(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Introduction to English Renaissance Comedy, Manchester University Press, 1999, pp. 46-69.

[In the following essay, Leggatt surveys the plot, themes, and characters of A Midsummer Night's Dream,emphasizing the wide dispersal of power and authority in the play.]

A Midsummer Night's Dream, like Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, is a creation of the public theatre. It was performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, around 1595 or 1596, at the Theatre in the northern suburb of Shore-ditch. Many scholars have speculated that it was also performed at, and perhaps commissioned for, an aristocratic wedding; for some the speculation amounts to a certainty, and the only problem is to determine which wedding. In fact there is not a shred of evidence, internal or external, to support this theory; it is a self-perpetuating tradition with no basis in fact.1 When we think of the play's original performance it is best to think not of an elegant occasion with a courtly audience in a candle-lit hall but of a normal afternoon in an outdoor playhouse (possibly a bit run-down: the Theatre was twenty years old by this time) with rulers, aristocrats, clowns and fairies exposed in daylight to an audience almost as miscellaneous as the play's cast of characters. Shakespeare was not, in the first instance, an entertainer to the court or the gentry but a working professional playwright, an actor and a shareholder in his company, which had established itself as the leading company of its time. He wrote for the paying public.

His comedy, like Greene's, has a wide focus. Power and authority are dispersed over various centres, and no one centre dominates the others. The play opens with Theseus, its highest temporal authority, not in his public role as ruler but in his private role as a man impatient for his wedding night. Like Endymion depending on Cynthia's power, he is waiting for the moon to change:

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


In the Renaissance Theseus had an unsavoury reputation, which the play will later touch on (2.1.77-80), as a man who habitually raped and abandoned women.3 One hint of this in his opening speech may be the fact that he refers to his desires, not Hippolyta's. But if rape is an expression of uncontrolled male power, that power is now (like Edward's in Friar Bacon) reined in. Theseus has submitted to the conventional requirement of abstinence before marriage, on which Prospero will lay great stress in The Tempest, and he knows, despite his impatience, that he simply has to wait. He imagines himself not as a mighty ruler but as an ordinary man dependent on a relative for his estate. The moon, embodied in Cynthia in Endymion, will haunt the language of this play; it makes its first appearance as a malignant old woman, against whom Theseus feels powerless.

In reply, Hippolyta not only counsels patience but hints that he is making a needless fuss:

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.


In this debate Hippolyta may be said to have the edge. The play's doubletime scheme—by the end the four days have somehow collapsed into two—confirms her claim that the time will pass quickly. For the audience it will be more like two hours. The inconsistency may also suggest the belief that time spent among the fairies passes at a different rate from time in the normal world.4 In any case, Hippolyta's sense of time—lightness and speed—is a better prediction of the play's action and manner than Theseus's fear that the days will drag. Her view of the moon is also more positive; the new-bent bow suggests an arrow about to be fired (like Cupid's dart, which turns an ordinary flower into a love-charm), an action about to begin. It also evokes the moon-goddess Diana, huntress, protectress of women and patroness of chastity; Theseus will indeed have to wait. The issue between Theseus and Hippolyta is not just impatience versus patience but male desire against female control. It is a debate that will be repeated in the woods when Lysander asks to sleep beside Hermia and she insists he keep his distance.

This is also Hippolyta's last speech in the scene, though far from her last speech in the play. The silence into which she lapses having made her point reminds us that she is not just a bride but a captive. Our first impression is of an urbane, good-humoured couple who address each other on equal terms; but Theseus reveals what lies behind that relationship when he recalls, ‘Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries’. When he promises to wed her ‘in another key— / With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling’ (1.1.16-19) we may reflect that a triumph traditionally included a procession of captives.5 As an Amazon she represents (like Radigund in Book V of The Faerie Queene) a female power threatening male authority; Theseus has subdued that power by force.6 Yet he sees his coming marriage as an ‘everlasting bond of fellowship’ (1.1.85). This mixed view of their relationship raises questions about the relations between men and women—passing fancy or permanent commitment, dominance or fellowship?—that will run through the play, providing a deeper exploration of love than we have seen in Endymion or Friar Bacon.

The impression of Theseus's power is quickly deflated when his command for general merrymaking is countered as soon as it is uttered: Egeus enters ‘Full of vexation … with complaint / Against my child, my daughter Hermia’ (1.1.22-3). Not only does Egeus cut across the mood Theseus has tried to establish; the ruler finds himself dealing with a domestic squabble in which his own hands are tied by the law. He is as far as he could be from the stage tyrant, the part to tear a cat in, that Bottom briefly impersonates. The issue shifts to Hermia, her control over her own life as opposed to her father's claim of absolute power over her; the next part of the scene centres on her. If Theseus tries to cover his power over Hippolyta by changing war to merrymaking and conquest to fellowship, Egeus's assertion of his power over his daughter is harshly naked. He wants her to marry Demetrius; she wants to marry Lysander; he invokes a law by which he can give her ‘either to this gentleman, / Or to her death’ (1.1.43-4). He virtually equates the two possibilities, since they both show his power. It is Theseus who recalls (prompted by Hermia, who seems to sense her father is not telling the whole truth) that there is a third possibility: she could enter a nunnery. Egeus wants her obedient, or dead.

Theseus claims to be bound by the law ‘Which by no means we may extenuate’ (1.1.120). The most he can do is drop hints that once he gets Egeus and Demetrius alone he will try to talk them around (1.1.114-16). He expounds the theory behind the law, a theory Louis Adrian Montrose has called ‘a fantasy of male parthenogenesis’:7

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.
Demetrius is a worthy gentleman.


He tries to speak gently, and in the end he offers a reason for submission other than Egeus's power. But that power, as he describes it, is total, and he expounds it with an eloquence that conveys his belief in it. Egeus, and Egeus alone, gave her life. The image Theseus uses is not organic but mechanical, the printing of a form on inert matter. He seems to forget that there was at some stage of this process a pregnant woman. This plays into Egeus's demand for obedience or death; she is her father's daughter, or she is nothing.8

The abolition of monastic orders in England denied women one means of independent life and, for those who could have risen to be abbesses, a chance to exercise authority. When Theseus describes to Hermia her other possibility, a cloistered life, he tries to make it sound unattractive:

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.


He is asking, in effect, wouldn't you rather go to bed with a man, any man, than live like this? Her reply is not the one he is fishing for:

So will I grow, so live, so die, my lord,
Ere I will yield my virgin patent up
Unto his lordship, whose unwishèd yoke
My soul consents not to give sovereignty.


She seems prepared to make the choice that Margaret made, and then rescinded, in Friar Bacon. The echoing of ‘my lord’ and ‘his lordship’ shows that in getting as much control over her own life as the law allows she is defying Demetrius and Theseus together, as well as Egeus. What is at stake for her in her desire for Lysander is not just her love for this one man but her freedom to make her own choice—Lysander, having listed his claims, makes it clear that her choice of him is the principal one (1.1.99-104)—and she determines to assert that freedom one way or another.

Once they are left alone, Lysander and Hermia share a stylized passage of lament in which he lists the crosses of true love and she responds with appropriate complaints. The male-female conflicts of the first part of the scene are left behind as the two voices work together. Even when they are actually disagreeing they appear to agree. Like Hippolyta, she counsels patience (1.1.150-2); having said, ‘A good persuasion. Therefore hear me, Hermia’ (1.1.156), he goes on to counsel action. His plan is to flee the male-dominated community of Athens to a place ruled by a benevolent mother-figure:

I have a widow aunt, a dowager
Of great revenue, and she hath no child.
From Athens is her house remote seven leagues—
And she respects me as her only son—
There, gentle Hermia, may I marry thee,
And to that place the sharp Athenian law
Cannot pursue us.


We glimpse, beyond the borders of the play, an alternative power. This time the dowager is not the sterile, oppressive figure of Theseus's opening description of the moon, and her childlessness is not mere barrenness but frees her for acts of charity. In every respect she offers a counter to the authority of Theseus. But her house lies beyond the borders of the play: the lovers never get there.

They find themselves trapped instead in the liminal space of the wood, which they thought of simply as the place they would journey through to find safety. And the wood is dominated by an extreme form of male-female conflict, the quarrel of Oberon and Titania. The lovers have no inkling of this, or even of the fairies' existence, but it spills over into their own relationships to produce comic chaos. The fairies operate in a natural world in which conflict is the norm. (Shakespeare, who came from the country, never sentimentalized nature.) Titania orders her attendants: ‘Some to kill cankers [caterpillars] in the musk-rose buds, / Some war with reremice for their leathern wings’ (2.2.3-4). The lullaby they sing to her is designed to ward off counterattack from snakes, spiders, beetles and other natural enemies. These conflicts are miniaturized and fantastic. But Titania also complains that her feud with Oberon has produced deepening chaos in the natural world, and this is presented more seriously. For an English audience in the 1590s, a period of bad weather, crop failures and famine,9 the speech has local resonance:

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.
The fold stands empty in the drownèd field,
And crows are fatted with the murrain flock.
The nine men's morris is filled up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable.


The lush England of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, with its agricultural wealth and its country pastimes, is in ruins. The moon is, as for Theseus, malevolent:

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


Under a waning moon—and according to Theseus's opening speech that is the time of the play—Diana takes the form of ‘Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, death, and the underworld’.10

While the fairies are surrounded by a general sense of darkness and disorder, the terms of their own conflict are very specific, and very human. Oberon and Titania argue about authority, the issue in the debate over Hermia in Act 1, and fidelity, the problem of the lovers once they come to the forest. Oberon's ‘Am not I thy lord?’ draws Titania's retort, ‘Then I must be thy lady’ (2.1.63-4), which punningly combines an assertion of her authority with a claim that he should be faithful to her; and they go on to accuse each other of affairs with Hippolyta and Theseus. But the real issue between them is the Indian boy Oberon wants from her. Though he regularly appears in productions, he does not appear in the text. The question is not just who possesses him but how he is to be imagined,11 and the conflict embodies the competing claims of men and women. Robin, speaking for Oberon's side of the question, calls him ‘A lovely boy stol'n from an Indian king’ (2.1.22)—no mention of a mother—and goes on to contrast his master's desire to involve the boy in manly action with Titania's treating him as a pet, and as a chance to do some flower arranging:

And jealous Oberon would have the child
Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild.
But she perforce withholds the lovèd boy,
Crowns him with flowers, and makes him all her joy.


As Theseus imagines a child created without a mother, Titania, closer to reality but not quite there, suppresses all reference to the boy's father:

His mother was a vot'ress of my order,
And in the spicèd Indian air by night
Full often hath she gossiped by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune's yellow sands,
Marking th'embarkèd traders on the flood,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind,
Which she with pretty and with swimming gait
Following, her womb then rich with my young 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.


This bonding of two women, sharing private jokes and confidences, contemplating the mystery of life and death in a pregnant woman's body, is a richer and more poignant version of the schoolgirl friendship between Hermia and Helena that the latter will recall during their quarrel in the forest. It sets against the play's concentration on heterosexual love a glimpse of a life that only women can share. They joke about the votaress's parody of the male activity of trade; but the power and wealth her pregnancy embodies are also fatal to her. Women die giving life. Men (as in The Merchant of Venice) risk their merchandise; women risk everything. The bond this shared knowledge creates is the key to Titania's refusal to give up the boy to Oberon. Being a votaress her friend had taken vows, made a commitment to a female community, as Hermia would if she entered a nunnery; in return Titania is committed to her; the reiterated ‘For her sake’ locks the idea into place.

This is a challenge to Oberon, and his answer lies in the magic flower that creates, or rather enforces, heterosexual love.12 The magic of Endymion and Friar Bacon had, as we saw, no power to compel love. The flower functions more like the magic of folk-belief, in which love-charms and aphrodisiacs played a major role.13 In one sense, however, it does not create love at all, in that it does not create love-relationships. It produces only single-minded obsession: its function, in Oberon's words, is to ‘make or man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature that it sees’ (2.1.171-2). Seeing Helena in the grip of unrequited love for Demetrius, Oberon plans to use the drug on Demetrius not to produce harmony between them but simply to reverse the roles of pursuer and pursued: ‘Ere he do leave this grove, / Thou shalt fly him, and he shall seek thy love’ (2.1.245-6). He orders Robin, ‘Effect it with some care, that he may prove / More fond on her than she upon her love’ (2.1.265-6). Even without Robin's mistake in applying the flower to Lysander, its effect as Oberon imagines it will be not to solve the male-female conflict but perpetuate it in a new form. Its effect on Lysander is not just to make him love Helena but make him hate Hermia. Undrugged, he showed he could respect her wishes; now, like Egeus, he sees her as his to dispose of: ‘And here with my good will, with all my heart, / In Hermia's love I yield you up my part’ (3.2.164-5). Joan Stansbury has argued that in the early scenes Demetrius and Helena show an inferior kind of love, childish and lacking in judgement, and the effect of the flower is to drag Titania and Lysander down to their level.14 It is rough magic, and the comedy it creates depends on its reductiveness.

When Oberon explains how the flower was hit by Cupid's dart he lets us glimpse, once again, a figure beyond the borders of the play, who embodies different values:

                                                            A certain aim he took
At a fair vestal thronèd by the west … 
But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft
Quenched in the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon,
And the imperial vot'ress passèd on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.


Elizabeth again.15 She is Lyly's Cynthia, beyond ordinary love; she is Greene's visionary figure, remote from the world of the play. She is a votaress, like Titania's friend, and a vestal, as Hermia would be to escape Demetrius. She represents a self-sufficiency that never needs to act, and (like Lysander's aunt) an authority that is never called on. No drama could be made out of her, certainly no comedy, and she emphasizes by contrast the fact that the drama and the comedy of this play stem from the conflicts of men and women, conflicts that the flower, which Cupid's dart hits instead of her, serves to inflame. If the play were performed for Elizabeth she would be made to feel not (as in Lyly) her centrality but her divine irrelevance.

Titania, who as fairy queen might be thought to suggest Elizabeth (Spenser's Faerie Queene) is not her representative but her opposite. Lyly's Cynthia is the unchanging, untouched recipient of adoration, bestowing one kiss as a unique concession. Titania is love's helpless victim, constantly kissing and embracing her strange lover (4.1.1-4, 39-44). Oberon aims to show his power over Titania by twisting her affections, making her bestow adoration, not receive it, and he is determined she will bestow it on ‘lion, bear, or wolf, or bull, / On meddling monkey, or on busy ape’ (2.1.180-1). He orders, as he anoints her eyes, ‘Wake when some vile thing is near’ (2.2.40). Oberon's plan is on the face of it bizarre: to make his own wife in love with someone (or something) else, getting power over her at the cost of making himself a cuckold. It is a price he seems willing to pay in order to humiliate and degrade her. The joke is on him, though he never quite realizes it: she gets not some vile thing but Bottom with the ass's head, and their relationship (as we shall see) is as decorous in manner as it is indecorous in appearance.

When Oberon sees Titania asleep with Bottom in her arms, the crudeness of his earlier fantasies of humiliation breaks up into a more shifting, contradictory reaction: ‘Welcome, good Robin. Seest thou this sweet sight? / Her dotage now I do begin to pity’ (4.1.45-6). He comes to gloat, but his feelings soften. In describing his ultimate victory, he reports dispassionately his own cruelty and her gentleness:

When I had at my pleasure taunted her,
And she in mild terms begged my patience,
I then did ask of her her changeling child,
Which straight she gave me … 


He had earlier predicted, ‘I'll make her render up her page to me’ (2.1.185). Now, less coercively, he ‘asks’, and she grants. But if he can allow himself a touch of regret at the way he has treated her it is because, in the end, he has had his way: ‘And now I have the boy, I will undo / This hateful imperfection of her eyes’ (4.1.61-2).

Titania's commitment to the votaress vanishes like a dream. When Oberon reports that she has treated Bottom as she treated the Indian boy, crowning him with flowers, the logic of his plot becomes clear. Bottom replaces the boy in her affections, and (as with Lysander, though less obtrusively) when a new love is created an old one dies.16 It remains to kill the new love, and ‘all things shall be peace’ (3.2.377). Oberon has reasserted the claims of heterosexual love, and his own power as ruler and husband, through the crude magic of the flower. The result is a harmony celebrated in music and dance, designed to win us over; and thanks to the brilliant comedy of her scenes with Bottom, Titania's obsession has never seemed as degrading as Oberon imagined. But if as we watch Titania's placid submission to him we recall her speech about the votaress—and it is one of the play's most eloquent passages—we may feel that something has been lost: not just her own spirit and fire, which are dampened in the end, but a commitment the power of whose claims she made us feel and has now forgotten.

Titania's love for Bottom looks like an image of licence: in a free interval before order is restored, a fairy loves a mortal, a queen loves a commoner, and a man sports an ass's head like a carnival mask. To an outside view—that of Theseus—the mortal lovers' sojurn in the forest suggests a similar licence. Finding them lying together on the ground, he jokes about St Valentine's day, and the rite of May (4.1.131-2, 138-9). But Hermia has discouraged Lysander's attempt to lie too close to her, and when Demetrius threatens to rape Helena she simply does not believe him: ‘Your virtue is my privilege’ (2.1.220). Ironically, it is not licence but restraint that gets the lovers into trouble; finding Hermia and Lysander lying far apart, Robin assumes he has the right man, calling him ‘this lack-love, this kill-courtesy’ (2.2.83). He mistakes chastity for unkindness. Whatever suspicions Hermia or the audience may have of Lysander's real motives, he offers to lie close to her as a sign of commitment—‘One turf shall serve as pillow for us both: / One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth’ (2.2.47-8)—and in putting him off she inadvertently precipitates the breaking of that commitment.

If there is licence in the forest, it is the licence to break promises and betray loyalties, as Titania does. The lovers are caught up not so much in a game of cross-wooing as in angry arguments and recriminations. As the quarrel of Oberon and Titania affects the climate, it colours the relationships of those who enter their territory. Helena has already been betrayed by Demetrius, who loved her before he switched allegiance to Hermia. Perhaps thinking of her friend's experience, Hermia registers a persistent anxiety about Lysander's fidelity. Promising to meet him, she swears ‘By all the vows that ever men have broke— / In number more than ever women spoke’, invokes Aeneas's betrayal of Dido (1.1.173-6) and adds, ‘Keep word, Lysander’ (1.1.222). Her last words before they fall asleep in the forest are ‘Thy love ne'er alter till thy sweet life end’ (2.2.67). She later insists, ‘The sun was not so true unto the day / As he to me’ (3.2.50-1), but she is in a night world governed by the inconstant...

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William W. E. Slights (essay date 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Changeling in A Dream,” in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 259-72.

[In the following essay, Slights contends that the changeling boy reflects the irresolution and indeterminancy of A Midsummer Night's Dream.]

Midway through the first scene of Act II in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon, King of the Fairies, begs “a little changeling boy” of Titania. She responds, “The fairy land buys not the child of me” (II.i.120, 122), and from this exchange—or non-exchange—follows a highly determined though minimally textualized custody battle.1 After a great deal has been done and said...

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Bruce Clarke (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Gender of Metamorphosis,” in Allegories of Writing, State University of New York Press, 1995, pp. 113-48.

[In the following excerpt, Clarke offers a Freudian analysis of the changeling child and his significance to Oberon and Titania.]

Like the pharmakon that slips out of semantic control in the moralization of the Circe story, a similarly ambivalent trope—the “changeling boy”—decenters the daemonic action of A Midsummer Night's Dream. On the one hand, Shakespeare adorns his erotic comedy with a lyrical gamut of names of generated forms, signs of natural growth and abundance. This profuse texture is one reason why, on the surface,...

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M. E. Comtois (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Comedy of the Lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 15-25.

[In the following essay, Comtois asserts that the lovers' contribution to the play is primarily in the realm of farce.]

A predilection of older criticism to view the young lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream as romantic protagonists1 has given way to a general recognition of their comic function in more contemporary criticism.2 What should follow is the recognition that the play is not primarily about them, that they do not form a main plot, but that they are just one voice in a four part madrigal of...

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Helen Hackett (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Varieties of Love, Variations of Genre,” in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Northcote House Publishers Ltd, 1997, pp. 32-46.

[In the following essay, Hackett explores the way A Midsummer Night's Dream vascillates between tragic and comic possibilities.]

Comedy is above all the drama of love; the conventional marker of a comic happy ending is at least one marriage, founded on the mutual desire of the two partners. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, we get marriage three times over—four if we count the reunion of Oberon and Titania—emphatically confirming that what we have witnessed is a comedy. It is a play where ‘Jack shall have Jill, / Naught...

(The entire section is 6138 words.)

Garrett Stewart (essay date 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespearean Dreamplay,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 44-69.

[In the following excerpt, Stewart examines Bottom's insights regarding the relationship between dream and drama, and the language he uses to express his revelation.]

“I have an exposition of sleep come upon me.”


“Your actions are my dreams.”


Passing the tests of New and then Myth Criticism, with their bias respectively toward close and deep reading, Shakespeare's plays have come of late into an epoch of supra-reading, which boasts its own exhilaration as well as...

(The entire section is 4282 words.)

Robert F. Willson, Jr. (essay date 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Chink in the Wall: Anticlimax and Dramatic Illusion in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Vol. 117, 1981, pp. 85-90.

[In the following essay, Willson asserts that Shakespeare uses anticlimax in A Midsummer Night's Dreamas a device that underlies the entire plot of the play.]

The device of anticlimax dominates A Midsummer Night's Dream. A more appropriate word is “undercutting”, since anticlimax is identified so closely with bathos, or the descent of sense into nonsense. While there are numerous examples of poetic anticlimax in the comedy, and of pure bathos as well (“Pyramus and Thisbe” stands as a...

(The entire section is 3329 words.)

Anca Vlasopolos (essay date 1978)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Ritual of Midsummer: A Pattern for A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, 1978, pp. 21-29.

[In the following essay, Vlasopolos explores the parallels between the ritual of Midsummer, or St. John's Day, and the play's structure.]

Interpretations of A Midsummer Night's Dream have suffered from a hesitation or a downright refusal on the part of critics to consider the full significance of the ritual of Midsummer, or Saint John's Day, in Shakespeare's comedy. The play, like the ritual which informs its structure, maintains a dual frame of reference, Christian and pagan. Within this frame such seemingly unrelated...

(The entire section is 3758 words.)

René Girard (essay date 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Myth and Ritual in Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, edited by Josué V. Harari, Cornell University Press, 1979, pp. 189-212.

[In the following essay, Girard studies the role that animal and metaphysical images in A Midsummer Night's Dream play in the process leading from mimetic desire to myth.]

I have considered, our whole life is like a Play: wherein every man, forgetful of himselfe, is in travaile with expression of another. Nay, wee so insist in imitating others, as wee cannot (when it is necessary) returne to ourselves: like...

(The entire section is 8706 words.)

Bruce Thomas Boehrer (essay date 1983)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “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, Cornell University Press, 1994, pp. 123-150.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Boehrer claims that A Midsummer Night's Dreampresents bestiality as associated with the maintenance of domestic order. The social arrangements in the play, Boehrer states, presume that human nature must be policed since it is threatened by the bestial, and/or female, “other.”]

Although no one has paid much sustained attention to the fact, A Midsummer Night's Dream is patently...

(The entire section is 10440 words.)

Vicki Shahly Hartman (essay date 1983)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Gentle Concord to the Oedipal Problem,” in American Imago, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 355-69.

[In the following essay, Hartman identifies oedipal conflict originating in the incestuous desires of Egeus as well as Titania, and maintains that the play optimistically presents the resolution of such conflict within the confines of the “dream.”]

A Midsummer Night's Dream was written in honor of the marriage between Countess Southampton and Sir Thomas Heneage, the Queen's advisor. It is thought the Countess married her knight for political protection when her son committed the dangerous faux pas of...

(The entire section is 4734 words.)

Jonathan Hall (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sexual Politics in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, Associated University Presses, 1995, pp. 98-115.

[In the following essay, Hall examines the play's treatment of the potential violence inherent in the patriarchal order, represented in A Midsummer Night's Dream by Theseus.]

The sexual politics which sets up the dialectic of pleasure and anxiety in A Midsummer Night's Dream is surprisingly violent and frank for a work which still enjoys a reputation for sweet and harmless celebration of the free poetic imagination. In one sense, at least, this familiar sentimentalization is...

(The entire section is 6977 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Clayton, Thomas. “‘Fie What a Question's That If Thou Wert Near a Lewd Interpreter’: The Wall Scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Shakespeare Studies 7 (1974): 101-13.

Argues that in the Wall scene (V.i. 154-204), “Pyramus” and “Thisbe” hold their secret conversation not between Wall's upheld fingers, as is traditionally staged, but between his legs.

Franke, Wolfgang. “The Logic of Double Entendre in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Philological Quarterly 58, No. 3 (Summer 1979): 282-97.

Studies characters' naïve use of sexual puns in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Hendricks, Margo....

(The entire section is 511 words.)