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A Midsummer Night's Dream

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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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10302

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 moon, and the real anxiety behind her continued references to fidelity comes out in her dream of a serpent eating her heart while Lysander ‘sat smiling at his cruel prey’ (2.2.156).17

Lysander's image of commitment as two bosoms with a single troth is echoed when Helena recalls her schoolgirl friendship with Hermia; this too, like Titania's commitment to the votaress, is damaged by the power of magic when Helena imagines Hermia is in a confederacy against her:

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.


Helena goes on to accuse Hermia of betraying that friendship by joining with the men in mockery of her, and she makes it, like the conflict over the Indian boy, a matter of men against women: ‘Our sex as well as I may chide you for it’ (3.2.218).

But there is, to use Helena's own word, something artificial about the commitment she describes. What makes Titania's speech about the votaress moving is its sense of a relationship between two utterly unlike beings: a mortal, pregnant woman and an immortal fairy. For Titania the votaress is something rich and strange, not just a repetition of herself. (The Bottom-Titania relationship is a comic version of this love of something quite other.) What Helena describes is not so much affection or relationship as cloning. Titania's betrayal of her friendship is a matter of regret, muted by the way it happens in silence. Helena's claim of schoolgirl affection collapses in broad farce as the women start insulting each other in playground taunts about their relative heights, Hermia demanding, ‘How low am I, thou painted maypole?’ (3.2.296) and Helena declaring, ‘She was a vixen when she went to school, / And though she be but little, she is fierce’ (3.2.324-5). So much for schoolgirl friendship, and identical cherries. Beneath the farce, Shakespeare offers something more subtle than the love-friendship debate of Endymion: Helena has idealized friendship as a compensation for the pain of love as she has experienced it, and more immediately as a way of making Hermia feel guilty. Under pressure, the idealized vision cracks quickly. The play's depiction of heterosexual love seems at first to confirm the Endymion view that it leads to unhappiness; this unhappiness centres on Helena. Of the four lovers she is the one who is made the object of love by magic; she is also the touchiest, the quickest to take offence. She is in tension from the beginning: beneath her professions of friendship for Lysander and Hermia there is a strong undercurrent of jealousy and resentment, and a suspicion that Hermia has somehow stolen Demetrius from her by trickery: ‘O, teach me how you look, and with what art / You sway the motion of Demetrius' heart’ (1.1.192-3). The mutual accusations of the forest are already latent in Athens; and Helena herself is already guilty of betraying friendship for the sake of love, as she reveals her friends' plans to Demetrius. Her frustration with Demetrius has already been, to put it mildly, bad for her self-esteem: ‘I am as ugly as a bear, / For beasts that meet me run away for fear’ (3.2.100-1). Offered love by Lysander and Demetrius, she takes it as a bad joke and reacts with anger. She assumes that ‘I love you’ really means ‘I hate you’: ‘Cannot you hate me—as I know you do— / But you must join in souls to mock me too?’ (3.2.149-50). Hermia, when she finds Lysander and Demetrius both professing love for Helena, goes through a long period of simple bewilderment, pleading for explanations, before she explodes in anger; Helena explodes at once.18

Yet all this confusion, painful to the lovers and amusing to the audience, is part of a move towards final harmony. In breaking friendship for the sake of love the magic imitates a natural process we have already glimpsed in Athens. There are suggestions of a transitional stage between same-sex bonding and heterosexual love, a three-way friendship of Helena, Hermia and Lysander: the meeting place in the forest is where they once met together to observe the rite of May (1.1.166-7). The forest itself, the place of transition, marks the successive stages of the lovers' developing relationships. It is the setting for schoolgirl confidences—according to Hermia, in the forest rendezvous she and Helena ‘Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie, / Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet’ (1.1.214-15)—then for a three-way friendship of a man and two women; and finally for heterosexual love acted out, turned into conflict and ultimately restored.

Bacon's magic, for all its entertainment value, is a dangerous power that finally does more harm than good, and he himself turns against it. The double effect of the fairies' magic is more finely balanced. It is not just a matter of creating disruptive obsessions and then curing them. When the lovers wake and prepare to return to Athens, they are both free of magic and bound by it. Lysander has been restored to his original love not by the wearing off of one drug but by the application of another that acts as an antidote. Demetrius is still under the first spell; but it has restored his original affection for Helena. In both cases it takes the intervention of magic to restore the normal. And more has happened than simply a realignment of two love affairs. As they slowly return to daylight the lovers' voices work together with a new smoothness and harmony:

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


Something like the original group of three friends has been restored, with the addition of Demetrius as a fourth. Two quarrelling sets of couples now form a larger, more harmonious unit. As they compare impressions they recognize they have just seen Theseus, Hippolyta and Egeus, and they return to the community Lysander and Hermia thought they had to leave. The proper alignment of love allows the creation of a larger network of relationships. More important, Helena's ‘Mine own and not mine own’ suggests an improvement in the quality of the love. In place of the obsessive, exclusive demands we have seen the lovers make is an acknowledgement that the possession of love is never total. Helena imagined Hermia as a clone of herself; Bottom wants to play both Pyramus and Thisbe. But love, as Helena now experiences it, recognizes the otherness of the other person, who is possessed and not possessed, as the men are enchanted and not enchanted and their experience is a dream and not a dream. Helena, the most obsessed and unhappy of the lovers, is the one who has this insight: the worse the ordeal, the deeper the final understanding.

The magic, apparently crude and disruptive, has been the agent in leading the lovers towards a deeper maturity and a richer experience of relationship. Robin's sense of the action as just a show of folly put on for his amusement—‘Shall we their fond pageant see? / Lord, what fools these mortals be!’ (3.2.114-15)—is part of the truth, and embodies part of the audience's response. But it is not the whole truth. Nor is the play content with his view of the lovers' final relationship as simply a matter of men possessing women: ‘The man shall have his mare again, / And all shall be well’ (3.2.463-4). Helena has a finer sense than that of how far love means possession.

Robin is equally reductive in describing the Bottom-Titania affair: ‘My mistress with a monster is in love’ (3.2.6). While Oberon expects something crude and grotesque, Shakespeare knows a trick worth two of that. Helena, finding herself the recipient of unexpected love, is furious and counterattacks violently. Bottom is phegmatic and detached; above all, he is polite: ‘Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays—the more the pity, that some honest neighbours will not make them friends’ (3.1.135-9). He suggests, as tactfully as he can, that Titania is wrong to love him; the rebuke is softened by courtesy and tolerance. Titania picks up the spirit of Bottom's response, instructing her attendants, ‘Be kind and courteous to this gentleman’ (3.1.155). Instead of a lurid image of bestiality (we need to remember that Bottom's transformation is only from the neck up) we get a love affair couched in courtly politeness with, on Bottom's part, considerable restraint. Not quite sure what to make of Titania, he spends most of his time chatting amiably with her entourage. When she exerts her power over him, forbidding him to leave the wood and commanding his silence (3.1.143-4, 191), the potential harshness is softened by the promise of hospitality: ‘Feed him with apricots and dewberries, / With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries' (3.1.157-8). She thinks not just of what she wants from Bottom but of what Bottom might want.19 As there is more to the operation of the flower that the simple confusion Robin sees, there is more to Titania's love of Bottom than the grotesque humiliation Oberon expects. The comedy of incongruity gains unexpected subtlety from the consideration they show each other. Titania's reaction when she comes out of the spell, ‘O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now!’ (4.1.77), does not quite do justice to the experience she has had and suggests once again that in returning to Oberon she has lost something.

Robin's commentary invites the audience to simple, mocking laughter, in line with the practical jokes he enjoys playing (especially, we note, on women (2.1.47-57)); the play itself invites a larger response, including Robin's perspective but not confined to it. As the magic flower invites us to think about the actual working of love, the other principal use of magic, Bottom's transformation, invites us to think about the working of theatre. The ass's head is quite frankly a theatrical prop. It comes from the same trunk as the different beards Bottom offers to wear (1.2.80-6) and it satisfies his ambition to play in a mask: ‘An I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too’ (1.2.45). In Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay a good deal of the magic is conveyed not by special effects but simply by actors acting: in the scenes with the glass, one set of characters spies on another set, supposedly miles away; distance is abolished simply by having them share the same stage. With equal simplicity, the effect of the magic flower is left entirely to the actors playing Titania, Lysander and Demetrius. Bottom, to don the ass's head, retires from the stage, puts it on in the tiring-house, and returns. No flash powder, no special effects. On Oberon's orders, Robin removes the head, on stage, as Bottom sleeps. Productions sometimes devise ways of hiding the moment from the audience to make it seem more like magic when Bottom appears as his old self again. But the open stage of an Elizabethan playhouse, lit by daylight, lacking in scenery and with a wrap-around audience, is no place to hide anything. I suspect Robin should remove the head in full view of the audience, so that we see Bottom emerge again as if we were in the tiring-house watching an actor shed his costume and his character, to emerge as himself. To watch the play's magic at work is, simply and frankly, to watch theatre at work.

Theatre is a power, and that power, like those of Theseus, Egeus and Oberon, is debated throughout the play, and its strengths and weaknesses are explored. Pyramus and Thisbe is the principal vehicle for this. Like other dramatic burlesques, from Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle through Buckingham's The Rehearsal to Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound, it makes us think, as it entertains us, about how theatre operates, about the assumptions it makes and the tricks it uses.20 It does so in part by reversing the usual procedures. When in the show of the Nine Worthies in Love's Labour's Lost (c.1594) Costard declares ‘I Pompey am’ and Berowne retorts, ‘You lie; you are not he’ (V.ii.543), we see the audience rejecting one of the ground rules without which theatre is impossible: impersonation. Quince and his colleagues insist on breaking the rules themselves, informing the audience that the lion is really Snug, Pyramus is really Bottom and the swords will do no harm. The audience of A Midsummer Night's Dream agrees to imagine that the stage is a wood, and the normal-sized actors playing the fairies can hide in acorn-cups. Quince, arriving in the forest for a rehearsal, uncreates illusion: ‘This green plot shall be our stage, this hawthorn brake our tiring-house’ (3.1.3-4). Pointing, presumably, to the real stage and tiring-house, he turns them back into what they really are.21

At the same time he and his colleagues have great faith in their power to create illusion. Considering the problem of bringing moonshine on to the stage, they decide at first to leave the casement open and let the real moon do the job. But they evidently think Starveling will do it better. Is Shakespeare recalling that Lyly in Endymion let an actor impersonate the moon? Of all the actors Starveling gets the roughest treatment from the audience: he is the only one who is interrupted to the extent that he cannot carry on. But in general the actors imagine they are wielding a powerful force that if anything will have to be restrained. Bottom is confident about the emotional impact of his acting: ‘If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes. I will move storms’ (1.2.22-3). The raw energy of his performance as a lion—no lines, just roaring—could, Quince fears, go even further: ‘An you should do it too terribly you would fright the Duchess and the ladies that they would shriek, and that were enough to hang us all’ (1.2.66-8). Quince and his colleagues imagine their art as powerful enough to be dangerous; if they are not circumspect they will offend the greater, more dangerous power of the state, and suffer accordingly.22 It should be noted, in view of the scant respect for the feelings of women the play's more high-born men show, and of Robin's delight in teasing older women, that the actors are particularly concerned about the feelings of the ladies, who may be frightened by the lion and distressed by the killings.

Their solution is to restrain the power of theatrical illusion by constant reminders of reality. The lion, whose uncontrolled roaring may be terrifying, is given lines to speak that immediately humanize him, and bring the actor under control by restraining his freedom to improvise. The audience will be assured that the lion is really Snug, and that Pyramus is really Bottom. Shakespeare himself uses the same device to keep Bottom's transformation inoffensive: chatting with Titania and her attendants, he is thoroughly and unshakably himself, no more a monster than Snug is a lion.23 In performance Quince's actors carry out this strategy with some success: Theseus pays tribute to the lion as ‘A very gentle beast, and of a good conscience’ (5.1.225). But Quince's nervousness shows in his mispunctuation of the Prologue. Not only does the sheer repetition of its claims of good will show anxiety in itself; he inadvertently turns some of them into insults, so that he is constantly treading a fine line between accommodation and the offence he is so anxious to avoid:

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 … 


Later Bottom takes the risk of correcting Theseus, who has suggested that the wall, ‘being sensible’, should return Thisbe's curses: ‘No, in truth, sir he should not. “Deceiving me” is Thisbe's cue. She is to enter now, and I am to spy her through the wall. You shall see, it will fall pat as I told you’ (5.1.180-5). Polite as always, he has spotted an audience member in need of help, and accordingly helps him. Even in this extempore moment the general strategy of Quince and his company holds. They have potentially great power over their audience, as their audience has over them; they must treat that audience with tact and courtesy.

Whether their courtesy is returned is another matter. When King Henry presides over the magic contest in Friar Bacon he can take a simple satisfaction in the general display of skill and the English magician's victory. Theseus and his fellow audience members have a more delicate task. Hippolyta does not want to face it: ‘I love not to see wretchedness o'ercharged, / And duty in his service perishing’ (5.1.85-6); but Theseus determines to receive the show as the offering of ‘simpleness and duty’ (5.1.83), and he gives a lecture on the gracious acceptance of even the most incompetent expressions of loyalty (5.1.89-105). Yet his courtesy has a touch of condescension, and the actual reaction he and his fellow audience members give is a volatile combination of ironic praise—‘Well run, Thisbe.’ ‘Well shone, Moon’ (5.1.260-1)—witty criticism—‘This passion, and the death of a dear friend, would go near to make a man look sad’ (5.1.282-3)—and simple rudeness. Theseus offers a final gracious tribute only after allowing himself a last insult, and he does not bother to link the two with an apology: ‘Marry, if he that writ it had played Pyramus and hanged himself in Thisbe's garter it would have been a fine tragedy; and so it is, truly, and very notably discharged’ (5.1.349-52). It is possible, however, for the actor to show Theseus realizing he has made a slip and offering the last part of the speech as reassurance; and Hippolyta's reaction to Pyramus's lament, ‘Beshrew my heart, but I pity the man’ (5.1.285), can be played as embarrassment for the actor or a genuine response to the character. The relations of play and audience involve tricky negotiations between offence and courtesy, on both sides, and different productions can strike the balance differently.

The main effect, of course, is that the actors have nothing like the power they think they have and if their feeble performance is to have any impact it must be because the audience uses its own power to help them out:

The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if
imagination amend them.
It must be your imagination, then, and not theirs.


But at the time Shakespeare wrote, ‘the best in this kind’ were the Lord Chamberlain's men, who are performing the play. As Quince's company rehearses outside the town, Shakespeare's company rehearsed, and performed, in the suburbs. They were a commercial enterprise, and Flute imagines that Bottom's reward for playing Pyramus will be not the appreciation of the intelligentsia but sixpence a day (4.2.18-22). Both companies draw their personnel from the ranks of artisans and tradesmen. These hints of identification between Quince's company and Shakespeare's work more than one way. There is self-deprecating humour, as when Chaucer the poet shows Chaucer the pilgrim telling the worst of the Canterbury Tales. But there may also be a warning not to be too quick to dismiss the actors' show as merely feeble, drawing only condescending laughter. We are watching not just Athens's worst actors, but England's best, and the latter group may well be up to something.

In some ways, though not in the way Quince and company fear, Pyramus and Thisbe is genuinely disruptive. It may not produce unbearable pity and terror, but it brings another world, another kind of life, into Theseus's court, and the result is a liberating challenge to decorum. Egeus, trying to prevent the performance, insists the actors are the wrong class, ‘Hard-handed men that work in Athens here’, and tells his ruler, ‘It is not for you’ (5.1.72, 77).24 He is overruled. The bergomask that, by Theseus's own choice, ends the performance is ‘Usually identified as a clownish, rustic dance’.25 Peter Holland has pointed out that in choosing a classical story the mechanicals are trespassing on what was normally the territory of university students, learned amateurs and educated playwrights.26 The love scene by the wall includes the scatological comedy associated with the subversive vice-characters of morality plays like Mankind: ‘My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones’; ‘I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all’ (5.1.189, 200).27 Just by appearing at court, the actors are challenging a social barrier (unlike the professional companies of Shakespeare's time they are not under royal or aristocratic patronage); and one of the most striking incidents in their play is the disappearance of a wall.

They have a disruptive effect within A Midsummer Night's Dream itself, picking up and parodying motifs from the main play. Pyramus and Thisbe have parent trouble, they vow eternal fidelity, and they meet in the dark outside the town, where they become the victims of confusion. The bloodstained mantle, and Pyramus's lament that ‘lion vile hath here deflowered my dear’ (5.1.286), suggest both the staining of the flower by Cupid's dart and the experience the women will undergo on their wedding nights, not long after the play is over.28 The obvious maleness of Flute, who resists playing Thisbe because he has a beard coming, reminds the audience of the maleness of the actors playing Titania, Hippolyta, Helena and Hermia.29 I have suggested that the play raises serious issues about the relations between men and women; but all its females are really males, and we may wonder if this is one more example of male coercion or a warning not to take such questions too seriously. (The disruption, in other words, affects not just the play but my academic interpretation.)

There is, finally, something uncanny in theatre itself. There was a contemporary story of a performance of Doctor Faustus at Exeter at which, during the conjuring scene, one devil too many appeared on stage and there was a general rush for the doors.30 Bottom is transformed while rehearsing Pyramus and Thisbe; he misses an entrance cue (which, perhaps significantly, is a vow of fidelity, ‘As true as truest horse that yet would never tire’ (3.1.97-8)), and in the interval created by that missed cue Robin transforms him. In theatre as in other kinds of magic, one misstep can be serious. When at the end of the play the fairies invade the palace of Theseus (who does not believe in fairies) the invasion begins with Robin's line, ‘Now the hungry lion roars’ (5.1.362), making a link back to Pyramus and Thisbe. An invasion by one kind of shadows, the actors, leads to an invasion by another kind, the fairies. It is as though the mechanicals, by their indecorous and disruptive presence at court, have broken a hole in a wall, and anything can get through. When the actors imagine they are dealing with a troublesome power that needs to be handled with care, they may be speaking more truly than they know.

The fairy invasion offers both a blessing on Theseus's wedding and a final challenge to his authority. In general, the power relations that have been debated through the play are still under negotiation in the last act. When he saw the lovers asleep in the right configuration, Theseus forgot about the law and overruled Egeus. In the Quarto version of the last act Egeus is simply dropped; he does not appear, and there is no reference to him. The Folio gives him Philostrate's role of objecting to Pyramus and Thisbe, and he is overruled again. But he is still making his presence felt. (The new arrangement also allows him an unexpected sense of humour: he confesses that the preview of the mechanicals' play made him weep with laughter.) The Folio also has Lysander read out the titles of the alternative entertainments Theseus rejects, letting him share Egeus's role as master of ceremonies, and raising the possibility that as he has taken his daughter he is about to take his job. Hermia and Helena are completely silent throughout the act, suggesting that the men-versus-women debates are resolved by the assertion of male authority in marriage, in which the women are reduced to silence. But Hippolyta redresses the balance: having had only one speech in the first scene, she debates with Theseus throughout the last act.

Their key debate occurs at the beginning of that act: Theseus's disbelief in the lovers' story, part of his general disbelief in imagination and the supernatural, is countered by her insistence that the story ‘grows to something of great constancy’ (5.1.26). But what story have the lovers told? In a way their experience is the converse of Bottom's. He wakes back in his rehearsal, still waiting for his cue, then gradually realizes he has had ‘a most rare vision’—but a vision that is not to be spoken of: ‘Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream’ (4.1.202-4). His plan to get Peter Quince to write a ballad of his dream for him to sing before the Duke never materializes. On his return to his fellows, he is torn between a desire to tell all and a determination to tell nothing, and he tells nothing.31 During their forest sojurn, the lovers have, unlike Bottom, no sight of the fairies, no inkling of their existence. They think they have been dreaming, and they go off to recount their dreams. We never see what follows. (Shakespeare, like Bottom, can be reticent.) But they will presumably discover they have all had the same dream, and whatever story they construct to tell Theseus it leads him to remark, ‘I never may believe / These antique fables, nor these fairy toys’ (5.1.2-3). The lovers (for our amusement) have been through mutual betrayal and humiliation; they have said terrible things to each other. Have they decided, as a way of coping with the discomfort, to blame it all on the fairies? If that is the case (and the play provokes the question without answering it) then Theseus's disbelief is, and is not, justified. The lovers have no evidence at all that fairy magic has been at work; they have devised the story for their own needs. They just happen to be right.

Theseus's scepticism is of course given the lie direct by the entrance of the fairies themselves into his own palace. His final couplet, ‘A fortnight hold we this solemnity / In nightly revels and new jollity’ (5.1.360-1), sounds like the ending of the play, and as the highest-ranking character he has the right, by a convention of Elizabethan playwriting, to the last word. But as his earlier call for merriment was disrupted by the entrance of Egeus, his final attempt at closure is broken by the entrance of Robin. The fairies' blessing of the bride-beds shows the limits of Theseus's thinking in another way. He has been looking forward with increasing impatience to that night's pleasure. They are thinking nine months ahead, and more:

So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be,
And the blots of nature's hand
Shall not in their issue stand.
Never mole, harelip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious such as are
Despisèd in nativity
Shall upon their children be.


With the words ‘ever true in loving’ Oberon banishes the fear of infidelity, and heals the harm his magic has done. But the chief harm associated with fairies in Shakespeare's time was their threat to newborn children. Just when they were most vulnerable, the fairies might steal them, leaving a weak, sickly fairy child, a changeling, in their place. It was a warning to guard one's children carefully.32 Without explicitly recalling that belief, Oberon does what Quince and his actors do: reassures us that his power, much as we may fear it, will do no harm. Instead of threatening mortal children, they bless them. And to think of changelings is to raise another question the play provokes but does not answer: do these fairies, Shakespeare's fairies, have children? Robin calls the Indian boy a changeling, but there is no reference to a fairy child left in his place. He is simply stolen. There are no references to fairy children anywhere. Oberon and Titania's only offspring are figurative: Titania says of the evils their quarrel has produced in nature, ‘We are their parents and original’ (2.1.117). The fairies regularly call the other characters ‘mortals’; are they themselves outside the cycle of birth and death, unable to die or to reproduce? Traditional fairies, of course, have children, and there are tales of fairy funerals.33 But if any writer can re-think tradition, Shakespeare can. The fairies are the most powerful characters in the play; but there may be one power, natural to mortals, that they lack. If so there is an extra poignancy in Titania's fascination with her pregnant friend, and in the final blessing of the bride-beds. Yet it is a power that makes the mortals vulnerable: it was in childbirth that the votaress died.

Throughout the play power is debated, and no one power, neither the authority of Theseus nor the magic of Oberon, holds final sway. In place of the single central authority of Lyly's Cynthia, the play presents two rulers, Theseus and Hippolyta, who from the beginning are engaged in debate, qualifying our sense that Thesus is simply, indisputably, in charge. (There is a more piquant contrast with Lyly: the Bottom-Titania affair reads almost as a parodic inversion of Cynthia's relations with Endymion; this time a queen helplessly adores a mortal, who responds with wary courtesy.) Greene's interest in competing forces becomes a more intricate exploration of different forms of authority: the coercive worldly power of Thesus and Egeus, the magic of Oberon, the magic of theatre. Robin is an ironic version of the Plautine clever slave, producing a period of confusion through being confused himself. That confusion becomes the occasion for a fuller view than Lyly and Greene have attempted of the nature of love, the demands it makes, the way it develops and matures. In the play's conflict of forces, there is coercion, resentment and, directed against the mechanicals, a certain amount of snobbery. Yet Annabel Patterson sees in A Midsummer Night's Dream ‘an idea of social play that could cross class boundaries without obscuring them, and by those crossings imagine the social body whole again’.34 And there is a subtler sense of gender relations than we see in Margaret's surrender to Lacy. The ultimate benevolence of the play's vision lies in the possibilities it offers of courtesy, loyalty, self-deprecation; of the love embodied not in the magic flower but in Helena's ‘Mine own, and not mine own’; of the relations between art and its audience embodied not in the heckling of the courtiers but in the final offer of Robin, so like the goodwill of Quince and his actors, ‘Give me your hands, if we be friends, / And Robin shall restore amends’ (5.1.428-9).


  1. For the arguments against the aristocratic-wedding theory, see Stanley Wells, ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream Revisited’, Critical Survey, III, 1991, 14-18.

  2. All references to A Midsummer Night's Dream are to the Oxford Shakespeare edition, ed. Peter Holland, Oxford and New York, 1994.

  3. Holland, Introduction, pp. 53-4.

  4. K. M. Briggs, The Anatomy of Puck, London, 1959, p. 14; and see chapter 2, n. 24.

  5. Productions have sometimes emphasized Hippolyta's captive state. In the 1935 film directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle she first appears ‘defeated and downcast, with a large snake coiled around her’: Jay L. Halio, Shakespeare in Performance: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Manchester and New York, 1994, p. 86. In John Hancock's 1966 production in San Francisco she was dragged on in a cage and ‘her lines snarled with biting sarcasm’ (Holland, commentary, p. 131).

  6. Louis Adrian Montrose, ‘“Shaping Fantasies”: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture’, Representing the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1988, p. 36. John Weld sees the defeat of the Amazon as an allegory of passion subdued by reason: Meaning in Comedy: Studies in Elizabethan Romantic Comedy, Albany, 1975, p. 193.

  7. ‘Shaping’, p. 40.

  8. Egeus's view would have seemed almost as extreme in Shakespeare's time as it does now. General opinion seems to have favoured a sensible give-and-take, with parents and children showing due regard for each other's feelings. See Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680, London, 1982, repr. 1990, pp. 71-9, 115.

  9. D. M. Palliser, The Age of Elizabeth: England under the Later Tudors 1547-1603, 2nd edn, London and New York, 1992, pp. 58-9.

  10. Philippa Berry, Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen, London and New York, 1989, p. 144.

  11. William W. E. Slights, ‘The Changeling in A Dream’, Studies in English Literature, XXVIII, 1988, 262.

  12. Or at least that is how it functions in the play. What would happen if (for example) the first person Lysander saw on waking was Demetrius is a question the play does not address.

  13. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, New York, 1971, pp. 233-4.

  14. ‘Characterization of the Four Young Lovers in “A Midsummer Night's Dream”’, Shakespeare Survey, XXXV, 1982, 58. In Endymion Floscula compares love created by enchantment to artificial flowers and fish taken with poisoned bait (1.2.76-83).

  15. For a full account of the imperial imagery compressed into this passage see Frances A. Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century, London, 1975, repr. 1985, pp. 29-120.

  16. In a sentimental moment in the 1935 film the Indian boy, rejected, turns away in tears (Halio, Performance, p. 90). Shakespeare gives him no presence, and therefore no feelings; the effect is of a custody battle in which the child is never heard from.

  17. As Peter Holland points out, this is the only genuine dream in the play (Introduction, p. 4); he offers a Freudian reading of it (pp. 13-15).

  18. Helena's role as the problem child among the lovers is suggested in Peter Hall's 1968 film: as the four lovers sleep, Helena (Diana Rigg) is sucking her thumb.

  19. As Montrose sees it, she treats him as a child (‘Shaping’, p. 35).

  20. It is sometimes the occasion for theatrical in-jokes. In Adrian Noble's 1994 Royal Shakespeare Company production, for example, Quince bore a suspicious resemblance to Laurence Olivier during his period as director of the National Theatre.

  21. Michael Shapiro, ‘The Casting of Flute: Planes of Illusion in A Midsummer Night's Deam and Bartholomew Fair’, The Elizabethan Theatre XIII, ed. A. L. Magnusson and C. E. McGee, Toronto, 1994, p. 152.

  22. Theodore B. Leinwand, ‘“I Believe We Must Leave the Killing Out”: Deference and Accommodation in A Midsummer Night's Dream’, Renaissance Papers 1986, n.p., p. 13. Though there is no record of actors being hanged, the fear that the authorities would move against the theatre was sometimes borne out in the years following A Midsummer Night's Dream—notably in 1597, when a now-lost play called The Isle of Dogs gave such offence that some members of the company (including Ben Jonson) were imprisoned and the Privy Council threatened to ban all performances and demolish the playhouses.

  23. As William C. Carroll puts it, ‘his identity is never clearer than when it has been lost in another shape’: The Metamporphoses of Shakespearean Comedy, Princeton, 1985, p. 150.

  24. I follow the Oxford edition, which in turn follows the Folio in assigning to Egeus the role given to Philostrate in the Quarto. Most editions follow the Quarto.

  25. Holland, commentary, p. 250.

  26. Introduction, p. 92.

  27. Thomas Clayton has suggested that Wall's chink might be not between his fingers but between his legs: ‘“Fie, What a Question's That If Thou Wert Near a Lewd Interpreter”: The Wall Scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream’, Shakespeare Studies, VII, 1974, 101.

  28. Holland, commentary, p. 247.

  29. Shapiro, ‘Casting’, pp. 149-50.

  30. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, III, Oxford, repr. 1951, p. 424.

  31. Fairies were ‘jealous of their privacy’, and it was thought unwise to speak of one's dealings with them: Thomas, Religion, p. 614.

  32. Briggs, Anatomy, p. 15; Thomas, Religion, p. 612.

  33. Briggs, Anatomy, pp. 218-19.

  34. Shakespeare and the Popular Voice, Cambridge and Oxford, 1989, p. 69.

William W. E. Slights (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5482

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 about the nature of love and marriage, and a quantity of flower juice has been squirted about, Oberon again “ask[s] of her her changeling child,” and “straight” Titania gives it to him (IV.i.59-60), not because the snaky scales of feminine insubordination have fallen from her eyes, but because Oberon has caused her to become infatuated with a very funny-looking local weaver who is also not her husband. The quarrel over the changeling boy is powerful but also peripheral, erratically described, and never properly resolved. These and similar anomalies in Shakespeare's treatment of the changeling boy make it difficult to see how the other characters, followed by a group of usually reliable critics, can say with such fierce (over-)determination just what the boy and the fairy discords focused on him are all about. Although the text never calls for this “character” to appear on stage, theatrical directors, taking matters creatively into their own hands, tend to beg the question by assigning the changeling's “part” to some small member of the company. In the case of such a shadowy figure as the changeling in A Dream, however, we need to proceed with some care in order to be sure that what we are interpreting is, in some sense, there.

There are just six direct references to the changeling boy in the text, three of which I have already quoted. In another, Puck, that perpetually amused vulgarizer of relationships, voices his view that the changeling is stolen goods that “jealous” Oberon wants to possess. He tells a unnamed fairy that Titania

                                                                                as her attendant hath
A lovely boy stolen 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.


From these lines we learn that the boy, who started life as an Indian prince, is “lovely,” “sweet,” and “loved” by Titania.2 Oberon's competing and exclusive claim suggests that perhaps, as Puck implies, no one in fairyland has a rightful claim to him. Anyone who wants the changeling, for whatever purpose, may have to withhold him “perforce,” that is, forcibly. On the other hand, the line, “she, perforce, withholds the loved boy,” also opens the possibility that Titania herself is acting under some form of compulsion.

While Puck's account of the changeling boy raises the problems of compulsive behavior and custodial rights among thieves, Oberon's way of seeing the matter is that he has suffered an intolerable injury (II.i.147) at the hands of a “wanton” wife (II.i.63).3 To punish this act of sexual and social insubordination he employs the aphrodisiac juice of the flower called love-in-idleness, thereby creating a “hateful imperfection [in Titania's] eyes” (IV.i.63) that makes her lust after Bottom the ass. Eventually he chastens her and, we are to suppose, drives her back to his own conjugal bed with a second flower drug, “Dian's bud o'er Cupid's flower / [Having] such force and blessed power” (IV.i.73-74).

Titania's view of the changeling boy is altogether different from Puck's and Oberon's. To her, caring for the boy is an act of loyalty to a woman with whom she had shared the most intimate and delightful female companionship, until the fatal moment of the child's birth:

His mother was a vot'ress 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.


The passage captures the pleasure the two women take in gently mocking the world of marine commerce with the richer joys of sorority and pregnancy.4 However perplexing we may find the phrase “a vot'ress of my order,”5 the lines describe a relationship of deep understanding and trust based on their feelings as women. The experience of perfect empathy is expressed in the metaphoring, unmetaphoring, and remetaphoring of the big-bellied sails. What is conceived and imitated here is the very idea of conception. The sails, impregnated by the inspiring breath of the wind, transform the trading vessels into women great with child, one of whom (Titania's votaress and the mother of the changeling boy) in turn humorously imitates a merchandise-laden vessel by gliding gracefully across the land “with pretty and with swimming gait.” One need only exchange the terms and, handy-dandy, which is the tenor, which the vehicle in this fully conceived metaphor? Ruth Nevo remarks wittily that “Oberon might mend his marriage more effectively by getting Titania with child than by trying to get Titania without child.”6 Though there is something vaguely absurd in the critic turning marriage counsellor to the Fairy King, Nevo has rightly seen that parenting emerges as central to Titania's consciousness. The Fairy Queen places herself in loco parentis when the Indian queen dies in childbirth. Now she must nurture and protect a child who, to her mind, is more adopted than kidnapped from the human realm. In Titania's eyes, the fact that he straddles the border between human and fairy in no way obviates his need for mothering.

Understanding what happens on the psychic boundary between human and fairy kind is a prime interpretive challenge in A Dream. The changeling boy, who in my view exists rather precariously in this bordering state, has seemed to some critics to provide a clear case of a lesson learned in fairyland and transferred back into the human realm. The lesson is largely concerned with the hypothesized superiority of reason (identified as a male strength) over will (identified as a female weakness) in Renaissance psychology, the dominant position of husbands over their wives in Renaissance society, and the advisability of graduating boy-children from women's care to men's hunting parties.7 The difficulty with these claims is that they assume or assert a kind of particularity about the nature and function of the changeling boy that—as we have already seen from the conflicting views of Puck, Oberon, and Titania—Shakespeare's text does not provide. The changeling is an absent presence, existing only as a series of competing claims on his company. As such, he illustrates a principle of indeterminacy evident in many parts of the play.

The concept of indeterminacy has gained considerable currency over the past three decades, largely through the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Derrida, and other semantic philosophers. One version of the concept grows out of Derrida's efforts to break down the simple model of one signifier and one thing signified by suggesting that signifiers may just go on indefinitely referring to other signifiers. Jonathan Culler is at pains to point out that this is not the same thing as arguing that any interpretation is as good as any other. He writes, “The combination of context-bound meaning and boundless context on the one hand makes possible proclamations of the indeterminacy of meaning—though the smug iconoclasm of such proclamations may be irritating—but on the other hand urges that we continue to interpret texts, classify speech acts, and attempt to elucidate the conditions of signification.”8 It is in this sense and spirit that I invoke the principle of indeterminacy. I do not propose to make common cause with those who, like Bottom, believe that “Man is but an ass, if he go about t'expound this dream” (IV.i.206-207). Expounding is a large part of the business of criticism as I practice it. What makes asses of us all, including the characters in A Dream, is announcing that we possess the sole, uncontestable truth, particularly about an area of experience as unstable as the one Shakespeare dramatizes in this play. As interpreters, we must always be prepared to deal with contending, contingent truths about matters as apparently simple as weather-reporting and as decidedly complex as love and marriage. While offering us a variety of insights into such topics as these, the play always slips free of formally restrictive readings. The changeling boy receives a wide range of responses from characters in the play and invites even more complex, unsettling responses from the audience.

Consider for a moment an apparently banal topic, the weather. Titania's account of the weather in a distinctly anglicized Athens and environs achieves mythic proportions but precious little fixity:

          never, since the middle summer's spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb'd our sport.
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.
The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard.
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green,
For lack of tread, are undistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest.
Therefore the moon (the governess of floods),
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound.
And thorough this distemperature, 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
And 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 mazed 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 perplexing set-piece of visionary verse moves from logic to chaos, from a precise time-frame to a seasonal jumble, from a complaint about infertility to a complaint about a “progeny of evils,” from precise signs denoting natural objects, causes, and consequences to a “mazed world [that] knows not which is which.” This sounds a good deal like a working definition of indeterminacy. Titania's catalogue of inclemency—fog, flooding, failed crops, decimated flocks, polluted air, and unseasonable temperatures—carries an implicit self-accusation of being either merciless (literally without clemency) or irresponsible towards the people whose weather she is making. But Titania is no bubble-headed woodland deity heedlessly upending the seasons. The thrice-repeated logical connective, “therefore,” lends force to the carefully deployed argumentative structure aimed at forcing Oberon to accept joint responsibility for the weather, if not for the changeling child. For all that the fairies seem to be a source of disorder in the play, Titania here provides an orderly explanation of that very disorder. From the precisely defined “middle summer's spring” Titania plunges us into a wintry world incongruously crowned with “sweet summer buds,” despite her assertion midway through the speech that “mortals want their winter here.” Though phrases such as “wanton green” and “lap of the crimson rose” convey, as C. L. Barber points out, a strong “amorous suggestion” (p. 147), others such as “childing autumn,” “progeny of evils,” and “parents and original” create an equally strong maternal suggestion. As she arrives at her conclusion regarding the debate over the changeling child, she leaves us with an overwhelming sense that, for all her logical explanation, the progeny of evils remains a paradox, an indeterminate truth, and we a part of that “mazed world [that] knows not which is which.”

Extending the indeterminacy of Titania's account of the grief caused by the struggle for custody of the changeling boy is the fact that no one else in the play seems to notice any bad weather. However much the Athenian lovers quarrel, not so much as a cloud emerges on their horizons. It is not an adequate response to this observation to say that Titania's lines apply only to the lofty idealities of fairyland and are not intended as a description of ordinary human reality when she has gone to such lengths to locate all that mud in the nine men's morris and to de-rhapsodize her speech with the sweat of redundantly “human mortals.” René Girard amusingly demystifies the play's meteorology: “Scholars assume that the weather must have been particularly bad in the year Shakespeare wrote the play; this, in turn, gives some clues to the dating of the play. It must be true, indeed, that Shakespeare needed some really inclement weather to write what he did.”9 Girard goes on to argue that what lies behind all this literalized weather forecasting is the deeper problem of “conceptual undifferentiation” (p. 203), concluding with tongue in cheek that in the play's happy ending, “Good weather is back, everything is in order once more” (p. 208). The effect of omitting from the mimetic dimension of the play any corroborating text about the weather is to call into question the notion of a single, authorized version of reality, even though that version emanates from a royal source. Here is no privileging of the text but a willingness to launch the text on to the uncertain seas of human emotion.

If something as ordinary as the weather becomes a source of conflicting evidence in the play, we may expect a still higher degree of uncertainty to be generated around the presentation of love and marriage. It would be reasonable to conclude after reading the play or seeing it performed that love is the major source of indeterminacy, not quarreling, as Titania contends. It is hard to get a straight answer from a lover to even the simplest question: How do you like Athens, Hermia?

Before the time I did Lysander see,
Seem'd Athens as a paradise to me;
O then, what graces in my love do dwell,
That he hath turn'd a heaven unto a hell!


Not only does the weather around Athens remain uncertain, the city itself evokes diametrically opposed responses in the same person, this time under the compulsion of love.

Some of this violent changeability can be credited to Shakespeare's Ovidian treatment of love. Love, especially youthful love, can never remain fixed for long in the Metaphorphoses. Similarly, Lysander's account of the course of true love broods with Romeo and Juliet-like awareness over the fate of a passion that is

                                                            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.


That four of Shakespeare's bright young things quickly come to confusion in the night wood may be attributed to their youthful inexperience. Indeed, the skittishness of lovers becomes synonymous with childishness in the play. The two Athenian youths and their girlfriends are initially thought to be as much in need of parenting as the changeling boy. They are not fully formed persons but rather exude the still undetermined potential of childhood.

In the non-human world of A Midsummer Night's Dream, love's fickleness has not one but three childish faces. “Love [is] said to be a child” (I.i.238) in the iconographic tradition that transmitted the Cupid myth from classical times to the Renaissance, a tradition summarized in some detail by Helena (I.i.232-45). With delicate literalness, Shakespeare translates the erratic power of Cupid's arrows into the magic juice of Oberon's narrative of the fiery shaft that missed Diana's “imperial vot'ress,” who figures the chaste Eliza, striking instead the flower called love-in-idleness (II.i.148-74). Oberon places Cupid's powerful drug in the hands of another “waggish boy,” Puck, who, though himself no lover of mankind, is vastly amused by the emotional instability generated by his newly acquired ability to make people tumble in and out of love. The third is our old friend the changeling boy, who likewise represents no uniform or fixed approach to the meaning of love.10 In each case, these spirits pose a threat to established hierarchy and its protective institution of marriage.

A widely accepted interpretation of the play's comic resolution is that the young people's unrealized potential for love is eventually given adult definition by traditional marriage celebrations in Act V.11 The fullest and most persuasive account of this approach to determining the meaning of the play is Paul Olson's essay, “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage.”12 After tracing a social and iconological tradition of marriage from the garden of Eden to the court of Elizabeth, Olson concludes that “In the total conceptual scheme of the play, the king and queen of the woods dramatize the two poles of the scale of values which gave meaning to marriage. They are types of the forces of Reason and Passion which in a more complex and human manner move through Theseus and Hippolita respectively” (p. 111).

One problem with this kind of reading is that it is clear both from literary and non-literary sources of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that marriage performed a great many functions besides subjecting women's passions to the control of men's intellects.13 Some marriages were for gain, some for companionship, some for love, some for convenience. Some were equally shared, some enforced, some secret, and some nasty, mean, brutish, and short. Furthermore, given the favored male pastimes referred to in A Midsummer Night's Dream (war and the hunt), it is difficult to believe that Shakespeare was trying to depict Reason as an exclusive male preserve. Although Olson explains with admirable fullness and subtlety the significance of various literary representations of marriage, he overreads the text of Shakespeare's play. He refers, for example, to Titania's “erotic games with … the changeling” (p. 111), assignations we neither see nor hear about.

Far more prominent in the play than “the celestial love which preserves chaste marriages and keeps the cosmos in order” (Olson, p. 109), are the uncontrollable, carnivalesque impulses operating despite the best efforts of several patriarchs to rearrange or suppress the natural impulses of youth. As one recent critic points out, “the play represents several stories of resistance and discord, counter-models of the reconciliation and accommodation Theseus proposes.”14 Not only does the play confront us with the willful rebellion of a quartet of teenagers, but it sets in motion the maddest of low-life subplots, including Bottom's anarchic synesthesia (IV.i.204-19) and even in the fifth-act resolution the topsy-turvy indeterminacy of “very tragical mirth” (V.i.57) in the mechanicals' performance at court. The challenge for all the audiences, on-stage and off, is to hold in mind at once pairs of terms and concepts that point in opposite directions. It has become customary to discuss the reconciliation of opposites or concordia discors in A Midsummer Night's Dream in terms of a patriarchal triumph over female waywardness in the most obvious of institutional joining of opposites, holy matrimony.15 This is the great Elizabethan humanist settlement for the problem of conflicting stories and emotional states in the play: Titania is forced to see the folly of her infatuation with the changeling boy by being made to fall in love with a second and more monstrous changeling, one that even she can eventually perceive as inferior to her proper husband. Like Helena, Hermia, and Hippolyta, she is taught that the only true concord for the sexes requires her to acknowledge the central fact of benign (and, by analogy, divine) male superiority in a patrilineal-patrological culture. Titania, in fact, acknowledges nothing of the kind when she gives up the changeling boy. All she says is that she now loathes the sight of the transfigured Bottom (IV.i.79). It can be argued, then, that in its pursuit of comic conflicts Shakespeare's play does more to unsettle than to inscribe traditional assumptions of courtly culture concerning marriage.

Traditional readings of A Midsummer Night's Dream do, of course, allow that conflicts exist within the hierarchical social structure depicted in the play, but they maintain that discord exists only to be chastized, corrected, and subsumed by a higher order. For a number of reasons I believe, on the contrary, that the indeterminacy of Shakespeare's text permits the characters to perpetuate their amorous and festive madness with all the illogic of a dream through and even beyond its formal end. Though the young lovers awake in Act IV as if from a dream, their present waking reality is as unfixed as their labyrinthine sleepwalking:

Methinks I see these things with parted eye,
When every thing seems double.
So methinks;
And I have found Demetrius like a jewel,
Mine own, and not mine own.


Shakespeare poses as a problem for his fictional persons as well as his would-be understanders outside the play, the proposition that any attempt to make something firmly one's own, whether it be a changeling boy, an eligible bachelor, or a unique interpretation of a text, is to expose the vaguely ridiculous limitations of the human condition. No tyrannical assertion of authority by a father, a duke, a lover, or a critic can manage to avoid the problem.

In writing a comedy that takes place almost wholly beyond the reach of ordinary domestic locales, exploring the haunts of Endymion rather than Gammer Gurton, Shakespeare ignores the centrality of traditional male power and respectability, instead mapping the terrain that Robert Frost in his poem “West-Running Brook” calls “lady-land.” The male authority figures, Egeus and Theseus, cease to exert their powers of constraint after Act I. The genuine sources of human vitality and insight in Shakespeare are not to be found at the safe center of government or in the quiet domains of marriage but rather in the world of Falstaff and Hal at the Boars Head, Lear and his fool on the heath, Perdita in her garden, Prospero and Caliban on their uneasily shared island—places that harbor the mooncalves and changelings of the world. A Midsummer Night's Dream is not a celebration in the same genre as Jonson's court masques. It is not focused on the literal or even the symbolic seat of royal power but rather on the largely uncharted territory on the fringes or “margents” of society where the rules of power tend to break down, often with imaginatively liberating and extremely amusing results. Here, Hippolyta's view that “the story of the night … grows to something of great constancy” (V.i.23-27) can brush aside Theseus's condescending and authoritarian pronouncements, leaving intact the claims of the imagination.

The point about discords in this marginal world is that they remain stimulatingly discordant. The changeling boy, so insubstantial in the text and so variously perceived as a source of conflict, is a prime example of the indeterminacy that the play postulates as the essential condition of people who love and people who dream. Try as they may to remain wrapped “In maiden meditation, fancy-free” (II.i.164), like the Imperial Virgin protected by chaste moonbeams from Cupid's fiery shaft, ordinary mortals are seldom free in their fancying. Even the perceptions of the Queen of Fairy can be constrained by the siren call of the strange mortal, Bottom:

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.


Here are a woman and a piece of text about as determined as they can be. Bottom's perceived good looks, his “virtue,” are closely shadowed by the root sense of virtú, power or force. A force perforce forces Titania triply to swear to a love that will evaporate from her eye and her tongue in the space of a single act. The real forces celebrated in the play would seem to be not marital restraint, chastity, or even, perhaps, constancy, but natural sexual impulses and radically unstable sense-perceptions. As Michael Andrews argues, the dewy tears that materialize in the “pretty flouriets' eyes” (IV.i.55) when Oberon upbraids Titania for bedecking first the changeling boy and then Bottom with flowers, are as likely to be shed for love repressed than, as usually glossed, for chaste women ravished.16 Enforced chastity is no wellspring of joy in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Instead, the play gives full scope to desires that struck Puritan preachers and authors of courtly entertainments alike as anathema to Christian marriage and good government.

Still, matrimony has its hour when the moon is full, the rustics are fooling at the height of their bent, and the fairies are in gentle attendance. The troublesome changeling child, violator of the shifting but ever-present boundary between human and other worlds, has apparently been forgotten in the wake of the new amity between Titania and Oberon. This is not to say that the differences of perception regarding the changeling have been resolved, any more than the conflicting infatuations of the Athenian lovers or Hermia's dispute with her father have been “resolved.” They have merely been swept to one side like the dust that Puck is sent to sweep behind the door on the wedding night. There the unpleasantnesses and competing truths will coexist with the joys of marriage and those of the comic stage. No single or higher truth emerges from the play but rather a slightly bewildering and highly amusing collection of apparently willful reinterpretations of the experience of being in and out of love. Like the changeling boy, A Midsummer Night's Dream itself is a masterwork of what I have called indeterminacy and what Keats called “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”17


  1. Quotations from A Midsummer Night's Dream are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  2. “The changeling,” according to Minor White Latham, “seems to have been peculiar to the 16th-century fairies of England” (The Elizabethan Fairies: The Fairies of Folklore and the Fairies of Shakespeare [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1930], rpt. New York: Octagon Books, 1972, p. 150). The still more peculiar feature of this particular changeling is that he is not the usual deformed child left behind by the fairies to create consternation among distraught human parents, but instead the handsome young prince vied for on the far side, the fairy side.

  3. In his article, “Titania and the Changeling,” ES 22 (1940):66-70, Donald C. Miller argues with single-minded determination that several epithets attached to Titania's name, including “proud,” “rash,” and “jealous,” are synonymous with “wanton.” Largely on this basis, he concludes that “Titania has made the boy her lover” (p. 66). As will become clear, I view the relationship very differently.

  4. I cannot agree with David Marshall's assertion that in this speech Titania “is perpetuating rather than rejecting terms that inscribe people in a system of economic relations.” The tenderness of her language has little in common with characters such as Shylock whose purpose actually is so to “inscribe” people. See David Marshall, “Exchanging Visions: Reading A Midsummer Night's Dream,ELH 49 (1982):568. A more sensitive and persuasive reading of the lines is C. L. Barber's in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 136-37. Louis Adrian Montrose reads the speech as an exclusively female version of carrying sons and argues that it “counterpoints” Theseus's account of how men, without the mediation of women, leave their imprint on their daughters (I.i.47-51). The upshot of this contest between male and female fantasies of parthenogenesis, according to Montrose, is repeated “male disruption of an intimate bond between women” (p. 71), a disruption that the play's comic form eventually sanctions and, in doing so, “neutralizes the forms of royal power [in particular, the potent myth of the Virgin Queen] to which it ostensibly pays homage” (p. 85). See “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations 1 (1983): 61-94.

  5. Ernest Schanzer, with refreshing candor, admits his bafflement at the phrase: “The order of the fairy queen? With human votaresses? It does not make sense … the words ‘vot'ress of my order’ seem oddly chosen. Perhaps some topical allusion is the answer to the puzzle, with Titania at least in this episode standing for the Queen and the votaress perhaps for one of her ladies-in-waiting” (“The Moon and the Fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream,UTQ 24 [1955]:241-42). More relevant to today's readers than surmised topicality is the sense of stability, as opposed to wantonness, conveyed by the word “order.”

  6. Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1980), p. 104.

  7. In addition to Ruth Nevo's book, which I have already cited, and Paul Olson's essay, which I will discuss later, the following works read the play as endorsing certain sexist assumptions of Shakespeare's society: Paul N. Siegel, “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Wedding Guests,” SQ 4 (1953):139-44; James L. Calderwood, “A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Illusion of Drama,” MLQ 26 (1965):506-22; David P. Young, Something of Great Constancy: The Art of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1966); Anca Vlasopolos, “The Ritual of Midsummer: A Pattern for A Midsummer Night's Dream,RenQ 31 (1978):21-29; and Alan W. Bellringer, “The Act of Change in A Midsummer Night's Dream,ES 64 (1983):201-17.

  8. Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982), p. 133.

  9. René Girard, “Myth and Ritual in Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué V. Harari (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1979), p. 199.

  10. For an interpretation that finds a fixed, indeed a theoretically predetermined, pattern of behavior in the way adults and children relate to one another, see Vicky Shahly Hartman, “A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Gentle Concord to the Oedipal Problem,” AI 40 (1983):356-69. Norman Holland's application of Freudian theory to the play (“Hermia's Dream,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murry M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980], pp. 1-20) avoids some of the problems of overdetermining the text that Hartman's essay exhibits. Paul Stevens argues from a rich matrix of allusion that the psychological origin of childishness in the play is the fancy uninformed by reason. See his Imagination and the Presence of Shakespeare in “Paradise Lost” (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 15, 85-87, et passim.

  11. The connection between this play about marriage and an actual aristocratic marriage of the mid-1590s has often been postulated, but the evidence for linking A Midsummer Night's Dream to one or another specific marriage is so far inconclusive.

  12. Paul A. Olson, “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage,” ELH 24 (1957):95-119.

  13. The fourth chapter of Keith Wrightson's English Society, 1580-1680 (London: Hutchinson, 1982) presents evidence of some highly companionable marriages drawn from a variety of shires and social classes.

  14. Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 172. On the basis of Harold Brooks's source work with Plutarch and Seneca in the Arden edition, Louis Montrose argues that “sedimented within the verbal texture of A Midsummer Night's Dream are traces of those forms of familial violence which the play would suppress” (“‘Shaping Fantasies,’” p. 75).

  15. Hippolyta's lines concerning the hounds of Sparta suggest a possible analogue to this process:

                                                                                                                            Never did I hear
    Such gallant chiding; 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.


  16. See Michael Cameron Andrews, “Titania on ‘Enforced Chastity,’” N&Q 31 (1984):188.

  17. John Keats: Selected Poems and Letters, ed. Douglas Bush (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959), p. 261.

Bruce Clarke (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1763

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, the play is so good-natured:

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

(S 2.1.249-53)

On the other hand, even good-natured mischief can be painful, as when Puck frightens Bottom's companions out of the woods, and his mock-horrific transformations out-proteus Proteus:

Puck. 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.


Here Puck's declarative verbal metamorphoses set up a “round” or turning motion, a delirium of metaphor mimicking the primary process, the slipping of signifiers out of semantic control and proper relation.1 The immediate outcome of Puck's metamorphic magic, of course, is the transformation of Bottom into a brief species catalogue, a fabulous monster, a man with the head of an ass.2 Like the spirit with which he is introduced, Puck is marked by “miswandering,” the Verwandlung of metamorphosis. But Puck's mischief makes a mockery of moralisms, “sad tales.” Puck's “meaning” is conveyed in a key line—“My mistress with a monster is in love” (3.2.6)—that celebrates a triumph of misprision, the mock-incestuous liaison between the anointed Titania and the transformed Bottom. Concerning the confusions resulting from Puck's erotic mischief with the Athenian teenagers, Oberon objects:

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


Puck counters by affirming his own literary paradigm, the comic erotic daemonic represented by two lovers in interchangeable turmoil over one beloved:

Then will two at once woo one:
That must needs be sport alone;
And those things do best please me
That befall prepost'rously.


The metamorphic business in this play is aggressive as well as erotic. Within the ironic frame but behind the comic screen, the disruptive and dispossessive overtones of metamorphosis are present in the “fairy quarreling” plot, through which Oberon uses Puck to humble Titania, tricking her into relinquishing “A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king; / She never had so sweet a changeling” (2.1.22-23). Oberon appears briefly in Lamia as well, prefiguring Apollonius as a paternal usurper of female possessions. Oberon's protests over Puck's metamorphic mischief are disingenuous, when he has been putting Robin Goodfellow up to all manner of daemonic stealth to recover this particular changeling boy. This is just to say that as fairy patriarch Oberon is above the law, outside the game he is playing (with Puck as his agent) on Titania.

The anger between the fairy king and queen is echoed at the broad scenic level by a reversal of natural seasonal progression: Oberon would have it that this blight on the land is a deviation from the proper nature of things and not simply from his own paternal prerogative. From Oberon's position, Titania's maternal willfulness is incestuous, hence monstrous, hence metamorphic, a travesty in which the parental figures as well as the seasons “change / Their wonted liveries.”

Titania. 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.
Oberon. 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.


The absent center, the ultimate object of misprision in A Midsummer Night's Dream, is the changeling boy. This occulted figure is the true daemon of the plot. It is a talisman for its possessor, and Oberon sees no reason for Titania to possess hers beyond what he considers the proper season. Here the daemonic scene plays out an Imaginary scenario in which “two (parents) at once woo one (child),” and the one who is wooed is at once two—the bisexual child in the realm of the phallic mother.3 Keyed at this level of archaic content or fabulous monstrosity, the changeling boy as hermaphroditic daemon is quite invisible, it exists only as absconded. Rather, we get multiple substitutes: the changeable, interchangeable Demetrius and Lysander, and the metamorphic Bottom, himself marked with a name figuring the ambivalent genitalia.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the metamorphic saturnalia concerns a disruption of and return to a patriarchally legitimate eros and fertility. Montrose (1986) seconds my previous remarks about the gender of metamorphosis in the Golden Ass—“within the changeling plot are embedded transformations of … male fantasies of motherhood” (75)—and also notes the ideological instability imported by metamorphic figures: “The festive conclusion of A Midsummer Night's Dream, its celebration of romantic and generative sexual union, depends upon the success of a process whereby the female pride and power manifested in misanthropic [Amazonian] warriors, possessive mothers, unruly wives, and willful daughters are brought under the control of husbands and lords. But while the dramatic structure articulates a patriarchal ideology, it also intermittently undermines its own comic propositions” (75-76). That is to say, in this comedy Shakespeare has worked an Apuleian parody against a Christian/Neoplatonic line of patriarchal allegory.

In this composite or ambivalent landscape, Titania is a Jocasta who has arrogated to herself a phallic son-consort, represented on the one hand by the “changeling boy” and on the other hand by the transformed Bottom. Bottom is both Sphinx—fabulous monster—and Oedipus, ending up in the bed of the Queen. Once again, now in a sophisticated Elizabethan farce, the themes of metamorphosis cluster around gender politics, here in a way that relates the incest taboo to a patriarchal interest in terminating a mother/son liaison. The rhetoric of metamorphosis in this play is focused most significantly on Oberon's efforts to persuade Titania to submit to his primacy by relinquishing her phallic consort. When he fails to persuade her with words, he resorts to magical wiles, but the comic daemonic business with the love potion (Oberon's pharmakon) remains rhetoric, ideological pressure, by other means.

We might interpret A Midsummer Night's Dream as encoding the slippages of patriarchal engendering. The dilemmas of the opening scene—Demetrius's desertion of Helena, Hermia's quarrel with Egeus, her determination to elope with Lysander, and so forth—represent the day's events; the day's residues are the vehement but unresolved erotic trends the lovers carry with them into the woods. The dream proper begins when the Fairies—the agents of the dreamwork performed upon the human lovers—emerge bearing transformative powers. All the “jangling” and “vexation” of the lovers' reversals is the dream distortion of their erotic relations, played for dramatic comedy: the lovers should be loving but they are fighting. But the “children” (the lovers) are quarreling because the “parents” (Oberon and Titania) are quarreling. The King and Queen of the Fairies are also the objects as well as the symbolic bearers of the infantile wishes. The subject of the infantile wishes is the changeling boy.

The quarrel of Oberon and Titania returns us to the latent infantile experiences driving the manifestations of the dream. In particular, the play screens a preoedipal child's experiences of uncertainty and divided loyalties within the nuclear family. The occulted changeling boy's primary libidinal trends are already distorted by displacements and reversals. On the one hand, the fairy parents' arguments over the son-figure correspond to a conscious desire—“I wish they would stop quarreling”—that laterally inflects Hermia's and Helena's anxieties over Demetrius's and Lysander's wrangling. On the other hand, as long as the fairy quarreling prevents parental intercourse, it produces a wishful separation, and Titania's refusal to relinquish the changeling boy fulfills his Oedipal desire: “I want to stay where I am and keep my mother as my lover.” But this libidinal trend is unacceptable according to the patriarchal ego ideal that determines the manifest outcome of the dream—Oberon's theft/recovery of the changeling boy for masculine proprieties. Thus the primary latent wish of the changeling boy is displaced to another “changeling,” the monstrous Bottom, through whom the metamorphic fantasy is played out to provide an illicit night of love in the bower of the mother. Once again, a metamorphic interlude allows for both a concealment and an exhibition of desire.


  1. Shakespeare “came close to dramatizing Freud's hydraulic theory about the flow of libidinal cathexis which blindly drives the unconscious will from object to object, when he showed the lovers blindly ‘transferring’ their loves from object to object in the forest, though he saw, instead of a flow of cathexis, a flow of juice from the flower ‘love-in-idleness’”: Meredith Anne Skura, The Literary Use of the Psychoanalytic Process (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 37.

  2. Cf. René Girard, “Bottom's One-Man Show,” in Clayton Koelb and Virgil Lokke, ed., The Current in Criticism: Essays on the Present and Future of Literary Theory (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1987), 99-122: “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” (107). The dramatic becomes daemonic when the game of role-playing becomes contagious and generates its own metamorphic momentum.

  3. On Freud's ambivalence toward the concept of bisexuality within his own theory, see … [Marcia Ian's Remembering the Phallic Mother: Psychoanalysis, Modernism, and the Fetish (Ithaca: Cornell University Press)] 1993, 2-4.

M. E. Comtois (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5102

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 the nobility, lovers, artisans and fairies.3 That voice, until the last act, has been so written as to provide at least as much comedy as is provided by the artisans. The lovers' on-going contribution is principally farce, a form which demands extreme contrast between surface and substance, form and content.4 It requires minimal individualization and maximum complication. Their scenes have been shaped by the playwright to provide what farce requires: a comic victim. Only in the fifth act do they have a function in the genre of romantic comedy. There they fulfill Northrup Frye's argument of comedy: lovers must live happily ever after to fulfill our necessary assumptions about human destiny.5 For the first four acts however, Shakespeare uses them always as victims: of Athenian authority, of their own adolescent obsessions, and of enchantment. They can serve both ends, be objects of laughter evolving into objects of sympathy, by virtue of human assumptions about foolish adolescence evolving into future maturity, a corollary of the comic argument.

When the lovers first appear, they are unwilling participants in melodrama, a litigation in which parental and royal authority is to be imposed. (Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander are brought before Duke Theseus by Egeus, Hermia's father, for sanction of his paternal rights.) During the hearing in which Theseus is judge and Egeus plaintiff, three of the four lovers “dress the stage,” and though two are the accused, they speak only what they must and defer to authority, in the manner of all young who are bent on staying out of more trouble. Indeed it is as trouble that they are introduced. Theseus has just rekindled his enthusiasm and set the tone for weddings, joy and happy celebration, when he is confronted with trouble: family conflict and romantic despair. After rendering judgment against the lovers, Theseus exits drawing Egeus and Demetrius after him.

Shakespeare next focuses upon the personal dilemmas and it is at this point that the lovers begin to take on comic dimension. The balance of the scene presents first a pair, then a group, then solo perspective upon their four-way involvement. Though of the same world, and experiencing the same emotion as Theseus and Hippolyta, the lovers reflect the wide discrepancy between those who master and those who are mastered by love. By juxtaposing characters in parallel states, Shakespeare has made the contrasts look more like opposites. As the royal couple is mature, these lovers are immature; as Theseus and Hippolyta understate their passion (I.i.1-11) these lovers overstate theirs (I.i.132-49). Shakespeare does not differentiate the characters of the young lovers, and so all four seem a common type, a gang, an adolescent pard, who are so engrossed in their feelings and discoveries about romantic love that they make a group as much by their mutual compulsions to talk of nothing else as by their exaggerated infatuations.

The significant information about the lovers which we receive in the balance of the first scene is about what they are feeling, not who they are. Doubtless this treatment of the lovers reflects a desire to parody Elizabethan romantic conventions, rather than a clinical interest in obsession, but it cannot be doubted that it was Shakespeare's purpose not to differentiate them. Their personal, individual traits were not so relevant to the action of this play as their typical adolescent responses. They prove likable, if unremarkable, young people who experience love, like magic, as something they cannot control. In the interests of characterization, much has been made of little (Helena's fairness, Hermia's shortness, etc.) but it is more pertinent to note Shakespeare's exploitation of their sameness in relation to the comic values of their scenes, their function as dupes of their feelings, and the part they play in the comic proportions of the play as a whole.

Repetition is a comic device:6 the more characters look and sound alike, the more they are like mechanical toys and less like persons, the funnier they seem. And the lovers do come into the story at the extreme remove of being treated as chattel, as things. Egeus' case is that a daughter is a possession, and while Lysander has come as thief into the case, it is primarily a matter of his legal property rights in Hermia.

Shakespeare has fragmented his perspectives on the lovers' private affairs into three units: a twosome, a threesome, and a solo, to show that nothing can divert or vary the content of adolescent responses to love. In the first unit Lysander and Hermia deplore their fate, then decide to elope. In the second, Helena enters and deplores having lost Demetrius, and Lysander and Hermia assure her she will get him back because they are running away. In the final unit Helena rails at the injustice of Demetrius' change of heart and decides this latest news will give her occasion to see him again. Each unit has followed the same pattern: communal handwringing followed, quite irrationally, by positive action. Shakespeare has prepared the predictability of the lovers' responses. They act alike and so partake of the comic that comes from humans acting as puppets, mechanically.

Having established the lovers as comic characters, Shakespeare next sets up a comedy of mistaken assumptions. Bergson has categorized this as “reciprocal interference of series.”7 Their comic obsessions are compounded by enchantments, and they become unwitting performers in fairy entertainments. They will be comic victims on two dimensions simultaneously. When Demetrius and Helena enter Oberon's domain, they interrupt his preoccupation with his own marital affairs, just as Lysander, Demetrius, and Hermia entered Theseus' domain in the first act. Oberon will now act as judge, albeit unknown to them, and like Theseus, he will act, as he thinks for their best interests, but he also will further complicate their affairs.

It has been traditional to focus upon the lovers' story and interpret Oberon's function in light of his service (or disservice) to them. Instead, consider Oberon's intrigue and note the lovers' function in it. They become corollary to his affairs, as they prove corollary to those of Theseus, and a parallel between day life and dream life is polarized. Farce and intrigue are complementary (as farce and romance are not), so that the farcical situations the lovers fall into seem naturally Oberon and Puck's “fond pageant” just as later Theseus will have his interlude, his play within a play. The lovers romanticize their way through Theseus' and Oberon's worlds, never realizing they are romantics, just as the artisans clown their way through Athens and the wood never knowing they are clowns. To look upon the action in the wood as Oberon's intrigue8 in which both the lovers and the rustics have a function, is to provide the overall dream with a coherence, however garbled the lovers' and the rustics' interpretations become.

The first scene of the lovers in the wood makes the most of the lovers' blindness to the world around them. Demetrius and Helena speak as if they were still at court, as if woods were just a group of trees. It is not until line thirty of this scene that they show any awareness of their surroundings, and then it enters the dialogue as yet one more talking point about love. The humor of the scene arises from the male-female conflict in which the apparently weaker bests the stronger, an instance of Bergson's inversion.9 Helena can frustrate Demetrius by parrying all his arguments and shifting all responsibility back to him. He is a magnet, he is the master the dog can't cease to follow, his absence causes illness, and when he finally resorts to threats of violence, she smugly replies, “Your virtue is my privilege” (II.i.220).10 Demetrius quits the field and Helena pursues him. After discord between Demetrius and Helena, there is next concord in the progression of male-female scenes when Lysander and Hermia enter. These lovers sport themselves in accord in the same manner and tone as the previous pair Demetrius and Helena did in discord. The effect is to dissociate their affections from personality. The more the personalities resemble one another, the more the switching about of love-objects seems plausible, since personality would appear less and less dictator of special attractions.

The action of the scene between Lysander and Hermia is preparing to sleep. It also prepares for Puck's entrance and his mistake. Now comic values double and triple, for the lovers are funny not only for their foolish attitudes about sleeping apart and for their being the butt of enchantment, but also for Puck's compounding the errors by mistaking them for their “look-alikes.” Hermia's:

But, gentle friend, for love and courtesy
Lie further off, in humane modesty,
Such separation as may well be said
Becomes a virtuous bachelor and a maid,
So far be distant;


becomes Puck's:

Pretty soul! she durst not lie
Near this lack-love, this kill-courtesy.


The comedy is an instance of Bergson's “reciprocal interference of series”: “A situation is invariably comic when it belongs simultaneously to two altogether independent series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different meanings at the same time.”11 The comedy of this scene comes from juxtaposing human pseudo-morality with fairy amorality. It only remains to show the consequences of the mistake, and so Demetrius and Helena enter. It is Demetrius' presence which brings Helena to this spot, but it is coincidence that this is the moment in which Helena will abandon hope. Demetrius continues running, but Helena ceases to follow. Shakespeare is now deploying triple use of reciprocating series and pressing for maximum contrast. In this instance Helena abandons hope of winning Demetrius and pronounces Hermia the winner. She discovers Lysander and wakens him so that he sees her and not Hermia, and thereby she makes Hermia loser instead. We know why Lysander has changed direction in his affections, but we have yet to know the reactions to this change. Shakespeare carefully develops them one at a time. Demetrius is out of sight and Hermia does not wake, so attention is focused on Helena and Lysander alone. Lysander woos and his wooing is comic because he is seeking plausible reasons for what we know has been external intervention. He speaks of Demetrius, and Helena mistakes his passion for her for passion directed against Demetrius, and she therefore tries to protect her love. When Lysander makes it clear that it is her he wants, she doubts. She too casts about for plausible explanation of his behavior and concludes that she is being mocked. The rebuffs she has had anticipate unkindness, not kindness. She recoils. She has moved into Demetrius' role and Lysander has moved into hers. She must run away and he will follow. To fix the power of the flower, Lysander is made to turn back to Hermia before he goes. She now repels him. He explicitly renounces her and exits. And to complete the consequences of Puck's mistake, attention then shifts to Hermia. She must play Helena's role at the end of Act I: the deserted. The scene ends in an echo of the round dance pattern that now emerges as the play reaches its midpoint and one high point of its action.

When the lovers reappear they enter and interrupt Oberon and Puck, and so they can serve as the butt of Oberon and Puck's joke. They enter as unwitting comic victims. Oberon says, “Stand close” (III.ii.41). The fairy court will observe, not participate in, this scene of human wooing. They will be audience, and this casts Demetrius and Hermia in the roles of performers. Having no personal interest in the lovers beyond what is their beneficent or mischievous characters respectively, Oberon and Puck can become spectators and so focus the action of the lovers as a play within a play.

The scene between Hermia and Demetrius is perhaps the most rhetorically exaggerated scene yet expressed by the lovers. Demetrius has finally found Hermia, but found her filled with stinging epithets and vituperation against him. The only reasonable explanation she can make for Lysander's absence is that Demetrius has killed him. Her affection is not for sale, however much she may be pleading for Lysander's return. She exits and this last rejection puts Demetrius out of hope. He gives up the chase, and continuing the metaphor of bargain-making and debt, he settles himself to sleep, much as Hermia and Lysander had earlier put themselves to sleep with word games.

This action is a repetition, with roles reversed, of Demetrius' encounter with Helena in which he had pronounced unequivocal rejection, and she had abandoned hope. It is also repetition (with different characters) of the last encounter of lovers: when Helena defended Demetrius and scorned and fled Lysander. It is also evidence necessary for Oberon to have in order to discover a mistake and take steps to bring about his original intention.

Oberon acts immediately and decisively, sending Puck for Helena while he will perform the action he had originally intended. Puck returns. He has found Helena with Lysander in tow. As a royal jester and prankster, he has not missed the potential entertainment values in the situation he has stumbled upon, and he has brought them both back, hoping Oberon will enjoy the spectacle.

Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth, mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover's fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
Stand aside: the noise they make
Will cause Demetrius to awake.
Then will two at once woo one.
That must needs be sport alone;
And those things do best please me
That befall prepost'rously.


“Preposterously” was, to an Elizabethan, “topsy-turvily,” in inverted order. It is also a device of farce.9 Oberon agrees to withhold future remedy for the sake of present laughter and so the show may go on. The lovers again become “the players” at this fairy king's court, the unconscious performers for others' amusement. Shakespeare has provided royal license to enjoy, to laugh at the farce of these lovers' confusions and misunderstandings.

It is pertinent now to direct attention to the plot the lovers execute. There is, without a doubt, a pattern to the evolution of the lovers' private action, the right matching among themselves. In speaking about the lovers in the first act, it was mentioned that they were not differentiated in personality; rather, they functioned to show an arbitrary character of adolescent and obsessively romantic love. Love masters these young people. Fickleness is presented not as a characteristic of personality but as a characteristic of adolescence. In this play they neither cause their own ills nor effect their own cure, but instead they dance to a tune they believe that they have heard the piper Love play. The implication is that however comic the action may be, it is also an inevitable stage in adolescent development, a necessary ritual action youth must perform. If this is correct, then it is relevant to attend to the pattern in which the lovers move. The idea of a dance has already been advanced by Enid Welsford in The Court Masque: “The plot is a pattern, a figure, rather than a series of human events occasioned by character and passion, and this pattern, especially in the moonlight parts of the play, is the pattern of a dance.”12

This statement raises questions about the relation of dance to drama which need not be argued here, but it is interesting to note the way in which Welsford holds the lovers' action as primary instance for her thesis:

The lovers quarrel in a dance pattern: first, there are two men to one woman and the other woman alone, then a brief space of circular movement, each one pursuing and pursued, then a return to the first figure with the position of the woman reversed, then a cross-movement, man quarreling with man and woman with woman, and then, as finale, a general setting to partners, including not only the lovers but fairies and royal personages as well.13

C. L. Barber deliberates upon Miss Welsford's thesis: “This is fine and right, except that one must add that the lovers' evolutions have a headlong and helpless quality that depends on their not being intended as dance. … The farce is funniest and most meaningful, where they try their hardest to use personality to break free, and still are willy-nilly swept along to end in pitch darkness, trying to fight.”14

Now consider that farce results from the dialectic of extremes: the surface frenzy and distraction of the lovers trying to explain their own behavior, and the substance of a highly ordered, carefully balanced pattern of movement which magic, chance, and adolescent limitation have dictated. The pattern of adolescent attractions in general much resembles the round dance: a to-and-fro from partner to alternate partner; out of friendship into love; out of love … “and Grand Allemande.”15 In A Midsummer Night's Dream the magic and enchantments function as symbols for no less irrational adolescent fickleness, so the pattern of action by the lovers is offered as a pattern of typical adolescent behavior: a trial-and-error period necessary to be undergone in order to reach the self-mastery of mature love. This norm is not comic in and of itself, as a round dance is not comic. But this norm is also unappreciated by the lovers. Comedy arises when a dialectic is set in motion between the lovers' acts and their eagerness to be interpreting these acts in the “romance” in which they imagine themselves to be heroes and heroines. The romance is rarely comic as a form (witness Two Gentlemen of Verona), and, as mentioned, the adolescent “round dance” is not comic in and of itself, but both may become comic when they are made to appear functionally related.

Shakespeare has created his farce by setting the lovers at the remove of Puck and Oberon. He has established just that distance and perspective where it is possible to know the cause and still enjoy effect. The comic here is an inversion of one of the farce dialectics in the Titania-Bottom scenes where the surface is decorous and the substance is preposterous.16 The very orderliness of development in the lovers' actions is a necessary substance to contrast with the surface: their confusion and helplessness. Without the orderly pattern of the round dance, the confusions would seem random; without the lover's frenzied responses, the scenes would in fact be only a round dance.

Without question the lovers' pattern of movement has been constructed in orderly, even mathematical progression. Before the play starts, Demetrius loves Helena and Lysander loves Hermia. In the first act Demetrius has changed his mind so that both he and Lysander love Hermia and Helena is left forsaken. The third change brings an alteration in Lysander's affections so that now Lysander loves Helena and Demetrius loves Hermia. Working “the change” once again, Lysander loves Helena, Demetrius loves Helena, and Hermia is forsaken. The final move, removing the charm only from Lysander's eye, brings the action full circle. Each alteration in the men's affections brings a complementary disaffection in the women's: Helena finds herself wooed in scorn and Hermia thinks herself victim of deceit. All movement is constructed out of the simple polarity of attraction-repulsion: each character moving toward, or drawing away from another in scenes of soliloquy, of pairs, in triangles or in foursomes. There are in fact 23 configurations the lovers pass through before Puck manipulates the final “setting to partners.” Four of these configurations are in the first act and seven are in the second. The final twelve constitute the climax in their private story. And it is the very complexity and variety, which urge the round dance as a form, by which the action can be understood. The round dance itself can be seen as a refined ritualization of the attraction-repulsion patterns of early courtship.

The “choreography” of the lovers' action in this scene demonstrates Shakespeare's care to construct his action in units of likeness with difference, reinforced and emphasized by repetition. It is in this manipulation that Shakespeare's comic art emerges, implicit but doubtless most artful for being so. Here are the last ten configurations which constitute the entertainment Puck anticipates:

Configuration Number Number of Persons Action Pattern
14 2 Helena enters, pursued Lysander An identical repeat of last scene in Act II
15 3 Demetrius awakens to woo Helena and quarrel with Lysander a triangle: inversion of one opening Act I
16 4 Hermia enters and pursues Lysander who rejects her Her-Lys reenacting Dem-Hel first scene in wood: girl pursuing unwilling boy
17 4 Helena pleads with Hermia who is mystified New alignment: girls vs. boys
18 4 Two men woo Helena and quarrel Repeats triangle above
19 4 Hermia pursues Lysander who rejects her Repeats first foursome
20 4 Hermia turns in anger on Helena Repeats two girls, but action repeats boys quarreling
21 4 Two men and Helena against Hermia Triangle made to oppose forsaken girl
22 4 Men quarrel and exit Repeat
23 2 Girls quarrel and follow Repeat

Number 15 recurs in 18 and takes the men off stage in 22. Hermia pleads and Lysander rejects in Numbers 16 and 19. The men quarrel in 15, 18 and 22. The girls become alienated in 17 and quarrel in 20 and 23. Only move 21 is not a repetition but it is a superimposition of the girls' quarrel on the inverted triangle: a combination of 18 and 20, so that 22 is an expansion of 20, and brings the scene to its end.

This climactic scene is the longest in the play, constituting more than one-fifth of the whole. It has three movements: the setting up of the conflict (122 lines); the confrontation which is Puck's pageant (208 lines); and the resolution (115 lines). The midpoint of the play falls within the scene and, when it finishes, the play is two-thirds over. This scene also has a parallel in the fifth act where preparations take 105 lines, the rustics' play-within-a-play takes 206 lines, and the final resolutions 76 lines. Shakespeare set the dialectic of farce to work mid-play, as he set the comic parody to work at the end of the play.

Thus far we have discussed in some detail the comic structure of the lovers' quarrels. The texture of the scenes is also contributing to the farce, often through comparable devices such as repetition, inversion, and the reciprocal interference of series. Close textual analysis will reveal many instances, but it is sufficient to select the climactic scene in the wood to illustrate the manner in which Shakespeare shapes texture and structure alike to realize his comic vision.

At the beginning of the lovers' final confrontation scene, when Lysander pursues Helena on stage, his first speech has the same injured tone in which Demetrius began the last scene pleading with Hermia:

Demetrius to Hermia:

O, why rebuke you him that loves you so?
Lay breath so bitter on your bitter foe.


Lysander to Helena:

Why should you think that I should woo in scorn?
Scorn and derision never come in tears:
Look, when I vow, I weep; and vows so born,
In their nativity all truth appears.
How can these things in me seem scorn to you,
Bearing the badge of faith to prove them true?


Both speeches belie depth of feeling by their exaggeration of subject, their elaborate deployment of metaphor, and their rhyme. Lysander, to Helena, is especially ill-placed, for he is caught between being thought scornful, therefore rude, or serious, and therefore faithless. Helena answers his speech, scorning his faithlessness: line for line and rhyme for rhyme.

Lysander: a-b, a-b, cc?
Helena: d-e, d-e, ff!
Lysander: g?
Helena: g!
Lysander: H!


The rapid, balanced reply, retort, reply moves like table tennis. Helena returns all serves until Lysander is goaded to a smash, with his one unanswerable, if hardly tactful, argument: “Demetrius loves her, and he loves not you” (II.ii.137). This is blurted out and rhymes with nothing. It also wakes Demetrius, who says:

O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, devine!
To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?
Crystal is muddy. O, how ripe in show
Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow!
That pure congealed white, high Taurus snow
Fanned with the eastern wind, turns to a crow
When thou hold'st up thy hand: O, let me kiss
This princess of pure white, this seal of bliss!


The text is an instance of the comic device, reciprocal interference of series. Demetrius' speech is repetition of Lysander's when he woke to see Helena, but it is at the same time a reply to Lysander. There is also the incongruity of waking with such a mouthful of words, and finally the humor of overstatement and mixture of metaphor. The texture of the language throughout intensifies impressions of confusion. The more confused the lovers become, the more farcical they are, for the discrepancy is thus widened between their actual predicament and the predicament they imagine themselves in.

Confusions are multiplied by the increase in quarrels started—boy with girl, girl with girl, girl with boy, and boy with boy—and by the increase in number of participants. The scene began with one against one, then a third was added, and a triangle resulted. Finally there was the impact of four, each one against each other one, so confusions grew by geometric progression. The confusions finally erupt in slapstick comedy of physical aggression by the smallest and most cowardly of the quartet. This is matched by loud challenges to a duel by the young men, and the scene ends with a feeling that all has indeed befallen preposterously.

The last of the lovers' comedy is in the final matching of pairs. Puck sets himself to perform his duties with gusto. He skips:

Up and down, up and down,
I will lead them up and down:
I am feared in field and town.
Goblin, lead them up and down.


He will play “cops and robbers” with these mortals whose melodramatic postures have provided the evening's entertainment. He will engage in their final comic victimization. He misleads Lysander first, then Demetrius. In this way Shakespeare suggests lapsed time, allows the lovers at least some show of their brave words (again in contrast to their state and therefore funny), and re-creates confusions. Then he shepherds the deliberate configuration of the lovers: each enters alone, despairs of going further in the dark, lies down and falls asleep. Helena is third, and after her Puck counts: “Yet but three? Come one more: / Two of both kinds makes up four” (III.ii.465-66). The effect is to continue to distance the mortals, now as numbers or pairs. Hermia enters and when she sleeps, beside Lysander, the foursome is complete. Puck administers the herb to Lysander, and in a patter of doggerel and maxims which liken the lovers to Jack and Jill, the man and his mare, he finishes his task.

This final configuration is in fact the end of the farce comedy of the lovers. When they awake, they will no longer be funny. They may copy their model Duke Theseus in trying to make witty jokes at the expense of the rustic entertainment they will watch, but in themselves they are no longer comic. Resolution of conflict accounts in part for this, but Shakespeare has also used the night exploits, the dream-like experience, to effect a transformation toward adulthood. Their adolescent obsessions have evaporated, so they are no longer comic victims. And when they cease to be comic, they must surely drop into lesser place. In fact they are the least important voice in the fifth act medley of nobles, fairies, artisans, and lovers.

Their importance to the play lay in their comic value and, in the scenes in the wood, Shakespeare utilized them with no less comic effect than he utilized the artisans in “Pyramus and Thisbe” at the end of the play. By making comic capital from the potentials in deliberate non-individualization and situation, Shakespeare shows himself a craftsman of farce. By demonstrating that farce demands a dialectic of extremes to sustain and expand its comic increment so that it is not only funny but continues to be funny, line by line, and becomes funnier until its inevitable climax is reached, Shakespeare achieved one of the comic highpoints of the play. Finally, however, by never forgetting the whole, that interweaving of parts, he created a comic design which is art by virtue of its contrasts, parallels and order. It is a high order of comic art which Shakespeare achieves in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and it is when we view the lovers as figures in farce that this design emerges most clearly.


  1. E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1925), pp. 80-83; Thomas Parrott, ed., Shakespeare: Twenty-three Plays and the Sonnets (New York: Scribners, 1938), p. 133; Hardin Craig, Shakespeare (Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1931), pp. 98-99.

  2. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), p. 128; D. P. Young, Something of Great Constancy (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1966), p. 68; Larry S. Champion, The Evolution of Shakespearean Comedy (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970), p. 47.

  3. M. E. Comtois, “The Hardiness of A Midsummer Night's Dream,Theater Journal (1980), 305-11.

  4. Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama (New York: Antheneum, 1967), pp. 241-44.

  5. Northrup Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” English Institute Essays, 1948 (New York, 1949), pp. 60-62.

  6. Henri Bergson, “Laughter” in Comedy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), pp. 119-31.

  7. Bergson, pp. 123-27.

  8. M. E. Comtois, “Oberon's Plot of Intrigue,” Selected Papers from the West Virginia Shakespeare & Renaissance Assoc., VIII (Spring 1983), p. 68.

  9. Bergson, pp. 121-23.

  10. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ed. Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar (New York: Washington Square Press, 1963).

  11. Bergson, p. 123.

  12. Enid Welsford, The Court Masque (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1927), p. 331.

  13. Welsford, p. 332.

  14. Barber, p. 129.

  15. The final call in a typical square dance figure.

  16. M. E. Comtois, “The Making of Farce Out of Fancy at the Center of A Midsummer Night's Dream,On Stage Studies, 5 (June 1981), pp. 33-44.

Helen Hackett (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6138

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 shall go ill’ (III. ii. 461-2), forming an outright contrast to another comedy by Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost (1594-5), composed not long before A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which the nuptials of another four couples are deferred and ‘Our wooing doth not end like an old play: / Jack hath not Gill’ (V. ii. 874-5). Whereas in Love's Labour's Lost Shakespeare experiments with disruption of the conventional marriage-ending, the Dream ends precisely like an old play, and takes pleasure in convention and a sense of ritual.

Part of the sense of happiness at this play's ending is created by its participation in the relatively new ideology that marriage should be predominantly based on love. This is not the place to give a comprehensive history of attitudes to marriage, but in very general terms sixteenth- and seventeenth-century marriage-theory can be contrasted with that of the Middle Ages. In the earlier period, upper-class marriages were usually dynastic alliances rather than love-matches, and literary culture tended to locate passion outside marriage in what has been called ‘courtly love’ or ‘fin amour’ (Cuddon, pp. 163-5), the devotion of a lover who self-deprecatingly styled himself as servant to his married mistress. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church emphatically advocated virginity, especially female virginity, as a higher state of virtue than matrimony. The Reformation brought shifts in these ideologies: marriage began to be prized as a means of preventing sexual irregularity and as a virtuous state in its own right; this in turn meant that marriage had to be what has been termed ‘companionate’, based on the contented monogamy of each partner; and this in turn meant that marriage needed to be based on mutual love (Haller and Haller; George and George). Enforced marriage was increasingly seen as a greater threat to the stability of family and society than clandestine marriage for love: thus a writer addressing ‘the Gentlewomen and others of England’ in 1593 asked, rhetorically, ‘What is the cause of so many household breaches, divorcements, and continual discontentments, but unnatural disagreements by unmutual contracts?’ (Bell, pp. 286-7).

A number of recent discussions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century marriage have concluded that, although companionate marriage allowed some degrees of autonomy to women, these remained within restricted limits (Jardine, pp. 39-48; Neely, pp. 8-16). It created a social structure in which in theory ‘[m]arriage is an equal partnership’, but in practice ‘some partners are more equal than others’ (Jardine, p. 48). As we have seen, in A Midsummer Night's Dream the final marriages are achieved through patriarchal means and on patriarchal terms; not only does Jack have Jill, but, as Puck goes on to sing, ‘The man shall have his mare again, / And all shall be well’ (III. ii. 463-4). Nevertheless, the final scenes show a fortunate coincidence of free choice in love, including female choice, with the patriarchal social order. The strength of patriarchal matrimony is most powerfully reinforced if it is something to which the potentially wayward and wilful female voluntarily submits: if, like Rosalind in As You Like It, she willingly says ‘To you I give myself, for I am yours’ (V. iv. 116); or if, like Portia in The Merchant of Venice, she freely says ‘Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours / Is now converted’ (II. ii. 166-7). We find the same joyful self-surrender in the Dream. Besides the resolution of Hermia's and Helena's affairs to their own satisfaction, Titania on waking warmly greets ‘My Oberon’ (IV. i. 75), and even Hippolyta, however we read her demeanour at the beginning of the play, begins Act V by affectionately addressing ‘my Theseus’ (V. i. 1).

However, in the course of A Midsummer Night's Dream other possible love-outcomes have been indicated, and, along with them, potential generic diversions away from comedy into tragedy. Various elements in the play give a sense that things could easily have turned out otherwise. The very first scene activates a sense of the obstacles to love and of conflicts from which a happy resolution will only be forged with difficulty. Theseus has won Hippolyta by violence and must now win her affection to validate the marriage, while Hermia is offered a blank choice between obedience, death, or enforced celibacy. Lysander reflects not only that ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’, but that even a fortunate love is subject to ‘War, death, or sickness’ such that ‘The jaws of darkness do devour it up’ (ll. 134-48).

Between this foreboding beginning and the fortunate ending, the middle part of the play oscillates between tragic and comic potentials, to both of which love is central. There is much emphasis upon the volatility and vulnerability of love, and a sense of how easily love can take the wrong track. Love is represented as in conflict with reason, and reason in turn is most often invoked when it is least in evidence, such as when Lysander, under the influence of the love-charm, abruptly transfers his affection to Helena:

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.

(II. ii. 121-4)

There is acute irony in Lysander's portentous attribution to reason and maturity of what we know to be the sudden transformative effect of not only magical interference, but a mistaken intervention at that. Yet this accords with a wider recognition in the play of the arbitrariness of love, and its imperviousness to reason. There is no ostensible reason why Hermia should prefer Lysander to Demetrius; ‘Demetrius is a worthy gentleman’, and having her father's approval, ‘must be held the worthier’ (I. i. 52-55). The two suitors are virtually indistinguishable; on the other side, Lysander is ‘as well derived’ as Demetrius, ‘As well possessed … My fortunes every way as fairly ranked’ (I. i. 99-101). Here Shakespeare echoes Chaucer's Knight's Tale, a source to which he would return late in his career for The Two Noble Kinsmen. In Chaucer's narrative it is extremely difficult to detect reasons to prefer Palamon over Arcite or vice versa, and indeed the lady for whom they compete, Emelye, is made to transfer her affection rapidly and equably from one to the other. In A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare squares Chaucer's isosceles triangle by adding another woman, and does make some superficial distinctions between the two females—Helena is taller and fairer, Hermia is more spirited—but even here, there is no logical reason to prefer one over another. The switches of affection among the four lovers are facilitated by a sense that the two men and two women concerned are effectively interchangeable; indeed it is a symptom of this that in writing or talking about the play it is all too easy to get their names scrambled.

Attempts in the play to justify love-choices on grounds of reason are thus exposed as specious. Instead, the source and strength of love is attributed not to the mind, but to the eye. Time and again eyes are referred to, either as the organs which receive the subjective impression of the beloved which provokes desire, or as the organs whose beauty is the object which inspires desire. Thus Hermia wishes that ‘my father looked but with my eyes’ (I. i. 56); Helena laments that Demetrius dotes on Hermia's eyes, which to him are like lodestars (I. i. 230, 242, 183); and both Lysander's and Demetrius's newfound passions for Helena lead them to eulogize her eyes (II. ii. 127, III. ii. 138-9). The eyes are both the subject and the object of desire, both active and passive, reflecting the scientific debate in the Renaissance as to whether sight was produced by beams from the eye striking the object, or by beams from the object imprinting an image on the eye (Donne, pp. 183-4, note on ‘The Extasie’, ll. 7-8). The eyes can therefore serve as a metonym for both desire and that which provokes desire.

At the same time, of course, sight is a faculty which can be impeded, and this in turn becomes a figure of the vulnerability of love. The darkness of night ‘from the eye his function takes’ (III. ii. 177), forcing the lovers to fall back on the even less reliable faculty of hearing, which Puck exploits to exacerbate their confusion and exhaustion (III. ii. 354-430). Most significantly, it is to the eye that the love-charm is applied; as Oberon says of Titania, ‘with the juice of this I'll streak her eyes, / And make her full of hateful fantasies’ (II. i. 257-8). The eye, it is implied, is at once a lens which can be distorted, and an aperture through which the mind can be entered and altered. In relation to the rest of the play, Helena's lament that love is blind and ‘looks not with the eyes, but with the mind’ (I. i. 234-5) can only mean not so much that love is utterly incapable of sight, as that it is incapable of seeing accurately, and is an instrument of fantasy rather than reason.

Moreover, the shadowy tragic possibilities which are indicated in the course of the play include not only the wrong choice of love-partner, but choice of the wrong kind of love, including sex outside marriage, homoeroticism, and self-slaughter for love. Possibilities of pre-marital sex are suggested by the temporal setting of the play. By ‘midsummer night’, Shakespeare may mean to imply specifically Midsummer's Eve, the shortest night of the year, and the turning point at the middle of the summer. However, as in his inconsistent treatment of the passage of time between the first and last scenes of the play, and of the phases of the moon, he also operates a kind of double time-scheme in relation to the placing of the play within the annual calendar. At several points it is implied to be May Morning, the dawning of the first day of May, the festival of the beginning of summer. On stumbling across the sleeping lovers, Theseus suggests that ‘No doubt they rose up early to observe / The rite of May’ (IV. i. 131-2). Other allusions keep the idea of May Day before us: Lysander arranges to meet Hermia in the wood ‘Where I did meet thee once with Helena / To do observance to a morn of May’ (I. i. 166-7); and when the women trade insults about their relative heights, Hermia calls Helena a ‘painted maypole’ (III. ii. 296).

May Day was an ancient English rural festival which was marked by the young men and women of each parish going out into the woods to gather and bring back hawthorn branches (Barber, pp. 18-24, ch. 6). It could also be fairy-time: in Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender the King and Queen of the May are attended by ‘A fayre flocke of Faeries’ (Spenser, Shorter Poems, p. 89, l. 32). Since hawthorn blossom was known as may, the expression ‘bringing in the May’ meant bringing in both the month and the flowers, and indeed there are some incidental references to hawthorn in the play (I. i. 185, III. i. 4). The ritual thus denoted both the arrival of summer and the bringing of nature into the town, and in keeping with these themes it was also an occasion for courtship games. It is the subject of a poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), ‘Corinna's going a Maying’, in which he describes the bedecking of the town with ‘white-thorn’, such that ‘each field turns a street; each street a park / Made green, and trimm'd with trees’. He also emphasizes youth and love:

There's not a budding Boy, or Girl, this day,
But is got up, and gone to bring in May … 
And some have wept, and woo'd, and plighted Troth,
And chose their Priest.

(Norbrook and Woudhuysen, pp. 455-7, no. 206, ll. 30-31, 43-4, 49-50)

On the one hand, all of this makes May Morning an extremely apt and happy setting for a play about love leading to marriage. On the other hand, however, according to Phillip Stubbes, a Puritan who condemned the festival as pagan and immoral, ‘I have heard it credibly reported … that of forty, three-score, or a hundred maids going to the wood over night, there have been scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled’ (The Anatomy of Abuses, 1583, quoted in Barber, p. 22). Indeed, in Herrick's poem there is a strong sense that finding a priest to perform the proprieties of marriage is not the only end in view; there is sexual innuendo in the suggestion that there has been ‘Many a jest told of the key's betraying / This night, and locks picked’ (ll. 55-6). Herrick's light-hearted jocularity is more like the tone of A Midsummer Night's Dream than is Stubbes's didactic moral opprobrium, but even so the play shares with Stubbes an anxiety that female virginity should be preserved until after marriage to the right man, and that May Morning, and/or Midsummer Night, could be a time not purely of merry-making but also of threat to this preservation. Demetrius warns the abjectly submissive Helena,

You do impeach your modesty too much,
To leave the city and commit yourself
Into the hands of one that loves you not;
To trust the opportunity of night,
And the ill counsel of a desert place,
With the rich worth of your virginity.

(II. i. 214-19)

Hermia meets with ardent physical advances from Lysander and has to persuade him at some length to ‘Lie further off, in human modesty’ (II. ii. 63); Puck clearly expects that lovers in such circumstances would lie together, and that Lysander must be some ‘lack-love’ or ‘kill-courtesy’ (II. ii. 83). Both women are fortunate in their lovers' gracious restraint, but the danger that it might have been otherwise is partly indicated by the invocation of the erotically charged rite of May.

May Morning and Midsummer Eve blur into one in A Midsummer Night's Dream on the basis of their shared properties. May Morning, as the transition from spring to summer, and Midsummer Eve, as the transition from early to late summer, each serve as appropriate symbols of the turning point from youth to maturity, from maidenhood to wifehood, from adolescent virgin innocence to adult sexual knowledge. Angela Carter, a writer much influenced by this play as we shall see again later, coins a phrase for both dates as ‘green hinges’ of the year. In Nights at the Circus, Carter's winged heroine, Fevvers, goes through two pubescent rites of passage: her first attempt at flight, which takes place very early on Midsummer Morning; and her near-deflowerment by a Gothic villain, which happens on May Morning. Both occasions are described by Carter as ‘the year's green hinge’ (pp. 33, 78); like Shakespeare, she has it both ways, merging the two dates. Also as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, when the calendrical turning point coincides with readiness in a girl's life for her to become a woman, this coincidence confers an air of propitiousness and cosmic fitness upon a personal event, like Fevvers' first flight; but if that point of readiness has not been reached, the ‘green hinge’ is a potentially threatening time of forced submission to rapacious male sexuality.

The unsettling or even traumatic properties of the ‘green hinge’ from girlhood to womanhood are suggested in A Midsummer Night's Dream by moments of nostalgia for an earlier, more placid time of childhood. In the past, we are told, Hermia and Helena would enact their observance of the rites of May together, as girlhood companions. This was just one activity of what seemed an indissoluble female-female bond. As Helena reminds Hermia, they shared ‘schooldays' friendship, childhood innocence’, and, in a delightful simile,

                              grew together,
Like to a double cherry: seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition,
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem
… with two seeming bodies but one heart.

(III. ii. 202-12)

In the Petrarchan poetry of the Elizabethan period the poet's mistress was frequently and conventionally praised for lips which were like cherries, an image which conveyed at once enticing rosy ripeness and untouched, unbitten wholeness. This is exactly the language which Demetrius uses when he awakes to see the newly beloved Helena—‘O, how ripe in show / Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow!’ (III. ii. 139-40)—and even Flute's Thisbe has cherry lips (V. i. 189). In Helena's speech to Hermia, the image of the cherry for the two girls has a similar mingled effect: it suggests at once an incipient ripeness to be plucked and an as yet unplucked, unspoilt completeness.

Of course the symmetry of a double cherry is also essential to Helena's representation of perfect friendship. David Marshall illuminatingly points out the relevance of the Symposium by the Greek philosopher Plato, an extremely important text for Renaissance philosophies of love (1982, in Bloom, pp. 105-6). In the Symposium, a fictional debate among different real speakers about the nature of love, the comic playwright Aristophanes constructs a semi-comic myth about the origins of human desire. He relates how each human being was originally a pair of our present bodies, with four arms, four legs and two sets of genitals; but when these creatures became over-ambitious and challenged the gods, they were punished by being split in two. The consequent sense of loss, says Aristophanes, is the source of human desire; when an individual encounters their missing half, they are consumed by a longing to rush into their arms and reunite their bodies. An original double creature which was half-male, half-female produces a heterosexual couple; all-male doubles produce homosexuals; and all-female doubles produce lesbians (Plato, pp. 59-65).

When Helena says that she and Hermia used to enjoy a unity ‘As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds / Had been incorporate’ (III. ii. 207-8)—that is, ‘of one body’—there is a distinct echo of this fable. Aristophanes' story is a Fall-narrative: it identifies the desire for absolute union with a lover as a desire to return to paradisiacal pre-lapsarian happiness. This is what Helena craves from Hermia, a return to an uncomplicated idyll of contented all-female innocence before the tricky business of relationships with men intervened. However, the signal that this would be a backward and fruitless step is also there in her language, when she reminds Hermia of their ‘sisters' vows’ (III. ii. 199). Here the echo is of Theseus's threat to Hermia of the nunnery, where she would ‘live a barren sister all your life’ (I. i. 72). His conclusion—‘earthlier happy is the rose distilled’ (I. i. 76)—overshadows Helena's nostalgic plea for a regression to preadolescence, and makes clear that, whatever the temporary pains of the transition, the movement forwards into male-female union is one which must be made.

Valerie Traub finds in Helena's lines to Hermia an expression of female homoeroticism, and draws a parallel with the affection between Celia and Rosalind in As You Like It. There, Celia reminds her father that

                                        We still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learn'd, play'd, eat together,
And whersoe'er we went, like Juno's swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.

(I. iii. 73-6)

The term ‘homoeroticism’ perhaps needs some clarification and some distinction from homosexuality. There is nothing in either play to suggest that Rosalind and Celia, or Helena and Hermia, have had a physically consummated sexual relationship. In this sense their attachments are asexual or pre-sexual. However, it would be an exaggeration to deny that there is any erotic element in each female couple's pubescent intimacy, which has clearly been both intense and based on attraction to one another's physical likeness. In this sense it is literally ‘homo-erotic’—that is, based on desire for sameness.

Traub is self-conscious about the fact that she is highlighting these passages in a deliberate quest to find examples of lesbian desire in Renaissance literature, and that unequivocal examples are elusive. She is also keenly aware that in both cases female homoeroticism is elegiacally placed in the past, such that its very function within the plays is that of something to be displaced and superseded by heterosexual desire. It is invoked as a valuable preliminary to heterosexual desire, a kind of training in affection and loyalty which softens a woman's heart and prepares her for ‘real’ love while safely preserving her physical purity; but at the same time it is shown as a false track, a dead end from which she must be turned aside and led towards her proper adult destiny of marriage.

A similar reading can be made of Titania's friendship with her Indian votaress. Her defiance of Oberon over the Indian prince is produced not solely by affection for the boy in his own right, but by her debt of affection for his mother. She intones ceremoniously, in the form of an incontrovertible vow,

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

(II. i. 136-7)

As we have seen, she describes how she and the votaress indulged themselves in impudently mocking the masculine merchant ships as hollow travesties of pregnancy, and indeed how the two women revelled in the sensual spectacle of the votaress's richly pregnant female body. Yet all of this exclusive female-female affection and pleasure is also placed elegiacally in the past: ‘she, being mortal, of that boy did die’ (l. 135). Titania, too, has to be educated away from her loyalty to a female bond, whose time is over, to renewed loyalty to her marital bond. And Hippolyta is yet a further parallel case, in that she must be wooed away from another form of all-female community, the sisterhood of the Amazonian gynocracy, which has been defeated and dissolved by the masculine force of Theseus.

In general, same-sex love undermines the argument of comedy, and tends to be introduced in Shakespeare's plays only to be averted or superseded; other examples include Olivia's attraction to Viola in Twelfth Night, and, between men, the affection of Antonio for Sebastian in the same play, or that of another Antonio for Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. For Helena and Hermia, heterosexual desire fractures their girlhood unity in a way which is temporarily antagonistic and even descends to vitriolic abuse. It causes Helena, only a few minutes after her ‘double cherry’ speech, to reverse her account of the past: ‘O, when she is angry she is keen and shrewd. / She was a vixen when she went to school’ (III. ii. 323-4). ‘Shrewd’ here means ‘shrewish’, like the uncontrollably violent and unruly Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. Ruth Nevo has pointed out that critics who say that all of the four Athenian lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream change partners are not correct: the women never waver at all in their attachments to the men (1980, in Bloom, p. 58). What does go through a diametrical shift, however, is the women's affection for one another. This temporary estrangement dramatizes their conversion to more compelling heterosexual allegiances. Once the male-female couplings have been sorted out, female-female harmony can be restored too, but now as a secondary supportive substructure to the primary unity of marriage. The outcome is realignment in a new, doubled symmetry: ‘Two of both kinds makes up four’ (III. ii. 438). Just as the girls were once like a double cherry, now they are twinned again in a double wedding, a twinning to the power of two. This stress on symmetries, parallels and geometrical patterns, creating a sense of harmony and alignment, accentuates the happy feeling of the multiple marriage-ending. Premature defloration has been averted, regression to girlhood homoeroticism has been abandoned, and broken friendships have been mended on new terms.

This tidy patterning at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a necessary counterpart to a coexistent sense that comic closure has been achieved by somewhat haphazard means, and more by accident than design. The final happy pairings of the young Athenians are largely attributable to the impetuosity of Theseus, who in Act IV, scene i abruptly overrules not only Egeus, but also his own earlier judgment and the law of Athens, which in Act I ‘by no means we may extenuate’ (i. 120). The only reason for his conversion seems to be that he is in a good mood and, in tune with the play, is anxious to move towards a happy ending to coincide with his own nuptials. He is at once the absolute authority in the mortal world of the play, and a rather capricious and arbitrary ruler, very like the Theseus of Chaucer's Knight's Tale, a work which, as we have seen, seems to have been in Shakespeare's mind as he composed the Dream (Fender, pp. 7, 12, 16-20, 25-6, 60; Brooks, pp. 129-34). The other chief agency which brings about the happy ending shares in this capriciousness, being the somewhat unreliable magic of Puck and Oberon. In fact, Demetrius must remain perpetually under the love-charm's spell, not cured by its antidote as are Lysander and Titania, in order for him to fall into position as Helena's willing husband. The troubling implications of this are only suppressed by the conventions of comic closure, by the sense of a neat and satisfying tying-up of ends, and by the general emphasis of the play on the limitations of reason, encouraging us to desist from rational objections. The closing mood of stability and order is thus built on somewhat unstable foundations; yet the sense that the ending is a happy one can be seen as precisely dependent upon this combination of stability and instability. The symmetries and parallels among the couples give a sense that the right ending has been achieved, while the sense that the means to achieve it were a matter of mere luck, of comedy fortuitously snatched from the jaws of tragedy, creates an air of relief and cause for celebration.

Besides the wrong kinds of love, another threat to comedy which constantly hovers over the play is that of death. Jan Kott attributes this to the fact that

The furor of love always calls forth death as its only equal partner. Hermia says to Lysander: ‘Either death or you I'll find immediately’ (II. ii. 162); Lysander says of Helena: ‘Whom I do love, and will do till my death’ (III. ii. 167); Helena says of Demetrius: ‘To die upon the hand I love so well’ (II. i. 244), and again: “Tis partly mine own fault, / Which death, or absence soon shall remedy' (III. ii. 243-4). Even sleep ‘With leaden legs and batty wings’ is ‘death-counterfeiting’ (III. ii. 364-5).

(Kott, 1981, in Bloom, p. 82.)

Harold Brooks has shown that one of Shakespeare's sources in the Dream, perhaps surprisingly, is Seneca, the Roman author of notoriously gory tragedies (pp. lii-lxiii, lxxxiv-lxxxv). There are particular echoes of Seneca's Phaedra, the story of the ill-fated son of Theseus and his Amazon bride, which Shakespeare would also have found in his Ovid (Calderwood, pp. 5, 58; Ovid, XV. 497-546). Hippolytus meets a brutal end when his libidinous stepmother, Phaedra, falsely accuses him of seducing her. As he flees in his chariot, his horses lose control and run wild, so that he is thrown to the ground, dragged along by his harness, and savagely torn to pieces:

The ground was reddened with a trail of blood;
His head was dashed from rock to rock, his hair
Torn off by thorns, his handsome face despoiled
By flinty stones.

His body is ‘broken into pieces / Hanging on every tree’ (Seneca, pp. 141-2). In its relation to Seneca's story, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comic ‘prequel’ to an excoriating tragedy of misplaced desire and doomed youth: the celebration of Theseus and Hippolyta's nuptials will have its outcome in Hippolytus's beautiful body violently torn to fragments on the shore. As Seneca puts it, ‘That beauty, / That form, to come to this!’

Shakespeare accentuates the link between Hippolytus and his Amazon mother by choosing to name Theseus's bride Hippolyta, the name given to her in Chaucer's Knight's Tale, rather than Antiope, the name given in Seneca and most other sources (Chaucer, p. 25, ll. 866-8). Another connection between the Dream and the tragedy of Hippolytus is the fact that Phaedra was the daughter of Pasiphae, whose union with a bull produced the Minotaur; thus the child of Theseus's union with Hippolyta will be annihilated by the child of a mother who engaged in a dark analogue to Titania's comic coupling with a beast. Beyond the opening lines of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Theseus incidentally expresses to his bride the innate antipathy between domineering stepdames and energetic young men, lies the future supplantation of Hippolyta by an evil stepmother who will tragically desire and destroy her youthful son.

Such peripheral threats of mortality, violence and tragedy can serve to intensify comedy, and there has long been recognition of the presence of darker elements in Shakespeare's plays. Often they can have a ‘carpe diem’—‘seize the day’—effect, as in Twelfth Night, where Feste's remedy for the fact that ‘Youth's a stuff will not endure’ is to urge ‘Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty’ (II. iii. 51-2). There is a similar effect to Lysander's observation in Act I of the Dream that ‘quick bright things come to confusion’ (I. i. 149); if love is ‘momentany [sic] as a sound, / Swift as a shadow, short as any dream’ (ll. 143-4) then its happiness must be fully and intensely enjoyed while it lasts, just as the audience are invited to enjoy the brief interlude of comic entertainment as a relief from the trials of daily life.

This speech by Lysander in the first scene of the play also catalogues the different varieties of doomed loves. In so doing, it invokes not only general griefs and dangers, but also a specific work of tragedy by Shakespeare himself. Lysander reflects on loves thwarted by difference of blood or choice of relatives, and Hermia replies that ‘true lovers have been ever crossed’ (I. i. 135, 139, 150). It is hard not to be reminded of Romeo and Juliet, that notable pair of ‘star-cross'd loyers’ (Prologue), and subjects of a play composed at around the same period in Shakespeare's career (1595-6). Mercutio mocks Romeo as stereotypically lovelorn in his tendency to cry ‘Ay me!’ and rhyme ‘love’ and ‘dove’ (II. i. 10); Lysander indulges in just such conventional coupleting when he falls in love with Helena (II. ii. 119-20; Fender, p. 42). Mercutio's fantastical Queen Mab speech (I. iv. 53-95) also anticipates the more extended exploration of fairyland in the Dream.

In addition, a further pair of tragically star-crossed lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, actually make a lengthy appearance in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Like both Romeo and Juliet, and Lysander and Hermia, they are divided by the will of their parents and they make a secret nocturnal assignation to evade the prohibition on their love; like Romeo and Juliet, but, in the end, not Lysander and Hermia, a series of accidents results in their violent deaths. The inset play of the Dream thus reinforces the sense that the outer story of the Athenian lovers has tragic possibilities which have only narrowly been averted. At the same time, though, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe as performed by the mechanicals presents us with a tragic tale which has comic effect. The parallels with the vicissitudes of the Athenian lovers highlight ways in which tragedy and comedy alike depend upon mistaken identity, mishap, mistiming and misinterpretation.

The apparent oxymorons in the mechanicals' description of their play as a ‘Most Lamentable Comedy’ of ‘very tragical mirth’ (I. ii. 11, V. i. 57) are thus another joke with serious overtones: A Midsummer Night's Dream as a whole is a play in which Shakespeare actively explores the intersections of comedy and tragedy and the fluidity of generic boundaries. Jacques Derrida has argued that we might initially think of genre as a matter of definition and of essential qualities which cannot or at least should not be mixed (Derrida, p. 57). However, Derrida's general position as a deconstructionist is that there is no such thing as pure definition: each word in language, or each sign in any system of signification, takes on meaning through its difference from other words or signs, which it simultaneously excludes yet implicitly depends upon for contrast and distinction. Hence, for instance, the word ‘masculinity’ depends for its meaning upon its opposition to the word ‘femininity’; ‘femininity’ is the other of ‘masculinity’, that which it excludes, but also that against which it defines its boundaries and without which it therefore cannot exist. ‘Femininity’ may even be that which ‘masculinity’ needs to exclude in order to conceal its own likeness to femininity, its own impurity (Eagleton, pp. 132-3). Similarly, for Derrida there is no such thing as pure genre, since any genre depends upon other genres for definition: what he calls ‘the law of the law of genre’ is ‘precisely a principle of contamination, a law of impurity, a parasitical economy’ (Derrida, p. 59). Thus a work which seems to belong predominantly to a particular generic category will always contain traces of other and opposite genres, by contrast with which the boundaries of the dominant genre are delineated. Much as a photograph is produced from a negative, or much as a silhouette is an image in black which would be formless without the white space which surrounds it, so comedy depends upon the implicit presence of tragedy, and vice versa.

In its allusions to wrong paths in love, to lurking threats of mortality, and to specific tragic analogues, A Midsummer Night's Dream offers particularly vivid illustration of this impurity and interdependence of genres. The next chapter will look further at the presence of alternatives in the play, at how they have enabled widely variant interpretations of its mood and meaning, and at how they have shaped different productions.

Select Bibliography and References

Editions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Brooks, Harold F., The Arden Shakespeare (1979; London and New York: Routledge, 1988). Comprehensive and scholarly account of sources, followed by equally thorough account of the play. Useful compendium of source materials in appendix.

Critical Works

Barber, C. L., Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: a study of dramatic form and its relation to social custom (1959; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pb. edn, 1972), pp. 18-24, 119-62. Invaluable account of the play in relation to traditional May and Midsummer festivals.

Bloom, Harold (ed.), William Shakespeare's ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’, Modern Critical Interpretations series (New York and Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1987). Wide-ranging collection of illuminating essays, including Anne Barton, Jan Kott, and Northrop Frye.

Calderwood, James L., A Midsummer Night's Dream, Harvester New Critical Editions to Shakespeare series (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992). A psychoanalytical reading. Concentrates on relationships, the gaze, and liminality; less on dreams than one might expect.

Fender, Stephen, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Studies in English Literature series, no. 35 (London: Edward Arnold, 1968). Centres on the figure of Theseus to consider truth and rationality and their ambiguities in the play. Insightful analysis of language.

Other References

Bell, Ilona, Passion Lends Them Power: the poetry, politics and practice of Elizabethan courtship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2nd edn (1957; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974).

Cuddon, J. A., A Dictionary of Literary Terms, rev. edn (1979; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982).

Derrida, Jacques, ‘The law of genre’, trans. Avital Ronell, Critical Inquiry, 7:1 (Autumn 1980), On Narrative, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell, pp. 55-81.

Donne, John, The Elegies and the Songs and Sonnets, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965).

Eagleton, Terry, Literary Theory: an introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983).

George, C. and K. George, The Protestant Mind of the English Reformation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961).

Haller, W. and M. Haller, ‘The Puritan Art of Love’, Huntington Library Quarterly 5 (1941-2), pp. 235-72.

Jardine, Lisa, Still Harping on Daughters: women and drama in the age of Shakespeare, 2nd edn (1983; Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989).

Neely, Carol Thomas, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985).

Norbrook, David, and H. R. Woudhuysen (eds), The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659 (London: Allen Lane-Penguin, 1992).

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Books IX-XV, trans. Frank Justus Miller, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, 1916).

Plato, The Symposium, trans. Walter Hamilton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951).

Seneca, Phaedra, in Four Tragedies and Octavia, trans. E. F. Watling (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966).

Spencer, Edmund, The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spencer, eds William A. Oram et al. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989).

Garrett Stewart (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4282

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 its own excess.1 With the texts open before us, we are no longer asked to imagine the plays on the boards at the Globe, but rather staged in some obliquely lit metatheater, attended by its audience not just as a chosen drama but as the Idea of Drama. By treating their own formal properties as part of their business as dramatic action, however, Shakespeare's metaplays need not detour from human pertinence into ingrown wit. Art, raised to self-consciousness, can reroute its themes into life at an even deeper level, and our best access to this underlying psychological stratum is to recover close reading for the service of the supratextual, to see how language styles the action of the metadrama.

The focus of this essay is on the kind of language that tends to be spoken by Shakespearean characters when that language is obviously most cognizant of itself as aesthetic discourse, whether couched in the pregnant gropings of a muddled mind like Bottom's or the masterful figures of a keen intelligence like Leontes'. The hypothesis I wish to test, first with A Midsummer Night's Dream and then with The Winter's Tale, is that certain characters gravitate at moments of greatest intensity, moments closest to the ineffable, toward what might be called the metastyle of dream speech. My chosen plays represent those two dramatic modes in Shakespeare which depart most unabashedly from the probable, supernatural comedy and fantastic romance, for it is in such plays that style is most urgently obliged to reveal the profound reality beneath illusion, and to do so by being more than ordinarily self-conscious about drama's roots in the symbolic concentration, verbal and temporal, of dream. When Bottom returns from his forest interlude with Titania to his role in the amateur theatricals, from bizarre reality to the stage of art, and when Hermione later comes to life out of supposed stone, from art back into breathing reality, the account Bottom gives of his adventure and the reaction of Leontes to the astonishing spectacle before him, as if it were his own unconscious fantasy translated by and beyond art, are each a welling up into utterance of dream's metaphoric displacements and cryptic disorientation. Transitional passages about transitions passing strange, whether aesthetic or miraculous or both, these signal speeches by Bottom and Leontes send into motion an ambiguous and shifting language, dazed, reeling, and elliptical, that answers to the semantic duplicities of dream symbolism, in which puns or contradictions, paradoxes, transferred epithets, dead metaphors and the like are the covert dictation of the unconscious mind.


My mentor in this essay's approach to the metatheater of dream is a rather unlikely literary critic, a weaver by trade and a dramatic theorist only by fleeting avocation. Yet Nick Bottom's insights about the interweaving of dream and drama have never been taken seriously enough in commentary, perhaps because he seems to lapse into nonsensical stammering in his effort to recount his dreamlike spree in the forest. His blurted stabs at an explanation, however, manage to hammer out a revelatory if unwitting link between dream and drama. Because Titania was drugged by Oberon, she was able to think Bottom a fit love object even though he wore that innate asininity for which he is named in the stage prop of an ass's head. The subtitle of Jackson Cope's The Theater and the Dream is thus illustrated perfectly by the “doubleness” (one of Cope's central terms) of Bottom even before he tries to impersonate Pyramus in the play-within-the-play; in character twice over as a costumed ass, Bottom neatly incarnates the conversion From Metaphor to Form in Renaissance Drama. “He is Bottom and he is an ass,”2 writes Cope, and so Bottom as walking metaphor, vehicle to his own tenor, captures at once the split perspective of self and its dream avatars on the one hand and on the other the stage's overt duality of actor and the role through which he projects himself. Before Bottom returns to his cripplingly self-conscious role as amateur actor, that is, he has had an experience which is more like costumed impersonation, more like theatrical farce where personal names are allegorical tags, costumes and props a declaration of character, than it is like sleep or daydream.

Often criticism loosely uses the term “dream” for Bottom's fantastic holiday with Titania, as Bottom himself does. His only interlude of unconsciousness, however, is at the very end of his affair with the fairy queen. When Bottom wakes he seems to forget that he has been briefly asleep, and thinks, naturally enough, that he has all along been getting up his part in the play. The point sharpens itself as we go, for his magic detour from reality, not a sleeping dream at all, has most in common with the very comic stagecraft that materializes the episode before us. Bottom is, therefore, only keeping counsel and continuity with dramatic practice when he uses the formal mechanism of the play-within-the-play to rescue him, as we will see, from direct report on his forest visions. Surely he is less amnesiac than analogically minded when he thinks, upon waking out of this “dream” (understood to have quotation marks around it from here on), that he is still rehearsing his part as the lover Pyramus. “When my cue comes, call me,” he suddenly blurts out, “and I will answer. My next is ‘Most fair Pyramus’” (IV. ii. 203-04). Until this moment he has been cued by many such epithets as “Most fair” from the lips of Titania, and for the moment he cannot separate the play he was rehearsing from the magic which removed him from waking reality.

If a discernible thread runs through Bottom's subsequent confused explanation to Peter Quince, it is the analogy between fantasy and theatrical artifice that is forming somewhere at the back of his mind. Having just had an experience beyond the realm of waking possibility, and been forced to return from it to his amateur dramatic obligations, Bottom is compelled from within to make what bridge he can between these two spheres of palpable illusion. Here, and later with The Winter's Tale, it is this correspondence between dream and drama which I wish to explore with passages verbally concentrated beyond the ordinary expectations of dialogue, however daft and illogically jostled in Bottom's case—passages that also fall into place with recent critical speculation about self-referential strategies in Shakespearean drama. Metalanguage is often such stuff as dreams are made on, and Bottom, waking directly from a short sleep after a long dreamlike hiatus, still seems to be talking in his sleep, with the dizzy non sequiturs of dream, trying to explain to Quince where and what he has been. All the while the playwright shapes his character's fathomless nonsense into the garbled eloquence of reflexive aesthetic insight.

“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” (IV. ii. 208-10). The curious circularity of that last logic seems to ignore the fact that since the dream is centered upon a man turned into an ass, its ideal expositor might well be Bottom himself. The dream is, indeed, intimately bound to the character of the dreamer because it is a dramatized self-discovery: “Methought I was—and methought I had—but man is a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had” (IV. ii. 212-14). Surely the blanks are there to be filled in. The verb “had” leans by turns toward the “was” of attribution and toward sexual possession: “Methought I was an ass and had an ass's head” and/or “Methought I was a great lover and had a queen.” In the double grammar of his dreamlike experience, verbs of definition and possession simultaneously articulate both the excoriating self-analysis and the compensatory ingredient of sexual fantasy made flesh.

Bottom continues valiantly in his effort to create the orderly contour of story, but “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was” (IV. ii. 214-17). Synesthesia in A Midsummer Night's Dream is first cousin to malapropism in a comic pattern composed of slips of tongue, sense, and the senses. Working backwards through the subsequent fifth act, for instance, we see such confusions in the “Pyramus and Thisby” play as the inversion of Pyramus' features in Thisby's “These lily lips, / This cherry nose” (V. i. 332-33), a description closer to Bottom's physiognomy than its intended opposite would have been; the fortuitous astronomical accuracy about reflected light in “Sweet Moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams” (V. i. 273); and the direct synesthetic switch of “I see a voice: now will I to the chink, / To spy an I can hear my Thisby's face” (V. i. 192-93). The instances are too numerous not to grow into something of constancy, something strange and even rich, especially when we recall that after Bottom's disappearance earlier from the rehearsal, the exit that gives him entrance to the world of dream and its dislocations, Quince explains that “he goes but to see a noise” (III. i. 92). Perhaps the late-coming clue to this widespread disintegration of sensory reference lies in a remark by Theseus—“let us listen to the moon” (V. i. 237)—meaning the personification of the moon insisted upon by the primitive dramatic imaginations of Bottom and his fellow players, for whom abstractions and planetary bodies can be invoked only as characters.

The amateurish stage personification of abstractions and inanimate objects is, within the preceding dream itself, reversed in the equally naive symbolization of names. It is as if Bottom as dreamer, both braying ass and asinine man, intuitively senses such doubleness in the characters he meets. Introduced to Titania's servants, Cobweb, Peaseblossom, and Mustardseed, he takes their proper names commonly, saying to the third for instance, “I promise you your kindred hath made my eyes water ere now” (III. i. 194-95). Cope realizes how this “double knowledge of the fairies on Bottom's part,” both of their visible persons and of their “nominal symbolic value,” carefully “echoes the double theory of the actor, but it also focuses the dream.”3 Before the dream Bottom thought that the way to minimize the audience's terror over his proposed portrayal of the lion was to roar like a “sucking dove” or a “nightingale” (I. ii. 83), but after the dream, where he himself was both animal and man at once, a lesson seems learned, quite indirectly, even by Snug, who is finally cast in the part of the lion and knows that the way around the power of his own verisimilitude is not the half measure of meekness but the full confession of dramatic doubleness. Though he seems a lion, he is at the same time only a man: “Then know that I, as Snug the joiner, am / A lion fell” (V. i. 223-24). On stage it is Snug and it is not Snug; the role fits loosely enough to be seen around. In the dream it was Bottom the ass and it was not, for it was Bottom the lothario.

By Theseus' single injunction, then—“let us listen to the moon,” when we know the moon to be an actor—the synesthetic thrashing about in other speeches seems dexterously vindicated as party to a comment on dramatic incarnation, where things are and are not, a comment which in turn even helps us to decipher, in its relevance to dramatic language, the seemingly nonsensical battery of doubletalk in that speech of Bottom's about the combined powers of eye, ear, hand, tongue, and heart together bested by his experience. The initial criss-cross of hearing eye and seeing ear has its anticipated pattern tripped up by the hand that has no touch associated with it, followed by the more puzzling and pungent crossover of conceiving tongue and reporting heart. As with so many Shakespearean malapropisms, Bottom's travesty of conception and phrasing on the very subject of expressive ineptitude may indeed proceed toward a latent aptness in the last two items. More is afoot here than mere stumbling, more than an eloquent example of the confusion he is too confused to say straight. He is, after all, soon to want his story told as part of the play he has rehearsed. He is speaking, then, not only in the kind of slapdash language he and the others will use in the “Pyramus and Thisby” play, but also, and by accident, about the nature of language in drama, especially in that brand of drama made up of (or indeed a metaphor for) reported dream. For we do know of truths spoken from the heart, as when the unconscious emotions take articulate but unvoiced shape in dreams, and we know of tongues giving conception, of poetry or song or dramatic verse bearing forth wonders not found in the world of ordinary discourse or ordinary life. Desire and fear are the language of dream, just as dramatic speech is of concocted or recounted dream on stage, where tongues can conceive and hearts, therefore, more directly report. Bottom's mangling of the text in Corinthians about eye, ear, and heart nevertheless bears witness in its travesty to a secular revelation about fantastic events and drama's prerogatives in giving them expression.

It is just this dramatic aptitude for the improbable which Bottom acknowledges when, after rejecting all other forms of shaping or sharing his experience, he hopes that an interpolation at the end of “Pyramus and Thisby” might do it justice: “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” (IV. i. 217-22). Oddly, he says “a play” instead of “the play” though he clearly has only one in mind, as if any such drama, any amorous fiction, would be the fit context for his dream's retelling. He also says that he will sing it, not at the conclusion of the play exactly, but “at her death,” the death of Thisby following upon that of her doomed lover which effectively closes the play. Bottom seems to have no dramaturgical reservations about intruding autobiography into plot, annexing into drama a dream that interrupted its preparations, perhaps because he sees the evaporation of his affair with Titania as analogically interchangeable with the tragic termination of love in the play—hence the “gracious” logic, the metaphoric decorum, of his ballad as epilogue. But what about the famous non sequitur “It shall be called ‘Bottom's Dream,’ because it hath no bottom”? In some sense it has certainly been Bottom's dream of Bottom, a man's dream of himself both truer than ever to his nature and idealized beyond waking belief, of himself both as an ass incarnate and a prodigious and irresistible lover, with the whole thing in the other and most obvious sense a “bottomless,” unfathomable mystery.

The subsequent discussion with Peter Quince, bursting its seams with unarguable non sequiturs, should help us estimate the truest outlines of Shakespeare's puzzling play on “hath no bottom.” We must let Bottom's remarks take their distracted and self-contradictory time to fall out:


Masters, I am to discourse wonders: but ask me not what; for if I tell you, I am not true Athenian. I will tell you everything, right as it fell out.


Let us hear, sweet Bottom.


Not a word of me. All that I will tell you is, that the Duke hath dined. Get your apparel together … every man look o'er his part; for the short and the long is, our play is preferred … And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath, and I do not doubt but to hear them say it is a sweet comedy. No more words, Away! Go, away!

(IV. ii. 29-45)

Bottom has such a naively corporealizing imagination about drama that not only must moonshine be cast as a character named Moon, but the “breath” of dramatic poetry is itself understood as a physical presence to be judged either foul or sweet. The most troublesome aspect of this scene, however, may in fact betray a far less naive appreciation of drama's role in enacting life's daydreams. Bottom had originally vowed to have Quince give voice to his dream in balladry and then channel that reworked dream back into the play whose rehearsal was interrupted by it, but for which play the dream was both model and in fact the ideal rehearsal, both paradigm and practice. Now the ballad already seemingly forgotten, Bottom appears unaccountably to be saying that he will tell, but then again will not, all that befell him. It is psychologically possible, and aesthetically quite probable, that his run of rampant contradiction is mitigated by ambiguity and progression: “Yes, no, yes, no, well then yes, but not in so many words—the play's the thing.” Logical connections begin in this way to suggest and secure themselves, while questions remain. Does Bottom, for instance, propose an initial distinction between the formal-sounding “discourse” of wonders, which he does promise, and the crude, matter-of-fact telling which he rejects (since it would brand him as a pariah from the skeptical state of Theseus)? And if “discourse” is meant as something other than mere “telling,” what can it be but an acting out by proxy, in the story of “Pyramus and Thisby,” a love passing strange and too soon passed away—for it is only the fact of their play's preferment that Bottom is finally willing to report to his friends in so many words.

To take the full measure of the term “discourse” we must look ahead to the last couplet of Quince's prologue to “Pyramus and Thisby”: “Let Lion, Moonshine, Wall, and lovers twain / At large discourse, while here they do remain” (V. i. 150-51). The term for dramatic dialogue and interaction has replaced Bottom's confessional verb of self-disclosure from “I am to discourse wonders.” A term related to “discourse,” and in the mouth of Bottom even more inclined to sound like highfalutin malapropism, is the word “exposition,” which Bottom does indeed misuse, for “disposition,” in the last spoken phrase of his sojourn with Titania: “I have an exposition of sleep come upon me” (IV. i. 42). First Bottom must sleep out his dream, so to speak, and then only upon waking will he seek a method by which to “expound” or discourse upon this dream by indirection, through the play the dream has distracted him from, a play in which his role as lover is as much a casting against type as was the part he played in the forest with Titania. And the brilliant slip “exposition” lies behind his own chosen verb later, in “Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream” (IV. ii. 209-10). An instance of linguistic play in Shakespeare—the tensile spread between the intended “disposition for” and the prophetic fumble, “exposition of”—here stretches across the chasm between life, where Bottom goes to sleep, and art, where he hopes to account for what he dreamed.

We are back with that as yet unfathomed puzzle of bottomless dreaming. The vacillation in Bottom's subsequent speech may hold the clue, when he no sooner promises his fellow thespians an exposition of his adventures than he recants on that vow. There is finally, in “Not a word of me,” no contradiction whatever of preceding statements, for once more, as with “disposition” / “exposition” a moment ago, the double designation of a pun or a malapropism straddles life and art. The glossed primary meaning, the archaic “Not a word from me,” had for Shakespeare its other meaning as well. We will not hear the actual adventures “of” Bottom (in the sense of “about” him), only “from” him, but then only from him as the fictional Pyramus, and so really not about or from Bottom at all. What we get is the other side of the coin from Bottom's earlier instructions to Quince about their prologue: “for the more better assurance, tell them that I Pyramus am not Pyramus but Bottom the weaver” (III. i. 20-22). Even the paradox of theatrical representation has two faces. Art apologizes for the lure of its own verisimilitude, only later to grant the power of fictions to lift us out of ourselves. “Not a word of Bottom in Bottom's dream, for I am not Bottom the weaver now but Pyramus the lover, and only as such can I disclose my dreams.”

When I hint in the preceding discussion that Bottom has learned some such insight about dramatic propriety and power from his experience in the forest, I mean this by way of a displacement not unlike the way in which the didactic content of dreams is visited upon us by indirection. The surrogate or symbolic selves that people our dreams as well as the actors who board our stages undergo the very experiences from which we as spectators benefit as if such experiences were ours. Bottom is there to teach rather than learn about dramatic law and license, and in this respect there are two things I have no intention of claiming here: either that Bottom knows whereof he speaks in a phrase like “exposition of sleep,” or that we can be necessarily expected to hear in performance the compressed ambiguity, for instance, of the line “Not a word of me.” Drama that is about its own connection to the subliminal and slippery precisions of dream is under no obligation to be obvious. My strong suspicion is that Shakespeare intended the two things he was scripting as one in “Not a word of me,” but that he managed to imbue this insider's insight into the overall fluctuations of Bottom's confused purpose without having to rely for its theatrical impact on anything so tenuous as a two-word syntactic pun. The impact is forcibly there in Bottom's protracted hesitation between exposition and dumb wonder. In support of his theory of drama's dreamlike doubleness, Cope quotes Ortega's epigrammatic formulation on the ambiguous status of dramatic incarnation as simultaneously subjective and objective: “Is the dream in us or are we in the dream?”4 The romantic dream Bottom seemed to participate in, even though it may have been in his own head all along, may now be objectified in a dramatic realm where Bottom, as actor, can remain comfortably and securely in it, freed from the abject subjectivity of its being only and deludingly in him. We do not have to realize later on in “Pyramus and Thisby” that Bottom's ballad may never have been written to recognize the play itself as a transposition—or exposition—of dream. When we first hear the ballad proposed, and have no reason to think we are not to hear it later recited, already we sense that the decorum of such a plan is one which recognizes the interpenetration of dream and drama. Even if the epilogue offered by Bottom to the Duke as a kind of encore after Thisby's death is intended as Bottom's planned autobiographical afterthought, still the ballad goes unsung, eloquent by its absence.

Only as Pyramus can Bottom tell of passionate desire and dreamed fulfillment and the inevitable desolation that love brings by coming and going. Our fantasies and fears, cast up into poetry, bodied forth in drama, are of our natures without being directly about us. Art dreams for us; drama enacts us by named proxy. Bottom has learned in short to respect the nature of aesthetic distance. When he planned to have Quince write a piece called “Bottom's dream, because it hath no bottom,” he was intending to speak, perhaps, simply of the deep reaches of his fantasy, or even to suggest that his “dream” can only find its bottom on the boards, bounded and contained by dramatic presentation. But the ear insists as well on a capital B in “no bottom,” reminding us that plays like “Pyramus and Thisby,” and indeed A Midsummer Night's Dream around it, lift off and away from the self that inspires them. A Midsummer Night's Dream is an “exposition” of our best sleeps, including its author's, a fantasy given flesh, and like all of Shakespeare's great plays until possibly The Tempest, though of course Shakespeare dictates the action in a way Bottom never can, it is Shakespeare's dream because it has no Shakespeare. …


  1. See especially 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, Minn., 1971), whose omnibus footnote on p. 4 cites the most important previous work on the self-referential theme. Quotations from Shakespeare are from the Signet Classic Shakespeare, general ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York, 1963).

  2. Cope, The Theater and the Dream: From Metaphor to Form in Renaissance Drama (Baltimore, Md., 1973), p. 224.

  3. Cope, p. 224.

  4. Cope, p. 7.

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

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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 poetaster's delight), I am more interested in situations in which speakers and events threaten to move toward tragedy but are undercut by other words or events. A Midsummer Night's Dream certainly does not exhibit the melodrama associated with tragicomedy—I am not arguing for early Beaumont and Fletcher here. But in this comedy Shakespeare was certainly experimenting with the aesthetic conventions of tragedy and comedy, testing the boundary that separates the two genres. We know that Shakespeare composed Romeo and Juliet at about the same time as A Midsummer Night's Dream, and that the plot of “Pyramus and Thisbe”, those star-crossed lovers of another era, resembles in striking ways that of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare could manipulate the elements of romantic comedy and tragedy to achieve a desired and often startling effect; and, in the process, how easy it was for him to manipulate our responses to each kind of play.

The staple of tragedy is confrontation and climax, a process by which the action and actors remain well within the bounds of dramatic illusion. To use Romeo and Juliet as an example, if Friar Laurence should for any reason turn to the audience while rushing to Juliet's tomb and ask for a light to guide his way, we would surely question the propriety of the request in view of the impending tragedy. The actor could not achieve comic relief by asking such a question, for as we discover about Shakespearean comic relief it is not casually related to the events of the tragedy. The audience response to such a question by the Friar would certainly be one of embarrassment, moreover, because while he exhibits some of the traits of the bumbling clown, we have come to identify him with the serious struggle on the part of the lovers to escape their fate. If only to reinforce the tragic tension by arriving just a moment too late, the Friar must pay no heed to an audience that so desperately wants to urge him to hurry.

Because the death of the hero was essential to the Elizabethan definition of tragedy, the illusion of a separate world must be maintained at all cost. Mercutio's death serves as a useful example here, since he is identified as a comic character, and his effectiveness depends on an easy relationship with the audience. One of the striking features of Romeo and Juliet is that its tone in the first half depends on the jesting of two accomplished comedians, the Nurse and Mercutio. But Shakespeare recognized that Mercutio's continued presence after Romeo's marriage would threaten the invisible curtain of “tragicness” that must dominate the latter half of the play. Mercutio's farewell is spoken as much to the audience as to his friend; and “A plague 'o both your houses” (III, 1, 96) signals to us that Mercutio's final role is one of prophetic speaker. The intimacy established early on disappears as Shakespeare removes Mercutio to the tiring house with a witty and memorable line. So suddenly is the mood changed, in fact, that no untainted humor appears in the rest of the action; even Capulet's raucous wedding feast act fails to provoke laughter. Mercutio's plague metaphor becomes the dominant image as Juliet takes the potion, Friar John finds himself quarantined because of the plague in Mantua, and Romeo catches the disease of suicide. It is as if Shakespeare too decided to wall off the world of the tragedy, preparing us for the inevitable deaths by portraying a series of accidents that can only be observed and not prevented. We are in quarantine.

What we cannot prevent we must be content to witness in silence. Death in the theater is a difficult illusion to create, and the playwright must depend on deception in order to bring it off. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet are meant to strike us as inevitable, the result of a combination of their heedless passion and of events beyond their control. To convince an audience the playwright depends on actors to behave so that they will seem to be oblivious to the audience's presence. The tragic climax should always be experienced with a feeling of helplessness, a sensation of having witnessed some inevitable course of action that these characters seemed blinded to. Even warning them would not help. Nowhere do we feel this sensation as strongly as we do in a romantic tragedy whose main characters are young lovers from feuding families. Thus, when they take their lives they are entombed in a double sense: they are slaves to the passion that has caused the family feud and tainted by the disease of death that pervades the charnel house. Within this carefully constructed death world, the tragic fate of Romeo and Juliet is played out in uninterrupted fashion before an audience that has taken on the role of unlucky yet riveted witnesses. We are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In spite of the horror of the scene, however, neither actor nor audience would dare to disturb the artifice. Shakespeare depends very heavily on the suspension of disbelief not only to bring off the suicides but also to allow for the Friar's detailed accounting (V, 3, 230-270) of what we already know. The unwritten contract between playwright and audience in tragedy has as its central clause the understanding that no character or event will be questioned as long as it contributes to the movement toward climax and denouement. In order to succeed tragedy depends on the integrity of the dramatic illusion.

Comedy, on the other hand, requires different responses from an audience. Here the understanding is that the playwright is not only free to step through the invisible barrier between spectators and actors, he is expected to do so. Shakespeare, for example, gives us considerable inside information in A Midsummer Night's Dream; in particular, we know that none of the dilemmas of the earthly lovers will be solved until the quarrel between Oberon and Titania has been patched up. Comic irony, like tragic irony, rests on the principle of a character's ignorance of events that directly concern him: Bottom proves to be even more of an ass by failing to comprehend the mystery of Oberon's revenge. Yet even as Bottom continues to miss opportunities to seduce Titania, Shakespeare seems to invite us to question whether he is the most ridiculous figure in that exchange. Titania's blindness, which has led to her enthrallment, appropriately characterizes the anticlimactic mood of the comedy by illustrating the playwright's purpose of deflating human pretensions. Her love for an ass signifies the ultimate comic trope, the hauling down to our level of one whom we regard as superior. Attendant upon this phenomenon is the corollary effect of Bottom's arrival among the gods. The impact of the scenes between Bottom and Titania can be traced back to the understanding between Shakespeare and his audience that in this aesthetic world no one will escape some form of embarrassment or ridicule.

Anticlimax or undercutting proves to be the underlying force of the entire plot. Beginning on a note of confrontation, the comedy threatens to turn sour even before we have had a chance to laugh. Egeus will have the son-in-law of his choice or his daughter will die. Hermia's defiance creates the specter of Theseus having to preside over her death or imprisonment on his own wedding day. He cannot refuse to hear Egeus's complaint, moreover, since the angry father has invoked the strict Athenian law. The scene bears some rather striking resemblances to Shylock's courtroom demand for a strict reading of his bond with Antonio. In The Merchant of Venice, however, the threat to goodness is boldly confronted by Portia in the role of a “neutral” judge so that Antonio may be freed from imminent death. Climax is followed by denouement. But in A Midsummer Night's Dream, whose form rests not so much on reversal as on surprise, Shakespeare chooses to break the dramatic illusion by having Theseus turn to Egeus and Demetrius to employ them “in some business Against our nuptial and confer with [them] Of something nearly that concerns [themselves]” (I, 1, 124-126). This hint of conciliation, of collective bargaining in private, is so strong that it cannot be overlooked as a winking by Shakespeare in the direction of his audience. Theseus has shown his public self in urging Hermia to follow her father's wishes; but he then proves to us that he has a personal stake in resolving this question of authority. The pattern of anticlimax established in the opening scene strikes the keynote for the remainder of the action: those who wield power in this comic world will let their victims down easily.

Oberon demonstrates this comic rule most vividly. He stands above the action in the forest world like a benevolent god or doting parent qualified to prevent these mortal children from hurting each other. His quarrel with Titania is settled with the same potion he uses to “punish” Demetrius for his rejection of Helena. While Puck's error complicates his plan to bring the lovers together, Oberon takes none of the delight in the mix-up that his servant shows. This stance reassures us about Oberon's behavior toward erring mortals; he acts as a substitute for the playwright, whose attitude toward the characters and their “fates” is a matter of concern in the play. The best illustration of anticlimax as a means of reassuring us about the consequence of misbehavior is the handling of Oberon's revenge against Titania. What promised to be a climactic scene between these ruling powers—the demand for the return of the Indian boy—never materializes. We only hear that Titania gave the child to her lord in an off-stage encounter following her “dream” (IV, 1, 60-63). While it may be argued that Titania has been the object of sufficient ridicule, I think Shakespeare arranges the reconciliation in this fashion in order to avoid an unnecessary complication and to provide the model for handling later questions of authority. We should remember that this off-stage approach to settling potentially explosive situations was foreshadowed by Theseus's opening scene invitation to Demetrius and Egeus. The procedure is repeated at the close of Act IV, when the happy disposition of the couples overrides Egeus's claim of paternal right. Once again a potentially troublesome test of wills is short-circuited, and tragic tension melts in the warm light of romantic love.

Oberon and Theseus, then, act as surrogate playwrights, reassuring the audience through their desire to avoid conflict of the integrity of the comic and romantic spirit. In Bottom we have another character designed to give assurances that the tragic potentiality of “Pyramus and Thisbe” will not be realized. By alternating the rehearsal scenes with those involving the young lovers, Shakespeare adds to the bathetic tone of the action. Very quickly in the forest world we see how the mechanicals' burlesque style begins to infect the behavior of the pairs of lovers. (From this perspective the potion proves superfluous, or simply a catalyst to hurry along changes that are predictable.) Quarrels over height by Hermia and Helena and pretensions to heroic swordplay by Demetrius and Lysander soon begin to look and sound like the antics of the rustic players. Demetrius's waking flight of hyperbole—“O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine! To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?” (III, 2, 137-144)—could have as easily been spoken by Bottom in praise of his fair Thisbe. As literal and symbolic weaver Bottom's task is to demonstrate how widespread bad acting is among those who have caught the disease of love.

When the play within is in fact performed, it comes as an anticlimax. The question of the lovers' pairings and of Oberon's jurisdiction over the Indian boy are settled by the close of Act IV. Thus “Pyramus and Thisbe” takes the stage as a curiosity, a spectacle on which the royal audience can sharpen its wits before bed. But to dismiss the play within as a pleasant after-piece to the main action would be to misunderstand Shakespeare's comic art. “Pyramus and Thisbe” stands and falls as an exaggerated version of the star-crossed story we have observed in the main action. In a similar way the play within pretends to a tragic form but descends into burlesque because of “bad” acting. Through its tattered curtain of illusion, moreover, Shakespeare allows the theater audience to delight in the blindness of the stage audience. While Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius point a mocking finger at the ineptness of the mechanicals' acting style, we may delight equally in their inability to see themselves in the antics of Bottom, Flute, and the others. Here too one can observe the effect of undercutting. After they “awoke” from their dream, the lovers professed to see their actions in the forest with “a parted eye” (IV, 1, 195), suggesting both disorientation and distance. As they report to Theseus and Hippolyta their newly acquired appreciation of one another, they seem to exhibit the wisdom that comes from experience. But as the play within goes forward it becomes apparent from their remarks that the lovers retain their youthful self-assurance, their utter faith in the romantic vision of love. They have in effect learned nothing.

A central symbol of Shakespeare's relationship with the theater audience can be found in “Pyramus and Thisbe”—the wall. By arranging to have a man play this “part”, the mechanicals unwittingly create the circumstances for double entendre as they refer to the wall's stones “with lime and hair knit up” (V, 1, 194), and to its hole. More important, however, is that the chink in the wall provides not only a means for the lovers to whisper to each other but also a crack in the dramatic structure through which Shakespeare can speak to his audience. What he communicates is not just the reassurances about Theseus's or Oberon's intentions but something about the function of comedy as well. Put another way, the wall between classes, between formal and informal approaches to life, must be cracked and in the end come down before the festive mood is able to prevail. Theseus's “For never anything can be amiss, When simpleness and duty render it” (V, 1, 82 f.) functions as the philosophical and aesthetic base for the gift of the play within. It contributes to the general sense one has about the larger play: that the characters have only acted foolishly when they have swerved from the principles of simpleness (especially in language) and duty. And when Bottom, in an anticlimactic resurrection, announces at the close of “Pyramus and Thisbe” that “the wall is down that parted their fathers” (V, 1, 359 f.), he is speaking more than just an epilogue for both the play within and the lover's plot. He gives us an emblematic description of the avoiding of tragic confrontation and a celebration of the means to establish a comic tone. No epilogue is required for comedy, moreover, because it is a form that celebrates life in its most realistic actions. “When the players are all dead,” observes Theseus, “there need none to be blamed” (V, 1, 364-366); under these conditions, in other words, moral assessment would prove anticlimactic.

Of the many instances of anticlimax in the dialogue (Puck's “When in that moment, so it came to pass, Titania waked and straightway loved an ass,” III, 2, 33 f., deserves at least passing notice), the one that functions best in illustrating the theme occurs in Act V, Scene 1. Theseus opens this Act with a now-famous speech about the deceptive power of imagination. He concludes that those possessed of “seething brains” (V, 1, 4) conjure up fantastic images that, while intriguing and a pleasant way to pass the time, may never be believed. Critical comment has tended to regard this speech as an encomium to the poet's genius, especially when the speech is wrenched out of its context. Read in context this exercise in rhetoric has been cited as Shakespeare's means of returning us to earth, to the realm of “cool reason” (V, 1, 6), where a clear understanding of the difference between truth and illusion is required. Seen in this light the speech adds considerably to Theseus's reputation for wisdom, a reputation that has kept his feet firmly planted in the daylight world of reasonable Athens. Following this line of thinking we may conclude that order and degree have returned to the mortal world with the reassertion of male rationality over feminine passion, thereby paralleling the resolution of the Oberon-Titania disagreement in the supernatural world. So much for readers and critics who are wedded to the notion of Elizabethan hierarchy and who are thereby led to select quotations with a single eye.

But Shakespeare has shown us, through Bottom's outline of the dangers of dream interpretation and by means of the lovers' post-dream comments, that we must view events with a “parted eye.” The comic vision requires this unfocused perspective in order that we better understand the laughable side of our own natures. With this purpose in mind, Shakespeare directs Hippolyta to complete the description of experience that Theseus has only begun:

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;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.

(V, 1, 23-27)

Hippolyta's observation is delivered as testimony in the case of imagination's true character. But we cannot help feeling that it serves to undercut Theseus's somewhat self-satisfied judgment in this matter. Hippolyta's speech asserts the claim of imagination or passion to establishing “something of great constancy” (V, 1, 26), namely the multiple marriages. It may also be a subtle reminder to Theseus that in his opening speech he reprimanded the step-dame moon for cooling his passion as an anxious suitor. In a gentle, almost off-handed way, Hippolyta pays tribute to a force beyond reason out of which both imagination and love must grow, her metaphor emphasizing the life-giving impulse of these feelings. With the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, then, we sense an almost allegorical union of reason and love, the qualities Bottom claims keep little company nowadays.

But Hippolyta's reminder must also be seen in relation to comic form and its dependence on anticlimax. For the purpose of puncturing inflated egos anticlimax is essential to all comedy; and in A Midsummer Night's Dream, with its hyperbolic lovers, bathetic mechanicals, and pontificating dukes, the device proves indispensable. Entering the play's topsy-turvy world we soon learn that it functions on the principle of continuing surprise, or, in Hippolyta's words, by a succession of “strange and admirable” (V, 1, 27) occurrences. Shakespeare understands that we wish for some kind of resolution in the world of comedy, but he also knows that to bring about that resolution by means of climax or confrontation implies a finality that is alien to the form. Even as A Midsummer Night's Dream ends it promises beginnings; Oberon blesses the marriage beds and speaks magic to prevent disfigured children. Despite the fact that Theseus's cool reason tells us we must reenter the realm of substantial shapes, we are assured by Shakespeare (in Hippolyta's awe-filled words) that the so-called real world also offers rewards of constancy thought to be available only within the boundaries of art. In order to convey that idea Shakespeare employs an anticlimactic structure in A Midsummer Night's Dream, giving himself the freedom to escape the confines of his fiction and to play the humble host.

Anca Vlasopolos (essay date 1978)

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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 subjects as the moon and dew imagery, the frequent reference to eyes, and the business of magic plants, particularly the peacemaking ‘Dians bud,’ become thematic components of the comic movement toward reconciliation of natural and lawful love. The lovers' progression from the night of misrule to the light of the holy day parallels the pagan nature of the Midsummer festival and its Christian conclusion. The fertility rite of Midsummer Eve draws the lovers at last into harmony with each other and with the natural world. The dawn of Saint John's Day brings about the lovers' integration into society and into the community of religion which sanctifies their union, assuring them and their issue a permanence beyond that of generation.

The critical controversy generated by the ritual's relation to the play centers upon the textual evidence regarding the celebration of Midsummer in the play and upon the question of whether assigning a specific date for A Midsummer Night's Dream limits its universality. I shall address myself to the objections raised on both counts, but in order to illustrate a greater danger to A Midsummer Night's Dream, that of ignoring the significance of the ritual, I shall turn briefly to the translations of the play's title in several European languages.

Even though the celebration of June 24 has been widespread throughout Europe,1 so that a reference to Midsummer or Saint John's Day preserves its connotation of magic and miracle, translations of A Midsummer Night's Dream exclude the most obvious of such references by changing Shakespeare's ‘Midsummer’ to simply ‘summer.’ The standard translations of the title in French, German, and Rumanian are Le Songe d'une nuit d'été, Sommernachtstraum, and Visul unei nopţi de vară.2 The idea of the ritual is thus eliminated in these translations. Kenneth White's critique of two versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream on the French stage indirectly touches upon the difficulties encountered by the foreign public when confronted with the universe of the play, a universe seemingly arbitrary because eccentrically English. When given the context of their own feast of La Saint Jean, the French spectators might more readily accept the misrule, the magic, and the folk clowning contained in the ‘gross jokes, verbal juggling, and intricate lovers’ tangles in the Shakespearean manner.’3 This is not to say that the comedy cannot stand on its own merits. However, when a play is rooted in a tradition, to ignore its relation to the life around it is to obscure its meaning.

In English language criticism, it has been difficult to overlook the reference to the ritual in the title, or in the action of A Midsummer Night's Dream, since C. L. Barber's work on the festive aspect of Shakespeare's comedies. However, Barber's hesitation to identify precisely the Midsummer of Shakespeare's title as the June 24 festival4 has led a number of critics to conclude that there is a blurring of festive dates in the play, in which Midsummer and May Day become interchangeable.5

To other critics, the proposed relationship between the play and the Midsummer ritual is a forced, anachronistic interpretation. Paul Olsen and John Cutts dismiss the folk and fairy lore as superficial and incidental when compared to the Christian design or the classical allusions.6 Frank Kermode, however, calls for taking the hint of the title in the case of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night. His discussion of love, Christian and human, focuses on the ‘dream’ of the title rather than on the ‘Midsummer,’ although his signal identification of ‘the talk of eyes’7 as the sustained theme of the play will be seen to be as relevant to the play's ritual aspect as he shows it to be to the dream. Ernest Schanzer, who presents a concise distinction between May Day and Midsummer in a successful effort to dispel the confusion of the two rituals, upholds the relationship of Midsummer to the comedy.8 However, like the few critics who do so,9 he neglects the Christian side of the festival and so reduces the ritual's significance.

The importance of the holy day of June 24 cannot be minimized in the religious and folk consciousness of the sixteenth century. Saint John's Day, the Christian counterpart of the summer solstice celebration, is inseparable from the pagan Midsummer Night. Characterized by exorcisms of evil spirits, and by reconciliations and atonement (Fr., X, 181, 182; XI, 19, 20), the feast of Saint John the Baptist follows the license and misrule of the eve and night preceding June 24. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes it as ‘one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest feast, introduced into both the Greek and Latin liturgies to honour a saint.’10 Moreover, Saint John's Day is distinct in that it is the only holy day celebrating the nativity rather than the death of a saint, a particularity which renders it similar to Christmas, the other solstice holy day, and which relates it to the central issue of procreation in the play.

Magic elements of the Midsummer ritual, both Christian and pagan, such as water and plants, provide the specific evidence that some critics find lacking in relating the title to the time of Shakespeare's play. Coalescing as it did with ancient summer solstice saturnalia, the church festival appropriated an important feature, the water element (Fr., II, 293). Although Midsummer is largely a fire festival, water is essential, even in forms such as dew and moisture, in effecting miraculous cures and preventing diseases, provided it is used on the eve, night, or day of the baptizing saint's feast.

The pervading moonlight and its association with dew in A Midsummer Night's Dream11 become relevant in terms of the magical properties of water at Midsummer. The moon, as the celestial body governing not only the tides, but all other waters, and believed to be instrumental in the formation of dew (Fr., VI, 137, 138), must be present in order to affect Midsummer waters and bring forth the dew. The ‘field dew consecrate’ (V.i.409) used by the fairies to bless the wedded couples and their issue, though technically applied after Saint John's Day (because applied after midnight), belongs to these magical waters by virtue of its property to ward off evils and bodily imperfection.

The belief in the magical attributes of certain plants at Midsummer is another aspect of the festival which comprises Christian and pagan elements. The welfare of households, individuals, and livestock depends upon the presence of these plants in the Midsummer ritual.12 Although magic plants play a major role in Shakespeare's comedy also, there have been few attempts to identify them with the plants of Midsummer.13

Of the two magic plants of A Midsummer Night's Dream, love-in-idleness, or the purple pansy, is the one most often discussed by critics.14 ‘Dians bud’ is more problematic. The emblematic representation of Diana with a branch of Agnus Castus in her hand, described by Chaucer in The Flower and the Leaf, has been the basis for the identification of ‘Dians bud’ with Agnus Castus.15 In the text of the play, however, the magic plant is called ‘hearbe’ (II.i.191; III.ii.387), not a tree or a shrub branch. Moreover, the property of Agnus Castus is to render men chaste by a radical method, namely, by drying up the seed of generation,16 hardly an appropriate measure to ready a lover for his wedding. Since ‘Dians bud’ is not used to render Lysander and Titania chaste in the absolute sense of sterile, but rather to restore to them their judgment—their healthy sight—impaired by the love charm, its function is clearly medicinal, not punitive. The text bears out this view. ‘Dians bud’ is described as having ‘this vertuous propertie, / To take from thence [Lysander's eye] all error, with his might, / And make his eie-bals role with wonted sight’ (III.ii.388-390); the rhyme uttered by Oberon when he decides to cure Titania from the ‘hatefull imperfection of her eyes’ (IV.i.71) again indicates a restoration of sight, and, implicitly, of judgment, by means of the ‘blessed power’ (IV.i.82) of the plant.

In the case of ‘Dians bud,’ the ritual rather than literary allusion provides the key to the plant's correct identity, for, significantly, ‘Dians bud’ shares its curative function with one of the principal plants of Midsummer, namely, the mugwort, otherwise known as motherwort, wormwood, Saint John's Plant, and Cingulum Sancti Johannis.17 Herbals, from ancient to modern, attest to the power of the mugwort in curing a variety of illnesses, among which are impediments of vision, drug poisonings, and states induced by opiates. The mugwort is also a powerful charm against evil spirits and spells.18 During the Midsummer festival, when the plant's power reaches its peak, a wreath of mugwort worn by a person or held before one's eyes while gazing at the bonfires insures healthy eyesight for the coming year (Thomas Kirchmeyer, ‘The Popish Kingdome,’ in Fr., X, 162; X, 174). The mugwort's power to dispel the effects of previous drugs or spells and to protect or cure the eyes matches precisely the medicinal and magical role of ‘Dians bud’ in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Apart from their common curative powers, ‘Dians bud’ and the mugwort of folklore both belong to Diana. The genus Artemisia comprises the family of wormwoods, to which the mugwort belongs. The Herbarium of Apuleius affirms that the goddess Diana discovered the wormwoods and entrusted the knowledge of their powers to Chiron, the centaur, ‘who first from these Worts set forth a leechdom, and he named these worts from the name of Diana, Artemis, that is Artemisias.’19

According to a medieval belief,20 and as its synonyms indicate, the mugwort belongs to Saint John in the Christian scheme of the ritual. The ‘force and blessed power’ of ‘Dians bud’ over ‘Cupid's flower’ in the play thus comes from the double patronage of the ancient goddess and the Christian saint. With such patrons, the plant's relation to chastity is undeniable, but chastity in the context of the play means fruitful, generative monogamy rather than the abstinence implied by the virtues of Agnus Castus.

Within the play's framework, the pagan Midsummer provides the first impulse toward generation. The fertility rite becomes manifest in the play through the necessity of resolving all sexual discord before ‘all things shall be peace’ (III.ii.398), a necessity which underlines the frantic action in the woods. As a ritual, Midsummer represents a time of change in which man attempts to adjust to and maintain himself in harmony with nature. Correspondence between animate and inanimate, between macrocosm and microcosm, is heightened. In the universe of the play, the cosmic repercussions of Oberon and Titania's quarrel are a fearful reality, and Oberon's benevolence toward the lovers shows the fulfillment of responsibility, in a crucial moment, by the ruler of the natural world.

The quarrel between Oberon and Titania exemplifies the close ties between sexuality and cosmic order. The absence of their conjugal sport has caused the disruption of winds and water, the death and decay of vegetable and animal life, and the end of human joy. Titania's catalogue of evils is not merely a poetical allusion to bad weather.21 It establishes a cause-and-effect relationship between disrupted sexuality and universal disorder. Titania herself concludes that the discord, a breach of natural harmony, has engendered an unnatural ‘progeny of evils’ (II.i.119). Her speech echoes the widespread popular belief that sex is directly related to the fertility of vegetation, so that the urgent need for correcting a destructive situation becomes evident.

Oberon, the male ruler, represents the final authority in the natural world. The role of restoring the transformations and confusions of the night to a state of normality falls to him. That he alone has the power to do so is quite clear. In a play in which good sight equals right judgment, Oberon asserts the superiority of his vision over Puck's and, implicitly, over Titania's, when he narrates the story of the little Western flower instrumental in his scheme. Only he could see the events which led to the flower's purple wound and make use of it to charm Titania and Demetrius.

In contrast to Puck, who is a spirit of misrule, devoid of responsibility except to his master, Oberon uses his power to correct aberrations, such as Titania's unwillingness to wean the Indian boy or Helena's pursuit of the resisting Demetrius. Oberon's benevolence to the lovers becomes all the more emphatic after Puck's confused matchmaking. As the night draws to a close, the necessity of properly pairing the lovers within the remaining magic time lends a sense of urgency to the action. Oberon, anticipating the peace arising from fulfilled sexuality, echoes Puck's call for haste when he hopes that the lovers' discord, together with his own, will be ended before dawn: ‘But notwithstanding haste, make no delay: / We may effect this businesse, yet ere day’ (III.ii.415-416). Puck's incantations over the misled Lysander point even more clearly to the dependence of universal harmony upon sexual entente:

And the Country Proverb knowne,
That every man should take his owne.
In your waking shall be showne.
Jacke shall have Jill, nought shall goe ill,
The man shall have his Mare againe, and all shall bee well.


Once the conditions for fertility have been insured in the woods, under the protection of the fairy king, there remains the integration into society, into the everyday which was forsaken for the extra-temporality, the so-called madness of the ritual. As Midsummer Night dissolves into the dawn of Saint John's Day, Shakespeare's lovers must be given sanction to fulfill their procreative roles. The Christian light does not dispel, but rather confirms, in terms of a higher reality, the accomplishments of the pagan night.

The hunting party's chancing upon the sleeping lovers comes as the Christian judgment and reconciliation after a night of necessary festival license. Theseus' interposition between Egeus' wrath and the sleeping lovers and his gently ironic allusion to the rite of May, as later to Saint Valentine, immediately suggest an inclination to mercy in his mood, unlike his more strict adherence to the law after Egeus' first complaint. Notwithstanding Theseus' mood, the lovers must account for their nighttime doings and Hermia make her choice, for the day is one of judgment. The horns sound, as Gabriel's trumpet, to awaken them to the reckoning. Lysander, the first to speak, utters the formula of atonement, ‘Pardon my Lord’ (IV.i.158). Theseus' reply, ‘I pray you all stand up’ (IV.i.159), indicates the lovers have knelt before the duke after being awakened. Their confessions show the success of Oberon's magic cures. Both male lovers have been restored to the true faith of their love. As for Helena and Hermia, they have been—and remain—constant throughout. Theseus' judgment, the societal extension of Oberon's benevolent authority, overrules Egeus' demands and gives the ultimate sanction, the right to holy union, to the properly paired lovers.

Shakespeare's use of the pagan and Christian aspects of Midsummer serves as a framework for his comedy. The lovers, whose function is that of generation, flee from the constraints of the city into the woods, where they act out the pagan rite of fertility amid darkness, confusion, and the manipulations of those forces which rule vegetative nature. They emerge, their conflicts resolved, into the light of Christian reason and accept the restraint of monogamy so as to effect their integration into the social order, and, more importantly, to insure their salvation.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, whose structure imaginatively parallels the solstice ritual, affirms the continuation of life at a time of cosmic adversity. In the true spirit of comedy, the cyclical generative needs of the natural world triumph over the initial societal barriers. But, in a larger sense, the forces of generation are incorporated into a higher level of reality, an ordered reality, in which they become a part, rather than the ruling function, of human life.

This paper attests to the fact that Shakespeare's comedy has survived the Midsummer festival. My interest in the ritual was generated by A Midsummer Night's Dream, and not vice versa. To neglect or deny the ritual's relevance to the comedy, however, is to rob the play of its most universal aspect, namely, that of having embodied, more successfully than the religious and folk traditions, an extra-temporal moment of achieved harmony in human life, a triumph formerly shared with the ritual, now in the sole possession of the work of art.


  1. The Enciclopedia Cattolica, s.v. Giovanni Battista, Folklore; Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, X (London, 1913; rpt. 1955), ‘The Midsummer Fires,’ 160-219, and XI (London, 1913; rpt. 1955), ‘The Magic Flowers of Midsummer Eve,’ 45-75. All further references are to this edition. The volume and page numbers, preceded by the identification Fr., will be supplied in parentheses following each reference in the text.

  2. Of the three languages, only Rumanian has an equivalent for the pagan holiday, ‘Noaptea de sînziene.’ In French and German, the translator could change Midsummer Night to Saint John's Night. Ernest Schanzer discusses the attempts to translate accurately the title in German in his article ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream,’ in Oeuvres complètes de Shakespeare, ed. Pierre Leyris and Henri Evans (Paris, 1958), trans. and abr. rpt. in Shakespeare: The Comedies: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Kenneth Muir (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1965), p. 26.

  3. ‘Two French Versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream,French Review, 33 (May, 1960), 341-350; see p. 341.

  4. In Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton, N.J., 1959; rpt. Cleveland, Ohio, 1963), Barber writes that he is more concerned with the sexual customs of Maying than with the specific rituals of either Midsummer Eve or May Day (pp. 120, 123-124).

  5. Dale M. Blount, ‘Shakespeare's Use of the Folklore of Fairies and Magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest,’ Diss. Indiana, 1969, p. 54; G. K. Hunter, ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream,’ in Shakespeare: The Later Comedies, Writers and Their Works, No. 143 (London, 1962), pp. 7-20, rpt. in Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Leonard F. Dean, 2nd ed., rev. (New York, 1957; rpt. 1967), p. 93; Allan Lewis, ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream—Fairy Fantasy or Erotic Nightmare?’, Educational Theatre Journal, 21 (1969), 251-258; see p. 255; and David P. Young, Something of Great Constancy: The Art of ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’ (New Haven and London, 1966), p. 24. Blount, Hunter, and Lewis simply refer to the time of the play as ‘Midsummer Eve or May Day.’ Young comments on Shakespeare's intentional dismissal of calendar dates in favor of ‘a more elusive festival time.’

  6. Cutts, ‘“The Fierce Vexation of a [Midsummer Night's] Dreame,”’ Shakespeare Quarterly, 14 (1963), 183-185; Olsen, ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage,’ ELH, 24 (1957), 95-119.

  7. ‘The Mature Comedies,’ Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, No. 3, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London, 1961), p. 220.

  8. Schanzer, p. 27.

  9. Elizabeth Sewell, for example, speaks of the absence of moral tone from the ritual in The Orphic Voice (New Haven, 1960), pp. 112, 113, 122-124.

  10. The Enciclopedia Cattolica states: ‘la festa di s. G. B. [Santo Giovanni Battista] è quella che da luogo alle più importanti e caratteristiche manifestationi del culto popolare in tutti i paesi dell'Europa.’

  11. The New Variorum Shakespeare: A Midsommer Nights Dreame, ed. Horace Howard Furness, 6th ed. (Philadelphia, 1895), I.i.222-224; III.i.206-208. All further references will be to this edition and will be listed in parentheses after every quotation. I have followed modern typographical conventions in respect to the use of i/j and u/v whenever they appear in the text.

  12. John Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities, ed. Henry Ellis (London, 1913), pp. 173, 181-183, 209; and Frazer, XI, 45-75.

  13. In their article ‘Folk Medicine and the Four Fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream,Shakespeare Quarterly, 10 (1959), 513-521, Lou Agnes Reynolds and Paul Sawyer advance the suggestion that love-in-idleness might be identified as Saint John's Wort on account of its magical purple juice. However, love-in-idleness is known as a love charm, as M. Grieve points out in A Modern Herbal (New York, 1931), I, 387, whereas Saint John's Wort does not number the power of inducing love among its virtues according to Frazer, II, 45-71, and John Gerarde, The Herball (London, 1597), I, 433.

  14. Cutts, p. 184, and Young, pp. 27, 142, identify love-in-idleness with heart's ease, or the wild pansy. The three names are synonyms for the flower used as a love charm, although neither Cutts nor Young mentions this virtue of the plant.

  15. Cutts, p. 185; The Variorum, p. 181, n. 81.

  16. Gerarde, II, 1202; and An Herbal (1525), ed. and trans. Sanford V. Larkey and Thomas Pyles (New York: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1941), p. 3.

  17. The OED identification of mugwort is: 1. ‘The plant Artemisia vulgaris, formerly also called motherwort. Also applied to other species of Artemisia, as wormwood, A. Absinthium.’ The High Dutch name for mugwort is Sant Johanus Wurtell, in Gerarde, II, 946. The synonyms Saint John's Plant and Cingulum Sancti Johannis are listed in Grieve, p. 556.

  18. The compilation of the mugwort's virtues is a process complicated by the fact that some herbals, such as Gerarde, II, 936-946, An Herbal, pp. 5, 6, and Grieve, II, 556, 557, 858, distinguish, not always accurately, between species of wormwoods. Gerarde and Grieve list motherwort, or matherwort, as an entirely different plant. I have followed the OED definition and compiled virtues for the motherwort and mugwort, when classified as species of Artemisia, and for wormwood, when classified as Artemisia Absinthium. The herbals in Latin, such as The Herbal of Rufinus, ed. Lynn Thorndike (Chicago, 1945), pp. 42-43, deal with the wormwood family of Compositae under one listing, Artemisia, as does Agnes Arber's historical treatise, Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution, 2nd ed. rev. (Cambridge, 1938), p. 39. For further evidence of the wormwood's power over the eyes, see Nicholas Culpeper, A Physicall Directory (1649), quoted in Arber, p. 262.

  19. Grieve, II, 858; Arber, p. 39; and Macer, quoted in The Herbal of Rufinus, p. 43.

  20. Grieve, II, 556, 557.

  21. In ‘The Moon and the Fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream,University of Toronto Quarterly, 24 (1955), 234-246, Ernest Schanzer refutes criticism which dismisses the seriousness of Titania's claims in language similar to mine. However, he sees the disruption of which she speaks as referring to the state of fairydom, not of the universe at large (p. 236).

René Girard (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8706

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 Children, that imitate the vices of Stammerers so long, till at last they become such; and make the habit to another nature, as it is never forgotten.

—Ben Jonson, Timber of Discoveries

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Your eyes are lodestars, and your tongue's sweet air,
More tunable 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'd give to be to you translated.


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

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

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

The course of true love never did run smooth;
But either it was different in blood—
O cross! Too high to be enthralled to low.
Or else misgraffed in respect of years—
O spite! Too old to be engaged to young.
Or else it stood upon the choice of friends—
O hell! To choose love by another's eyes.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


C. L. Barber correctly observes that the four young people vainly try to interpret their conflicts through something “manageably related to their individual identities,” but they never achieve their purpose:

Only accidental differences can be exhibited. Helena tall, Hermia short. Although the men think that “reason says” now Helena is “the worthier maid,” personalities have nothing to do with the case. … The life in the lovers' part is not to be caught in individual speeches, but by regarding the whole movement of the farce, which swings and spins each in turn through a common pattern, an evolution that seems to have an impersonal power of its own.1

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

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

The question is truly fundamental. The whole orientation of criticism depends on it. It is usually the wrong solution that is adopted, all the more blindly because it remains implicit. I personally believe that the conflictual undifferentiation of the four lovers is the basic Shakespearean relationship in both his tragedies and comedies.2 It is the relationship of the four doubles in A Comedy of Errors; it is the relationship of the Montagues and the Capulets, of course, but also of Caesar, Brutus, and his coconspirators, of Shylock and Bassanio, of all the great tragic and comic characters. There is no great theater without a gripping awareness that, far from sharpening our differences, as we like to believe, our violence obliterates them, dissolving them into that reciprocity of vengeance which becomes its own self-inflicted punishment. Shakespeare is fully aware, at the same time, that no theater audience can assume the full force of this revelation. Its impact must and will necessarily be blunted. Some violence will be made “good” and the rest “bad” at the expense of some sacrificial victim, with or without the complicity of the writer. There is no doubt that, in many instances, Shakespeare is a willing accomplice; but his is never an absolute betrayal of his own vision, because the differences he provides are always at the same time undermined and treated as quasi-allegories. An excessive appetite for “characterization” and catharsis will take nothing of this into account: it will systematically choose as most Shakespearean what really is least so, at least in the form in which it is chosen. It will thus provide not only our realistic stodginess but also our romantic self-righteousness with the only type of nourishment they can absorb.

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

Am I not “going too far” when I assimilate the midsummer night to the tragic crisis; am I not running the risk of betraying the real Shakespeare? The language of differences and undifferentiation is not Shakespeare's own, after all. This is true if we take the matter quite literally; but it is also true that Shakespeare, in some of his writing, comes close to using that same language. A case in point is the famous speech of Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida: it describes that very same crisis, but does so in purely theoretical language and on as vast a scale as the most ambitious tragedies, as the crisis of an entire culture. The speech is built around one single word, degree, which would certainly be condemned as too “abstract,” too “philosophical,” if it were applied to Shakespeare by anyone but Shakespeare himself. And obviously Shakespeare applies it to himself as well as to the Greeks: it is the social framework of tragedy which is at stake.3

                                         … O when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
The enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right, or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing include itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

'Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.
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 comprehend.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast Hell can hold,
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The form of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothings
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!


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

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

This speech has been so successful, indeed, that no one ever pays any attention to the five quiet lines that follow. Hippolyta's response does not have the same resounding eloquence, but the dissatisfaction she expresses with the slightly pompous and irrelevant postmortem of Theseus was written by Shakespeare himself. It cannot fail to be of immense significance:

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


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

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

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

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


  1. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Cleveland: Meridian, 1963), p. 128.

  2. See my Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), pp. 43-49.

  3. Ibid., pp. 49-51.

Bruce Thomas Boehrer (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10440

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 about bestiality.1 On the most immediate level, Titania's animal passion for the asinine Bottom climaxes the play's fairy subplot. In the process, this passion tests the bounds of Elizabethan theatrical decorum; Titania leads Bottom to a bed of flowers, embraces and kisses him, and woos him with some of the play's most extravagantly sensuous verse:

Come sit thee down upon this flow'ry bed,
While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,
And stick musk-roses in thy sleek smooth head,
And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.(2)

Oddly enough, this moist rhetoric emerges from an exercise in household discipline: Oberon's plot to drug his wife with an aphrodisiac and thereby reassert his own domestic sovereignty—what Paul Olson has called “an orderly subordination of the female … to the more reasonable male.”3 Apparently, that is, one enforces traditional marital order and decency by indulging certain kinds of indecency, both within the moral economy of Shakespeare's play and within the political economy of Oberon's marriage. This contradiction reappears elsewhere in the play as a symbolic coupling of human erotic desire to animal objects.

Oberon, for his part, expresses at least two different—and not fully compatible—attitudes toward his queen's humiliation. On the one hand, he warns Titania that it will be a kind of just recompense for her insubordinate refusal to surrender her changeling page: “Well; go thy way. Thou shalt not from this grove / Till I torment thee for this injury” (II.i.146-47). The torment, these lines imply, is entirely merited, and later Oberon almost suggests that it is technically necessary—as if there were no way to win his quarrel with Titania other than to force her to make love to a jackass (or at least a “lion, bear, or wolf, or bull” [II.i.180]): “Ere I take this charm from off her sight / (As I can take it with another herb), / I'll make her render up her page to me” (II.i.183-85). From this standpoint, Titania would seem in fact to be punishing herself, and thus Oberon can emerge as her benefactor at play's end, taking “pity” on her (IV.i.47) and moving—out of his own native goodness and decency—to “undo / This hateful imperfection of her eyes” (IV.i.62-63).

Yet alongside this view of matters, Oberon also expresses a distinct sense of pleasure—indeed, almost a salacious delight—in his wife's degradation. Thus when Puck first reports to him that “Titania wak'd, and straightway lov'd an ass” (III.ii.34), his response is one of unqualified satisfaction: “This falls out better than I could devise” (III.ii.35). He later refers to the spectacle of Titania's sleeping in Bottom's arms as a “sweet sight” (IV.i.46). And his treatment of his enfeebled queen involves a good measure of open ridicule:

                              Meeting her of late behind the wood,
Seeking sweet favours for this hateful fool,
I did upbraid her, and fall out with her. … 
When I had at my pleasure taunted her,
And she in mild terms begg'd my patience,
I then did ask of her her changeling child;
Which straight she gave me.


In short, Oberon may claim to regret Titania's disobedience and to desire nothing more than to be “new in amity” (IV.i.87) with his queen, but he also revels in the chance to make sexual sport of her.

For Oberon, then, Titania's plight is both hateful and delightful, and his language enables him to disavow any moral responsibility for degrading her while it simultaneously promotes her as an article of good theatrical fun. In the most obvious sense, such rhetoric legitimates fantasies of male authority: Titania is reduced to her husband's power, exposed to an audience, and placed in sexual bondage to a donkey, and all these events are represented as the inevitable consequence of her own misconduct. She has, as it were, brought them on herself—to both Oberon's and the audience's broad amusement. The play thus exacts a sort of “encoded revenge” upon womankind in general and the principle of female sovereignty in particular;4 yet in the process it places both Oberon and the audience in a potentially uncomfortable position, for it identifies the return to traditional domestic order with—of all things—bestiality. As Jonathan Dollimore has recently observed of perversion in general, “the clear implication is that civilization actually depends upon that which is usually thought to be incompatible with it.”5 The fairy king solves his marital problems by openly transforming his wife into the erotic bondslave of an ass; what, then, does that make him?

The present essay takes this question as central to A Midsummer Night's Dream's exploration of marital arrangements and household order. From this standpoint, the unproblematical distinction between human and bestial nature—a distinction to which Shakespeare's comedy might at first seem fully committed—ultimately emerges from the play as neither unproblematical nor particularly distinct. The play's various discursive mechanisms force human nature to amalgamate with animal nature and vice versa; Titania's unnatural wifely disobedience produces winds, fogs, floods, and diseases of cattle, as well as her amorous encounter with Bottom (II.i.81-117); Bottom is clearly both man and animal, although various metonymic references to him as an ass (III.ii.34; IV.i.76; etc.) invite us to consider him wholly beast. As author of Titania's and Bottom's relationship—as well as the various other relationships which comprise the play—Oberon himself participates in the dalliance of people with animals, and this dalliance subtends the humanity of the very institutions (marriage, patriarchy, monarchy) he seeks to underwrite. In short, A Midsummer Night's Dream is about bestiality because the social arrangements it promotes take bestiality as their raison d'être; they assume that human nature is in constant danger of corruption from the bestial and/or female other, and that it must therefore be continuously and rigorously policed. They promote themselves as the proper vehicles for such policing. And thus they manufacture the bestial prodigy—the Bottom and Titania—as a means of political self-justification.


This argument assumes that the urge to bestiality finds its ultimate source in the institutions that ostensibly oppose it—that, to use Foucault's words, it consistently provokes “a kind of generalized discursive erethism” within western culture.6 In effect, that is, conditions in A Midsummer Night's Dream should be at their most bestial and disnatured exactly when the play promises that all is (or is rapidly being) restored to order. Puck makes this promise very plainly to the sleeping Lysander, and the terms in which he does so deserve to be studied:

                                                  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.


According to Puck, the play's action will obey the dictates of proverb; “all shall be well” when a proprietary relation is reasserted between men and women, allowing “every man [to] take his own,” and this proprietarism gains concrete illustration in the parallel promises that “Jack shall have Jill” and “The man shall have his mare again.” Jack is to Jill as man is to mare—that is, as owner is to owned. The desire of characters and audience alike finds what Terry Eagleton has called “its own natural, stable form” as male dominion within marriage,7 and this is apparently what it means for all to be well within the context of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

But of course these lines raise other possibilities as well. In particular, they do not really specify what it means to say that Jack is to Jill as man is to mare; the terms of the correspondence remain disturbingly imprecise. For if woman qualifies as man's fit sexual companion by assuming the status of commodity (i.e., by being like a mare), then a mare, too, may be a man's fit mate; the text's parallelisms acknowledge no qualitative difference whatever between a man's relationship with his woman and that same man's relationship with his horse. In fact, quite the contrary: Puck's language plays off a long-standing emblematic identification of sexually active women with mares. Described in medieval bestiaries as “the most lustful of female animals,”8 the mare appears in such early texts as the Ancrene Riwle as a metaphorical placeholder for the wanton woman; thus the Riwle counsels unchaste women to unburden themselves to their confessors by bluntly exclaiming, “‘Sir, God's mercy! I am a foul stud mare, a stinking whore.’”9 Similar language pervades late medieval play-texts like Mankind, where New-Gyse, interrupting Mercy's windy advice on how a man should govern his horse (“Yf a man haue an hors, and kepe hym not to hye, / He may then reull hym at hys own dysyere”),10 exclaims, “Ande my wyf were yowur horse sche wolde yow all to-samne”;11 apparently, that is, New-Gyse's wife is like a horse in that she can both resist male governance and at the same time “to-samne” (i.e., disgrace or shame) her male governors. Furthermore, this traditional identification of woman with mare has a disturbing tendency to appear at unexpected places within the Shakespeare canon—as when Antigonus in The Winter's Tale protests of Hermione, “If it prove / She [is unchaste], I'll keep my stables where / I lodge my wife” (II.i.133-35). Indeed, to carry the point further, Renaissance court records reveal the mare to be far and away the most commonly abused animal in cases of bestial buggery (see Appendix); it is almost as if, once woman had been made a mare by the processes of metaphor, mares then began to assume the qualities and status of women as well.

Of course, Bottom's asinine metamorphosis reverses the gender-troping of such identifications. Where Antigonus, Puck, the Ancrene Riwle, and generations of rustic Englishmen all seem determined to turn women into animals, Shakespeare's Oberon makes the man a beast and leaves his wife in her original form. Yet in either case the troping preserves a symmetry more important than any question of who gets to be the donkey this time, for all such transformations take as their immediate object the disparagement of the woman's identity. Hence Bottom's own personality remains outstandingly unimpaired throughout his interlude with Titania; indeed, a large part of his comic incongruity derives from the fact that his desires as beast—for headscratching, belly-cheer, and deferential service—remain so perfectly faithful to his human character. It is Titania, on the other hand, whose humanity is more fundamentally impeached by the entire exchange, for she—not Bottom—clearly cannot distinguish a bestial love-object from a human one. In this sense, at least, Bottom's transformation happens more to Titania than to Bottom himself. The result is an ideological identity of interest between locally dissimilar animal transformations, all of which offer roughly the same moral: turning a woman into an animal degrades the woman, and turning a man into an animal also degrades the woman.

The insistency of this message betrays its overdetermination. Emerging again and again out of contradictory circumstances, it repeatedly figures sexual difference in ways that privilege the man. Yet by the same token, such figurations place male privilege itself in a position of dependence upon the humiliated, bestialized female other—without whom the concept of male sovereignty would not be thinkable and to whom it must therefore constantly refer for the invidious comparisons that lend it identity. Various theoretical models—among them the Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, and post-Saussurean—may arguably be invoked to account for this dependence, but it is not my intention to dwell upon any such model. Instead, I maintain that Renaissance bestiality texts typically concern themselves with exploring the boundaries of human character and that in the process these texts repeatedly encounter social distinctions—between man and woman, peer and commoner, virgin and pervert, and so forth—that interfere with the equally fundamental distinction between human and animal nature. The unilinear moralizing of Renaissance bestiality texts can never finally foreclose this interference; underlying the obsessive formulation of social difference is an unavoidable sense of human mixedness—an ontological catachresis—that simply will not go away. Yet, from the standpoint of the moralizing texts themselves, that is all the more reason for the moralizing to continue.

Thus, to use Harold Brooks's phrase, A Midsummer Night's Dream seems determined to construct men and women as “alien species,”12 and as a result all of the play's romantic couplings are in an important sense zoophilic. Hermia refers to the ardent Demetrius as a “serpent” (III.ii.73), and in a much-discussed nightmare she envisions Lysander as “smiling” at her while another serpent eats away her heart (II.ii.144-50).13 More suggestively still, Helena can thus represent herself—in relation to her beloved Demetrius—as a dog:

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; … 
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?


Helena's orgy of self-abasement finds its definitive expression as a sinister kind of puppy love. Hence the erotic charge of her remarks, which formulate her passion precisely as the state of being owned. Demetrius' eventual marriage to Helena comments further upon what it means to use a person “as you use your dog,” for it is this very marriage that consummates Helena's erotic wishes and rewards her abject fidelity.

If, then, the moral of A Midsummer Night's Dream is that men should sow their oats among the most alien of mares, this mixed metaphor gains its ideal embodiment in the union of Theseus and Hippolyta. Herself the mother-to-be of a mythic figure famous for preferring horses to women,14 Hippolyta is also preeminently an object to be possessed; thus, as scholars regularly observe,15 Theseus woos her “with [his] sword” and wins her love by defeating her on the battlefield (I.i.16-17). As bride, Hippolyta becomes part of the spoils of war, only problematically distinct from such booty as weapons, gold, and horses; moreover, she relates to Theseus conspicuously through the medium of hunting-animals. Thus she can kindle what at least one reader regards as a spark of sexual jealousy in Theseus by talking about a pack of hounds:16

I was with Hercules and Cadmus once,
When in a wood of Crete they bay'd the bear
With hounds of Sparta. Never did I hear
Such gallant chiding.


Theseus responds with a peevish and aggressively phallic description of his own animals:

My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind;
So flew'd, so sanded; and their heads are hung
With ears that sweep away the morning dew;
Crook-kneed, and dewlapp'd like Thessalian bulls;
Slow in pursuit; but match'd in mouth like bells,
Each under each. A cry more tuneable
Was never hollow'd to, nor cheer'd with horn,
In Crete, in Sparta, nor in Thessaly.


Theseus vies with Hippolyta's former male companions—Hercules and Cadmus—through the medium of their hunting-dogs, and the dogs themselves, their heads encompassed by great folds of skin and their bodies dewlapped and bullish, serve implicitly as surrogates for the male member. Mine are the same as Hercules' and Cadmus', Theseus argues—only better.

Thus A Midsummer Night's Dream seems determined to construct its various marital unions as analogues to (or extensions of, or coincident with) the sexual conjunction of people and animals. Given the play's peculiar discursive framework, zooerastia emerges as “integral to just those things it threatens,”17 figured and refigured repeatedly within the space of human domestic relations. Moreover, bestiality arguably encompasses a large part of the play's overt eroticism; the spectacle of Titania and Bottom embracing and sleeping together comes as close to enacted sexual intercourse as any scene in Shakespearean comedy. In short, A Midsummer Night's Dream takes pains to establish sexual limits that it then transgresses, through metaphor and innuendo and overt representation, as often as possible, and this act of transgression constitutes a good measure of the play's appeal to its audience. In overall effect, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a bit like a Protestant marriage-manual constructed out of animal pornography.


Documented cases of bestiality are rare in early English records (Lawrence Stone's lengthy Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 does not mention a single one), but nonetheless they do occur. I have assembled a quick survey of relevant court records in the Appendix to this essay, and these records confirm the disciplinary rigor with which animal sodomites were occasionally handled; however, the recorded prosecutions acquire a literary/discursive character over and above the administration of physical punishment. This is not to deny that real people were tried, punished, and even executed for bestial buggery; they most certainly were. Yet the minuscule number of such trials; the extreme inconsistencies of sentencing, which could range from a virtual handslap from the church courts to hanging under the common law; the massive contrast between the heated language of Renaissance moralists and legal theorists and the trickle of prosecutions for buggery of any kind; and the occasional way in which bestiality charges were tacked on to other, more serious accusations as a kind of judicially unnecessary lily-gilding—all these suggest that the rhetoric of bestiality was in some basic ways more important than the crime itself. This investment in rhetoric becomes clearer when one thinks of bestiality as being, in effect, a victimless crime; after all, in the absence of a vengeful or abused human plaintiff, what can bestiality prosecutions possibly redress? The offended party would seem to be not an individual human being but rather a kind of abstract linguistic principle of what human beings ought to be. To this extent, bestial buggery is a crime against ideas, not people.

As such, it elicits inevitable judicial displays, some of which culminate in the execution of the offending party. But the execution becomes largely subservient to the discourse that demands it, and indeed, as long as the discourse itself is satisfied through some ritual of exorcism or purgation, capital punishment may even be deemed unnecessary. The really important thing is not that a particular poor bugger be hanged, but that the judiciary apparatus be seen to work. To this extent, Renaissance buggery laws may parallel Jean-Christophe Agnew's sense of the function of the medieval marketplace; they comprise “a ritually defined threshold” of the human community,18 a threshold that is progressively blurred by the “new liquidity” of Renaissance social/theatrical relations.19 Court buggery records themselves are therefore overwhelmingly concerned with maintaining or reestablishing the threatened boundaries. In 1519, for instance, the ecclesiastical court presiding over Tetchwick, Buckinghamshire, reports that one Richard Mayne, a watercarrier, “joined himself carnally with a mare, and a certain Elizabeth Parsons noticed this and reported it.”20 The court records, which take care to describe the process of human intervention whereby the suspect was brought to justice, do not mention a penalty; but later in 1525, a certain William Franklin appeared “in the parish church of Brisley” in Norfolk, to answer the charge of “having had sexual intercourse with an animal.”21 In this case the defendant was found guilty, although he produced four testifiers in his defense; for punishment, he was ordered “to go in procession publicly, as a penance, and to offer a penny candle before the high image.”22

Franklin's token penalty may or may not have been standard for such offenses; however, it is certainly out of keeping with the dire precept of Leviticus:

If a man lies with a beast, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the beast.

If a woman approaches any beast and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.23

Thus the Catholic court's ruling also runs counter to the severe rhetoric of Puritans like Thomas Beard, whose Theatre of Gods Judgements (1597) is roughly contemporary to A Midsummer Night's Dream:

It is not for nothing that the law of God forbiddeth to lie with a beast, and denounceth death against them that commit this foule sinne: for there have been such monsters in the world at sometimes, as we read in Caelius and Volterranus, of one Crathes a sheepheard, that accompanied carnally with a shee goat, but the Buck finding him sleeping, offended and provoked with this strange action, ran at him so furiously with his hornes, that hee left him dead vpon the ground.24

Beard's peasant, unlike William Franklin, suffers to the full extent of the Mosaic law and, ironically, the vehicle for his punishment is a kind of miraculous deus ex capre. Justice and piety emerge from the traditional animal symbol of lust, and Beard solemnly warns his readers against fornicating with beasts, noting that “there have been such monsters in the world at sometimes.”

To this extent, of course, Beard is himself in the business of making (or at least repackaging) monsters, and of retailing them to the highest bidder; thus the Theatre of Gods Judgements regales its readers with a mind-numbing sequence of adulteries, murders, fornications, incests, and rapes—as well as tyranny, sodomy, dancing, and playacting (this last in a book that likens itself to a theater). Beard himself, despite the lurid and muckraking quality of his work, seems more or less oblivious to the irony of his own position, and yet it is not nearly as distant from that of William Franklin's judge as Beard himself might insist. For Beard's own authority, as writer and as moralist, demands a steady supply of William Franklins: of aberrations to be disciplined and exposed and yet not really exterminated, but instead preserved in discourse. Only thus—through the dynamics of what Kenneth Burke has called “pure persuasion”25—can Beard claim to be performing a necessary social service; his is a moral economy of monsters.

“My mistress with a monster is in love” (III.ii.6): Puck fixes Bottom with Beard's own favorite epithet for sexual deviants. Indeed Beard's sense of the term recalls an early parallel to the animal voyeurism of Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Borgia Pope Alexander VI could enter popular myth as a libertine “who enjoyed nothing so much as watching with his daughter Lucrezia as horses copulated,”26 and if this tale seems improbably removed from Shakespeare's England, consider its reappearance in Aubrey's Brief Lives, where it attaches not to a pope but rather to Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke:

She was very salacious, and she had a Contrivance that in the Spring of the yeare, when the Stallions were to leape the Mares, they were to be brought before such a part of the house, where she had a vidette (a hole to peepe out at) to looke on them and please herselfe with their Sport; and then she would act the like sport herself with her stallions.27

Aubrey ends this passage by remarking that “one of [Mary Herbert's] great Gallants was Crooke-back't Cecill, Earl of Salisbury,”28 known affectionately to James I as his spaniel; the anecdote thus transforms its female subject into the figurative lover of literal beasts and the literal lover of figurative beasts, more or less simultaneously. Moreover, the same gesture—a lewd peeping from out of the established moral and/or social center—occurs with greater complexity in a work like Donne's “Satyre IV.” There the narrator laments his recent conversation with an obnoxious courtier: “A thing more strange, then on Niles slime, the Sunne / E'r bred; … / A thing … / Stranger … / Then Africks Monsters.”29 Indeed, the source of this fellow's monstrosity is to a large extent the substance of Donne's own text: “Who wasts in meat, in clothes, in horse, he notes; / Who loves Whores, who boyes, and who goats” (127-28). The narrator himself stands “more amas'd” at this discourse “then Circes prisoners” (129), and the poem therefore fashions a moral diatribe out of its own latent voyeurism. In effect, it ends up satirizing itself.

The bestial metamorphosis of Donne's narrator parallels the dynamics of Shakespeare's comedy. Donne's speaker in effect becomes an animal—“more amas'd then Circes prisoners”—by attending to the represented bestial behavior of others, and he then hands his amazement on to his audience through yet another level of representation. Aubrey turns himself—and his readers—into a series of duplicate Mary Herberts, peeking through the cracks of his text at the original Mary Herbert peeking at her rutting horses. Likewise, Shakespeare's Oberon, himself the principal audience at a scene of bestial transformation and misbehavior, constructs that bestiality as entertainment for another set of viewers entirely. In the process, both Oberon and Donne's narrator (and, in a less aggressive way, Aubrey as well) claim to represent the stabilizing influences of domestic order and moral indignation; they are, as it were, doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

For William Franklin's judge, for Thomas Beard, for Aubrey, and arguably even for Donne, the discourse of traditional morality runs on despite—even because of—its own slippages, unperturbed by the fact that it depends for its existence upon the very categories of behavior and of being that it seeks to extirpate. In Book VIII of Paradise Lost, our grand forefather Adam is demonstrably smarter. He recognizes that something is wrong when the Son implicitly offers him sexual companionship among the newly created animals—“with mee / I see not who partakes”30—yet he also recognizes that the solution to his problem—Eve—is not really a solution at all. The difficulty with animals, after all, is that they are animals; they are inferior to Adam, having been constructed with internal deficiencies of mind and spirit that render them unsatisfactory as company or as mates:

Among unequals what society
Can sort, what harmony or true delight?
Which must be mutual, in proportion due
Giv'n and receiv'd … Of fellowship I speak
Such as I seek, fit to participate
All rational delight.


Yet Eve's own composition as Adam's mate pushes her relentlessly into the category of the unequal, away from the rational delight that Adam needs her, by definition, to share:

For well I understand in the prime end
Of Nature her th'inferior, in the mind
And inward Faculties, which most excel,
In outward also her resembling less
His image who made both.


Adam does not make the claim in so many words, but remarks of this sort unfortunately tend to situate Eve in the animal kingdom—precisely where we discover her distant descendants Helena, Hermia, Hippolyta, and Titania. Small wonder that—as James Grantham Turner has recently illustrated—scriptural exegetes like Jakob Boehme sought to bestialize Eve still further by accusing her of sexual intercourse with the serpent.31 Such efforts comprise the logical endpoint of any rigorous attempt to hierarchize conjugal relations.

How, then, does one mediate between the opposing claims of conjugal companionship and patriarchal authority? This question informs the “irresolvable doubleness” that scholars such as Turner have seen “at the heart of Milton's apprehension of wedded love.”32 Adam, for whom Eve's status is constantly threatening to accelerate out of the order of the inferior and into that of the all-too-equal (while just as constantly threatening to decelerate from equal to animal), sees this issue as a pressing one, and therefore he gives it pride of place at the end of his conversation with Raphael. Acknowledging Eve's deficiencies, Adam still cannot help regarding her as “more than enough” of himself, endowed with “too much of Ornament” (VIII.537-38); it is as if there were something inherently excessive about her very character as a human being, some equal-but-unequalness that assailed Adam's own personal integrity.

Raphael's advice on this point is remarkable, for it initiates the order of language that this essay has been busily surveying. Use your reason, he effectively counsels Adam; don't forsake it; keep it constantly on guard, elaborating, defining, affirming, and reaffirming the differences that make you what you are; never stop doing this job, for it is literally of your essence:

[Nature] hath done her part;
Do thou but thine, and be not diffident
Of Wisdom, she deserts thee not, if thou
Dismiss not her, when most thou need'st her nigh,
By attributing overmuch to things
Less excellent … 
                                                            Weigh with [Eve] thyself;
Then value.


This exercise of “Wisdom”—as Raphael calls it—evolves within the compass of a conversation, coextensively with the linguistic distinctions between man and woman and man and beast. Moreover, it involves a vigorous, ongoing projection of Adam's own deficiencies onto Eve—pulling the man's own beastliness out of himself in order that he may recognize it in the woman instead. If this process is at all suspended, male privilege evaporates; the man himself becomes the beast, sunk in passion and ripe for the carnal blandishments of the local fauna:

If the sense of touch whereby mankind
Is propagated seem such dear delight
Beyond all other, think the same voutsaf't
To Cattle and each Beast … 
                                                                                                              Love refines
The thoughts, and heart enlarges, hath his seat
In Reason, and is judicious, is the scale
By which to heav'nly Love thou may'st ascend,
Not sunk in carnal pleasure, for which cause
Among the Beasts no Mate for thee was found.


It is Adam's ceaseless responsibility to weed out the bestial pleasures in his human composition, and failure to do so will automatically promote his inferior and wife to the position of “Guide / and Head” (IV.442-43).33 In short, being a man—as opposed to a woman or a beast—requires constant discursive police-work. Milton, concerned as always with preceding his historical predecessors, has here created the great original of Renaissance morals critics, out-Bearding Beard and outdoing Donne. In the process, he has paid the same price the others have paid before him; he has constructed the immoral and bestial as intrinsic to the human male subject himself, requiring continuous surveillance and ongoing exorcism.

Beyond A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare offers a further perspective on the coupling of people with animals. For Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, zooerastia supplies a model not just of heroic but of godlike behavior; wearing a buck's head for his final rendezvous with Mistresses Page and Ford, Falstaff justifies his appearance by invoking classical myth:

Now the hot-blooded gods assist me! Remember, Jove, thou wast a bull for thy Europa, love set on thy horns. O powerful love, that in some respects makes a beast a man; in some other, a man a beast. You were also, Jupiter, a swan for the love of Leda. O omnipotent love, how near the god drew to the complexion of a goose! A fault done first in the form of a beast (O Jove, a beastly fault!) and then another fault in the semblance of a fowl—think on't, Jove, a foul fault!


Such transformations, Falstaff reasons, betoken extraordinary passion, and thus—although they may constitute a “fault” to be chuckled over indulgently—they ultimately redound to the lover's credit. Mistress Ford continues the scene in a like vein by coincidentally mocking Falstaff's animal pillow-talk: “Sir John? art thou there, my deer? my male deer?” (V.v.16-17).

A Midsummer Night's Dream thus furnishes us with a king and semi-deity who acts like a peeping Tom with a taste for animal fornication. The Merry Wives of Windsor, by contrast, offers us a sodden, horn-bedecked roué who justifies his antics in part by claiming that they are of royal and divine inspiration. In either case, as with Donne, Beard, and others, the audience is left with the fundamental problem of sorting out morality—of determining where a given social police-action ends and where the gratification of forbidden desire begins. And thus, despite their differences, Oberon and Falstaff comprise a rhetorical continuum: a society of those who claim to preserve the order of things by being above that order, and who resort to the most grossly dehumanizing of behavior in the name of human values such as love and domestic harmony. Theirs is, as Falstaff would put it, a beastly fault.


“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” (III.i.30-33): Bottom expresses tender concern for his audience's comfort at the upcoming ducal performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, and his concern takes immediate shape as an awareness of sexual difference. The lion threatens not men but “ladies”; and the obvious way to countervail this threat is, in effect, to make the lion act the part of a man:

Your lion … must speak through, saying thus, or to the same defect: “Ladies,” or “Fair ladies, … 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.


Thus, while seeking to straighten out the relations between men and women, Bottom's advice hopelessly confuses the relations between people and animals. Starting with the assumption that his play does, in fact, threaten to “bring in … a lion among ladies,” Bottom's language foregrounds its own patent inability to keep species separate; the lion is a “wild-fowl,” and—in the mechanicals' arsy-varsy syntax—the beast winds up declaring himself “a man as other men are” (my italics). Bottom addresses a fictional audience of “Ladies,” and urges Snug to frame words to “the same defect” as his own; that “defect” is coterminous with his own inability to conceive of men and women as comprising a single race.

Snug follows Bottom's advice in a way that once again thoroughly muddles the distinction between sex and species:

You, ladies, … 
May now, perchance, both quake and tremble here,
When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.
Then know that I as Snug the joiner am
A lion fell, nor else no lion's dam.


For the ladies, apparently, Snug threatens to assume the aspect of a “lion fell”—at least as like as not. Yet Snug's attempt to distinguish himself from his (other) dramatic character simply confuses matters further by claiming that Snug, as Snug, is a lion; and Snug then ends his explanation by triumphantly noting that otherwise he is no lion's dam. Beginning with the earnest concern that an alien sex might mistake him for an alien species, he ends up getting his own sex wrong; and that is arguably because, by adopting the character of another creature, his language has confused itself as to its own gender.

Given such repeated confusion, Bottom's words as Pyramus take on a decidedly peculiar cast. “O dainty duck!” (V.i.281), he exclaims upon discovering Thisbe's bloody mantle; and his language quickly assumes the quality of a mock-heroic lament: “O, wherefore, Nature, didst thou lions frame? / Since lion vile hath here deflowr'd my deer” (V.i.291-92). If Nature has framed Snug as a lion, one might reasonably wonder, has it then framed Thisbe as a duck or a deer—or both? And given Bottom's persistent tendency to conflate differences of species with differences of gender, his ambivalent use of the verb “deflowr'd” seems fully preconditioned. For defloration in A Midsummer Night's Dream is almost by rule a thing done between total aliens: Athenian dukes and Amazon warriors, fairy queens and asses, men and their mares, lions and deer. As Stephen Greenblatt has remarked of another Shakespearean comedy, “Licit sexuality … depends upon a movement that deviates from the desired object straight in one's path toward a marginal object, a body one scarcely knows. Nature is an unbalancing act.”34

Of all the mechanicals, Bottom is presented as the one with the greatest taste for acting. Flute, who apparently would like to play “a wand'ring knight” (I.ii.45) shrinks from the part of Thisbe: “Nay, faith; let me not play a woman; I have a beard coming” (I.ii.47-48). But Bottom is agreeable to the task and he promises to do it justice in his tone of voice: “And I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too. I'll speak in a monstrous little voice, ‘Thisne, Thisne!’” (I.ii.51-53). In short, he proposes to impersonate a woman by speaking monstrously; then he further confirms his passion for histrionics by offering to act the other monster in Pyramus and Thisbe as well—the lion: “Let me play the lion too. I will roar, that I will do any man's heart good to hear me” (I.ii.70-71). For Bottom, that is, femininity presupposes monstrosity, and thus the lion becomes the one character in the play with whom Thisbe has most in common; both require the hiding of one's face and form, both demand virtuoso modulations of voice and expression, and both provide outstanding opportunities for the display of one's theatrical skill. From an actor's (or at least this actor's) standpoint, the beast is the woman's perfect mate. It is an attitude Bottom shares with Oberon.

Hence Shakespeare's burlesque subplot supplies a running commentary on the concerns of the play's central characters, as well as on itself. At the heart of this commentary lies Bottom's animal transformation, which offers him a very real opportunity to speak “in a monstrous little voice” and also, coincidentally, to join with Titania as the star attraction in a fairy freak-show. Unable to distinguish between monsters and women, Bottom himself becomes a monster; and his metatheatrical appearance as Pyramus—“A lover, that kills himself most gallant for love” (I.ii.23-24)—further deepens the irony of his situation by expanding its frame of reference. For while Shakespeare's audience watches Theseus, Hippolyta, and company watching Bottom, it in effect watches itself; the audience of Pyramus and Thisbe sees Bottom's folly without recognizing it as a part of themselves—that is, as a product of the very discursive practices whereby they maintain social order. Their ox is gored, their deer deflowered.


Peter Stallybrass and Allon White have advanced a powerful explanation for the relationship between low and high characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream. For Stallybrass and White, “the ‘top’ [of any social hierarchy] attempts to reject and eliminate the ‘bottom’ for reasons of prestige and status, only to discover … that the top includes that low symbolically, as a primary eroticized constituent of its own fantasy life.”35 Thus Shakespeare's wedding-couples signify their rejection of the Bottom repeatedly through the condescending injokes that punctuate the play-within-a-play. Yet Bottom himself emerges as a prerequisite to the very social discriminations that privilege the wedding-couples in the first place; he occupies the necessary place of the other without which Shakespeare's aristocrats could not begin to conceive of themselves as such. No quantity of in-jokes can sever this connection, nor can any quantity of male discipline deny the bestial/female other a controlling share in conventional models of “marital harmony … predicated upon the wife's obedience to her husband.”36

This complex interdependence of high and low tends to wither in the hands of contemporary commentators, who like to replace it with the now-famous containment-subversion debate. And indeed, the containment-subversion debate—which resolves ambiguities into a binary distinction between conservative Shakespeare and radical Shakespeare—has this to be said for it: it has become an academic social indicator in its own right, much like the in-jokes that Shakespeare's high characters bounce off Bottom. What kind of a Shakespeare critic you are (straight white male fake-radical, black lesbian real-revolutionary, or some awkward admixture of the two) has come very largely to depend upon where you stand on the question of Shakespeare's subversive potential. Leonard Tennenhouse thus argues that “the introduction of disorder into [A Midsummer Night's Dream] ultimately authorizes political authority,”37 and that the ritual contest between order and disorder—between Oberon and Titania or Theseus and Hippolyta—may thus amount to little more than an affirmation of traditional social arrangements. Certainly the disciplinary character of the play's bestiality may lend itself to such interpretation. Yet, as C. L. Barber long ago observed, Shakespeare's play (and the clown subplot in particular) is pervaded by an acute “consciousness of the creative … act itself,”38 and thus one may view the plot's traditionalisms as self-consciously ironic. From this second, competing standpoint, the element of bestiality in A Midsummer Night's Dream may perform a unique function, deploying biology against institutions (such as marriage and monarchy) that typically advertise themselves as natural and given. By equating social and sexual differences with difference of species, A Midsummer Night's Dream may contest the ultimate morality of class and gender distinctions; to this extent, the play conforms to Catherine Belsey's pro-subversion claim that “Shakespearean comedy can be read as … calling in question that set of relations … which proposes as inevitable an antithesis between masculine and feminine, men and women.”39

These opposed positions have very nearly managed to monopolize recent discussion on the political character of Shakespeare's work. I disagree with both. So does Theodore Leinwand, who smartly remarks that “it is a thorough falsification of historical processes to argue that subversion offers the only alternative to the status quo.”40 Where Stallybrass and White, on the one hand, would replace the containment-subversion model with one of conflicted interdependence, Leinwand on the other hand would substitute an ongoing process of negotiation whereby high and low figures accommodate and make use of each other more or less mutually, more or less all of the time, for more or less differing purposes. In both of these cases, one emerges with a considerably more complex (and therefore, perhaps, more disturbing) picture of Shakespeare than any that the containment-subversion dialectic can offer; as Leinwand maintains, “a heteroglot Bottom … better captures the Shakespeare function than does any univocal voicing.”41

Shakespeare's bestiality in A Midsummer Night's Dream resolutely resists critical attempts at univocal characterization; the play's weird, hybrid sexiness—or more important, the scariness of its sexiness—has never been effectively foreclosed by efforts at interpretation. To this extent, Shakespeare problematizes the standard Renaissance judicial approach to bestial sexuality, which relies upon clear distinctions between the natural and the perverse, the bidden and the forbidden, and which thus tends to obfuscate the very discursive conditions that make it possible in the first place. As Alan Bray has observed in his book on Renaissance homosexuality (an offense that Renaissance law elided with bestiality under the common name of buggery), individuals did not tend to recognize their own acts as perverse; perversity was always the province of the other, not of the subject in society.42 Shakespeare's Oberon might have been created especially to illustrate the point. Indeed, by following the discourse of sexual difference to its logically dehumanizing end, A Midsummer Night's Dream creates a world in which it is impossible to separate the men from the goats, or the goats from the audience.

The consequent ambiguity is best embodied in the protean figure of Puck, who encompasses all shapes but holds to no proper shape himself, and who thus furthers yet another of Oberon's Borgia-like voyeuristic entertainments:

I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal.


In a passage such as this, distinctions of biological category are buried almost as deeply as the sexual element itself. Puck—who is after all not a man, although he appears to the audience in a human shape—becomes the perfect similitude of a “filly foal,” luring its mare (or perhaps its stallion—as assumed by at least one nineteenth-century theater director)43 forward to a consummation that is specifically Oberon's and that parallels the misrecognition of species. It is a jest that Puck repeats at large for the play's audience, when he both “follow[s]” and “lead[s]” (III.i.106) the mechanicals “through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier” (III.i.107): “Sometime a horse I'll be, sometime a hound, / A hog, a headless bear” (III.i.108-9). These, for him and his master, are apparently the shapes of pleasure.

“O happy horse,”—as another of Shakespeare's characters might put it—“to bear the weight of Oberon!” Puck's multiform services for Oberon depend repeatedly upon his ability to transgress limits—of gender, species, class, and even shape itself. To this extent Oberon's own capacity to maintain order—including husbandly authority in marriage and royal authority in the state—relies upon the violation of those very kinds of order he himself constructs. As Stallybrass and White observe, “the result is a mobile, conflictual fusion of power, fear and desire in the construction of subjectivity: a psychological dependence upon precisely those Others which are being rigorously opposed and excluded at the social level.”44 In a word, the result is Puck.

If, then, the containment-subversion model asks readers of A Midsummer Night's Dream to choose between Theseus and Bottom, traditional patriarchalism or carnivalesque misrule, I would decline both options in favor of Puck. Admittedly, a Puckish Shakespeare is an uncomfortable Shakespeare; it deprives readers of social and ideological certainty, just as Puck himself (itself?) deprives the young lovers and bumbling mechanicals of confident knowledge about what is going on around them. Such a Shakespeare—and such a Shakespearean character—gains force and complexity from the persistent refusal to identify with a single binary term (human, male, conservative, traditional, moral) at the expense of its opposite. For this playwright, the inside is always the outside, and vice versa; he toys with the slippages—between woman and beast, for instance, or man and monster—that ground the system of meaning of which he is a part. He does so not for specifically disruptive or subversive purposes, nor yet against them, but rather because it is only through such toying—and such slippages—that the system ever emerges (or recedes).

The resulting Shakespeare is neither unambiguously conservative nor unquestionably radical, but complexly and unremittingly compromised. His work, in this sense, becomes a textual analogue for the processes of bestial copulation that this essay has been about: a composite figure that blends from conservative into radical and back again, from human being into goat, in an incessant pattern of statement and self-interference. If A Midsummer Night's Dream supplies a particularly acute instance of this process, it is because this play dwells so centrally upon the imbricated issues of class and gender difference; its running metaphorical equations of low class, low gender, and low species eventually leave its characters with no real avenue for unimpaired commerce with others. In short, the play gives itself and its audience no place in which to be finally and unambiguously human; it attests to what Stephen Orgel has called “the radical instability of our essence.”45 Shakespeare's comedy thus denies us the certitude—about who we are, and about what it means to be us—that Renaissance disciplinary texts on perversion uniformly, naïvely, and necessarily presuppose.


The church-court case of William Franklin cited earlier in this essay certainly is not typical of Elizabethan and Jacobean prosecutions for bestiality (or “buggery,” as it is called in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century legal records). On the contrary, during the Tudor period the English legal system expended a great amount of theoretical effort to remove buggery from the church-court purview and into that of the secular magistrate. Thus, as part of its attack on the papacy, Henry VIII's Parliament of 1533 declared “the detestable and abhomynable vice of buggery committed with mankynde or beaste” to be a felony without benefit of clergy and carrying an automatic death penalty.46 As B. R. Burg has observed, this act was an integral part of Henry's expansion of royal authority,47 and as such it affords a prime instance of what I have called the rhetorical character of buggery laws. Created more to affirm the royal supremacy than to prosecute sodomites, the Henrician buggery statute's main job was, in effect, to make a political point; hence it was predictably rescinded under Mary and reenacted under Elizabeth. In the process, bestiality came to be formally regarded as “confusion of the natural order,”48 and thus Coke claims in the third part of his Institutes that “Buggery is a detestable and abominable sin, amongst Christians not to be named, … against the ordinance of the Creator and order of nature.”49

Yet this fearsome rhetoric is not accompanied by any demonstrable obsession with buggery in Renaissance legal practice itself; buggery cases under Elizabeth I and James I are numerically insignificant. Bruce Smith rightly observes that prosecutions for homosexuality were far less frequent than for bestiality, and he notes that the assize records for Kent during the reign of Elizabeth list only two indictments for homosexual behavior out of approximately three thousand—“about.07 percent.”50 Against this minute quantity, the ten cases of bestiality listed in the same volume may seem a lot, but they still comprise only 0.3 percent of the overall records. Clearly courts were not much exercised by either offense.

For the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, I have been able to

Table 4.1. Indictments for
bestial buggery in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I
Elizabeth I James I Combined
Cases 31 9 40
Convictions 18 2 20
Acquittals 9 7 16a
Sources: Calendar of Assize Records
(London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1980), Elizabeth I, vols. 1-5,
James I, vols. 1-5; Middlesex County Records,
ed. John Cordy Jeaffreson (Clerkenwell: Middlesex County Records Society,
n.d.), vol. 1; County of Middlesex: Calendar to the
Sessions Records, ed. William Hardy (London: C. W. Radcliffe, 1937),
n.s. vol. 3.
(a)In four cases—all Elizabethan—the
accused is listed as still at large or as having died before sentencing.

identify forty cases of bestiality handled by the secular authorities (no indictments appear in church court records for the same period). The aggregate character of these cases is illustrated in Table 4.1, and although Alan Bray correctly observes that “any statistical analysis [of this material] is out of the question,”51 the following points are still perhaps worth noting. First, given that Elizabeth's reign was roughly twice as long as James's, the available records include about 33 percent more indictments for bestiality in the Elizabethan years than in the Jacobean. And second, the proportion of convictions to acquittals is spectacularly higher in Elizabeth's reign than in James's, comprising a ratio of 2 to 1 as opposed to a ratio of 1 to 3.5. Further, Table 4.2 demonstrates that horses (and, to a lesser degree, cattle) were easily the favorite objects of abuse in these cases. (Buggery indictments scrupulously document the species, color, and owner of the maltreated beast.)

Finally, it is perhaps worth returning from these figures, and the generally blasé attitude they inscribe, to the lurid rhetoric that Renaissance authors invariably attached to bestiality—and that regularly associates such misconduct with women. The late Stuart pamphlet Ravillac Redivivus (1671), for instance, describes as follows the behavior of Thomas Weir, Mayor of Edinburgh during the Interregnum: having seduced his sister when he was ten and lived with her incestuously thereafter, the violently anti-royalist Weir had also “had sexual intercourse with cows and mares, and especially with one of his mares, upon which he once rode to New Mills.”52 Again, Alan Bray

Table 4.2. Animals abused
in English Renaissance bestiality indictments
Number Percentage
Sows 3 7.5
Sheep 1 2.5
Dogs 1 2.5
Cattle 13 32.5
Mares 20 50
Unspecified 2 5
Sources: same as Table 4.1.

has noted the passage in Mariston's Scourge of Villainy in which a young voluptuary, deprived of his mistress, replaces her with a “perfumed she-goat.”53 And finally, Coke explains in his Institutes that the original Henrician act declaring buggery to be a felony was occasioned because “a great Lady had committed Buggery with a Baboon, and conceived by it, etc.”54 Clearly the main work performed by Renaissance English attacks on buggery was discursive, rather than material, in nature.


  1. Jan Kott's early discussion of the play in Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (New York: Doubleday, 1964), emphasizes the element of bestiality more than most; yet even for Kott, Titania's bestiality is simply one element of the play's larger focus upon a Brueghelesque “sexual demonology” (p. 220). And while his more recent work in The Bottom Translation: Marlowe and Shakespeare and the Carnival Tradition, trans. Daniela Miedzyrzecka and Lillian Vallee (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1987) includes a thorough and suggestive discussion of the relations between bestiality in Apuleius' Golden Ass and A Midsummer Night's Dream (pp. 35-40), it does not attempt to extend that discussion to other elements of the play's structure. Deborah Wyrick's remarks about the bestiality parallelism in Shakespeare and Apuleius are perhaps typical of the overall trend in scholarship (“The Ass Motif in The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream,Shakespeare Quarterly 33 [1982]: 432-48): “Subliminal erotic perversity notwithstanding, the audience's predominant response to the dalliance between the ass and the Fairy Queen is one of amusement” (p. 444). And Joseph R. Summers dismisses the issue with an air of finality (Dreams of Love and Power: On Shakespeare's Plays [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984]): “As almost every audience recognizes, the scenes between Bottom and Titania do not descend to nightmarish bestiality” (p. 11).

  2. A Midsummer Night's Dream, IV.i.1-4, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). Further citations of Shakespeare's works are from this edition and appear parenthetically in the text.

  3. Paul A. Olson, “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage,” English Literary History 24 (1957): 95-119.

  4. Annabel Patterson, “Bottom's Up: Festive Theory in A Midsummer Night's Dream,Renaissance Papers (1988): 34. Patterson's revision of this essay in Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989) drops the specific phrase quoted here while retaining the general sense of the passage.

  5. Jonathan Dollimore, “The Cultural Politics of Perversion: Augustine, Shakespeare, Freud, Foucault,” Textual Practice 4 (1990): 179.

  6. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality—Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), p. 32.

  7. Terry Eagleton, William Shakespeare (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 20.

  8. Anne Clark, Beasts and Bawdy (London: J. M. Dent, 1975), p. 81.

  9. Quoted in ibid., p. 81.

  10. Mankind, pp. 234-35, in Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas, ed. Joseph Quincy Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924).

  11. Ibid., p. 242.

  12. Harold F. Brooks, ed., A Midsummer Night's Dream (New York: Methuen, 1979), p. cxii.

  13. Norman N. Holland (“Hermia's Dream,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980], pp. 1-20) has commented upon the obviously phallic and sexual quality of this dream, describing the serpent-image in Erik Erikson's terms as “intrusive or penetrating” (p. 7) and hence as a figure of “violation” (p. 11). Marjorie B. Garber (Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974]) has similarly associated the serpent with “violation and betrayal” as well as “male sexuality” and has argued that Hermia “separates Lysander, the beloved, from the serpent with whom she instinctively identifies him”—thus seeking to compensate for her own sexual anxieties (pp. 72-73).

  14. Harold Brooks has thoroughly catalogued the various sources and analogues of A Midsummer Night's Dream (pp. lviii-lxxxviii), and has in the process pointed out that in North's Plutarch—apparently the principal source for the story of Theseus and Hippolyta—the Amazon queen is named Antiope. The name Hippolyta derives instead from Chaucer's Knight's Tale. Yet Brooks adds that Seneca's Hippolytus stands as a major “neglected source” for Shakespeare's comedy (p. lxii) and thus could easily have added a classical coloring to Shakespeare's choice of names.

  15. Louis Adrian Montrose, “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Shaping Fantasies of Elizabethan Culture: Gender, Power, Form,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret Ferguson et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 70-71.

  16. Brooks, Dream, p. civ.

  17. Dollimore, “Perversion,” p. 189.

  18. Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 32.

  19. Ibid., p. 59.

  20. Cited in Before the Bawdy Court: Selections from Church Court and Other Records Relating to the Correction of Moral Offenses in England, Scotland, and New England, 1300-1800, ed. Paul Hair (London: Elek, 1972), p. 147.

  21. Ibid., p. 152.

  22. Ibid.

  23. The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version (New York: New American Library, 1974), Leviticus 20.15-16.

  24. Thomas Beard, The Theatre of Gods Judgements: Or, A Collection of Histories Out of Sacred, Ecclesiasticall and Prophane Authors (London, 1597), sig. Aalv.

  25. Burke's discussion of pure persuasion (A Rhetoric of Motives [New York: Prentice-Hall, 1952]) is of considerable theoretical interest for a reading of such Puritan texts as Beard's Theatre and Philip Stubbes's Anatomy of Abuses. As Burke explains the term, “pure persuasion involves the saying of something, not for an extra-verbal advantage to be got by the saying, but because of a satisfaction intrinsic to the saying” (p. 269)—and yet it is a satisfaction, like that of Beard's tales, “always … embodied in the ‘impurities’ of advantage-seeking” (p. 285). This form of persuasion, Burke continues, betrays itself as a principle of “self-interference” (p. 272) or internal contradiction instituted so as to prolong the process of persuasion itself (p. 271). In effect, Burke posits a model of language that contradicts its own acknowledged material aims, and that does so—like Beard's Theatre—as a prior condition of its own existence.

  26. David O. Frantz, Festum Voluptatis: A Study of Renaissance Erotica (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989), p. 45.

  27. John Aubrey, Aubrey's Brief Lives, ed. Oliver Lawson Dick (London: Secker and Warburg, 1949), p. 138.

  28. Aubrey, Brief Lives.

  29. John Donne, The Satires, Epigrams and Verse Letters, ed. W. Milgate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), Satyre IV, 18-22. Further citations are to this edition and appear parenthetically in the text.

  30. John Milton, Paradise Lost VIII.363-64, in John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey Press, 1957). Further citations are to this edition and appear parenthetically in the text.

  31. James Grantham Turner, One Flesh: Paradisal Marriage and Sexual Relations in the Age of Milton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 145.

  32. Turner, One Flesh, p. 286.

  33. Such bestial pleasures, of course, later form the basis for Adam and Eve's first experience of fallenness; after their discovery of “Carnal desire” (IX.1013), the first couple falls curiously silent—“as struck'n mute” (IX.1064). This muteness—testimony to their bestial degradation—stands in specific contrast to the deceptive loquacity of the serpent, which upsets Eve's ability to distinguish between human and animal forms: “What may this mean? Language of Man pronounc't / By Tongue of Brute, and human sense exprest?” (IX.553-54). Man and animal have thus traded places, as it were, on the chain of being; Adam yields his ascendancy over nature (and Eve) by exchanging Raphaelic “Wisdom” (whose principal index is speech) for “foul concupiscence” (IX.1078). Then, as the consequences of his behavior emerge, Adam responds to them in familiar fashion, seeking in turn to hand his bestiality on to Eve through the operations of metaphor: “Out of my sight, thou Serpent, that name best / Befits thee with him leagu'd, thyself as false / And hateful” (X.867-69).

  34. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 68.

  35. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 5.

  36. Montrose, “Shaping Fantasies,” p. 70. Thus Robert Weimann (Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978]) also notes the degree to which A Midsummer Night's Dream's aristocratic element is predicated upon “that which was naïve and down-to-earth in the folk mythology” (p. 196). The result, he argues, is a play that transforms both high and low rhetoric and traditions into “something totally new” (p. 196)—and, we might add, totally interconnected.

  37. Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York: Methuen, 1986), p. 74.

  38. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), p. 148.

  39. Catherine Belsey, “Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 167.

  40. Theodore B. Leinwand, “Negotiation and New Historicism,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 105 (1990): 479.

  41. Leinwand, “Negotiation and New Historicism,” p. 487.

  42. Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men's Press, 1982), pp. 67-70.

  43. Thus Charles Shattuck (Shakespeare on the American Stage: From Booth to Sothern and Marlowe, 3 vols. [Washington, D.C.: Folger Books, 1987], 2:71) notes that Augustin Daly's 1888-96 productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream “did not include a fat and bean-fed horse beguiling a filly foal [sic] with sexy neighing”; this passage and others were expurgated in the interest of decency.

  44. Stallybrass and White, Transgression, p. 5.

  45. Stephen Orgel, “Nobody's Perfect: Or Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 16.

  46. Statutes at Large From the First Year of King Edward the Fourth To the End of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth (London: King's Printer, 1786-1866), 25 Henry VIII, c.6. Also see 28 Henry VIII, c.6; 31 Henry VIII, c.7; 32 Henry VIII, c.3; 2 and 3 Edward VI, c.29; 1 Mary, c.1; and 5 Elizabeth, c.17.

  47. B. R. Burg, “Ho Hum, Another Work of the Devil: Buggery and Sodomy in Early Stuart England,” Journal of Homosexuality 6 (1980-81): 70.

  48. Caroline Bingham, “Seventeenth-Century Attitudes toward Deviant Sex,” Journal of Interdisciplinary Study 1 (1970-71): 447.

  49. Edward Coke, The Third Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England: Concerning High Treason, and Other Pleas of the Crown and Criminal Causes (London, 1660), sig. I3v.

  50. Bruce Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 48.

  51. Bray, Homosexuality, p. 40.

  52. Quoted in Ivan Bloch, A History of English Sexual Morals, trans. William H. Forstern (London: Francis Aldor, 1936), p. 461.

  53. Quoted in Bray, Homosexuality, p. 16.

  54. Coke, Institutes, sig. I4r.

I am grateful to David Lee Miller, Harold Weber, Arthur Kinney, Margreta de Grazia, Sharon O'Dair, Stephen Orgel, Jeanne Addison Roberts, and Bruce Smith for helping me with early versions of this essay. Likewise, I am indebted to my coparticipants in the 1990 SAMLA session, at which I originally presented a shorter version of the work, and to my colleagues in the 1990 Folger Library/NEH Institute “Shakespeare and the History of Taste,” at which I completed much of the necessary research.

Vicki Shahly Hartman (essay date 1983)

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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 promising to marry powerful Lord Burghley's granddaughter and, four years later, obdurately refused the match. Young Southampton's peculiar reluctance to wed a comely, well-titled woman culminated in a well-documented scandal. Shakespeare, then the Southamptons' family poet, gamely transformed Heneage into politic, dignified Theseus, wizarded the headstrong countess into Hippolyta and set both above the antics of the lovers, the dissipations and quarrels of the fairies. But the graceful newlyweds only frame the play; within, tumble riotous scenes of deluded, mismatched lovers, of man turned ass. A Midsummer Night's Dream congratulates the royal couple on their mature equanimity but more directly addresses the evolution of such psychosexual stability, the resolution of oedipal conflict, and the consequent ability for proper gender identity and adult heterosexual intimacy. The lovers dream of maturity, and finally the audience is asked to share their “vision wondrous fair.”

The younger characters in the play are at first considered primarily in relation to their contrasexual parent: Hermia and Helena are “Egeus' and Nedar's daughters,” and the youthful mechanicals, especially Bottom, are frequently addressed as “Mothers' sons.” This anticipates three obvious oedipal situations. The play opens with Egeus's unreasonable demand that his daughter, Hermia, either marry a man she, with good reason, has sworn never to wed or by Athenian law to enter a convent and live her life “a barren sister” (I.i.72) or to die. Egeus further charges that Lysander has “stol'n” Hermia's heart from him by moonlight (I.i.30-32, IV.i.160) and has “defeated him” (IV.i.160). References to stolen love are uttered frequently throughout the play, but only by jealous lovers. Indeed, Hermia herself accuses Helena of being the “thief of love” who had “come by night and stol'n [her] love's heart” (III.ii.282-83). Lysander argues the irrationality of Egeus in not allowing Hermia to marry a faithful lover while insisting she marry “spotted and inconstant” Demetrius (I.i.110). Theseus confesses that he, too, had wondered at this and promises Egeus an enigmatic “private schooling” (I.i.116). The name “Egeus” recalls the legendary excessive love Theseus' father, Egeus, had for his son.

The fairy tale part of the play also opens with an obviously oedipal scene. “Jealous” Oberon has been displaced from his rightful position in his wife's “bed and company” by a young Indian changeling whom Titania crowns with flowers and makes all her joy (II.i.27-28). The only other reference to “jealous” Oberon unrelated to the changeling incident appears when Oberon accuses Titania of a love affair with Theseus. The lovers also speak often of their “jealous rivalries.”

The fairy tale closes with the curiously analogous oedipal scene in which Titania falls passionately in love with another “changeling,” the asinine Bottom. Bottom, too, is crowned with flowers; the fairy queen embraces him as female ivy “Enrings the barky fingers of the elm” (IV.i.46-48). But Titania “loves” and “dotes” on Bottom to no avail; the rude mechanical merely wishes food and sleep.

Oedipal content in A Midsummer Night's Dream is striking in that parents (Egeus and Titania) are guilty of incestuous desire while children, either actively or passively, resist seduction. Bottom who comes nearest in responding to a parental figure—and hence is asinine—exhibits evidence of castration anxiety. The three fairy servants to whom Bottom absurdly attaches himself in Titania's bower are named Cobweb, Peaseblossom, and Mustardseed. Cobweb was used in Elizabethan England to staunch blood. Bottom alludes to possible harm, saying, “If I cut my finger, I shall make bold with you, good Master Cobweb” (III.i.180-83). The artisan then commends himself to Peaseblossom's father, “Peascod” (which is in part derived from Middle English slang for scrotum), and commiserates with Mr. Mustardseed because “many a gentleman of your house … hath [been] devoured … I promise your kindred hath made my eyes water. … I know your patience well …” (III.i.192-95). The fear of dismemberment, obeisance to a phallic father figure, and the excessively strong sympathy given impatient “devoured gentlemen” all hint at castration anxiety. Bottom avoids overt anxiety, however, by not responding sexually to the mother figure's seductive overtures. Bottom evades oedipal temptation simply by being Bottom, an egocentric character unable to discern linguistic and sexual distinctions, and possessing only the infantile concerns of eating and sleeping. He childishly confuses body parts and their proper roles, saying: “The eye of man hath heard” and “I see a voice,” and in general refuses things their appropriate function.1 Bottom, the ass, is obviously anal. And since man's bottom is indistinguishable from woman's, Bottom is also androgenous. That Bottom further symbolizes a regression to anal psychosexuality is implicit in the power relationship between him and his “director,” Peter Quince. In Early Modern English, peter was, as it is today, slang for penis and quince, by virtue of its tarty fruit referent and pronunciation, was perhaps a variant of cunt. “Penis-cunt” is tyrant only in Athens; in the wood, Bottom becomes “bully Bottom” and directs penis-cunt (III.i.8). Temporary regression to anality is adaptive when confronted by overwhelming oedipal temptation. Prior to his exodus from the wood, Bottom had a strong urge to assume all roles: male lover, lady, tyrant, director. After successfully evading seduction by Titania, Bottom allows penis-cunt its reign and admirably portrays male lover.

The desirability of acquiring proper gender identity and contrasexual love partner is emphasized throughout the play. Demetrius and Lysander's initial reluctance to engage in heterosexual intimacy suggests insufficient identity with their adult male roles. Helena cites the youths' inconstancy as typical of “waggish boys” (I.i.240), and evidence that Love or Cupid is indeed a child (I.i.238). She sarcastically labels Demetrius and Lysander's infidelity “a manly enterprise” (III.ii.157). The youths themselves taunt each other with cries of “come thou child” (III.ii.409), and “I'll whip thee with a rod” (III.ii.410). Puck notes their “trying manhood” (III.ii.413). The attainment of proper gender identity is temporarily retarded by oedipal gratification. Rather than becoming knight and portraying male lover, Changeling and Bottom are effeminately wreathed with Titania's flowers. The changeling's chivalrous training and Bottom's laudable depiction of Pyramus outside Titania's bower are both presented as joyous occasions.2

The women in the play are likewise encouraged to participate in feminine pursuits and enjoy permanent heterosexual relationships. Hermia, Helena, and Hippolyta must dare to participate fully in life and risk the potential calamities of romantic involvement and possible death from child-bearing, or subsist in the phlegmatic sanctuary which chastity provides. The former situation assures the inestimable pleasure of self-perpetuation through one's offspring, a perpetuation which repression and continence cannot engender. Hermia must suffer a metaphorical death should she choose Diana's austere single life:

Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon … 
But earthlier happy is the rose distilled,
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness.


The pure flower withers on its own thorny virginity; the more worldly rose is used up, but its essence remains.

Helena's comic reversal of the Apollo and Daphne myth is also significant. As Demetrius flees from her sexual advances, Helena proclaims: “Run when you will, the story shall be changed: Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase” (II.i.330-31). The mythological Daphne also fled a too ardent admirer. She refused to yield her virginity to Apollo and, calling on Diana's aid, changed her form to a Laurel tree. The sun god, in recompense, bestowed eternal youth on the Laurel and assigned to it the connotation of “victor.” But Daphne's “victory,” her unremitting chastity, is not human. Indeed, hers will be a subhuman, vegetative existence. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Demetrius runs, not to preserve his virginity; he merely aspires after Hermia's. Nor does he elude his pursuer with rigid stasis; rather, he warns Helena: “If thou follow me … / I shall do thee mischief in the wood” (II.i.236-37). Dauntless Helena accepts the offer most readily: “Ay, in the temple, in the town, in the field, / You do me mischief” (II.i.238-39). Marriage and the fairy blessing follow.

Theseus complains of 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” (I.i.3-7). Hippolyta, pondering the implication of marriage to this captor who “wooed [her] with his sword” (I.i.16), responds:

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.


Here, the Amazon alludes to “Apollusa,” the destructress, to the orgiastic Aphrodite Urania whose sacred king was sacrificed on Midsummer Night to ensure the fecundity of the Athenian populace and harvest. Hippolyta, whom Theseus violated, alludes wistfully to a goddess whose consort is ritually murdered and whose virginity is magically restored. The heavenly bow which the bride envisions is newly bent in the midsummer sky, but King Theseus is not killed; rather, the marriage is solemnized. Hippolyta has accepted the challenge of womanhood. Though she might not live “happily ever after” (even folks in fairy tales have their rows: witness Titania and Oberon), she will indeed live fully and participate in sexual experience. Recovery of her virginity is an impossible fiction, a myth, but its loss enables impregnation and the birth of an innocent. Shakespeare does not suggest repression of sexual impulse as a solution to the oedipal problem but encourages resolution via displacement of the sexual impulse onto an appropriate love object.

Despite the apparent desirability of attaining adult heterosexual intimacy, most characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream initially pursue only impossible love relationships. The general theme of rivalry in courtship here acquires oedipal import. Of the major characters, only mature Theseus and Hippolyta do not insist on inappropriate, tabooed love objects, and even they were once military rivals. Titania and Oberon desire Theseus and Hippolyta respectively, both of whom are patently unavailable. The artisan's playlet Pyramus and Thisbe is a version of Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy which epitomizes tabooed love. Most significant is the woodland lovers' fascination with inappropriate love objects. The Athenian lovers are propelled toward and repelled from each other with curious disregard for past alliance or personality and are indistinguishable from their same-sexed counterparts except for labeling. Helena is “translated” into Hermia (I.i.183-191) and Hermia cries to her erstwhile lover “Am I not Hermia? Are you not Lysander?” (III.ii.274). In his “Myth and Ritual in Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream,” René Girard3 explains this phenomenon in terms of mimetic rivalry. The lovers, motivated by a spontaneous mimetic impulse, arbitrarily confer upon an object the status of coveted object and become rivals for that object's possession. The rivals become doubles and lose their individual identities.

Although the characters here are seemingly interchangeable, a peculiar pattern emerges upon consideration of their comic and labile romancing. When both Demetrius and Lysander court Hermia, she chooses the forbidden one. Demetrius desires Helena only until she accepts him and desires Hermia only when she rejects him. Lysander prefers distant Helena to convenient Hermia. And Helena, when approached by two desiring lovers, denies them both. And note:

Hermia: The more I hate, the more he follows me.
Helena: The more I love, the more he hateth me.


This is not—as René Girard suggests—mere rhetoric. The woodland lovers love precisely whomever they cannot have. Their choice, though limited to identical personalities, is nonetheless emphatic. Their affection, though vehement, is truly revoked when returned. The only constant element in the configuration is not simply, as Girard states, “the convergence of more than one desire on a single object,” but the systematic self-defeating oedipal-type fascination with unobtainable partnership. It is this which invokes the mimetic crisis.

Disguised by the mythic excuse of the “love juice,” the forage into the wood (madness) allows the lovers active pursuit of their tabooed love objects in a way never permissible in Athens. This imaginative exercise teaches the futility of seeking such inappropriate mates. As young adults, the lovers must finally and forever abandon hopes of securing the unobtainable father or mother figure of their oedipal fantasies and accept as consolation the available, appropriate love. Demetrius points to this in respect to Hermia, his mother figure of the wood:

                                                                                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 the pleasure of mine eye,
Is only Helena. To her, my lord,
Was I betrothed ere I saw Hermia:
But, like a sickness, did I loathe this food;
But, as in health, come to my natural taste,
Now I do wish it, love it, long for it,
And will for evermore be true to it.


Since dote is another word used only in reference to sexual love—Helena “dotes” on Demetrius; Hermia, on Lysander; and Titania, on Bottom—it is probable that Demetrius is here referring to his earliest heterosexual love, his mother. In particular, note the adjective idle which is applied to the woman whom Demetrius adored in his figurative childhood. Bottom's mother figure, Titania, is also unresponsive: the honey and music he requests never appear. When he asks for a “bottle of hay,” he receives unwanted nuts. When Bottom protests that he would rather have peas and is unanswered, he simply falls asleep. Titania does, however, gratify her suitable mate: soon after Bottom's request for music goes unsatisfied, Oberon says: “Titania, music call,” and the fairy queen promptly replies: “Music, ho, music!” (IV.i.84-86). It is significant that Demetrius likens his “childish” attachment to Hermia to a sickness and welcomes his mature commitment to Helena as a healthy adjustment. Puck wisely sings:

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.


“Mare” is perhaps a pun on “mere.” At dream's end, every man will find in his mate consolation for the lost mother and, moreover, be delighted by a responsive love. Shakespeare depicts no anguish in this turning away from the lost object towards its substitute. Rather, a boyish “sickness” is replaced by manly “wellness.” Relinquishing the contrasexual parent figure signals an immediate end to the mimetic crisis and a harmony between same-sexed characters who were previously rivals. The lovers finally abandon their fantasy of being who they are not and wanting what they cannot get. Theseus wonders at the resolution of such a profound conflict between Demetrius and his competitor:

I know you two are rival enemies.
How comes this gentle concord in the world,
That hatred is so far from jealousy,
To sleep by hate, and fear no enmity?


Demetrius can only answer:

                                                                      I wot not by what power—
But by some power it is. … 


Through allusion to relevant myth, and directly by plot, Shakespeare acknowledges the oedipal problem. The conflict is represented in a “dream,” and hence exhibits defensive structures appropriate to dream formation: the oedipal fantasy is expurgated of its most punishable sexual content, and culpability for the most conspicuous instances of incestuous desire is projected away from the child on to the parental figure. The most interesting example of this is the splitting of “changeling” Bottom and the Indian changeling. Both changelings are wreathed with flowers and kept from attaining proper gender identity in Titania's bower. The Indian changeling is given over to Oberon's care precisely when Bottom leaves the wood. Although Bottom seemingly displaces the absent changeling in Titania's cradle, Titania and Oberon dispute the changeling's possession rather than Bottom's. In Ovid's Metamorphoses—a work well known to Shakespeare—“Titania” is an epithet for Diana, daughter of the Titans. Hence, Titania and the doubly asinine Bottom are a disguised version of the Wild Ass Set (Dionysos plus the moon goddess, Diana). This is reinforced with Bottom's craving for honey, the staple of Dionysos, whose appellation “wine-god” is a superimposition on the older “meade-god.” Another epithet of Dionysos' is “the Indian,” and this associates him with the Indian changeling. This doubling of themes functions to disguise further the oedipal quality of the changelings' relationship with Titania. In one situation, the mother and father figure dispute the possession of a relatively innocent and absent child; in the other, mother and child are closeted together sexually and the father figure is mysteriously absent. Here, the oedipal act and consequence are split: the “child” is present and cast in a sexual role during the oedipal scene, but absent and asexual at a time when the jealous father is present and retribution might occur. It is also significant that the moon goddess annually destroyed her sacred king, Dionysos, with bees. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the goddess' “humblebees” fetch Dionysos honey. The well-known myth of the Wild Ass Set has here been deliberately inverted: the vengeful “virgin” Diana has been transmuted into the sycophantic, seductive Titania; Dionysos, the patron god of orgasmic release and orgiastic pleasure, has become inhibited and constrained. Shakespeare has turned the realm of fairyland topsy-turvey and rephrased it in terms more comforting to all involved in the oedipal triangle.

The movement into the wood provides a somnabulistic, transient regressed state wherein characters are allowed pursuit of tabooed love objects in as guilt-free an environment as possible: the love objects are neither explicitly parental nor filial, and the mythic context of the wood is inverted and splintered to reduce anxiety. But it is only oedipal intent to which the play concedes, not oedipal behavior. Comic scenes wherein lovers scramble for precisely the mate forbidden, and a regal and ethereal queen conceives a perverse passion for an ass, speak eloquently of the failure inherent in oedipal love. A Midsummer Night's Dream does not simply contain allusions to gratified, albeit censored, incest. It provides an occasion (midsummer madness) for characters and audience to imaginatively attempt to gratify, to act out, their oedipal strivings. Significantly, such attempts invariably fail. Mythic references in the play expound the wisdom of not participating in incest and dissuade from choosing even asexual competitive arenas common to the same-sexed parent.4 Of the two “parents” who encouraged oedipal attachments in the play, Egeus is promised a “private schooling” by the prototypical father figure, Theseus, and Titania is taught a more informal “lesson” by her indignant husband. Significantly, too, the seductive attempts of these wayward parents are thwarted: Hermia marries Lysander, and Bottom discards his flow'ry cradle for the role of male lover. Model parental figures in the play discourage oedipal attachment and encourage non-oedipal romantic involvement; they are stern and cunning warriors who permit no competition, oedipal or otherwise, but who provide nuptials for the assorted lovers.

Shakespeare's “dream,” far from simply containing disguised oedipal elements in which the audience shares guilty pleasure, explores various permutations of the oedipal predicament: seductive mother with jealous father and absent child; seductive mother with child and absent father; seductive father with resistant daughter; seductive mother with resistant son; and more broadly, pursuant male with prohibitive female, and pursuant female with prohibitive male. Nearly every variety of the oedipus-complex is acknowledged, but in all cases its occurrence is conditioned with elusiveness, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. In all cases, too, the adaptive response to the situation is quite clearly exemplified. But while Shakespeare claims the futility of oedipal pursuit, he offers the consolation of a more appropriate, but still contrasexual, love. Strong emphasis is placed on the constancy of such new relationships (the bonding of marriage), and it is this which compensates for the impermanence and lack of gratification associated with the oedipal situation. It is significant that the play closes not with the surrealistic and experimental eroticism of the night, but with the mature and solemn commitment of marriage on a fine midsummer day. Freud's conception of art as a “path from phantasy back again to reality” is metaphorized by this movement from fairyland back to Athens and the Apollonian ideal. Shakespeare surely depicts puerile impulse and illicit desire; but he closes with maturation and socially sanctioned partnership. As Slochower points out, “Repression does not explain art … The artist embodies and expresses not only the genetic-pathological ‘background’; he also employs the ‘forward-’ tendencies and intactness of the ego.”5

Both Freud and Sachs maintain that oedipal fantasy in literature must be presented with an insistence on unreality and playfulness: “To insist that something, otherwise forbidden, is done in play is an excuse nearly as valid as ‘it's only a dream.’”6A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play, a fantasy about a dream, and yet it closes with eerie realism:

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


Ostensibly, the audience is given license to deny any complicity between itself and the drama, to project culpability for the offending content onto the shadow actors, and to consider the play only as significant as a dream. But Elizabethans believed dreams to be prophetic, and shadows accurately reflect solid objects. Moreover, the dream in A Midsummer Night's Dream is not a dream at all. With Puck's assistance, the lovers simply convince themselves that their forbidden “play” was dreamed. When Puck likewise encourages the audience to believe that the play itself is dream-like, the critical reader must react with scepticism. Puck never denies the realism of the play; he egoistically provides a quasi-defense for those deeply troubled by its honest, but disturbing, content. The offer of denial is, like all of Shakespeare's comic epilogues, ironic. The play is among the most well-constructed of Shakespearean plots and its portrayal demands perhaps more kinetic energy than any other of his dramas. Shakespeare confronts not only the oedipal problem, but divines likely audience response to that problem as well, and thoughtfully provides some semblance of defense. However, the defense, like magic and dream in the play, is illusory. The conclusion of Freud and Sachs, that literature which contains oedipal fantasy requires impenetrable disguise, seems applicable only to literature containing oedipal wish-fulfillment without complementary oedipal resolution. As A Midsummer Night's Dream presents desire, disillusionment, and resolution, i.e., displays the growth from oedipal child to non-oedipal adult, it must provide a “playfully” disguised version of fantasy, a more realistic version of the adaptation to the fantastic wish, and finally maintain the integrity of both by some subtle statement of realism. The puckish epilogue introduces the theme of wish-fulfillment and fantasy (“Think but this, and all is mended …”), but closes with the ironic implication that such gratification is ineffective. Wishing for oedipal love is not equated with indulging in incest; hoping that the wish for such love is nonexistent in the play does not negate its presence. The epilogue is further undermined by reference to Puck's earlier statement regarding the lovers' moonlight escapade:

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


In both addresses, Puck refers to an awakening and to unproductive image. The hobgoblin admits to deceit in the former instance (“shall seem a dream …”) and so is suspect in the latter case. Certainly Hippolyta's great mind for sensible strategy is not taken in by the ruse:

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;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.


The lovers' midsummer night was indeed wakeful and fruitful (educational). One might assume that the audience's midsummer experience—the play itself—is similarly participatory and informative. Kenneth Burke's assertion that “Freud's co-ordinates, in stressing the poem as a dream, understress the poem as a communicative structure and as a realistic gauging of human situations” is well-supported by Shakespeare's ironic treatment of dream and wish-fulfillment, and also by his acceptance of things both “strange and admirable.”7

At the play's end, Puck coaxes:

Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.


This joining of hands is not merely conciliatory or “mending” as Sachs would predict. Puck promises to restore the childhood ability to amend: to alter, not simply to patch. It is the difference between playful imagination and self-indulgent fantasy, or what is therapeutic and what is cathartic. The promise refers the reader to another mention of “amend” in the play: Theseus' “The best in this kind [players] are but shadows; and / the worse are no worse, if imagination amend them” (V.i.212-13). The play invites projection, personalization. To this end, it depicts various aspects of the oedipal problem which appeal to both a male and female audience. The invitation to participate in the drama imaginatively is issued by Puck, an androgenous character with an androgenous name (Robin), and actors are but “shadows” requiring the addition of color and detail. Sachs maintains that

Shakespeare's characters do not speak only from the situation that is given to them by the poet, but from their own ego, and with such masterly truth that every one of them is a complete and never recurring personality; and yet the words that are spoken by his heroes and his knaves, his queens and wenches, are even today on every tongue.8

It is not their own never recurring ego from which the shadow actors derive their vividness. Like us, Shakespeare's characters seek to imitate, to become what they can never be, to get what they can never have. They find themselves lacking, and exchange their fantastic desires for a solid reality.

In sum, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is refreshingly optimistic concerning man's ability to answer the discord between societal restrictions and instinctual impulse with a “dream”; to discover in his own imaginatively reconstructed childhood “a gentle concord”; and—to hell with noble aims—to be happy.


  1. Bottom thanks the “sweet moon” for its “sunny beams,” roars “gently as a suckling dove,” and speaks in a “monstrous little voice,” of a “lamentable comedy.”

  2. Note also, that the father figures, Theseus and Oberon, each has a young male servant (Philostrate and Puck respectively) who models proper filial behavior and makes them smile.

  3. René Girard, Myth and Ritual. Ithaca, 1979.

  4. Theseus is infamous for reinforcing his sovereignty by executing nearly all of his opponents, including many of his sons. A peculiar instance of this concerns Theseus' son, Hippolytus. Aphrodite, angered by Hippolytus' generous offering to chaste Diana, caused the youth's stepmother, Phaedra, to conceive an incestuous desire for him. Though Hippolytus properly repelled his mother's seductive attempts, Phaedra untruthfully told Theseus that the youth had seduced her. The jealous king pursued his son from Athens, and during the chase, Hippolytus is accidently killed. Indignant Diana had Asclepius revive her devotee's corpse, and soon father and—now immortal—son were reconciled. (Hippolytus' mother is listed among the women whom Theseus forsook for Titania. Hippolyta, as Theseus' wife, has no mythological basis and perhaps functions only to remind the Elizabethan audience of the homonym “Hippolytus.”) Here again, the parent is cast in the oedipal role and the child actively resists temptation. Hippolitus' reconciliation with his father and elevation by the patron goddess of chastity to heroic, even immortal, stature emphasizes the desirability of repelling oedipal overtures.

  5. Harry Slochower, Mythopoesis: Mythic Patterns in the Literary Classics (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970), p. 29.

  6. Hanns Sachs, The Creative Unconscious (Cambridge: Sci-Art Publ., 1951), p. 214.

  7. Kenneth Burke, “Freud—and the Analysis of Poetry,” in Psychoanalysis and Literature, ed. H. M. Ruitenbeck (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1964), p. 114.

  8. Sachs, p. 244.

Jonathan Hall (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6977

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 not wrong. The play is deeply concerned with power and poetry, not the sovereign power of poetry but the implications of poetry in sexual politics. The enabling context is the dark underside of the Petrarchan idealism through which Elizabethan court politics was conducted, for the entrusting of the patriarchal inheritance of Henry VIII and of the further centralization of royal power to a female monarch upset the “natural” order of things to an extraordinary degree. And it put the crisis management of sexual politics at the center of national concerns to an extent that has probably not been equaled since. In view of the fact that the court of Elizabeth was the scene of a perpetual inversion of patriarchal “normality,” it is perhaps not so surprising that its best-known comedy should address the desires and fears that a carnivalesque inversion at the heart of a patriarchal order sets up.

At the opening of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a scene of primal violence has already been transformed, but only in words, that is to say, precariously:

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


The violence of the conquest of the Amazon Queen, expressed through the traditional phallic image, is renounced. In this address of the ruler to his conquered queen, patriarchal possession is associated with a renunciation of the possibility, nonetheless explicitly mentioned, of violent subjection of the female body. If one attends to this, the opening scene is not so much a mere display of power (though it is that) as its legitimation through the monarch's self-restraint. These observations help to focus our critical attention onto the disruption occasioned by Egeus's demand that the law, embodied in Theseus, should exercise its ancient right of direct violence against his daughter. The patriarchy is divided against itself because a father, whose claim to absolute authority has failed, appeals to the laws of the state against a rebellious daughter. Because of this, the opening image of a recently established harmonious order, based on the renunciation of possession through primal violence, is immediately disrupted. It is a public issue. The audience may be assumed to have an ideological investment in the patriarchal order, but as that order divides against itself onstage, and threatens to revert to its barely concealed inner violence, so is the audience brought into conflict with its own commitment to it.

Theseus mediates and imposes a delay, which is the duration of the play itself, and this delay permits the transformation to take place which rescues patriarchal law from primal tyranny. This division in the patriarchy is political, because Theseus is a king, attempting to mediate and rule by consent, whereas Egeus is a feudal patriarch asserting the right of absolute possession, where consent is not necessary. He is prepared for the legal murder of his daughter simply to assert that right. The crisis arises because actually, in the last resort, Theseus's law is grounded in the same patriarchal absolutes whose demands he defers. Thus he says to Hermia:

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.


It is a crisis of family and of kingdom. The breakdown of the patriarchal order is averted when the monarch assumes the principal social functions of that order, namely the ownership of the daughter and the right to give her in marriage. From the standpoint of the feudal patriarchy, this is usurpation. But for the audience, the insertion of the monarch in the place of the natural father enables the happy outcome. The gratifications of the plot consist in the rescue of the audience from a real social anxiety, represented in fictional form. The monarchy is legitimated, because it rescues the patriarchal order from its own primal violence. The agent of this rescue is the comic plot and its magic devices. Nobody is fully in control of this, but Oberon is certainly more instrumental than Theseus, the mortal monarch.

The plot is a form of rhetoric that negotiates a crisis and reconciles its contradictory terms, which are threateningly violent. In the opening scene, the violence culminates in a joke whereby the audience is brought to laugh at the whole patriarchal principle of ownership. In doing so, it briefly overthrows the hold of its own ideology:

Relent, sweet Hermia; and, Lysander, yield
          Thy crazed title to my certain right.
You have her father's love, Demetrius;
          Let me have Hermia's. Do you marry him.


This, as Sigmund Freud would say, is an excellent joke. And it is actually quite indecent if lingered over. In being induced (or seduced) to laugh at Lysander's proposal of a monstrous marriage (the first, but by no means the last of the play), the audience momentarily overthrows its own support for the “normal” order, because for an instant the normal order stands revealed as monstrous. With sure dramatic insight, Shakespeare has Egeus himself, not Demetrius, respond to the attack on patriarchal power:

Egeus. 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.


Egeus' serious rejection of the joke is a correct understanding of its subversive charge. This is not a case of the audience laughing at a stupid gull. On the contrary, the audience is confronted with the serious issues that its own pleasure in Lysander's joke has raised. In general, Lysander's conflict with Demetrius is less a challenge to patriarchy than part of its normal competitive violence. On the other hand, his confrontation with “the sharp Athenian law” is actually a clash with the central laws of the state. And his proposed solution is withdrawal, not into idyllic Nature but into a very specific social situation:

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


For an Elizabethan audience, Lysander is asserting his aristocratic blood line. His freedom from the central law is underwritten by the indisputable rights of male inheritance from the closest female relative with no issue. The “great revenue” guarantees the independence of this estate despite relative geographical proximity to the court. But in the event the spatial proximity proves a delusion; the distance cannot be covered. Lysander's proposed withdrawal mediates a historically regressive aspiration, for free male election within an aristocracy uncontrolled by the monarch. In social terms this was a state of affairs no longer available even to the most powerful aristocrats, but its loss was a relatively recent aspect of Elizabeth's exercise of central control.1 Lysander's proposal, in its own way, is a disruptive threat from the same political direction as Egeus's claim. Barber claims that if the couple had reached the aunt, the play would have been a romance and not a comedy.2 The generic distinction seems weak, but the intuition valuable. The confusion and resolution in the woods keeps everything within the domain of royal power, where Oberon's juice magically supplements Theseus.

So the first scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream starts by legitimating patriarchal rule through showing the king turning away from direct phallic violence. But this is then thrown into crisis by a feudal father's demand for a regression to direct violence against his daughter. At the same time the scene carries out a subtle legitimation of feminine resistance. Recognizing that Hermia's claim to the right to dispose of her body according to her own desires is indeed a challenge to all patriarchy, Theseus threatens her with a chastity that is for him the equivalent to sterility and death, but she replies:

Hermia. 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.


The old threat of virgin martyrdom is important here in constructing audience response. Chastity becomes a way of asserting independence. Hermia's “sovereignty,” not mere absence of bodily desire, is the key term in this definition of chastity. It appears as the property of the soul, and is not compromised by the presence of active bodily desire. The Petrarchan resonances within this language of the legitimation of sovereign female desire point towards Queen Elizabeth herself, though not with the obvious clarity of allegory. The claims of a chaste female sovereignty are threatened by feudal patriarchy (direct ownership). That threat touches the throne (Theseus) itself, as a test. Is the throne on the side of primal male dominance, or is a new formation possible? On the other hand, the terms of the problem are reversible, and this is developed in the Oberon-Titania relationship: Isn't the very principle of kingship ultimately patriarchal, so that independent and sovereign female desire carries the threat of disorder to the center of both kingdom and natural order? Of course, this problem could not be stated directly. The narrative of romantic fantasy, like the joke, utters the unsayable through its covert play of anxiety and pleasure. It is a critical commonplace to say that the poetry of natural disorder mirrors the disturbance of the harmony between Titania and Oberon, and this restatement of the “Elizabethan World Picture” is not wrong, except in its claim to totalize. But to say more clearly that the source of the disharmony might arise from a clash between the patriarchal principle and female sovereignty would have been close to treason. This is not simply a question of detecting a coded subversive message. There is an inner rift, whose anxieties are by no means unique to the Elizabethan epoch, but were made inescapable by the conditions of her rule.

The equation of the queen's virginity and English national integrity was extremely important in the politics of the queen herself and in the iconography of the epoch.3 The inviolability of the queen's body constituted a widespread cult, far beyond court circles where a certain cynicism accompanied it in some cases. No doubt the patriarchal cult of virginity always mediates anxieties, but in this case they were extreme. The possibility of a foreign marriage by the queen caused widespread disquiet and loyal criticism, sometimes severely punished as in the case of Stubbs (his right hand was cut off), because the foreign possession of the queen's body was perceived as a threat to the integrity of the realm itself. The strong investment in the queen's sovereign inviolability is clearly a form of anxiety that extended far beyond court circles.

At the same time this political anxiety was also fostered by its apparent opposite, namely the competitive desires which Elizabeth assiduously encouraged at court. The English aristocracy, and the aspirant gentry, went to court, quite literally to court the queen. All aspirants to power, position, and riches received these as favors from a queen who was notoriously stingy with favors. Strict control over these favors corresponded, within the courtly game, to the inaccessibility of the Virgin Queen. Nonetheless such favors could be won by assiduous courtship. They could also be withdrawn, transferred to a rival, or held in abeyance. Within the complex encouragement and manipulation of competitive desires by the political economy of the Elizabethan power structure, all of which depended upon Petrarchan symbolic language, Elizabeth herself is paradoxically both the debarring patriarch and the ultimately desired female object. At the same time as she is desired as the source of all riches and favors, there is considerable anxiety surrounding her possible accessibility, that is to say, a strong counterdesire that she remain inviolate like the Petrarchan lady. As is well known, this second image of the queen was elaborated in countless ways as the chaste and regal Diana or Cynthia. But in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the chaste moon goddess is an image of changeability with connotations of both chastity and magic transformation. This doubleness is present from the beginning. For Theseus the old female moon is the image of a restraining economy of infinite deferral:

Theseus. She lingers my desires
Like to a stepdame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man's revenue


Hippolyta foretells a natural transformation, (actually rather unnatural for the mean old Lady but poetically normal), into a “silver bow new bent in heaven,” the symbol and weapon of Cupid. Harold Brooks points out in the introduction to the Arden edition that the name Titania is taken directly from Ovid's Metamorphoses where it is used “once for Diana and twice for Circe: moon-goddess, and shape-shifter, each associated with a leading motif in the play” (lix). Chastity and bewitching shapechanging are contradictory images from the Petrarchan play of fear and desire. But although Titania's association with the moon and the queen hardly needs stressing, there is no direct and explicitly decipherable correlation between her and Elizabeth as there would be in allegorical writing. If the clarity of allegory were operative here, through an unambiguous name like Cynthia, for example, the monstrous love and coupling of the Virgin Queen with the lowest of her subjects would be intolerable. Nonetheless, this powerful fantasy, greatly desired and by the same token deeply feared and repressed by the audience, is exactly what is enacted in the coupling of the queen of the fairies with the lowest of mortals. Allegorical clarity would stand in the way of this displacement of impermissible fantasies into the permissive ambiguities of the dream. But Oberon's juice is a dramatic metaphor which masks socially powerful desires and their corresponding anxieties, and allows them to be encountered in the ambiguous half-light of misrecognition.

“Proud Titania” is brought low by a demonstration of her absolute erotic susceptibility. This humiliation is the whole object of Oberon's plot. Oberon demonstrates his control by appropriating the forms of popular carnival inversion, thinly veiled under a parodistic mythology. This permits the enactment of the audience's most unconfessable fantasies, but in a controlled manner so as to allay the fears which are the other side of the forbidden desire and which concern the monstrous accessibility of the Virgin Queen's body. The buried side of Petrarchan respect is veiled aggression, and this is permitted in the humiliation of the revered and untouchable queen. The “monster,” as Puck calls Bottom, is the vehicle of patriarchal fantasies. The libidinal dream of a forbidden possession is doubled by the equally forbidden fantasy of debasement as revenge for the queen's chaste and sovereign inaccessibility. Bottom's presumed possession and Oberon's humiliation of the chaste queen are the two interrelated sides of the same fantasy.

The erotic fantasy played out in the carnival coupling of the queen with Bottom is actually introduced into the play as the response to a matriarchal threat. The casus belli is the changeling boy from India, a prized possession to be won overseas by those rich laden ships with big-bellied sails which Titania's speech uses as a metaphor. In Titania's language, the mortal mother's gestural imitation of the merchant ships actually suggests that Titania is the ultimate recipient of the goods in the hold of “the embarked traders,”

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.


This fecund merchantman dies, but the queen keeps faith with her navy, for it is indeed the source of her power. But the topical allusion to English naval power is not the only issue. The absence of a father is also important. A changeling, by definition, has no father, and this enables the queen to take over the paternal functions even prior to birth and say, with suitable linguistic ambiguity, that her favorite's womb contained “my young squire.” It should be mentioned at this point that Elizabeth maintained aristocratic privilege and power, not just by assuming the role of national patriarch controlling the accessibility of aristocratic women, and not just by a more direct vigilance over her ladies-in-waiting (who could be metaphorized as loving “vot'resses” if she was Diana), but also over male and female aristocratic orphans. They became wards of Elizabeth herself, unless their family protected their estates from the Crown by quickly marrying them off.4 That is to say, by exercising the right claimed by Egeus. Control over orphans meant control over the land through the “blood,” and it was therefore the means whereby the queen totally usurped the functions of the dead father. The chaste queen could be a mother, in the same way that the king could be a father.

The queen is a matriarch, dispensing with the claims of the erotic upon herself, and this is a threat because matriarchal indifference to the erotic is, in the context of the broken relationship with Oberon, an “unnatural” declaration of independence. It is now possible to see the connections between the Athenian plot, where Hermia's erotic independence is magically reconciled with the patriarchal order, thanks to Oberon, and the more radical and disquieting threat represented by a queen usurping patriarchal functions at the very center of Oberon's kingdom. The kingdom remains, terminologically, Oberon's. In refusing his claim over the child, Titania says “The fairy-land buys not the child of me” (2.1.122), and “Not for thy fairy kingdom” (2.1.144). These small discursive details illustrate much that goes without saying. Titania talks from a position that naturalizes a return to patriarchal order, even while her claims disrupt it. When Puck first describes the contention between Oberon and Titania over the orphaned Indian, he tells the story from the male viewpoint:

Puck. The King doth keep his
revels here tonight.
Take heed the Queen come not within his sight.
For Oberon is passing fell and wroth
Because that she, as her attendant, hath
A lov'ly boy stol'n from
an Indian king.

(2.1.18ff., emphases added)

This is the first version that the audience hears. It has a certain primacy, even though it is subsequently contradicted by the more powerful poetry of the queen's matriarchal version. And this corresponds to a marked division in the very staging of the play. The queen controls the visible stage. Her speeches imperiously dominate in such a way that Oberon appears almost as a plaintiff, particularly when she closes the audience with him:

                                        —Fairies away
We shall chide downright if I longer stay.


She commands through her language and appears visually at the center of a court. But Oberon controls the plot, through the magic juice. Though he is not literally absent like the absent monarchs of the Jacobean stage (which includes Measure for Measure), he appears partly displaced by the imperious queen. Though marginal in visibility, he is the ultimate master. To a certain extent, then, the plot deals with the recovery of “proper” kingship by bringing Titania to accept the principles of patriarchy.

The plot structure of the lovers' imbroglio in this play is typical of Shakespearean romance, in that the heroines remain constant to their inconstant lovers. The inversions of sex roles arise as a consequence of male infidelity, and here the prime cause is not Puck's juice but Demetrius's unexplained switch of affection from Helena to Hermia. The magic juice enables this initial aberration to be extended, explored, comically exploited, and resolved. But the aberration is, as it were, normal. Female desire only becomes an active force because of male inconstancy, and it seeks only to restore a prior state of harmony (a common feature of all the romances with active heroines). Helena's reproach to Demetrius for his change, which precedes any mention of the magic juice, blames him for the consequent inversion of her own role in “the story”:

Helena. The wildest hath not
such a heart as you.
Run when you will. The story shall be changed:
Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase.
The dove pursues the griffin, the mild hind
Makes speed to catch the tiger: bootless speed
When cowardice pursues, and valour flies.


This retelling of Ovidian metamorphoses prepares for a less literary, more direct and urgent statement:

Helena. Your wrongs do set
a scandal on my sex.
We cannot fight for love as men may do;
We should be wooed, and were not meant to woo.
I'll follow thee, and make a heaven of hell,
To die upon a hand I love so well.


As she says, it is indeed Demetrius who has initiated the inversion whose potentially disastrous consequences are spelled out here. Disorder starts with the male. In the sixteenth century, two meanings for “scandal” coexisted: the more modern meaning of a damage to reputation, and the older one, sometimes with religious connotations, of a bad example which is then “an occasion for unbelief or moral lapse” (OED). Helena's words identify Demetrius's failure to keep his word as the root cause of a scandalous situation. The inversion of sexual roles, foisted on her by the broken male promise, makes her monstrous in her own eyes, as many self-denigrating speeches attest. But it is important not to essentialize her own self-laceration as an expression of character when it is also, and perhaps principally, the product of a situation into which she finds herself “unnaturally” thrust. In this respect, Leonard Tennenhouse's statement that independent female desire could be active on the English stage in the 1590s without incurring opprobrium requires qualification.5 If it avoids opprobrium here, that is for two conjoined reasons. The first is that Helena herself is scandalized, in the modern sense, by what is happening. The second is that the audience does not perceive her duplicity in terms of an evil and fallen nature (i.e., in terms of a character acting in accordance with her own immoral perceptions), but, precisely as Helena puts it, in terms of a reversed situation and a failure in the male to uphold the proper order of things. Nonetheless Helena's self-laceration as monstrous, even as she identifies an external cause, hovers close to tragic possibilities of the internalization of personal guilt for being made monstrous.

The scandalous inversion referred to by Helena produces for the audience the most gratifying comic effects, alluded to in Helena's line: “we cannot fight for love as men may do.” The most comic scene between the Athenian lovers is precisely when the women do fight. This is a topos to be found often in the Commedia dell'Arte, and it is not always crude. (For example, it has a most sophisticated development in the battle between Arsinoë and Célimène in Molière's Le Misanthrope.) Probably the pleasure is always related to an anxiety around the possibility of female usurpation of male roles. The aggressive debasement compensates for the Petrarchan dominance (or whatever the current idealizations are). A Midsummer Night's Dream locates the comic combat of the women at a high point of the imbroglio, where a real danger of male rivalry turning into combat and death is invoked in order to be magically eluded through the activities of Puck. For even in their anger, the men observe a dueling decorum and a certain dignity in the expression of anger. When the women step into the arena, they become the lower parodic doubles of the male duelists.

That is one aspect of the scene. The other is much more troubling and ambiguous, because it addresses the same anxiety as the Titania-Oberon plot. I have pointed out already how the erotic humiliation of Titania via the gratifying leveling of the carnival inversion actually breaks up a matriarchal claim on Titania's part. What needs to be added at this point is that Titania's poetic language is beautiful and seductive, not only when addressed to Bottom (to which I will return) but also when reminiscing about her relationship with her “vot'ress.” Part of the gratification of this comedy is the obverse of its poetic seduction, namely the way that it desecrates and overthrows the power of its own beautiful poetry. The audience enjoys the beauty of the poetic language, but it is also gratified by a comic deliverance from the power that verbal beauty exercises. The case of the women in combat is a prime instance of the overthrow of this power. It is also, very significantly, the overthrow of a sisterhood whose innocent “ancient love” is betrayed by heterosexual normality:

Helena. 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 to one and crowned with one crest.
And will you rend our ancient love asunder,
To join with men in scorning your poor friend?


The praise of their “ancient love” gains force from the way the language recreates “an union in partition” and mobilizes all its energies to arrive at a lost primal memory of a time when the separation of bodies was of little consequence. Helena's language repeats the feminine embroidery and childhood singing that it recalls, artistically recreating the “one flower” in her speech. As in so much Renaissance poetic rhetoric, the domains of art and nature merge, and the “one flower” produced by “artificial gods” becomes the sign of both a natural union of the double cherry and the social double-headed heraldic emblem. But there is a threat to patriarchy in this beautiful regressive fantasy to a state where union was possible without men. This is Amazon or Lesbian poetry,6 and that is why its appeal must be undercut by its context. The comic combat destroys the “incorporate” sublimation of the “two seeming bodies,” producing two real opposed ones:

Helena. Lo, she is one of
this confederacy.
Now I perceive they have conjoined all three
To fashion this false sport in spite of me.


In turn, this breaking of the “union in partition” leads to another version of the past:

Helena. O, when she is angry
she is keen and shrewd.
She was a vixen when she went to school,
And though she be but little, she is fierce.


The moment of comic desublimation occurs when Helena's moral reproach, “Fie, fie, you counterfeit, you puppet, you” (3.2.289), is taken in a purely physical sense by Hermia, as referring to her height. This reduction from moral to physical is accompanied by aggressive language turning to physical assault. Helena's initial moral reproach, which conceals an aggressive charge, is converted into bodily counterattack by Hermia, and this leaves Helena no choice but to accept Hermia's translation of the moral into the bodily, as her only defense:

Helena. Your hands than mine
are quicker for the fray:
My legs are longer, though, to run away.


C. L. Barber responds to the beauty of the lines but, in my view, reduces the inner conflict by recourse to an ideological narrative of “normal” development:

But one psychological change, fundamental in growing up, is presented. Helena tries at first to move Hermia by an appeal to “Schooldays friendship, childhood innocence,” described at length in her lovely, generous lines: …

“To join with men” has a plaintive girlishness about it. But before the scramble is over, the two girls have broken the double-cherry bond, to fight each without reserve for her man. So they move from the loyalties of one stage of life to those of another.7

The “loveliness” of the lines is indisputable. But their function in the production of comic pleasure is a disturbing one. The desires which they express are there to be destroyed, and yet to persist in their counterclaim. For Barber, the beauty is simply the voice of an organic narrative unity, pulling the meanings of the scene and the play as a whole, in the direction of a Bildungsroman, towards audience clarification and the characters' self-possessed maturity. But such a development is a normalizing extrapolation from the violence of the contradictions engendering the audience's laughter. Perhaps it would not be absolutely accurate to compare this scene with the gross modern spectacle of women wrestling in mud, but it would not be entirely wrong either. The major difference is that the scene also contains those lines of great beauty, whose desiring content is both seductive and a threat to patriarchy (and seductive, moreover, because the threat is not fully perceived within the beauty). The audience laughs during this scene because of a release from the power of poetic beauty, which is linked metonymically to the power of women's beauty. The degradation is a release from a feminine power operating through a discourse.

In analyzing this scene, whose effect on the audience is produced through a clash of discursive registers, I have pointed to a momentarily dominant poetic language yielding to a degradation. The underlying implication is that two radically opposed forms of pleasure in fact contribute to each other in the psychology of the audience. Opposites are not exclusive but complementary in the production of pleasure. This scene moves from the momentary dominance of one discursive mode to another. Sometimes the two modes or registers are active at once. Titania's love talk to Bottom is an outstanding example of this:

Titania. Sleep thou, and I
will wind thee in my arms. … 
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!


There is parody here, but one cannot call it mockery of the Arcadian images. The effect of the beauty is to compel a recognition of the power of metaphor to transform. So it really does not matter whether the referent is a “normal” couple or a monstrous one. This sovereign irresponsibility of language towards the referent is comic by being perplexing, and more than a little disturbing. The audience can laugh at the desublimating spectacle of the queen caressing the comic monster, but the beauty of the language both disrupts and reinforces the laughter.

In an important sense, the scene of combat between the Athenian ladies continues the ambiguous pleasure engendered by the almost inexplicable expressions of violent hate by the male lovers towards their erstwhile loved ones. There is an almost shocking transformation of libidinal energy in these central scenes. In one familiar sense these protestations of hatred can be understood as protestations of misdirected love. Extremes meet. In this sense, the problem is just one of proper redirection, which the plot providentially takes care of. But then, what would be the pleasure derived by the audience from this confusion? Presumably only the rather weak one of anticipating its removal. The stronger case, which does not necessarily contradict the weaker one, is that in the confusion the unsayable can be said because it can be denied, misrecognized as a mistake. The plot provides the alibi that formal logic provides in Freud's analysis of the joke. The unsayable here is that constancy to a woman, subjection to her beauty (that highest of poetic and cultural values sincerely embraced by the lovers), is nonetheless a subjection which entails unconfessable resentments. In short, beauty is a form of power. The expression of hatred, so strikingly repeated by the lovers in this play, is both comic and shocking. But even the unutterable truth of the hatred within the highest form of love, momentarily permitted by the comic imbroglio, nonetheless only becomes utterable in the form of another misprision, namely hatred of the beloved woman. Misogyny is not the final truth. What the plot itself half-reveals only to cover it up in its reconciling closure is that the source of the hatred is the constraint of the patriarchal order upon male and female alike. Misogyny is the other side of Petrarchan adoration. The monstrous degradation of the queen is part of the cult of the queen.

The pleasures in desublimation in this scene have an obvious affinity with similar pleasure taken in the topos of the monstrous coupling of Titania with Bottom. The comic overcoming of the much more marked matriarchal threat is the common link; Oberon's recontainment of that threat has been discussed already. But a closer look at the comic process of the scenes between Titania and Bottom almost justifies the view of those who deny that such a coupling takes place! One must resist, of course, any naively realist speculation as to events offstage between the two appearances of Bottom with the queen. Nonetheless, Bottom's confident acceptance of domestic rights over the servants in the second appearance obviously suggests other rights. Set against this, but by no means denying it, is Bottom's absolute impenetrability to the queen's seductive poetic language. Again, it is impoverishing to see this merely as the exclusion of the “rude mechanicals” from culture. Bottom's dogged persistence in his own nonsexual interests, which some critics value for his solidity and persistence in his own being and which others regard as obtuse, is indisputably comic. Barber rightly points to its vaudeville descendants, and one could easily think of films, and particularly British T.V. comedy shows, in which an alluring nymphomaniac fails to seduce an impenetrable clod. To explain the audience's enjoyment, it is clearly not enough to say that their fantasies are released on the stage or screen. The problem actually turns on the pleasure in the nonenactment of those fantasies. Nor is this simply a question of censorship. In the case of Titania, the most forbidden fantasies are indulged, and Tennenhouse is right to remark that “These were desires, … whose gratification required nothing less than the transformation of the social body of which they were part.”8 But that still cannot explain the pleasure in the renunciation.

In the case of Bottom and the queen, it is poetic language that is charged with the task of seduction (even allowing for the possibilities of suggestive gesture on stage). The queen is frustrated when he will not/cannot reply in the same language. He is the ultimate failed courtier of the Elizabethan court, except that he is totally exempt from the ambitions feeding their fantasies in the first place. The queen's beautiful poetic attempt at seduction ends with an equally poetic lament for her “enforced chastity.” The positions of the poet at court and the unattainable lady are reversed. The poet's despair at wasted verbal effort is passed to the monarch. But after the poetic lament comes a sudden imperious gesture when the queen asserts herself with impatience:

Titania. 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.
Tie up my love's tongue; bring him silently.


The scene of attempted seduction has opened with Titania praising Bottom's voice as he sings a country song, no doubt raucously, and it ends with a command for silence. The language of seduction has failed. Bottom can be taken, but he cannot be seduced. That incapacity to respond to seduction consists in being outside the reach of a troubling power, untouched by the chaos of poetry and desire which energize the court. If Bottom and the “mechanicals” produce such a mangled version of Pyramus and Thisbe (a tragic story which reenacts Hermia's defiance of the paternal will), that is because they simply do not understand the fantasies of the court. At the most obvious and conscious level, the audience would laugh at such a failure of understanding. But, at the same time, the failure to be moved by such fantasies offers another kind of satisfaction, a release necessarily misrecognized as stupidity.

The seductive beauty of language is celebrated in this play, but also degraded for comic release. This is because it is recognized as a kind of power, which unsettles the fixities to which patriarchy attempts to cling. Egeus is the voice of an anxiety at the demonic power of poetry, which he equates with incitement to feminine rebellion:

Egeus. This hath bewitched
the bosom of my child.
Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes,
And interchanged love tokens with my child.
Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung
With feigning voice verses of feigning love,
And stol'n the impression of her fantasy
With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gauds, conceits,
Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats—messengers
Of strong prevailment in unhardened youth.
With cunning hast thou filched my daughter's heart,
Turned her obedience which is due to me
To stubborn harshness.


This speech is remarkably similar to Brabantio's accusation of Othello (Othello, 1.2.63ff.)—which Othello later internalizes and turns into a suspicion of Desdemona. Egeus's accusation links many issues pertinent to the play. To begin with, his obsessive repetition of “child” denies the possibility of a free choice, independent of the father's will. From his perspective, her freedom is a manifestation of unnatural sorcery. The messages of seduction, delivered by moonlight, are a series of paltry tokens with a demonic power over her “fantasy.” This strange conjunction of the transforming power of poetry with its futile emptiness anticipates the famous discussion between Theseus and Hippolyta at the beginning of act 5. In both, the hostility of patriarchal certainty to poetic disorder is itself the site of an anxiety.

The discussion between Theseus and Hippolyta concerns the lovers' report of the imbroglio and transformations in the woods. It is therefore a discussion of the play itself. Theseus focuses on the question of the truth or untruth of poetry, and, like Plato's wise ruler, comes down on the side of its falsehood:

Theseus. 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.


And yet, as has often been noted, the dismissal contains a contrary tribute to the “shaping” power dismissed as that of madness:

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.


Hippolyta's defense of the truth of “the story of the night told over” is a reiteration of this counter-voice or acknowledgement in Theseus himself. In other words, the dialogue between them is also the projection of the unresolved inner dialogue. As a ruler and controlling patriarch, Theseus dismisses the power of poetry as mad and empty, like language itself. But in driving out falsehood, supported by the confident assertion of the true/false distinction, he brings up the uneasy awareness that “false” is a very strange concept. It may mean “untrue” in the sense of non-existent, but it may also mean that which threatens the true. This second sense undermines the first, because a perceived threat cannot be simply nonexistent.

The theme of the social irresponsibility of poetry was familiar since Plato. But its traditional disruptiveness is linked here to more pressing anxieties. The status of the Oberon-Titania plot as the unseen other side of the Athenian plot (unseen to the Athenians, that is, but controlling their lives) means that what they take to be real is only partly so, and is inexplicably shot through with a comic madness resembling a dream. But that dream has a claim to truth, not at the naive factual level where Theseus would keep it in order to dismiss it, but as an exploration of the desires, anxieties, and consequent repressed violence of the discursive order. When Theseus says “I never may believe / These antique fables, nor these fairy toys” (5.1.1-2), he is displaying either a wonderful obtuseness like Bottom, who cannot analyze his dream, or else an anxious preservation of his royal control; but in either case, the audience is confronted in his words with a parody of “clarification” with which it can never completely identify.


  1. Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: the Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York and London: Methuen 1986), 27ff.

  2. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: a Study in Dramatic Form in Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 126.

  3. Louis Adrian Montrose, “‘In Mirrours More Then One’: Elizabethan Ideology and the Spenserian Text,” Literature and Anthropology, edited by Jonathan Hall and Ackbar Abbas (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1986).

  4. For an illuminating discussion of Elizabeth's motives and policies in controlling aristocratic alliances, see Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display, 25-30.

  5. Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display, 40.

  6. See also Louis Adrian Montrose, “Shaping Fantasies: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representing the English Renaissance, edited by Stephen Greenblatt (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1988).

  7. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, 129-130.

  8. Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display, 43.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

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. “‘Obscured by Dreams’: Race, Empire, and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.Shakespeare Quarterly 47, No. 1 (Spring 1996): 37-60.

Explores the racial implications of the changeling boy's Indian ethnicity, maintaining that Shakespeare's play continues in the traditions of travel narratives in which India is portrayed as an exotic place to be conquered.

Kott, Jan. “The Bottom Translation,” in The Bottom Translation: Marlowe and Shakespeare and the Carnival Tradition, translated by Daniela Miedzyrzecka and Lillian Vallee, pp. 29-68. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1987.

Examines the similes and emblems that recur throughout the play, contending that these devices contribute to two possible readings of the play: one light, one somber.

Levine, Laura. “Rape, Repetition, and the Politics of Closure in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects, edited by Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan, pp. 210-28. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Asserts that Shakespeare portrays Theseus's desire to use theater as a method of transforming sexual violence in order to demonstrate that theater fails to accomplish this task.

McGuire, Philip C. “Intentions, Options, and Greatness: An Example from A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Shakespeare and the Triple Play: From Study to Stage to Classroom, edited by Sidney Homan, pp. 177-86. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1998.

Examines the portion of the play in which Theseus overrides Egeus's wishes and Athenian law to declare that Hermia and Lysander will marry; this decision is met by Egeus's silence. McGuire focuses on this moment to demonstrate how the performance of the play allows for an interpretation of Egeus's response.

Morris, Harry. “A Midsummer Night's Dream: So Quick Bright Things Come to Confusion,” in Last Things in Shakespeare, pp. 232-54. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1985.

Argues, contrary to the opinion of many critics, that there are no inconsistencies in the play's title, in the many references to the moon, or in the play's time structure. Rather, these elements converge to demonstrate Shakespeare's scrupulous craftsmanship.

Schneider, Michael. “Bottom's Dream, the Lion's Roar, and Hostility of Class Difference in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in From the Bard to Broadway, Vol. VII, edited by Karelisa V. Hartigan, pp. 191-212. Lanham: University Press of America, 1987.

Studies the signs of socio-political tension, originating at the production of the text, that are repressed or denied within the play.

Taylor, Michael. “The Darker Purpose of A Midsummer Night's Dream.Studies in English Literature 9, No. 2 (Spring 1969): 259-73.

Demonstrates that harmony and disharmony coexist in the play, and argues that an understanding of this relationship makes relevant the play's exploration of the disharmonious nature of human triviality.

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