(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,

(The entire section is 25523 words.)

Love And Marriage

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 17335 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Language And Structure

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 14912 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 570 words.)