calderwood has said, 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.17

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.


1 In Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, ed. Norman Rabkin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 143.

2 Booth, "Value of Hamlet," 175.

3 "But We Are Spirits of Another Sort: The Dark Side of Love and Magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream"' Medieval and Renaissance Studies 7 (1975): 81.

4Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964), 212.

5 Ibid. 218.

6 Ibid. 219.

7 Quotations are from the New Penguin Shakespeare ed. Stanley Wells (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1967).

8Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen 1974), 95. The New Arden editor, Harold Brooks, also refers to Hermia's "tender teasing."

9 See David P. Young, Something of Great Constancy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 126-41. For an acute analysis of Helena's speech, cf. Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1980), 98-99.

10 Introduction to A Midsummer Night's Dream, New Arden ed. (London: Methuen, 1979), cxxx. Cf. Leggatt, Comedy of Love, 96, on the experiences of the Athenian lovers in the forest: "Over and over, the violence of the ideas is lightened by jingling rhythm and rhyme."

11 On the other hand, as Bevington notes, these gods "make a sport of inconstancy." Out of her love for Theseus, Titania has helped him to ravish Perigouna, break faith with Aegles and with others; while Oberon has made love with Aurora as well as, apparently, with Hippolyta. "This is the sort of mysterious affection," Bevington says, "that only a god could practice or understand." See "Spirits of Another Sort," 90.

12Form and Value in Modern Poetry (New York: Doubleday, 1957), 83. Cf. Stanley Wells's comments on the theme of concord in his introduction to A Midsummer Night's Dream, 31. He says that the baying of Theseus's hounds is "a symbol of the possibility of a unity that is not sameness, an agreement that can include disagreement." Cf. Young, Great Constancy, 86.

13 In Shakespeare Survey 24 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 20.

14 Barton, "Limits of Language," 22.

15 Wells, introd. to A Midsummer Night's Dream, 28. Cf. Leggatt, Comedy of Love, 114: "But the artistic vision itself, which draws these disparate experiences together, is also limited."

16Dream in Shakespeare (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 81.

17 "A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Illusion of Drama," Modern Language Quarterly 26 (1965): 522. Cf. Madeleine Doran, Shakespeare's Dramatic Language (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976), 16, on Pyramus and Thisbe as a suitable antimasque for the wedding ceremony.

Stuart M. Tave (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "A League Without the Town: A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Lovers, Clowns, and Fairies: An Essay on Comedies, The University of Chicago Press, 1993, pp. 1-25.

[In the following essay, Tave examines the structure of A Midsummer Night's Dream, including the arrangement of the characters, the plot, and the language, and praises the play as "perfect in its detailed beauty and its practical workmanship."]

A Midsummer Night's Dream is the perfect place to begin. Shaw the minor social scientist insisted that A Doll's House, in its utilitarian way, will have done more useful work in the world, but Shaw the major artist knew that "'A Doll's House' will be as flat as ditch water when 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' will still be fresh as paint. . ." ("The Problem Play," 1895). Only a major artist would use such flat phrases with the instinct that here they were bluntly and exactly right. A Midsummer Night's Dream is not only perfect in its detailed beauty and its practical workmanship but it works everything out perfectly.

To begin with, there is the arrangement of characters: they are disposed in three groups and there is never a question of who belongs to which. One is the Athenian court circle, Duke Theseus and his bride, Queen Hippolyta, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius: all beautiful; all so classically and medievally and attractively named; all upper-class, the ruling center of the best society; all so well-spoken in blank verse and couplets and so witty when the occasion offers; and, most importantly, all in love. Then there is the lower class, "a crew of patches," fools, clowns, "rude mechanicals," uncultured artisans who labor with their hands, who "work for bread," whose absurd names identify them by the limited tools or qualities of their several occupations: Quince the carpenter, Flute the bellows mender, Snout the tinker, Snug the joiner, Starveling the tailor; and "the shallowest thick-skin of that barren sort," that dull-witted lot, Bottom the weaver, whose name combines so pleasantly both the mechanical trade and the level of mind (III, ii, 9-10, 13). Their uneducated prose gives them away as soon as they open their mouths. They are great misusers of words, especially when, "Hard-handed men . . . Which never laboured in their minds till now" (V, i., 72-73), they try to play the "mimic" (III, ii, 19), to act out of their class, speak a finer speech, copy a higher art; and they get it all wrong, right down to the level of punctuation, masters of unintentional fallacies.

We do not come as minding to content you,
Our true intent is.

(V, i, 113-14)

They are trying to imitate the manners of their betters to attract favorable attention to themselves and be rewarded accordingly. They can never elevate themselves, never change class, because they are such clowns. (In quarto and folio they are, by the convention of their roles, sometimes so identified—"Enter the Clownes"—and some of Bottom's speech prefixes are "Clowne" or variant spellings of that.) Finally there are, surprisingly enough, most remarkable creatures: with their names, both natural and romantically more than natural, Oberon and Titania, the Puck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth (Mote), Mustardseed; and with their powers, both overwhelming and delicate, of nature in the villagery and of romance. They are not subject to mortality, barely subject to time or space. Puck, swifter than arrow from the Tartar's bow, can put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes (HI, ii, 100-01; II, i, 175-76). He is "that merry wanderer of the night" (II, i, 43); wandering is usually a lost state for mortals, not being able to locate themselves, as it is with mortals of this play whom he misleads in the night; but not so for Puck, merry because free of the limiting condition. They are, these space-commanding creatures of the night, invisible. Their speech can be supernaturally lyrical, with no effort, when the occasion is there. They have magical powers and can lead the unknowing mortals in any direction, knowing as they do, invisibly present, what the mortals are thinking and, capable as they are, of altering those minds instantly. These are fairies. The three groups cannot be mixed; they are separate orders of beings and there is never a possibility of a member of one set moving permanently into another. If the Queen of Fairies falls in love with the Bottom of clowns that's marvellously absurd, and part of the secure fun in seeing that is the knowledge that this mismatch cannot possibly last for long.

So there we are with lovers, clowns and fairies, a complete cast, all we need, all perfect in their functions. What do they do? The lovers chase in a dance, running after one another, changing partners and then returning to first positions, working out the pattern of their pairing until they have achieved their desire. Hermia and Lysander are in love with one another and Helena loves Demetrius, who is the only piece out of place by his insistence on Hermia. If he would only fall in love with Helena all would be well, and since we are told that he was indeed once in love with her he may very well switch again. In fact that is what happens, so the problem has been solved in its simplest and most obvious solution—but only in the most complicated way, not by the one sensible move but by a complete scrambling of the original situation, so that we have lost such order as we had to start with. All is worked out to a happy end as we expected, by a means we could not have anticipated.

Hermia has a problem because of her father, Egeus; he wants her to marry Demetrius and he has an authority to enforce his demand. By the ancient privilege of Athens as she is her father's he may dispose of her either to Demetrius or to her death, according to the law immediately provided, and Theseus enforces the law. Theseus explains it to her carefully. To a daughter her father should be as a god, composer of her beauties to whom she is a form in wax "within his power" to make or mar. There is not much to choose between the two young gentlemen except that her father chooses Demetrius. "I would my father looked but with my eyes," she suggests; but no, "Rather your eyes must with his judgement look." She won't give in. This rather naughty little girl (of "stubborn harshness," her father says, and later events do let us see that he has something of a point), knowing already that the punishment for her disobedience is death, but still checking out her options, asks Theseus what is the worst that may befall her in this case if she refuses Demetrius. Not a foolish question it turns out, because there is a fate perhaps worse than death in this kind of play, life-long virginity. Theseus cautions her sensibly to think if she is the kind of young woman who can suffer that; "question your desires," he says, "Know of your youth, examine well your blood," whether she can endure the alternative of the livery of a nun in a shady cloister

To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.

They are thrice blessed that can master so their blood but she would seem to be a girl with the warm blood for this earth, likely to be "earthlier happy" by becoming the rose distilled than by withering on the virgin thorn or in that cool ambiguity of "single blessedness." She has said she does not know "by what power" she is made bold where so much power is being brought to bear upon her, but she evidently has something stronger than the godlike power arrogated by her father and ratified by ancient law which will now be executed by his Grace the Duke. She is ready to live and die in the single life rather than yield her virgin patent, her privilege, to a lordship her soul consents not to give sovereignty. Sensible Theseus tells her to take time to pause over these awful alternatives of disobedience, until the next new moon when he and Hippolyta his love will marry (I, i, 38-90). It's good advice from an experienced ruler, less convincing as coming from a man impatiently in love, and time will not make any difference. We know quite well by what power she is made bold and love will not be defeated.

That is clear enough for us to see and to say, but what is she to do? Hermia and Lysander discuss the problem, in a gracefully pathetic and not immediately relevant catalogue of lovers' crosses, a stichomythic series that lets us know the degree and kind of concern we must feel. They are not intellectuals but they do know, and it is rather a comfort, that their plight is not peculiar. All Lysander could ever read, could ever hear by tale or history, is the old story: "The course of true love never did run smooth," as he reports to Hermia, in his lovely gift not for original thought but imperishable words. It is certainly a wise saw applicable to any stage of civilization, before or after, as the more talented young Dickens, picking up the very latest technology in smooth transportation, was able to remind us once again in Pickwick, Chapter 8, "Strongly illustrative of the position that the course of true love is not a Railway." But such journeys do arrive safely at their desired end if lovers can devise the means, or some power devises for them. Hermia is restrained by a law that keeps lovers apart, the law of the state, of fathers, death, sterility. It is, she knows from the perspicuous Lysander's lecture—they do enjoy playing on the big stage—an "edict in destiny." In this immediate exemplar it is the law of Athens and he proposes that they run off to another place, where he will have another home with a more sympathetic widow aunt, "a dowager, / Of great revenue, and she hath no child. / . . . and respects me as her only son": just the sort of sentimental old lady who can handle this sort of difficulty and provide all good things. In that place "the sharp Athenian law / Cannot pursue us." The aunt's house is "remote seven leagues," so he proposes to meet Hermia "a league without the town" (I, i, 132-68). There they will begin their journey. They do meet and they do depart for that happy place where they will be free of frustrating law, where all problems will be solved and all loving desires fulfilled. But they don't have the boots for seven leagues. They do certainly find a place where other laws obtain, but it is not what they thought it would be and the laws are not what they could ever have anticipated or ever do understand; and their problems are both complicated and resolved by means more wonderful than anything they could have imagined. Young lovers have strong but limited imaginations. They will devise to steal through the gates of Athens, to meet in the wood

And thence from Athens turn away our eyes
To seek new friends and stranger companies.


New and stranger the companies will be ("strange companions," say quarto and folio). Young lovers find themselves, at the beginning of the journey of their lives, in a dark wood where the straight way is lost, under the moon, in a dream. Something has happened to those eyes we have been hearing about. We will hear much about eyes, both here and in subsequent works.

Meanwhile the other and lesser class of mortals of Athens, those clowns, have their own desires and their own difficulties which they too have to work out before the next new moon, in mounting that play they want to create and enact before the Duke and the Duchess on the wedding day at night. "Is all our company here?" The play is the "most lamentable comedy" about Pyramus and Thisbe, a very good piece of work, we are assured, and a merry (I, ii, 1-11). We are already convinced that this is a problem they will never solve, so utterly incapable as they are, but so thick that they are not even aware of their impotence and we can enjoy without any need to worry about them. Their problem, as they see it at first, is simply to find a good place to rehearse and so Quince, author and producer-director, distributes parts and tells all to meet him tomorrow night in the wood, "a mile without the town," by moonlight. There they will rehearse, for if we meet in the city, he says, "we shall be dogged with company, and our devices known." Bottom agrees that there they will meet and "rehearse most obscenely and courageously. Take pains be perfect" (80-86). In their kind, the best in their kind, they are always perfect. It is not certain if Quince's mile and Lysander's league are the same and it doesn't make much difference because they never run into one another or know that the other is there; but the wood is certainly the same place and the "company" they find there is certainly the same, new and stranger than either looked for, and their devices are known. Both young lovers and clowns come under the spell of the fairies.

What do fairies do? They are clever and mischievous, and the first thing we hear of Puck is that he is "that shrewd and knavish sprite / Called Robin Goodfellow." He enjoys laughing and jesting, as both another fairy and he tell us, scares maidens, misleads night wanderers; he's a great mimic, beguiles a fat and bean-fed horse by neighing in the likeness of a filly foal, and we will later see him doing just that sort of thing with a man or two infatuated with a girl or two (and indeed the man shall have his mare again—certain distinctions are not important to him); he has more than mortal powers of mimicry, animating objects both natural and artificial, lurking in the very likeness of a roasted crab apple in an old-woman's ale to bob against her lips and make her spill it on herself, or setting up this old favorite, always good for a "loffe":

The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometimes for threefoot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she . . .

Then the whole choir hold their hips and loffe, and swear a merrier hour was never wasted there (II, i, 32-57). But this village humor of pulling chairs out from under old women, robust as it is, isn't half as much fun as the more intimate, inside, revealing tricks he can play. The fairies streak the eyes of the young men. The mortals think they are being most reasonable when they are most mistaken. "The will of man is by his reason swayed, / And reason says you are the worthier maid" (II, ii, 121-22): that is the bright Lysander, under the spell, wooing the wrong maid. Puck, agent of the Fairy King, has a juice, the juice of the little western flower, and maidens call it "love-in-idleness," which changes vision, makes lovers blind, makes them madly dote upon the next live creature that they see (II, i, 166-72). Lysander goes to sleep saying to Hermia, "end life when I end loyalty!" and jumps up saying, "And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake! / Transparent Helena" (II, ii, 69, 109-10). That is one blind young lover.

Under the fairy spell the lovers change partners in a pretty, choreographed movement. Lysander and Demetrius had both been in love with Hermia in their pas de trois and poor Helena had been without a partner, chasing Demetrius; but now Lysander with his altered eyes runs to Helena, who still chases Demetrius, who still chases Hermia, who is now chasing the now faithless Lysander, all in a circle; then Demetrius is given new eyes and both he and Lysander chase Helena in their pas de trois and poor Hermia is without a partner, chasing Lysander. One might think that Helena, who had been so unhappy when no one loved her, so unattractive as she thought herself, in her bad moments—"I am as ugly as a bear" (II, ii, 100)—would be delighted now when any man need only see her to love her; but she has never been so unhappy, certain that a cruel joke is being played on her by both the men and Hermia, her oldest and closest, only girl friend. Then the two young men grow hot in their claims to Helena and begin to chase one another in preparation for a fight. Hermia, totally confused by everyone's actions and never one to take things lying down (as we have seen, with an importunate father or an importunate lover), now grows hot with Helena, who she is certain has been the thief of love; and Hermia is eager to get her nails at that friend's eyes. All is in chaos with them, as mixed up couples and mixed up friends, and individually mixed to the point of loss of identity.

O me, what news, my love
Am not I Hermia? Are not you Lysander?

(III, ii, 272-73)

And from that point, the lowest of their fortunes, all comes right, as Lysander returns to love and pair off with Hermia, and Demetrius is paired with helena; and that in fact was the pattern of their configuration before the play began, so the change of partners in the dance has been worked out with a lovely symmetry. The choreography seems to have been designed by an artful nature long before these particular lovers were led through its moves; and other young partners will perform it on other stages.

It has all come right because Puck, at Oberon's direction, has changed Lysander's vision once again so that he now sees clearly which girl he ought to love. The fairies have a double power. If Puck at his entrance tells us how he pulls out chairs from under old aunts, in his last appearance he sweeps the dust behind the door, a tricky bit of housekeeping that makes all neat, as far as one can see. He has another name, Robin Goodfellow, an ambiguous propitiatory name for a trickster who can do both mischief and unexpected helpful deeds for people who should be helped. Having put these young lovers to quarreling with one another he uses his talents in mimicry both to stir them up and keep them far enough apart so they can do no hurt. Having set them at odds he makes these odds all even, and no more triangles.

Yet but three? Come one more,
Two of both kinds makes up four.

Having gathered them, unknown to one another, on the ground and sleeping, he works his medicinal magic once again.

I'll apply
To your eye,
Gentle lover, remedy.

And that does the job, just as the proverb provides:

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

(III, ii, 437-63)

Having charmed Lysander's eye with the juice of love-in-idleness to send him chasing the wrong girl he has Oberon's remedy, the chaste juice of Dian's bud, to clear the eye, make the boy see the right girl. That is the counter-charm.

These young lovers, for all their bright qualities, are not much for depth or complexity, only young lovers, and that is their character. They are easy to confuse with one another. "Thou shalt know the man / By the Athenian garments he hath on," Oberon had instructed Puck (II, i, 263-64), which we may think is not a wonderfully effective method of identification coming from the King of Fairies; but then to his eye there cannot be much essential distinction between one young mortal lover and another; and Puck by dropping the juice in the wrong man's eye makes what might be called a natural mistake, which pleases him. What difference does it make except to make mortal confusion more apparent? Helena has always been understandably insistent on the lack of distinction between her and Hermia. "Through Athens I am thought as fair as she" (I, i, 227), a fact Demetrius will see as soon as his vision is corrected. Helena knows they two have always been indistinguishable, working on one sampler, while sitting on one cushion, warbling one song, both in one key

As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds
Had been incorporate . . .
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem . . .

(III, ii, 203-14)

A reader needs a mnemonic device to keep them straight in his mind. On the stage, where they live, it is plan that one is tall, fair and timid, the other little, dark and fierce, but the point is that such details matter not at all; young men may fall in or out of love with the same details, finding them attractive or repellent from one moment to the next. To be young and in love is all that counts. With not much to choose between them we would not be greatly offended if they switched partners—as the young men do, shortly, several times—but since the pattern of pairing does seem to matter greatly to them we defer to their desires, even if we can see little reason why they can be satisfied only by so specific a solution.

With little difference or depth to begin with there is not much development to expect from them. It is pleasant to see, in the women, that under the pressures of the fairies in the night certain little suppressed qualities do pop out—like the revelation of the spitfire in Hermia, of which there had been a hint in the opening of the play. And then we hear the news that Helena (that less than dependable keeper of a friend's secret plan), for all her sweet-talk of two lovely berries molded on one stem, and for all her pathetic appeal to Hermia's feminine solidarity not to join with men in scorning a poor friend, has known of Hermia's keen and shrewish quality for some time and is now willing to tattle when it may do her own cause some service: "She was a vixen when she went to school" (III, ii, 215-19, 323-25). The young men do change as much as they are able and fulfill whatever potential was there. Each does see finally which young woman is the right young woman for him and that's rather more than they seemed capable of at the start. Their history may make us wonder a bit about future stability but we must accept, on high authority, that this is the end of the change. Back to Athens shall the lovers wend, Oberon assures us, "With a league whose date shall never end," a kingly decree then independently corroborated by the other ruler, who joins them, for in the temple with us, Theseus says, "These couples shall eternally be knit" (III, ii, 372-73; IV, i, 177-78). Of course these authorities, both fairy and human, have had their own problems in love, but that's all over now. Or at least this story is over and if other characters in every time and place will play this story again in their own lives, as they surely will, for these particular creatures we have come to a conclusion.

It seems that the young men have grown up, or so they insist, even if they do not understand how they managed to do that. "I wot not by what power," Demetrius says, in echo of Hermia's early declaration of an unknown strength, "But by some power it is." It is that same power of love: his mistaken love for Hermia, now melted as the snow

seems to me now
As the remembrance of an idle gaud
Which in my childhood I did dote upon,

and the object and pleasure of his eye is now only Helena (IV, i, 161-68). It is the same declaration of maturity which Lysander had made to Helena, when he abandoned Hermia:

Things growing are not ripe until their season;
So I, being young, till now not ripe to reason

had been led to Helena's eyes (II, ii, 123-24). It is the sort of repetition which should leave us with an amused and healthy skepticism, but again our own vision should be wise enough to recognize and accept the distinction between the middle and the end of a story. Lysander was under the false charm and his words were the false words of the doting young man, Demetrius is under the true counter-charm and his words are the true words of the man in love. The sententious boy Lysander had been pompous in his certainty of reason, the no longer doting Demetrius is modest in his self-knowledge and limited understanding of what power it is, which makes him more credible. And of course we are not dependent only on his word. These are now young lovers who have become, to their capacities, small or large, ready to marry, and to marry under the auspices of those who have overseen their growing. They and their best bride-bed are blessed and they will have babies, not just any chance babies but, as we would expect in this play, perfect babies, promised by those who can make good the guarantee: the issue they create ever shall be fortunate.

And the blots of nature's hand
Shall not in their issue stand.

(V, i, 387-88)

The accidents of love are so happily behind them and, so wonderfully, the accidents of natural gestation and time are suspended for them. That is worth a word more.

Time is peculiar in A Midsummer Night's Dream. For one thing, as Dr. Johnson said, "I know not why Shakespear calls this play a Midsummer-Night's Dream, when he so carefully informs us that it happened on the night preceding May day" (his annotation on IV, i, 110). It has been often explained by other annotators but it finally doesn't make much difference.

Good morrow, friends, Saint Valentine is past;
Begin these woodbirds but to couple now?

(IV, i, 136-37)

We are told at the start that the play will end on new moon, and then the almanac says the moon will shine that night. But it really doesn't make much difference. And Shakespeare doesn't seem to have paid much attention to the time-scheme of the action. Theseus says in the first speech of the play that it will be four days and nights until the nuptial hour and Hippolyta repeats that, sensibly telling him not to be so impatient in desire, that the days will quickly turn to night and the nights will quickly dream away the time; she is right, the time goes quickly and is largely dreamed away. His prediction isn't true and neither he nor any of his subjects seems to notice that it cannot be much more than forty-eight hours (with one very long night). But then it really doesn't make much difference. No one can be confused by any of this except any foolish mortal who tries to stop the action to get the timing right. All this in a magnificently crafted, jewelled play. Time is dramatically quite unimportant in A Midsummer Night's Dream. We are given an expectation of a tight dramatic chronology which indicates tension—Hermia must make her decision and the lovers must work out their fates within four days, the clowns must get their play into production in that same short rehearsal schedule, the fairies must do their work before the night in the wood ends—but we in the audience can all hang loose. Time is unimportant because once we enter the wood, under the moon, in the dream, the complications and the resolution will all be moved instantly, magically. Puck drops the juice of the charm in the eye and the vision is distorted, he applies the antidote, the counter-charm, and the vision is clear. No time is needed in that more than mortal realm (and in fact these fairies don't have to run at the end of the black-browed night). Like everything in this play, changes are perfect, immediate.

We can believe in that magic because we can believe in these fairies. They speak a more than mortal language. But we believe too because it is not a meaningless stage-magician magic, mechanical tricks which seem to violate the order of nature and have no consequence, no revelation. "O strange! We are haunted!" (III, i, 86), but this is magic which makes palpable the reality which we then recognize as true when it is opened before our eyes. Bottom is translated for us—"Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated!" (98)—into the ass's head he has always carried on those shoulders. We see his metaphor; it is a clever turn. As the translator explicates, ". . . those things do best please me / That befall prepost'rously" (III, ii, 32, 120-21), back to front; and, in this instance, it shall be called Bottom's figure because the ass is foremost. But Bottom returns it upon us as well as upon his fellow clowns: "What do you see? You see an ass head of your own, do you?" (III, i, 97). Such simple magical sport with space—the best magicians need little paraphernalia to achieve great effects—changes the vision. What we see has always been there, and we know that, but we have never seen it with such eyes before. There, is nothing much to Gulliver's Travels, as Dr. Johnson saw: "When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest" (Boswell's Life, 24 Mar. 1775), and he is simply right. Quite simply, as we say, once you've read Gulliver's Travels and have seen that strange translation of space you will never see human beings on the same scale again. In their magical sport with time the fairies let us see, what we can now recognize in quick-time, or no-time, the common human processes we cannot see so brilliantly with our daily vision by a daily clock. Young lovers fall in and out of love with an unreasonable readiness and frequency, so we are not disbelieving but greet delightedly what is made more apparent here by the fairy spell. Lysander, in the wood, chases the wrong girl, but young men have been known to do that without supernatural intervention; Demetrius was doing it in the first act. One understands too, by way of further sharpening our daily vision, that the magic has entered this play before the fairies. "This man hath bewitched the bosom of my child," Egeus had been complaining as we started; the young man has given her rhymes, he has by moonlight been singing to her with feigning voice verses of feigning love, stolen the impression of her fantasy, her imagination (I, i, 27-32). Egeus hasn't got it all straight but in his stuffy way he is telling us about the sort of thing that goes on in the magical dream. It is also true that the kinds of transformations worked on the mortals in the dream are, at long last, what they have been always longing for. Helena wanted translation before it came upon Bottom. Sickness is catching, she said, and she'd give the world if she could catch Hermia's looks that way, her ear, her eye, her tongue, to make herself as attractive to Demetrius.

Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I'd give to be to you translated.


And her wish is granted, they two being already so much alike that a drop in Demetrius' eye makes all the difference.

The sport is taken one step more, because no one is exempt from the magic. It is a funny foolish mortal show Puck is directing and watching:

Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!

(III, ii, 114-15)

But his role, above the pageant of the laughter, is, even for him, impossible to sustain untouched. At least, as the fairies are themselves dramatic creatures, participants in an action, they have, necessarily by that condition it seems, their own problems, their lovers' quarrels, complications, resolutions, and they too play their roles in the fond pageant. Oberon and Titania are not quite faithful, something willful and petty, tricky and tricked, capable of mistakes in the night. There is evidently some power which handles that show, some "fate" which "o'errules," as Puck says (93), who sees to it that Oberon and Puck slip from that glorious language to an imprecise communication which leads Puck to drop the juice in the wrong eye: some super-Puck who laughs and says, "Lord, what fools these fairies be." All things circle in this play.

All desires are fulfilled and everything works out to a complete harmony and reconcilement of all opposites. Theseus and Hippolyta, the mature lovers, have turned their war to love before the play begins and have set a good example. The young lovers have been sorted out and Theseus ratifies the obviously desirable arrangement he finds. "I beg the law, the law upon his head!" Egeus demands against Lysander, but Theseus is both a lover himself and a more sensible judge and will not grant that. "Egeus, I will overbear your will" (IV, i, 152, 176). Oberon and Titania have already settled their difference in their way; that is important because the order of nature, the order of human time, had been disturbed by their quarrel—things won't grow up

and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained his beard;

this is a matter of not only unseasonable weather but of the medical problems it brings, contagious fogs, murrain, rheumatic diseases, distemperature (II, i, 88 ff). The kinds of immaturity and sickness which have been giving Demetrius such troubles and which, now "in health come to my natural taste," he recognizes (IV, i, 165-71), have been cured by Puck's remedy; as the now loving amity of the fairies helps make possible a healthful resolution of the human problems. The fairies dance, something they do so well. A dance of this sort celebrates the attainment of desires, the ceremony when all participate harmoniously, all are lovingly alive and active and all is delightfully ordered: there is at once full freedom and full union, to signal the happy solution and the restored or newly shaped kinetic stability. In their double capacity the fairies lead the mortals "about a round" and they dance in "a round" (III, i, 88; II, i, 140). The circle is completed.

And the most discordant sounds harmonize, as even the dispersed company of clowns is reunited and is joyful. Bottom, that perfect clown who has always thought that he can play any and every role, who can create chords that would be impossibly self-contradictory for anyone else, can roar you as gentle as any sucking dove, has been at home among the fairies too because he has "a reasonable good ear in music. Let's have the tongs and the bones" (IV, i, 26-27). Shortly after this request is offered—we are getting a remarkable orchestration—there follows the very different fairy music and the dance that ends the dream. Which in turn is immediately succeeded by the dawn and the hunting horns that will wake the lovers. Theseus is there with his love and his hounds. "My love shall hear the music of my hounds." He wants her to

mark the musical confusion
Of hounds and echo in conjunction.

As one who has been with Hercules and Cadmus once, when in a wood of Crete they bayed the bear with hounds of Sparta, she has heard such gallant chiding, when groves, skies, fountains and every region seemed "all one mutual cry":

I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.

In this friendly rivalry he will not be outdone because his magnificent hounds are bred out of that same kind and "matched in mouth like bells, / Each under each. . . . Judge when you hear" (103-24). It is at this point in the strange composition that he sees the sleeping lovers and is surprised to find the clashing young men in such unity.

I know you two are rival enemies:
How comes this gentle concord in the world . . . ?


They can reply only more amazedly, because no one can understand the marvellous harmony of the dream and the wisest is he who hath simply the best wit of any handicraft man in Athens, who knows it hath no bottom.

But in fact not everything has been brought into a concordance, because all this dance and all these wonders are accomplished by the end of Act IV and there is still an act to follow. The clowns haven't yet done their act. They've been looking forward to this performance to complete their happiness and gain their reward—Bottom could not have scaped sixpence a day—and we've been looking forward, too; and some sort of general rejoicing, not for fairies only but for the clowns and for the lovers young and not so young, would be appropriate. The last act certainly is fun and worth the wait and it couldn't very well have been offered before the resolution of the several problems. But that's a pretty long afterpiece, if that's what it is, a bit much for a playwright who has been working with a delicate shaping touch. In that shaping, of course, Pyramus and Thisbe does seem right in the place where it is, because we have begun in Act I in a world of reality, such as reality is in our base line in Duke Theseus' Athens, then we have adjourned to a long middle passage in the world of the fairies, wood within this wood, and now we return to the home reality again; and that arrangement is, like everything in this play, perfectly symmetrical. If anything, we are more real than ever as we leave the fairy cobweb for the "palpable gross," for onion and garlic eaters. But then to what reality are we returning? A very strange reality, it seems, which is a play within the play and, as scripted and presented, the most absurdly unreal thing we've seen, a tragically disastrous parody of the course of true love. No problems get solved here, either by Pyramus and his love or by their personators. This is, in its own effort, less credible than the dream. Which should we believe?

It is a question worth debating and Theseus and Hippolyta talk it over, in two stages; which leads us to think that this marriage of two mature and experienced people, both like and unlike one another, whose acquaintance began in a less understanding dispute, will be a good marriage. The young lovers had been amazed as they came out of the dream, "Half sleep, half waking," "cannot truly say" at first how they came to be where they are. For a moment their eyes hesitate between a vision of the two worlds:

Methinks I see these things with parted eye,
When everything seems double . . .
Are you sure
That we are awake? It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream.

But in their youthful bounce it doesn't bother them much or stop them long in thought and, confident that they are now awake, off they go: "And by the way let us recount our dreams. [Exeunt lovers]" (IV, i, 143-44, 186-96). But Hippolyta is stopped by the recount: "'Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of." Not so Theseus, who doesn't believe the dream at all: "More strange than true. I never may believe / These antic fables, nor these fairy toys." Lovers, madmen, have such seething brains, shaping fantasies, "that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends," imagine more than any sane person can understand. His cool reason knows that "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact." Theseus is a very sensible man and a good ruler and has given his proofs, and by a life's experience he knows a thing or two about being in love. Hippolyta knows rather less but she has a more open mind on this subject, not certain in skepticism as he is, and not credulously insistent either:

But all 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 . . .

If all the lovers had the same dream, a transfiguration of all minds that has a coherence, then there seems to be evidence of a story of life, a story with more meaning than the antic fable of seething brain, or of poet's eye rolling in a frenzy of art, those images of fancy so confidently dismissed by the single-visioned Theseus. She doesn't know what happened—how could she? who could?—but knows that even if she can't understand it something remarkable happened: "But howsoever, strange and admirable." She accepts the possibility of the inexplicable and wonderful, the shared dream of love. Theseus turns off the question: "Here come the lovers, full of joy and mirth," which, though it is not his intention, is as close to an explanation as we are likely to come (V, i, 1-28). To us who have been listening to this little inconclusive lovers' disputation it would appear that if the dream is more than cool reason ever comprehends and it more witnesseth than fancy's images—well, at that point, between reason and fancy, it is useless to argue in oppositions, for discords disappear in love and mirth. In this work we are suspended, perfectly, it seems, in a moment in a place of concordant reason-imagination, real-unreal, life-art. And now here come the clowns, full of life and art.

Theseus wants something more delightful than this dream he can't believe, to wear away the anguish of three hours before the wedding bed. Masques, dances, mirth, "What revels are in hand? Is there no play . . . ?" (V, i, 32-38). There is a choice of old stuff, pseudoserious stuff, not sorting with a nuptial ceremony, but also on the menu he reads

'A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth'—
Merry and tragical? Tedious and brief?
That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow.

Theseus has found another question in harmony. "How shall we find the concord of this discord?" (56-60). That piques his interest, more than he asked for or could have thought possible, this kind of strangeness. He is told that it is a very poor play, really both brief and tedious, really tragical with a death which makes the eyes water, but "more merry tears / The passion of loud laughter never shed." That increases his curiosity. "What are they that do play it?" He is told that they are hard-handed men that work in Athens, men who never labored in their minds till now, and have now toiled to present this play for his wedding. "And we will hear it." He is told it is not for him, it is nothing, nothing in the world, unless he can find sport in their intents, so little ability so stretched with cruel pain to do him service. "I will hear that play." This is an impressive Duke. He knows that "never anything can come amiss / When simpleness and duty tender it . . . take your places, ladies" (61-84). His own lady is not pleased. The Queen of the Amazons is a gracious and feeling lady. We have seen her sensitive, thoughtful response to the dream, better than his confident assurance. She feels for these toiling men; she loves not to see wretchedness overcharged and duty in its service perishing. He honors her feeling but this is something in which he knows more than she. "Why, gentle sweet, you shall see no such thing." But the master of the revels has just said they can do nothing in this kind. "The kinder we"—witty man—"to give them thanks for nothing."

Our sport shall be to take what they mistake;
And what poor duty cannot do, noble respect
Takes it in might, not merit.

It is not only these inarticulate simples who mistake, because experienced Theseus has seen great clerks in their premeditated speech, with practiced accent, shiver and look pale, not paying him welcome, "Make periods in the midst of sentences" (as Quince the Prologue will now do). "Trust me," he says, ". . . Love . . . and tonguetied simplicity / In least speak most, to my capacity" (85-105). She should trust him, as a Duke of noble respect who knows how to value "might" and who knows how to watch a play. So it starts.

Those young lovers, Lysander and Demetrius, are witty fellows, very clever in their language, very witty spectators of the foolishness of that play and players they are watching. One might think they should be more thoughtful, more self-conscious at this replay of their own fond pageant. But no, that's all past—Oberon has in kindness erased the memory—for why should happy lovers be obliged to draw solemn lessons from their own conduct and not leave that to other, unseen, spectators? Hippolyta, not very happy with this whole idea of watching such incompetent actors on the stage, can't stand the thing. "This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard." She didn't say that about the dream. Theseus, enjoying himself thoroughly, instructs her in dramatic illusion: "The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them." He knows how to transfer from his inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these "shadows of imagination" that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith (Biographia Literaria, ch. xiv). She is the sensible one now and she won't have any of that: "It must be your imagination then, and not theirs." But he understands how to see shadows of this kind—"If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men"—because he is ready to allow for imagination here. "Here come two noble beasts in, a man and a lion" (V, i, 204-10). Theseus disbelieves the fairy toy of the dream but willingly suspends disbelief to enjoy the play; to Hippolyta the play is silly but the dream is something of great constancy. Theseus has one kind of imagination, for a play of very tragical mirth, but he cannot extend that effort to the dream; Hippolyta, who cannot dismiss the dream, lacks the imagination to enjoy the play. For us spectators, needing both kinds of the faculty, because we know what we have witnessed and can deny neither scene, dream and play seem to bear a mutual effect, each gaining credibility for each, discords resolving in concord.

The art of the mechanicals cannot be dismissed. Fairies are poets, in their language and in their dramatic art, as inventors of amusing scenes in which they direct the actors who do not know how wonderfully they are being staged. That art needs an imagination of power; and even within Puck's play about lovers, in their own less knowing imaginations the distracted lovers themselves sometimes think that they are being made to play roles in scenes invented by one another. Clowns are lunatics trying to be poets, and do not have that imagination of power, that imagination which can take the forms of things unknown and turn them to shapes and give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. Shapes and names give them endless problems. And Bottom fears they will be too real—"you think I come hither as a lion . . . No, I am no such thing; I am a man, as other men are"—or not be real enough—"Look in the almanac—find out moonshine, find out moonshine!" (III, i, 32-34, 40-41). In their chaos this company cannot find out that constancy of a story told by a shaping imagination. But then if we see how the best in this kind does it, the King of Shadows, we cannot think too badly of these less good shadows. We have been hearing and watching Oberon play a scene for well over a hundred lines when he informs us, at the moment when this remarkable confidence suddenly becomes necessary: "I am invisible" (II, i, 186). Yes, we say, we can see that now. It is a mutual endeavor. This shadow teaches us and, as Theseus instructs Hippolyta, our imagination must amend this shadow; we now see him with our eyes (perhaps he draws about him his invisibility robe) and we see with our imaginations, at once. So for all his clownish incompetence as an artist neither we nor anyone can simply look down on Bottom or his imagination. Theseus, the ruler by day, for all the excellence of his kind of imagination, does not have the imagination to see how much he has in common with this sweet Bottom who has been transported; Theseus, like the lovers and no more aware than they, has been watched over by the fairies: but Theseus, like Bottom and still less aware than he, has been loved, in one strange sense or another, by the Queen of the fairies. Bottom had given him and us, his two audiences, fair warning on our vision: "let the audience look to their eyes" (I, ii, 20). Bottom has wit; nay, he can gleek upon occasion. But he won't flaunt it, won't set his wit to so foolish a bird as a cuckoo, and more impressively, won't let the Queen of the fairies, in her unknowing irony, flatter his beauty or his wisdom. Not so, neither, but if he had wit enough to get out of this wood, as he says, he has enough to serve his own turn; and she may croon the fairy blandishment, "Out of this wood do not desire to go," and she may try to feed him with fairy fruit, "with apricots and dewberries, / With purple grapes, green figs and mulberries," but his great desire is to a peck of provender, to munch your good dry oats, or hay, for "Good hay, sweet hay hath no fellow" (III, i, 112-26, 144-45; IV, i, 29-31). He knows the limits of wit. If Bottom's senses and language have been more than ordinarily mixed in a dream, and the eye of man hath not heard and the ear of man hath not seen, and if his tongue is not able to conceive nor his heart to report what his dream was, if he has not the imaginative language to recount it, and if he thinks touchingly that only a ballad by that poet Peter Quince could do the job, he is not such an ass as to go about to expound this dream which, in either of its double senses, has no bottom. He has had an exposition of sleep come upon him. To the lovers all the derision shall seem "a dream and fruitless vision" (III, ii, 370-71), but he has had what no other sees, except for us with whom he shares it. "I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was" (IV, i, 200-09).

The wit of man in the night, in the dream, the shadow, under the moon, has difficulties seeing all that is there and those varied, opposing and changing forces. The night is a time of fear and of love. The moon brings the hours of beauty and of lunacy. Dreams are nightmares, or, in their fulfillment of all desire, everything. Shadows are the least substantial things, ghosts, at a remove, or two removes, from reality, and they are the most substantial, the spirit, the essence, the revelation of the meaning. Shadows, like dreams, may be airy nothing, like dreams may be strange and wonderful. They are the stuff of art, that thing which is least real and most real, taking us to the edge of another world. Puck in his last words invites the audience to meet him there, at the border:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear . . .

He invites us into the dream and the play and we have reason not to trust him wholly; this may be his last and best trick. But he needs us there, half-way, as we need him. The best in this kind are but shadows, we know by now, and need imagination to help mend them.

Gentles, do not reprehend;
If you pardon, we will mend.

It is an extraordinarily modest request from one who seems to need offer no apologies to us, who are all in his debt. But he insists on having our friendship and we are ready to respond because he has so much to offer in return.

Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

(V, i, 401-16)

It is all a special experience, in a created world carefully marked off in time by the brief days and nights of confusion and celebration preceding the nuptial hour, indeed by the immediate no-time magic of the fairies, carefully marked off in space by the roundel and fairy song that fence Titania's bower and hold out spotted snakes, thorny hedgehogs, spiders, beetles black and snails (II, ii, 1-30). It is essential that we know such things do live outside the charmed circle, look in upon us here because they are explicitly excluded, and that we know, as Puck tells us, there are ghosts wandering here and there home to churchyards, and damned spirits who go to and from their wormy beds (III, ii, 381-87). Ladies need not fear when lion rough in wildest rage doth roar because he assures all that he is Snug the joiner, and it is understood that he is a very gentle beast, and of a good conscience; but Puck reminds us before he sweeps the dust behind the door that there is another kind of beast and now that hungry lion roars (V, i, 211-19, 349). There are the disfiguring mole, harelip, scar, mark prodigious, those blots of nature's hand that frighten parents and at other times than now certainly may be upon their children (387-92). We have known from the beginning that in the history of the course of true love not everything has run smoothly at the end, that even if there were sympathy and no other tried to stop the course, war, death or sickness did lay siege to it,

Making it 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.

(I, i, 141-49)

The shadow, the dream, the night, may not be friends, the quickness of time may bring the brightness to confusion and not bring it back. Not all fairies are so helpful and even these we see have given proofs that they too can do harm enough. But if these have the charm to put their mischief upon the sight they are dependably there with the charm that takes off the blindness, opens the eye. They have the language—charm is a song, the carmen that casts the spell—and it is the magic of the language which creates that special circle of beauty, on the bank

where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,

and encloses it completely,

Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.

There sleeps Titania (II, i, 249-53). It is, for that moment, verifiable by the human senses (Bacon, writing of gardens, says the sweetest smell in the air is yielded by the violet, next to that the muskrose, then too sweetbriar, i.e., eglantine, then honeysuckles, i.e. woodbine; and among those few flowers that perfume the air most delightfully, being trodden upon, is the wild thyme). In that created circle and in that way, with the shapes and colors and odors and tastes and motions so specific and of such constancy, the reality of that imagination cannot be denied; and in that way the play never becomes sentimental but a most rare vision of completed aspiration. . . .


The text is the edition by R. A. Foakes, "New Cambridge Shakespeare" (Cambridge, 1984). References are to act, scene and line numbers; where successive quotations in the same paragraph are from the same scene the act and scene numbers are not repeated.

Shaw is quoted from Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson (New York, 1961), pp. xiii-xiv.

Barber, C. L., Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1972 ed.)

Berry, Ralph, Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form (Princeton, 1972)

Bevington, David, "'But We Are Spirits of Another Sort': The Dark Side of Love in A Midsummer Night's Dream, " Medieval and Renaissance Studies, VII (1975, published 1978), 80-92

Brown, John Russell, Shakespeare and His Comedies (London, 1957)

Calderwood, James L., Shakespearean Metadrama (Minneapolis, 1971)

Cope, Jackson I., The Theater and the Dream: From Metaphor to Form in Renaissance Drama (Baltimore, 1973)

Dent, R. W., "Imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shakespeare Quarterly, XV, No. 2, (1964), 115-29

Dunn, Allen, "The Indian Boy's Dream . . . Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream" Shakespeare Studies, XX (1988), 15-32

Evans, Bertrand, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford, 1960)

Fender, Stephen, Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream (London, 1968)

Garber, Marjorie B., Dream in Shakespeare (New Haven, 1974)

Girard, René, "Bottom's One-Man Show," The Current in Criticism, edd. Clayton Koelb and Virgil Lokke (West Lafayette, 1987)

Huston, J. Dennis, Shakespeare's Comedies of Play (New York, 1981)

Kermode, Frank, "The Mature Comedies," in Early Shakespeare, "Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies" 3 (1961)

Kott, Jan, The Bottom Translation (Evanston, 1987)

Leggatt, Alexander, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London, 1974)

Nemerov, Howard, "The Marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta," Kenyon Review, XVIII (1956), 33-41

Nevo, Ruth, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London, 1980)

Summers, Joseph H., Dreams of Love and Power: On Shakespeare's Plays (Oxford, 1984)

Young, David P., Something of Great Constancy: The Art of A Midsummer Night's Dream (New Haven, 1966)

Zimbardo, R. A., "Regeneration and Reconciliation in A Midsummer Night's Dream, " Shakespeare Studies, VI (1970), 35-50

Further Reading

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Absher, Tom. "A Midsummer Night's Dream." In Men and the Goddess: Feminine Archetypes in Western Literature, pp. 85-96. Rochester, Vt: Park Street Press, 1990.

Argues that both Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream demonstrate methods of contacting the supernatural world and "touching the web of sacred, symbolic reality."

Arthos, John. "The Spirit of the Occasion." In Shakespeare's Use of Dream and Vision, pp. 85-110. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977.

Explores the theme of change in the play and argues that part of the play's appeal "is the fun in the proposition that humans are as helpless as the creatures in dreams."

Boehrer, Bruce Thomas. "Bestial Buggery in A Midsummer Night's Dream" In The Production of English Renaissance Culture, edited by David Lee Miller, Sharon O'Dair, and Harold Weber, pp. 123-50. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Explores the play's "symbolic coupling of human erotic desire to animal objects" within the historical context of "Elizabethan theatrical decorum."

Calderwood, James L. "A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Note on the Text" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Stage History and Critical Reception." In Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream, pp. xiv-xxvi. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992.

Offers a general introduction to the play, commenting on the differences between the quarto and folio editions, the date of composition, the sources from which Shakespeare drew, and the critical reception of the play from the mid-1600s through the twentieth century.

Faber, M. D. "Hermia's Dream: Royal Road to A Midsummer Night's Dream." Literature and Psychology 22, No. 4 (1972): 179-90.

Attempts to get to "essential meaning" of A Midsummer Night's Dream by using dream analysis to interpret Hermia's dream.

Gui, Weston A. "Bottom's Dream." The American Imago 9, Nos. 3 and 4 (Fall-Winter 1952): 251-305.

Uses Freudian psychoanalysis to investigate the meaning of the play as a dream, and to uncover the aspects of Shakespeare's life which contributed to the creation of the play.

Heuscher, Julius E. "Theseus and Hippolyta on the Couch." The American Journal of Psychoanalysis 49, No. 4 (1989): 319-27.

Examines the "interlacing psychological worlds" in the play, as well as the play's mythological and ancient Greek sources and themes.

Holland, Norman N. "Hermia's Dream." In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélla Kahn, pp. 1-20. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Examines different ways of reading Hermia's dream in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and claims that psychoanalytic identity theory "can go beyond the earlier relationships with literature that psychoanalysis made possible."

Langley, T. R. "Shakespeare: Dream and Tempest." The Cambridge Quarterly XX, No. 2 (1991): 118-37.

Compares A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest within the context of Elizabethan entertainment in general and the masque in particular, a genre to which both plays allude.

Richardson, Brian. "'Time is Out of Joint': Narrative Models and the Temporality of the Drama." Poetics Today 8, No. 2 (1987): 299-309.

Reviews the time schemes of the play, noting that Shakespeare presents two distinct time schemes which are "internally consistent but mutually incompatible," and argues for a new way of understanding such narrative sequences.

Slights, William W. E. "The Changeling in A Dream." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 28, No. 2 (Spring 1988): 259-72.

Analyzes the role of the changeling boy in the play, stressing that at the play's end, the issue of the boy has been left, like many other aspects of the play, unresolved, and that the unpleasantness of such irresolutions are left to coexist with the marital bliss and the joys of comic theater.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vol. 29)


A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vol. 58)