A Midsummer Night's Dream
Believed to have been written circa 1594, A Midsummer Night's Dream follows the comic adventures of four lovers in a wood populated by fairies who are busy trying to sort out their own romantic differences. At times, the play's language and subject matter approach tragedy, but its ending, which features happy weddings for all the principal characters, solidifies the play's designation as comedy. These genre issues, as well as the play's language and structure, form the basis of much of the critical discussion of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The sexual escapades of the lovers, as well as the fairies, are also of critical interest. Other areas of scholarly debate include the play's concern with myth and ritual, and the problematic role of the changeling child.
Although designated as a comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, with its emphasis on the exploits of the four lovers, is often viewed as a romantic comedy. M. E. Comtois (1985) argues, however, that what the lovers contribute to the play is not romance, but farce. Comtois examines the comic role the characters play, particularly through the mistaken-assumption scenario, and states that it is only in the final act of the play that they function within the construct of romantic comedy. Helen Hackett (1997) studies the romantic and often tragic aspects of A Midsummer Night's Dream, particularly the allusions to the wrong paths the characters are tempted to take in the name of love, and the play's hidden threats of mortality. Hackett also discusses the “fortunate” happy ending, pointing out that the happy ending is in part derived from the play’s emphasis on the relatively new concept that marriage should be based on love.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is rife with sexual content. Vicki Shahly Hartman (1983) explores the play's sexual issues, observing that Theseus and Hippolyta represent mature heterosexual intimacy and proper gender identity. The incestuous desires of the parent figures Egeus and Titania, explains Hartman, contrast with the children of the play—including Bottom—who resist seduction in either an active or passive manner. Hartman emphasizes that the play is optimistic about “man's ability to answer the discord between societal restrictions and instinctual impulse with a ‘dream.’ …” The Bottom-Titania relationship is the focus of Bruce Thomas Boehrer's 1994 study of the bestiality in the play. Boehrer shows that in an effort to regain domestic harmony, Oberon places Titania in sexual bondage to a donkey. The play suggests, Boehrer argues, that human nature is threatened by “the bestial and/or female other” and must consequently be guarded against this threat. Jonathan Hall (1995) is more interested in the sexual politics, rather than the sexuality, of the play. Hall assesses the violence of the patriarchal order, which is represented by Theseus and dramatized in his conquering of Hippolyta, and in the choices—including death—with which he presents Hermia.
Issues concerning language and structure are of perpetual interest to Shakespearean scholars and A Midsummer Night's Dream offers a variety of avenues for study. Garrett Stewart (1981) discusses Bottom's “awakening speech” in Act IV, scene i. Stewart examines Bottom's insights regarding the relationship between dream and drama, and the language he uses to express his revelation. Robert F. Willson, Jr. (1981) is concerned with the way anticlimax is used as a structuring device in the play. Willson studies situations in which characters or events take a tragic turn, only to be undercut by speeches or other events. Critics have also analyzed the play's structure in its relation to ritual and myth. Anca Vlasopolos (1978) demonstrates the parallels between the ritual of Midsummer, or St. John's Day, and the play's structure. Vlasopolos observes that both the ritual and the play possess a dual—Christian and pagan—frame of reference and both encompass a night of “misrule” followed by a holy day. René Girard (1979) takes a different approach, focusing on the process by which the animal and metaphysical imagery in the play lead from the mimetic desire of the lovers to the creation of myth. Girard goes on to suggest that the play presents Shakespeare's generic theory of myth.
The changeling child, although he never appears on stage, plays a vital role in A Midsummer Night's Dream, as he is the impetus behind the chaos in the fairy world. Oberon commands Titania to yield the child to him and it is her refusal to do so that spurs Oberon to bewitch her into her infatuation with the ass-headed Bottom. William W. E. Slights (1988) observes that there is no resolution between Oberon and Titania regarding the changeling and argues that the child reflects the play's indeterminate nature and emphasizes the fact that no single or higher truth is solidified at the play's ending. The Freudian analysis of the changeling child presented by Bruce Clarke (1995) underscores the effect of the child on the “parents” Oberon and Titania. Clarke explains that the quarrelling between the King and Queen prevents their union, producing the separation wished for by the child. Clarke argues that Titania's refusal to relinquish the changeling fulfills the boy's oedipal desire.