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A Midsummer Night's Dream

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One of Shakespeare's most popular plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream is often considered a lighthearted comedy. It traces the romantic escapades of four young Athenian lovers lost on a midsummer night in a forest ruled by fairies. The dreamlike events that occur in the enchanted wood are framed by court scenes dominated by Theseus, ruler of Athens. Another group of characters, designated as rustics, artisans, or mechanicals, and led by Bottom the weaver, inhabit the play and enhance its comedic effects. Despite the play's obvious comic design, a number of critics have also identified within A Midsummer Night's Dream darker undertones. Theseus refers to a war with the Amazons in which he conquered his wife Hippolyta, and Titania's interlude with Bottom, who has been transformed into a man with a donkey's head, is suggestive of bestiality. The play performed by the mechanicals, although staged in a hilarious and bumbling manner, is itself a tragedy. The resulting effect of the weaving of comic and tragic elements, the structure and characters supporting this effect, and the myths influencing the play's content have all become areas of modern critical scrutiny.

Bottom figures prominently in analyses of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Jan Kott (1987) focuses on Bottom's metamorphosis, contending that the perverse carnival atmosphere in the Bottom-Titania interludes contradicts theatrical conventions typically associated with masques and court entertainments. Kott concludes that while Shakespeare's depiction of Bottom's transformation allows for both light and serious readings of the play, either interpretation is fraught with contradiction. Philip C. McGuire (1989) examines the significance of Egeus, Hermia's father, to A Midsummer Night's Dream. McGuire focuses on Egeus's silence in Act IV, scene i, when Theseus states that he will overturn the Athenian law requiring that Hermia marry Demetrius, whom her father has chosen. McGuire notes that Egeus is silent at this point in both the Quarto and the Folio; however, at the wedding ceremony in Act V, the Folio specifies that Egeus is present whereas the Quarto does not. Given this textual discrepancy, McGuire speculates on how Egeus's silence should be interpreted, maintaining that it may indicate consent, perhaps even reconciliation with Hermia, or it may be interpreted as his withdrawal from Athenian society. In contrast to critics who have focused on the contentious elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Tom Clayton (1999) assesses the comedy's lighter aspects. Clayton downplays the bestial implications of the Bottom-Titania interlude and highlights the civil nature of the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta.

Many critics have argued that an examination of the relationship between the tragic and comic elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream is an important step to understanding the design of the play. While some scholars have attempted to demonstrate that the tragic and comic elements complement each other, Clifford Earl Ramsey (1977) underscores the distinct differences in their form and structure. Ramsey examines the scenic structure of the play, maintaining that it expresses diversity and opposition, and yet it also emphasizes harmony and integration. According to the critic, the scenic structure ultimately underscores the play's dual themes of the power of love and the power of imagination. Taking another approach, Richard H. Cox (1982) explores the way in which Shakespeare shaped his poetic imagination within the confines of comedy. Cox examines Shakespeare's comic treatment of the traditionally serious Theseus as well as the serious social subtext of the mechanicals' comic actions. Through these characters, Cox contends, Shakespeare didactically addressed weighty issues related to civic life within the framework of comedy. Similarly, Virgil Hutton (1985) explores the ways in which Shakespeare used comedy to camouflage the tragic content of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Hutton argues that Shakespeare raised religious and philosophical issues in the play, primarily in his treatment of the mechanicals, and outlines the ways in which the mechanicals' production of Pyramus and Thisby contrasts with the experiences of the lovers in the wood. Hutton demonstrates that the tragic world of Pyramus and Thisby resembles real life more than that of the dreamlike world of the four lovers. A. D. Nuttall (2000) traces the somber elements of A Midsummer Night's Dream to its mythic sources. Recounting the cruel depiction of Theseus in Greek myth, Nuttall demonstrates the careful, yet incomplete manner in which Shakespeare attempted to disguise Theseus's past. Furthermore, Nuttall reveals the dark background of the fairies and discusses the disturbing images evoked through Bottom's transformation and his interlude with Titania. Yet in his comic handling of Theseus, the fairies, and Bottom, Nuttall argues, Shakespeare offered a negotiation between comedy and tragedy, resulting in an exorcism of the fear evoked by the play's more sinister aspects.

The subtle balance of tragic and comic elements in the play presents significant challenges to modern directors of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Russell Jackson reviews a stage production of the play directed by Michael Boyd for the 1999-2000 season at Stratford-upon-Avon. Jackson analyzes the production's emphasis on the forest as the locus of sexuality, and comments on how the director deftly combined the sinister and comic elements of the play. The critic also praises Boyd's use of dance and movement in the production, noting that the dances evoked images of ancient fertility rites. Mark Thornton Burnett (2000) discusses two versions of the comedy directed by Adrian Noble, one a 1994-95 stage version, and the other Noble's 1996 film adaptation. While the staging achieved widespread critical acclaim, the film version received predominantly negative criticism. Burnett provides a reexamination of the film, concentrating on its style and “postmodern aspirations” and noting the way in which it successfully exploited and evoked childhood experience and children's stories. Many critics have assessed Michael Hoffman's 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. John Bemrose (1999) praises the performances of Kevin Kline as Bottom and Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania, but faults the film for interpreting the play in a modern and “tedious” Hollywood manner. Jim Welsh (1999) maintains that while Hoffman's film has its charm, it comes up lacking in both style and substance compared to the 1935 film by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle. In another mixed review, Richard Alleva (1999) censures Hoffman for reducing Shakespeare's conception of “multilayered emotionality” in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Alleva finds Pfeiffer's Titania to be “gracelessly spoken” and states that Kline's interpretation of Bottom transforms the weaver into an emotionally fragile clown of a man, although, Alleva adds, such a portrayal does work within the scope of Hoffman's film.

Tom Clayton (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Clayton, Tom. “‘So quick bright things come to confusion’: or, What Else was A Midsummer Night's Dream About?”1 In Shakespeare: Text and Theater, edited by Lois Potter and Arthur F. Kinney, pp. 62-91. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Clayton highlights the brighter, more lighthearted aspects of A Midsummer Night's Dream, emphasizing the civilized and complementary features of the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta and downplaying the bestial connotation in the relationship between the transformed Bottom and Titania.]

In the now ancient history of Shakespeare's birth-quatercentenary year of 1964, it would not have been easy to find in the year's publications a pair of perspectives less alike than those of R. W. Dent,

Rather than being a foe to good living, poetic imagination can be its comfort and its guide, far “more yielding” than most dreams. Whether A Midsummer Night's Dream has an unplumbed “bottom” as well as its inescapable Bottom, I hesitate to say. But it provides us “a most rare vision,” one that offers us a disarmingly unpretentious defense of poetry by the greatest of England's poets;

and Jan Kott: “The Dream is the most erotic of Shakespeare's plays. In no other tragedy or comedy of his, except Troilus and Cressida, is the eroticism expressed so brutally.”2

Each essay was original in its own way. Dent's is historical in emphasis, modest in assertion, and consistently illuminating, a classic. Kott's was groundbreaking, rough—“brutal”?—and provocative, and has been widely influential, especially as partial source of what is probably the most famous production of the century, Peter Brook's, in 1970 (see Halio 48-69). Brook's preface to Kott's book suggests why: it “is Poland that in our time has come closest to the tumult, the danger, the intensity, the imaginativeness and the daily involvement with the social process that made life so horrible, subtle and ecstatic to an Elizabethan” (x-xi).3 True or not, the perception had its sway. Kott revealed and dwelt on the darker side of Shakespeare—or he projected it, or both. In any case, it was a side especially congenial to the time and has become durably postmodern. Accordingly, something of the character of Shakespeare's Dream has been thrust into the shade in succeeding decades, and critical editions as well as productions have undergone their own notable, not always unquestionable, alterations in the past decade or so.4 My aim here is to try to restore light and a measure of balance of perspective in a few of Dream's quarters that have suffered neglect or occasionally worse.

Theatrical production cannot stand still, of course, and by no means every Dream should ring changes on moonlight, roses, and transcendental imagination. But some recent professional productions have seemed to perform everything but the script, often adhering to the letter but relentlessly violating the spirit, something few living playwrights would readily permit. “Adaptation … of one sort or another seems to be the rule, … but how far can one carry this process and still call it Shakespeare?” (Halio 7). A view current among post-literary academics at present is that nothing has perennial value because all is culturally determined, including “Shakespeare” and his (currency) value. But this view is routinely falsified by individual and collective experience in the reading and often in the theater.

Performance and understanding begin with the script and text. For plays with more than one substantive text, the ultimate witness is the one inferred to be closer to holograph, usually but not always the longer—with Hamlet the longest—version.5 “Holograph” may be foul papers (most often), fair copy, or revised manuscript; with inferred scribal transcript (Shakespeare's, anonymous, or by Ralph Crane) intervening between print and holograph (of whatever kind). Revisionists argue that “revised” versions showing signs of “promptbook” influence and accordingly closer to theatrical practice are more authoritative, at least as far as their additions, cuts, and other alterations are concerned. But the assumption that the “more theatrical” text is the “better” is circular and rests on a somewhat limited view of genre, intention, and effect.

The modern textual situation of Dream was “stable” until 1986, when the Oxford Shakespeare innovated in incorporating F's—the Folio's—assignment to Egeus and Lysander of speeches in 5.1 that are Philostrate's and Theseus', respectively, in Q1 (1600), the sole wholly substantive text and the most authoritative as the source of Q2, in turn the source of most of F. The received explanation is that Q1 came from autograph foul papers, and F from Q2 altered here and there from a playhouse promptbook. It is easy enough to see expediency as a hypothetical reason for such changes in performance, but not as a good reason to adopt them, much less as revisions supposed to be by Shakespeare. In fact, they serve well enough to open up anew the question of extent in so-called Shakespearean revision.


The critical and performing fate of these dramatic and mythical lovers has been mixed, especially in the past quarter century: not infrequently, Hippolyta has been aggrandized, Theseus demonized.6 The script seems to give them about equal measure, a suggestion Shakespeare didn't need but Plutarch supplied in explaining the end of the war brought to Athens “within the precinct of the very cittie it selfe” by the Amazons:

at the ende of foure moneths, peace was taken betwene them by meanes of one of the women called Hyppolita. … Nevertheles, some saye that she was slayne (fighting on Theseus side). … In memorie whereof, the piller which is joyning to the temple of the Olympian ground, was set up in her honour. We are not to marvell, if the historie of things so auncient, be founde so diversely written.

(Bullough 386, 387)

Amen. So much context explains the mythic site and character of Theseus' recently most infamous lines, the first two of

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.


His subject is the familiar progress of wooing, winning, wedding, with the paradox that the wars of myth were paradoxically the scene of contest turned to courtship; but the wedding will be triumphant “in another” and its own traditional “key.”

The plotline of the impending nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta constitutes Dream's opening; it is joined in 2.1 by the alienation-reconciliation and amatory-management plotline of Oberon, Titania, and Puck/Robin that constitutes the closing. The parallels are obvious enough, and significant; and much has been written that is sensitive and wise about the propriety of doubling Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania, which was certainly done as early as 1661 (Holland 96-97). But two points need making about doubling. First, doubling (to economize, for example) does not entail special affinities between the characters doubled. Second, and just as important, affinities between two characters may be seen without their doubling.

Theseus was clearly intended to be overshadowed at the end by Oberon and company, the inescapable effect of the order of events, with the diurnal world of waking reason giving way to the nocturnal world of dreamtime and imagination. But Theseus is no less important for that: if the day needs the night for rest and dreaming, night needs the day for enlightenment and exercise; and Theseus' reason transcends its own limitations, through his imagination (sic) and sentiment, which it is partly the business of his two act-5 setpieces—“More strange than true” and “The kinder we”—to demonstrate. One might say that if there were not a Theseus to deliver these speeches, a speaker might have had to be created from scratch. Not, of course, that the speeches came first, but they have a primacy and significance that Dream would be different and the worse for being without.

Theseus and Hippolyta are never separated, appearing together in 1.1, 4.1, and 5.1; and their dialogue is very much reciprocal from the opening exchange to their last banter on “Pyramus and Thisbe” (5.1.300-05).7 Her mere four-and-a-half lines in the opening subscene have served every interpretative purpose, but they are sufficient in content and context to convey mutuality more readily than they can, without strain, express discontent and aloofness:

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 Dream, Theseus has a good deal of the country squire about him, and Hippolyta herself is on the horsy side, the two of them dog-fanciers together in their telling exchange in 4.1, just before they come upon the sleeping lovers. The pair's mutuality, similarity of expression, and shared “lifestyle”—as Anglo-Athenian-mythical country gentry—are far more in evidence than is a raw or even cooked competitiveness here, where their speeches even run to nearly equal length: Theseus has three lines opening (4.1.109-11), then she seven (112-18) and he eight-and-a-half, his last line completed by the transitional “But soft, what nymphs are these?” (119-27). This pattern of easy reciprocity obtains throughout, even when they disagree. Theirs is, on the showing, a civil(ized) relationship of “mutual love and good liking”;8 and that is expressed most succinctly by “my Theseus” (5.1.1): one doesn't address a stranger to one's affections thus, and this is the opening note of act 5.

The social motion of their duologue here is marked by the echoing of Hippolyta's “'Tis strange” in (1) Theseus' extended reply beginning “More strange than true,” and (2) Hippolyta's closing, “But howsoever, strange and admirable”—‘to be wondered at,’ with a trace of ‘deserving admiration’ (l. 27). The speeches of both express the complementarity of the speakers, as well as their differences, which are also complementary. Theseus' skeptical voice of reason confidently pronouncing in error transcends the limitations of what he “may believe” when it comes to the poet, whose flights of imagination are exquisitely and accurately described; in spite of himself, he speaks for the play and of the play, and of himself at one remove, if not for Shakespeare. But how not?

Some now hastily if not facilely dismiss Theseus and this setpiece by inflating the truisms that (1) his view should not be taken for Shakespeare's; (2) he is wrong about the imagination and much else, and Hippolyta is right; and (3) Theseus himself is an “antique” figment of imagination and therefore a butt of his own joke. But “antic fables”—bizarre narratives—is almost certainly correct, despite the fact that most current editions have “antique fables,” as in Q1.9 This is a problem of appropriate modern spelling, but it is not clear why editors who often follow F prefer Q1 here. Since “antique” makes inferior sense otherwise, one supposes the preference due to its ready association with Theseus, who is routinely faulted, accordingly, for disbelieving in his own mythical identity. No one can resist this joke who hasn't been pressed to explain how the “fables” just told are “antique” meaning ancient.

Theseus is not wrong about the value of “cool reason,” even if it has limitations as applied here. But if he is “wrong” about the imagination, he nevertheless brings his own powerful imagination into play to deprecate the poet, who could scarcely be better appreciated by downright eulogy. Did Shakespeare give Theseus these splendid lines to make him risibly pompous and transcendently wrong? The former not really, the latter most certainly, in a special way.

There is general acceptance of Dover Wilson's argument that Shakespeare added the poet to a shorter speech on the imagination of the lover and the madman, which affords a ready explanation for mislining and overcrowded lines in Q1 at that point.10 Whether the poet arrived at once or on second thought, he dominates the speech as we have it:

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 aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.


Even delivered with skepticism and irony, this is breathtaking, a towering tribute to the poet as vates and as maker. It is a masterstroke to make Theseus its author, the rational skeptic pronouncing judgment on the irrationality of the imagination by using its highest resources to do so, condemning and commending simultaneously—to its and the poet's credit. Theseus may be talking through his philosopher's hat, but he has been given the poet's own eloquence to do it with. Transported by imagination unawares, he returns to practicalities with his last four lines—and those of the original version of the speech (if the poet was added). Hippolyta's rejoinder, sound, sympathetic, reasonable, and appreciative, complements Theseus' sweeping survey by bringing “something of great constancy” into the space of the poet's shapes and airy nothing. She is made utterly gracious in joining him at an esthetic distance from the object of their contemplation: “howsoever, strange and admirable.” One of the most notable things about the exchange is that Theseus' imagination exceeds his reason here, and Hippolyta's reason her imagination—ultimately to the harmony and credit of them both.

In both exchanges of genial one-upmanship or simple disagreement Hippolyta fares as well as Theseus or better. It is (as always already) easy to read the gender wars into them. But the two characters read and perform most cohesively and intelligibly, and with least strain, as social and personal—and military—equals of partly shared background: mythic nobility from different countries of the classical and post-classical mind joined in late-Renaissance (or Early Modern) English-poetical matrimony.

The only non-fairy in the play who mentions fairies at all—twice—is Theseus. The lovers nowhere show the slightest awareness of their existence, even though Theseus' “fairy toys” implies that fairies figured in the lovers' accounts. For us to supply fairies to their hypothetical account would be to forget about the “discrepant awareness” of dramatic characters and ourselves, who know so much more than they.11 Bottom alone has “reason” to swear there are fairies, but he does no such thing. The only bare hint of fairies by others is Demetrius' “I wot not by what power / (But by some power it is)” (4.1.164-65): fairy power, but he knows not that. Whatever the lovers' fables, as Hippolyta logically infers—she does not intuit—their experience was real and shared, and the fairies are no less real to us or, invisible, to them.

Theseus has two setpieces, or “arias,”12 in act 5, so it might seem curious that the first gets far more attention than the second, “the kinder we” (89-105), which has often been ignored and is now read by some as hypocritical. But the speech seems in earnest for both Shakespeare and Theseus, and there are no textual grounds, as opposed to categorical aprioristic judgments, for taking it otherwise. It is in earnest for good reason, its theme noblesse oblige, which might not be necessary in a genuinely classless society of the sort the world has yet to see. Where there are inequalities, their effects are substantially ameliorated when the more fortunate—or powerful—show care for the less. And where there is personal contact between power and vulnerability, kindness finds a way to level differences in some degree. “The kinder we” episode speaks well for Theseus, and it appears to speak also for the play, not pompously preaching but eloquently pleading, with metaphor, anecdote, and subsequent example, advocating compassion of attitude and noblesse oblige in behavior, a socioethical message of some importance in Shakespeare's day and once again—rather urgently—in our own. The affluent and socially sophisticated find this banal and bourgeois. Directors who find it so, who wish to concentrate on other matters, or who do not like Theseus, either make the delivery effete and ineffectual or cut the speech.13

Both Theseus' speech itself and the dialogue that precedes it make a case for obligatory as well as obliging kindness that is in no way offset by the comic mockery of the courtiers during the performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” although there is obvious theoretical inconsistency. But this entire part of the play is a rich amalgam of the serious and the comic that in a sympathetic production has no trouble with either the serious or the—superficially—inconsistent comedy. Told colorfully and wittily by Philostrate how bad the homespuns' play is (61-70), Theseus asks, “What are they that do play it?” “Hard-handed men that work in Athens here, / Which never labor'd in their minds till now,” etc. His response is, “And we will hear it.” This is ad hominem with benevolence. Warned a second time by Philostrate that “it is nothing, nothing in the world; / Unless you can find sport in their intents” (78-79), Theseus insists that “I will hear that play; / For never any thing can be amiss / When simpleness and duty tender it” (80-82). “Find sport” prepares for the courtiers' comments, and “their intents” stresses the primacy of intentions and the applicability of the golden rule in such cases. The homespuns are honored in having their play preferred, and audiences diverted by shortcomings of which the players are unaware and that they have no need to know.14

Hippolyta's “He says they can do nothing in this kind” elicits Theseus' cheerful asteism, “The kinder we” (85-89), the beginning of Shakespeare's setpiece and Theseus' poetic and substantial reflections on sympathetic imagination illuminated with the colors of rhetoric everywhere present in Shakespeare's earlier plays. “What poor duty cannot do, noble respect / Takes it in might, not merit” (91-92) at once defines noblesse oblige (“magnanimous or generous consideration,” Foakes 120); gives an allegorical instance with personification; and concludes with an elliptical and emphatic short line strikingly expressive in its use of “might,” a signal instance of pointed antanaclasis. “Might” is used to mean both “power” (“might” is more powerful than “merit”) and potentiality (what they “might” do).15 An exemplum follows as a general anecdote based on Theseus' past experience:

Where I have come, great clerks have purposed
To greet me with premeditated welcomes;
Where I have seen them shiver and look pale,
Make periods in the midst of sentences,
Throttle their practic'd accent in their fears,
And in conclusion dumbly have broke off,
Not paying me a welcome.

Their failure became success, however, because,

                                                                      Trust me, sweet,
Out of this silence yet I pick'd a welcome;
And in the modesty of fearful duty,

complementing the earlier “poor duty”

I read as much as from the rattling tongue
Of saucy and audacious eloquence.
Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity
In least speak most, to my capacity.


Hippolyta's “It must be your imagination then, and not theirs” (5.1.214), though ironic, spells out what is implied throughout this speech, in which Theseus advocates and exercises the very faculty of imagination he decried in theory at the beginning of the scene, a benign inconsistency to his moral credit.

The Amazonian Hippolyta, entirely at home in the Athenian court, joins the men in commenting wittily (and in prose) on the play and performance: “Indeed he [Quince] hath played on this prologue like a child on a recorder—a sound, but not in government” (122-23). When Wall walks off, her “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard” (210) elicits Theseus'—thematic and didactic—reply, “The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them. … If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men” (211-18). Her next comment, “I am a-weary of this moon. Would he would change!” (251), together with Theseus' response, epitomizes the complex of dramatic effects centering on “Pyramus and Thisbe,” a theatrical and literary three-ring circus of burlesque (meta)drama, witty commentary, and extemporaneous and illicit dialogue by the players with their immediate audience—with the seriously humane undercurrent rising to the surface here, again, with Theseus' answer concerning Moon: “It appears by his small light of discretion that he is in the wane; but yet in courtesy, in all reason, we must stay the time” (254-55). For this function of reason Theseus deserves credit that he is now seldom accorded by critics.

The last of Theseus and the courtiers is Theseus' speech concluding,

This palpable-gross play hath well beguil'd
The heavy gait of night. Sweet friends, to bed.
A fortnight hold we this solemnity,
In nightly revels and new jollity. [Exeunt.]


The jokes made by the courtiers about the palpable-gross play can be played as callous and as overheard and taken so by the players, in which case the audience will be disconcerted accordingly; it is just as obvious in the dialogue and often in performance that they are neither.16 In fact, the entire social event centering on “Pyramus and Thisbe” is at once hugely comic and tacitly serious in its performing and the reasons for its being preferred. The punctuation of the drama by courtiers' comments is made more bond than brake, and this is still more so with the interaction between courtiers and players, notably Pyramus (184-87), Moon (257-59), and Pyramus again, rising from the dead to reassure Demetrius about Wall and offer the options of a terminal epilogue or a Bergomask (351-54). The latter is shortly forthcoming, bringing to an end “Pyramus and Thisbe” and, soon after, the play of the courtiers of Athens. Then with the fairies the Dream resumes.


Oberon and Titania are not Theseus and Hippolyta. They are a married king and queen different from their mythical, aristocratic human counterparts in being folkloric supernaturals. Their behavior is that of (im)mortals with higher powers, like Greek-mythical gods except that the fairies are better behaved and motivated. Their estrangement and reconciliation is the central plot-line, even the main plot determining the progress of all other plots; at the center of it, in turn, is the fairy-queen-and-commoner romance of Titania and Bottom, its catalyst the refusal of Titania to give Oberon the changeling boy. Notwithstanding that he is the subject of a custody fight (as well as one with dire meteorological consequences, Titania claims), it is not very common for critics to discuss the boy's interests; and he does not routinely appear, since he is not among the dramatis personae. According to the social norms implicit in the relations between the principals, it must be about the time that the boy would be fairy bar mitzvahed and join the men—or elder fairies—if he is ready to be a “henchman.” So, in the patriarchal fairy culture, his interests are best served by his joining Oberon. Moreover, while Oberon “beg”s Titania to give him the boy, she withholds him, not for his sake but for the sake of his deceased mother, her late votary. The loyalty part of the sentiment is creditable but the rest and the effects are not: withholding the boy is made a willful refusal to yield responsibly and sympathetically to Oberon's begging: it has no evident benefits for the boy, the boy's deceased mother, herself, or Oberon, now or hereafter.

It is easy and now common to take the situation out of the play or away from the dialogue, anachronize it, and paraphrase it into male bullying and female righteous resistance; but the particular wording of the dialogue stresses the play's principled view of the relative right and wrong of the case, with Oberon given the dialogue to have the better of it, despite Titania's speaking at much greater length and with considerable rhetorical force—and extraordinary poetical eloquence.17 One could scarcely claim that all of Oberon's responses should be mild in delivery, as most are in phrasing, because some are clearly meant not to be (e.g., 2.1.63);18 but they are mostly laconic (excepting 74-80) and matter-of-fact; it is Titania's speeches that are lengthy and heated. Oberon is hardly guiltless in his mischievous reaction, but his pitying her and regretting his harshness show him twice “human.” To her famous setpiece on the disordered state of the land (2.1.81-117), he replies mildly,

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.


He repeats his appeal plaintively and companionably: “Give me that boy, and I will go with thee” (143). He is refused, Titania leaves, and the plot thickens and in degree darkens—more in some productions than in others: “Well, go thy way. Thou shalt not from this grove / Till I torment thee for this injury” (2.1.146-47). If it is his “torment,” it is Titania's “injury”; or vice versa.

It is apparently Titania's jealousy that prompts her to accuse him of infidelity in courting the pastoral figment “Phillida” and of coming here from India because

                              … the bouncing Amazon,
Your buskin'd mistress, and your warrior love,(19)
To Theseus must be wedded, and you come
To give their bed joy and prosperity.


A supernatural kindness, and they come to share in conferring it. The reciprocal “forgeries of jealousy” are important not because they seem true but because they evaporate as soon as the quarrel ceases—with Oberon having the boy as henchman and Titania being released from the effects of love-in-idlness.20

Oberon's “I wonder if Titania be awak'd; / Then what it was that next came in her eye, / Which she must dote on in extremity” (3.2.1-3) can be taken to express some solicitude as well as eagerness to hear the worst, but the comic worst is what it heralds: it is an audience incitement with characterological detail. The denouement is 4.1.46-103, in the middle of which is an imperative that cries out for a youth musical, “rock the ground whereon these sleepers be” (86); and I am familiar with at least one rock-musical version, The Dream, directed by Chris Bond at the Half Moon Theatre in Mile End Road, London, in the spring of 1984.21 The reunited couple indeed “will to-morrow midnight solemnly / Dance in Duke Theseus' house triumphantly, / And bless it to all fair prosperity” (4.1.88-90)—and so they do and so ends the play. The reconciliation of Oberon and Titania thus completes the harmonizing of the play's lovers eight and expresses it in the way and spirit of the time of Sir John Davies's nearly contemporary Orchestra (1594) in a dance.22


Three are anointed into redirected affections: Titania and Lysander in 2.2 (27-34, 78-82), and Demetrius in 3.2 (102-09). Oberon initiates the dotings—and later supplies the antidote—with the best intentions, except for his practical joke played on Titania by means of flower power such that “The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid / Will make or man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature that it sees” (2.1.170-72). Invisible, he sympathetically apostrophizes Helena, just departed in pursuit of Demetrius: “Fare thee well, nymph. Ere he do leave this grove, / Thou shalt fly him, and he shall seek thy love” (2.1.245-46). And he directs Puck, in disastrously general terms but according to his best lights (he hasn't seen Hermia and Lysander), to anoint the eyes of the “disdainful youth” in “Athenian garments” (2.2.260-66). So much for Hermia's Lysander, for the nonce.

Much concern is expressed by Demetriologists: is he restored to his original love, or is he compelled by Oberon's psychopharmacology to love Helena for evermore? He is anointed with the doting flower: “Flower of this purple dye, / Hit with Cupid's archery, / Sink in apple of his eye” (3.2.102-4). Both the “flower” and Demetrius' Lysander-like infatuated exclamations of adoration upon awakening and seeing Helena seem to say so. So also says the fact that Lysander is cured of doting by a different, antidotal herb that Puck is supposed to “crush … into Lysander's eye,” which with its “liquor hath this virtuous property, / To take from thence all error with his might, / And make his eyeballs roll with wonted sight” (3.2.366-69). But though Demetrius is anointed with the flower that makes Titania and Lysander dote, his seems a case of homeopathic medicine, in effect a cure of the infection of doting upon Hermia's eyes (1.1.230) that, unlike the others, he had contracted without floral influence.

And the incantation over Demetrius is different from that over the others. Shakespeare attuned the heptasyllabic incantations accompanying each of the anointings to the individual case and left little room for doubt about any.23 Sympathetic as before with the young lovers' plight, Oberon sends Puck to fetch Helena, saying he “will charm” Demetrius' “eyes against she do appear” (3.2.99). His incantation is carefully distinctive:

When his love he doth espy,
Let her shine as gloriously
As the Venus of the sky.
When thou wak'st, if she be by,
Beg of her for remedy.


“His love” is unequivocally specific, by contrast with the incantation over Lysander, meant for Demetrius but made general in expression by Puck as in Oberon's instructions: “When thou wak'st, let love forbid / Sleep his seat on thy eyelid” (2.2.79-80). “His love” contrasts all the more with the horridly specific incantation over Titania—“What thou seest when thou dost wake, / Do it for thy true-love take; … / Wake when some vile thing is near” (2.2.27-28, 34). The “apple of his eye” (pupil, but object, too) is equally specific, and “Beg of her for remedy” says that Demetrius needs no other and no antidote, which he has had already.

Finally, Demetrius is made to be at pains to explain his case to Theseus (and to us) thus:

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


These measured but enthusiastic lines have the ring of sincerity and truth, and are some distance from the sheer infatuation and excess of the lovers in a trance.

The others' “doting” is cured by applying the “anti[-]dote”—with an implicit etymological joke; Shakespeare uses “antidote” once only, without jest, in Macbeth, who yearns for “some sweet oblivious antidote” to “Cleanse the stuff'd bosom” (5.3.43-44). The spells of curative reanointing are equally differentiated: wittily ironical and generic in Lysander's case (3.2.448-63), personal and affectionate in Titania's.

          Be as thou wast wont to be;
          See as thou wast wont to see.
          Dian's bud [o'er] Cupid's flower
          Hath such force and blessed power.
Now, my Titania, wake you, my sweet queen.


But suppose Demetrius were in a permanent trance. True love is partly that, and for lasting and reciprocated love it is a small—and unconscious—price to pay. Oberon prophesies (or proclaims), “back to Athens shall the lovers wend / With league whose date till death shall never end” (3.2.372-73).

Bottom's deliverance is Puck's removing of the ass-head with a single line of unceremonious blank verse: “Now, when thou wak'st, with thine own fool's eyes peep” (4.1.84).


The rise of the phallus in Dream production probably dates from Peter Brook's priapic scenario for his post-1960s Dream (1970). What still had some shock value then—even after Hair (1968) and Oh, Calcutta! (1969), but this was Shakespeare—has come to be de rigueur in many quarters of the book trade as well as on stage, as witness the covers or dust jackets of (1) Selbourne's Making ofA Midsummer Night's Dream” (1982), with its photograph of Bottom borne sitting on the backs of his fellows, one of whom has a fisted, upraised forearm thrust up between Bottom's legs; (2) the Oxford/World's Classics edition (1994), with 1628 woodcut of Robin Goodfellow with notable erection (1628); and (3) Shakespeare in Performance: “A Midsummer Night's Dream” (1994), without phallics but with Titania topless (for all practical purposes, near-transparent body stocking notwithstanding). Few major productions since Brook's have failed to show the pressure of Kott and Brook.

But Bottom's conduct as Titania's pampered and enthralling gentle-mortal guest is unexceptionably punctilious and as courtly as it can be, which in its way is very: Titania's “ear is much enamour'd” of “his note” (3.1.138), and he is “a very paramour for a sweet voice,” as Quince malapropises later (4.2.11-12). I doubt whether the conceit of Bottom's copulating with Titania much precedes Brook's 1970 production, but it has certainly been rampant since. I agree entirely with part of Holland's comment, “What is so remarkable about Titania's night with Bottom is not a subdued, suppressed sexual bestiality that has only been properly uncovered in the twentieth century but rather the innocence which transforms something that might so easily have been full of animal sexuality into something touchingly naïve” (73); but the “sexual bestiality” seems to me not so much “properly uncovered” as untimely ripped. Such explicit eroticism is distinct from bawdy, a wholly different and typically comic and Shakespearean way of mediating sexuality in art. Titania says presumably with reference to the dewfall that “The moon, methinks, looks with a watery eye, / And when she weeps, weeps every little flower, / Lamenting some enforced chastity” (3.1.198-200). This is not a proclamation of celibacy but neither is it of sex at any price: it explicitly deplores sex by force. In a recent RSC production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, by something of a compromise Bottom and Titania, in decorous, half-dressed semi-private, copulated modestly and traditionally in the “missionary position,” in a huge, inverted umbrella.25

It seems worth noting a quite different form of conceit in a glancing sally of ecclesiastical satire, or witticism without the satire, in Quince's exclamation, “Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated” (3.1.118-19), from one sort of ass to another, as it were. This must have been accompanied by Quince's making the sign of the cross, and it quite possibly carried an allusion to a bishop's mitre and episcopal “translation” from see to shining see. Robin also uses the word in “I … left sweet Pyramus translated there” (3.2.31-32).

Bottom rises to the requirements of his courtly translation and himself practices noblesse oblige, the particular form of socially benevolent behavior that Helena speaks for more generally as “manners,” a value well above the “honor” of the infatuated young men and their brash devotion to their mistress Helena, and correspondingly harsh rejection of their sometime favorite, Hermia. Perhaps partly because the idea of “manners” has contracted from a stronger moral purport to something close to mere etiquette, it tends to be not much noticed in Dream, but, as already noted in connection with Theseus, it is certainly there and important, to Shakespeare as to his characters and some of his contemporaries. Bottom is at his gracious best as an ideal courtier translated favorite of the fairy queen (3.1, 4.1), and she is not wholly fool to find him “as wise as thou art beautiful” (3.1.148)—in manners, if not to the unbiased eye.26 Titania tells her fairy courtiers to “Be kind and courteous to this gentleman” and “do him courtesies” (164, 174), and Bottom responds in kind with genial humor as he learns the fairies' names (179-96). And so he continues in 4.1 until he has “an exposition of sleep come upon me” (39), when the court fairies leave and Titania ends their dialogue with “Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms. / … O how I love thee! How I dote on thee!” (40-45). The lack of stage directions at this point might be taken as performance latitude if not license for licentiousness. But both Q1 and F have Oberon present “behind” (i.e., “unseen,” eds.) for the entire action, which could hardly pass uninterrupted if it were played as in some recent productions and Oberon were truly “jealous Oberon.” After Titania's last line, both she and Bottom inferentially now sleeping, Oberon bids “Welcome, good Robin. Seest thou this sweet sight? / Her dotage now I do begin to pity” (46-47).


The manifold ramifications of literary and figurative dream in Dream have understandably occupied the attention and sometimes obsessed the imagination of theatrical and academic exponents alike, often with a regrettable suppressing of the play's socioethical implications. That these were important to Shakespeare is evident in the emphasis they receive in Dream, comic at one end of the aesthetic scale in Bottom's delightful attempt, like Christopher Sly's, to rise to the greatness thrust upon him; serious at the other end to the point of—near—deadly earnest in the discord between the lovers. Helena as sentient victim is one of Shakespeare's most persuasive spokespersons for the theme:

If you were civil and knew courtesy,
You would not do me thus much injury. …
If you were men, as men you are in show,
You would not use a gentle lady so.

(3.2.147-48, 151-52)

The sentiment is significant enough—as well as dramatically pertinent and compelling—to be repeated, still more plaintively and with a keen sense of the modes of mockery, when Helena includes her dearest, oldest friend Hermia:

If you have any pity, grace, or manners,
You would not make me such an argument.


What is said here is—again—socially important, unequivocal, and psychologically and philosophically true, not less now than in Shakespeare's day. To bury such humane and ethical sentiments in stage business, gender psychology, and mesmerism is to maim the play and abuse the audience and its civil culture simultaneously.

Demetrius remarks that “It seems to me / That yet we sleep, we dream” (4.1.193-94); and the lovers' experience, including Titania's and Bottom's, is very dreamlike, whereas much of the play's internal experience is less so, even as it centers on the fairies. And yet. Bottom's dream “hath no bottom” because he hath it, for good and always.


Disappearing without a trace in act 4, Egeus by his incorrigible irritability and intolerance would seem to have written himself out of the script before the matrimonial action of act 5 (in Q1), pronouncing his own epitaph, in effect, with his terminal Shylock-like, epizeuxis-laden lines calling for “the law, the law upon his [Lysander's] head,” etc. (4.1.154-59). Among important recent editions, only the Oxford and Norton Complete Works, and the Oxford/World's Classics single-play text, replace Q1's act-5 Philostrate with F's Egeus and give some of Theseus' Q1 lines to Lysander (F).27 The reasons were critical judgment and a belief that Folio changes represent Shakespearean revision, especially if they seem to have a theatrical orientation.28 The scholarly consensus (both Oxfords included) is that Q1 (1600) derives from autograph foul papers, whereas F derives from Q2 (the 1619 reprint disguised as “1600”) to some extent collated with and reflecting the promptbook, “the source for many of F's substantive variants from Q” (279). William B. Long, Randall McLeod, and others have argued that the playbook of Shakespeare's day was nothing like so orderly and consistent as Greg's and textual posterity's theoretical “prompt-book,” an entity of importance in modern theatrical practice (see, e.g., Maguire 23 f. and Long 125-43). “If a rule is needed for judging what happened to a playwright's manuscript in the theater, it should be, ‘as little as possible’” (Long 127); and only as much as was essential to clarify performance.

There is no very specific evidence for dating act 5 changes involving Egeus and Lysander. F's act divisions postdate 1609;29 the F stage direction, “‘Tawyer with a Trumpet before them’” ( 1924), probably “originated in a relatively late revival,” since there is no known record of Tawyer “(presumably William)” before 1624.30 Yet Taylor argues for other Folio variants:

Some of these clearly originate in the prompt-book; others are clearly necessary; others involve the alteration of Q readings which seem acceptable to a casual or even an alert reader, and which therefore can hardly have originated in the whims of an unassisted printing-house ‘editor’. Without strong evidence to the contrary, one must therefore assume that the prompt-book is the authority for all added or substantially altered Folio directions and speech-prefixes. Some of these variants might derive from late revivals, over which Shakespeare had no control; but none certainly do, and only the act divisions and Tawyer's name can be confidently associated with performances later than those in the mid 1590s. Although each direction has been considered on its merits, we have found no reason to doubt that the bulk of the Folio directions represent the play as originally and authoritatively staged. Those directions which clearly envisage a different staging from that implied by Q seem to us to be dramatic improvements for which Shakespeare was probably responsible.


This is a good example of what appears to be the Folio bias in action and effect. If there were no such bias, one might expect the practice described above to be reversed, thus: “Although each [F variant] has been considered on its merits, we have found no reason to doubt that the bulk of the [Q1] directions represent the play as originally and authoritatively staged”—or at least authoritatively conceived and composed, since authority qualifies conception and composition better than it can qualify staging as such. Such quartos as Q1 are (and historically were) certainly—as well as by definition—closer to their authorial origins than was “the prompt-book,” a playbook of usually mixed authority lying somewhere between holograph and F. From his study of manuscript playbooks of the period, in this case especially John a Kent and John a Cumber, William B. Long concludes,

On the basis of this earliest surviving example, the difference between the literary document—the fair copy of the play manuscript sold to the company by a fledgling playwright nevertheless aware of an ongoing theatrical tradition—and the theatrical document—the play as adapted to playing needs by the company—was merely seven short annotations indicating how few markings a given company felt it necessary to employ in its playbook.


Critical judgment of variants is not easily separated from assumptions or inferences about their origin, and these work in a circle—hermeneutic, not necessarily vicious: if the F variants are thought superior, they must have come from an authoritative source. Since it has been demonstrated that F was set from Q2 (1619), the ultimate source of “Shakespearean” alterations had to be “the prompt-book,” from which details were copied into the copy of Q2. It seems likely that such details were copied from the promptbook, but it seems quite as likely—even more likely, to my way of thinking—that some changes made in Q2 between 1619 and 1623 reflected evolving theatrical practice unconnected with Shakespeare. If so, which changes were Shakespeare's?

Since there is no apparent theatrical reason for Egeus to replace Philostrate—the same actor could have played both parts without altering the script31—the purpose must have been to bring back and reconcile Egeus, who otherwise disappears in act 4, very like Shylock in The Merchant of Venice—dismissed to unhappiness, as it were. Holland notes that “audiences are unlikely to object if Egeus proves to be the person at court who fulfills that role [of Master of Revels], as in Bill Alexander's 1986 production” (267-68). Alexander went only half way, however; he rejected F's Lysander and “retained the quarto's assignment to Theseus of V.i.44-60” (Halio 82). And “audiences are unlikely to object” is not compelling: is it a reason for making a change? Of course, Egeus' newly and miraculously congenial and solicitous presence can be defended thematically, socially, structurally, symbolically, and otherwise as necessary and transcendently fulfilling, supremely imaginative, and therefore profoundly Shakespearean: nothing comes easier than symmetry, sentiment, and sophistry. Less grandly, it ties up loose ends and satisfies supposed audience expectations or desires—good enough theatrical and commercial reasons for making changes, but slight and arbitrary in this instance.

In F these perfunctory changes of speech assignment could have been made by virtually anyone—especially incompletely (one of the six speeches is still Philostrate's in F at 5.1.76). Shakespeare's complicity cannot in reason be forced much further than Brooks's description of a “change Shakespeare cannot have wished for, though he might acquiesce in it as an expedient” (xxxii). Even if Shakespeare made the change—how shall we know?—he must have done so mechanically and in haste, altering nothing for sense or consonance, merely reassigning speeches. This is hardly what one would expect of the author of the inferred addition of the poet to the company of the lover and madman in Theseus' great setpiece, or of any other addition or revision with content enough to evaluate. In short, there seems no reason to dignify such “revision” by finding Shakespeare guilty of it. It should be axiomatic that a “revision” anyone could execute—above all a cut but any purely mechanical change as well—not only need not but should not be assigned to Shakespeare—or to any other playwright—without strong positive reasons.

The respective stage directions are

  • Enter Theseus, Hyppolita, and Philostrate. Q1, TLN 1736
  • Enter Theseus, Hippolita, Egeus and his Lords. F, TLN 1792

The sole business assuredly Shakespeare's is Q1's, which opens with a subscene's intimate conversation between Theseus and Hippolyta that Philostrate need not overhear even if “present” for 1-27.

Replying to Theseus' enquiry, Philostrate (or Egeus) says, “There is a brief how many sports are ripe. / Make choice of which your Highness will see first” (42-43). This has no stage direction in Q1 and needs none; it has none in F, which could well use something to explain how not Theseus, to whom the brief is offered (Q1), but Lysander (Lis. F), comes to read the titles of the entertainments, with Theseus responding only with a comment on each. In Q1 Theseus both reads the title and makes the comment, which has obvious stageworthiness and makes sense of Philostrate's presentation lines. Theseus is the ruler, after all. Here Brooks follows Q1 but the Oxford et al. follow F. Holland explains,

While some commentators have worried why Lysander should be given the task, whether Philostrate has had his place usurped or has turned away in a huff, and whether the hierarchies and niceties of court behaviour have been disrupted, the dialogue certainly works more effectively when split between Lysander and Theseus, involving one more character in the action.


Whether F's version works more effectively depends very much upon what confidence and ingenuity are invested in performance, but it seems quite as gratuitous as the reassignment of Philostrate's lines to Egeus. There is no cogent explanation available for either and not much to be said for them in effect, whatever may be said of them in theory, so there is little reason to think they are Shakespeare's. Instances of virtually certain Shakespearean revision there are, Theseus' setpiece poet probably prominent among them.32 But it requires no strain to conclude that there was less Shakespearean revision than has recently been asserted.


These are one and the same fairy with the significant but long-neglected difference that “Puck” is a Puck, a species of fairy.33 In Dream he is identified for us first by a nameless fairy as “that shrewd and knavish sprite / Call'd Robin Goodfellow” (2.2.33-34), very likely a propitiatory name.34 The fairy adds, “Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck, / You do their work, and they shall have good luck. / Are not you he?” General awareness of the distinction considerably postdated Katharine Briggs's Anatomy of Puck (1959). Both “Puck” and “Robin” occur together as speech headings (with and without abbreviation) in the earliest editions (Qq, F), but “Puck” has been the received normalization. Only recently has “Robin” become the normalized—unambiguous—speech heading, in the Oxford (and Norton) editions. “Puck” may well survive, however, since it is traditional and everyone knows who is intended: though there are many fairies in Dream, there is only one Puck.35

Shakespeare sometimes seems to mark by name the changing faces and functions of this character obedient to the letter of command but mischief-loving most of the time, who is thoroughly benign in the terminal couplet of the Epilogue, but with darker edges and affinities manifested here and there before. In 3.2, for example, Oberon bids “Robin, overcast the night,” and “The starry welkin cover thou anon / With drooping fog as black as Acheron” (355-57). “Puck” (his speech heading in Qq, F) replies,

My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For Night's swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora's harbinger,
At whose approach, ghosts, wand'ring here and there,
Troop home to churchyards. Damned spirits all,
That in crossways and floods have burial,
Already to their wormy beds are gone.
For fear lest day should look their shames upon,
They willfully themselves exile from light,
And must for aye consort with black-brow'd Night.


From this poetical digression into the world of Hamlet or Macbeth he is quickly recalled by Oberon's reminder that “we are spirits of another sort.” “Puck” assumes the darker character again and flirts with a pre-Gothic genre when he enters, alone, after the lovers have gone to bed, beginning, “Now the hungry lion roars,” and going on to other gloomy and chilling “Now” events in

Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide,

a deliberate, spine-tingling, ghost-story warmup (371-82) before he modulates to “we fairies … / Now are frolic” and his present office: “I am sent with broom before / To sweep the dust behind the door” (390).

Is anything to be made of the separate names and designations? Is the Puck a sinister species given to recalcitrance at best, and Robin an exceptional member with a better nature made evident as such by the use of his name? Or to put that differently, is anything to be made of the uses of “his” multiple names in the play—in the text, the stage directions, and the speech headings? Brooks notes that the “most striking variations [in speech-prefixes] are between ‘Puck’ and some version of ‘Robin Goodfellow’. These can readily be understood as corresponding each to the aspect of the character then uppermost in Shakespeare's mind” (xxiv). This plausible and intelligent interpretation may well be right. His detailed “explanation of how they came to alternate in the Q1 text” (xxiv-v) distinguishes between “Puck” as Oberon's messenger and “Robin” as the mischief-maker “acting on his own initiative.”

I am inclined to see (the) “Puck” as having the darker nature, “Robin” as the more sociable. But the distribution of names in Dream does not seem to support the distinction (or Brooks's). The names occur in dialogue only nine times. In stage directions and speech headings they distribute pretty much—not by formes but—by the printer's sheet in Q1, with “Robin” in sheets B, D, and F; and “Puck” in C and E.36 Uses in the dialogue are not much more evidently deliberate except in the Epilogue.

There has been no grave harm done in normalizing to “Puck” (or “Robin”) throughout, but doing so—like normalizing to the personal name “Othello” or “Shylock”—obscures a distinction and a conjunction that the inconsistent speech-headings of the early editions emphasize, presumably inadvertently: the identity of the individual and the anomaly of the group (“Moor,” “Jew,” “Puck”). Shakespeare himself seems to use both in close proximity and interchangeably but for the meter: “Welcome, good Robin. Seest thou this sweet sight?” (4.1.45/TLN 1513), where “Puck” would be unmetrical; “And, gentle Puck, take this transformed scalp” (63/1531), where either name could be used, depending upon “transforme/'d.”37 In that context both names have a positive valence, even if “good” is mainly phatic and “gentle” reflects status more than behavior (oxymoronically), itself as much phatic as flattering.

In any case, editorial normalizing and a sense of the interchangeability of names seem to have prevented readers from noting the Epilogue's—differential—use of both names. The stage direction says “Enter Pucke,” and “Pucke”—5.1.370.1-71/TLN 2080-81, H3v—speaks the “prologue” to the fairies' song and dance; but “Robin”—l. 423/2133, H4—speaks the Epilogue.38 Whether these differential speech headings represent deliberate division of character is doubtful, but in the Epilogue the use of both names appears to make a significant distinction between a threatening generic Puck and the obliging individual Robin. As “an honest Puck”—the Real Thing—the first appeals for “unearned luck / Now to scape the serpent's tongue” (432-33), promising “amends ere long” (434) if favored (cf. 2.1.32-43); but at the same time slyly threatens with “Else the Puck a liar call” (435), a very imprudent thing to do. After the Puck-in-effect concludes his part with “So, goodnight unto you all,” by contrast, Robin-in-effect adds a genial terminal couplet, “Give me your hands, if we be friends, / And Robin shall restore amends” (437-38)—a clear advance from “amends ere long” (434).

It is no accident that the Epilogue, characteristically (for fairies) in heptasyllabics, opens with a falling rhythm in a trochaic-tetrameter couplet, and closes with a rising rhythm in an iambic-tetrameter couplet. The only other variation is an iambic-tetrameter line (431) beginning what is in effect the second octave. The first octave is impersonal and collective (beginning “we shadows”), and asks the “Gentles” to “think but this,” that they have been asleep and dreaming; and “not [to] reprehend” a “theme / … yielding but a dream” (427-28).39 It concludes equally generally, “If you pardon, we will mend” (430). Then the second octave turns personal with “I … an honest Puck” and “me” (Puck and/or Robin), and the semi-formal “Gentles” gives way to “if we be friends” (437), audience and Robin together. One takes “me” to be “Robin” exclusively, because he is named in the next, last line; but the point seems to be that the audience's giving their hands brings out the reciprocating Robin in the Puck. Anyhow, all are one in this conclusion.

Perhaps a pause cueing applause was intended or practiced between “So goodnight unto you all”—which has a terminal ring—and the closing couplet, “Give me your hands,” which is affably forthcoming—and does mean “applaud,” of course, the practical purport of all epilogues. But here the phrase must surely have been intended also to initiate hand-shaking. It is used in that way by Shakespeare many times with “hand” and four to six other times with “hands.” Nearest in sense is Julius Caesar with Brutus' “Give me your hands all over, one by one” (2.1.112); and The Tempest, where Alonso says to Ferdinand and Miranda, “Give me your hands. / Let grief and sorrow still embrace his heart / That doth not wish you joy!” (5.1.213-15).40 The gesture of taking hands is exactly right for Robin here, and it must have been the business of public performance in Shakespeare's day, when “the crowd of ‘understanders’” would be “jostling alongside the amphitheatre platforms” (Gurr 179). With an elevated platform like the new Bankside Globe's, the natural action accompanying the lines would be the speaker's bending or kneeling to take the hands of spectators closest to the platform, whether right to right hand or, more likely, one by each hand, two by two.

“At the end” of Brook's Dream, “Puck and all his colleagues deliberately broke the magic—the magic created by theatre—by advancing into the audience on his final lines … and shaking hands with everyone they could reach. But of course such a tactic subtly continues the magic as well, making it linger in a way analogous to Puck's last speech, which both breaks and extends the illusion” (Dawson 24-25). The notion that all Puck does is invite applause is so deeply ingrained that no one seems to have remarked that Brook in effect rediscovered and elaborated on what must have been the original design, though Trewin comes close: “Puck, in his last two lines, … is inviting applause. Peter Brook interpreted the first words literally: his Puck (John Kane) jumped from the stage and came through the house, shaking hands left and right, the rest of the company at his heels. That was, and is, a fitting end to A Midsummer Night's Dream: all, on stage or off, must be at peace beneath the visiting moon” (105).

Such an “interactive” gesture, rather Michelangelic, makes an energetic kindred connection between the persons in and of the theater, and symbolically between the dramatic “shadows” brought together by the play for communal performance: of roles on the stage by players, and understanding and appreciation—their roles—off the stage by audience and spectators—for we too are shadows as such stuff as dreams—including this one—are made on, whose own little lives are rounded with a sleep. The script itself, itself shared, is the shadow of dialogue passing from actor to auditor and spectator, and through author, scribe, and printer (and editor) to reader: withal from poet-playwright to admirers of his making.


  1. Or perhaps “Like.” G. K. Hunter: “The question that is central to my discussion is … less ‘what is this play about?’ than ‘what is this play like?’” (5). Unless otherwise specified, quotations are taken from the Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed.; and italics used for emphasis within quotations are mine unless otherwise specified. For familiarity's sake, I refer to Robin Goodfellow as “Puck” throughout.

  2. Dent, “Imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” 129; Kott, “Titania and the Ass's Head,” in Shakespeare Our Contemporary, published in Poland in 1961 as Szkice o Szekspirze, in the U.S. in English in 1964, 175.

  3. The two influenced each other, Brook through his 1955 production of Titus Andronicus, Kott by his book and through personal association. See Brook's Preface.

  4. This is not meant to imply that there were not many—sometimes egregious—departures in preceding centuries, especially in production, on which see Halio, chs. 1-2.

  5. The most substantial survey of contemporary thinking is to be found in Wells and Taylor's indispensable Textual Companion; see the condensed “Summary of Control-Texts,” 145-47; and cf. the introduction to “Shakespeare's Text” in Riverside 55-69.

  6. Belittling Theseus goes some way back; cf. even Young 138, 139; he quotes Hippolyta's 5.1.23-27 all or in part 4 times: [vii] epigraph with only 5 lines of Theseus' speech immediately preceding, 8, 140, and 180 as the last 2 lines of his book; since the title is Something of Great Constancy, this is not surprising.

  7. Hippolyta has only 1.56٪ of Dream's words by comparison with Theseus' 10٪. Bottom has the highest percentage of all at 12.6 (10.3 as himself and 2.3 as Pyramus); Helena has 11.3 and Oberon 10. These figures should in general surprise no one, since the speakers variously speak best as well as most, except for Hippolyta, whose paucity of dialogue is quite sufficient in quality and content to articulate the queen she is. The use of word counts eliminates the arbitrary disparity between verse and prose arising from “line counts” in editions of different size and design (e.g., quarto vs. folio). Spevack's Concordance provides the data for word counts based on Riverside (1st ed.).

  8. See the section of this title and the whole of Cressy's chap. 10 on “Courtship and the Making of Marriage” (233-66).

  9. For example, the New Arden and the Oxfords + Norton read antique. Pelican (1959, rev. 1971) and Riverside (1974, 1997) read “antic fables” (anticke F). As OED2 notes, the spelling “antique” was used sometimes (as presumably in Q1) for the different word, “antic” (see both antic and antique).

  10. “Wilson showed that if the irregular lines were removed, the text would still make excellent sense. … As W. W. Greg has said, ‘There is no escaping the conclusion that in this we have the original writing, which was supplemented by fresh lines crowded into the margin so that their metrical structure was obscured.’ … The obvious way of accounting for confusions in lineation in the quarto is to suppose that they result from alterations and reworkings made by the author in the course of composition” (Foakes 137).

  11. The useful term is Bertrand Evans's.

  12. “Several major speeches in this play are important not because they further the action or elaborate a character, but because they represent an explicit verbal development of ideas hinted at in other parts of the play. They are as it were arias in which snatches of melody heard elsewhere are fully developed” (Wells, ed. Dream 24).

  13. In two post-1970s productions about a decade apart at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, director Liviu Ciulei did the former (1985) and Joe Dowling the latter (1997).

  14. “Rude mechanicals” rather than “hempen homespuns” (both borrowed from Puck) is the form of reference preferred by most contemporary commentators.

  15. Might as the third-person subjunctive of may (OED2 v1). The New Variorum Dream records the difficulties of earlier editors with this passage; e.g., Johnson's note begins, “The sense of this passage as it now stands, if it has any sense, is this.” Steevens alone seems to have recognized the wordplay, which has persistently gone unnoticed: “‘In might’ is, perhaps, an elliptical expression for what might have been” (210). It is apt and usual to gloss by the proverb, “To take the will for the deed” and “Everything is as it is taken” (Tilley, Dent, W393).

  16. Demetrius' “No wonder, my lord; one lion may [speak], when many asses do” (153-54) works as a joke fitting the ineptitude rather than as a snide judgment on the men playing their parts. It has been suggested that Moon is distraught by the courtiers' comments (232-45) and shows it when to Lysander's “Proceed, Moon” he replies, obligingly, “All that I have to say is to tell you that the lanthorn is the moon, I the man i' th' moon, this thorn-bush my thorn-bush, and this dog my dog” (257-59). He certainly could be played distraught, but at the expense of the manifest comic design, where the jokes and sociability, not the personal feelings of the player, are consistently foregrounded.

  17. Notable exchanges and speeches by or about Oberon in this connection are 2.1.18-80, 118-47, 175-85; 3.2.374-77; 4.1.45-63, 70-82, 84-90 (87: “Now thou and I are new in amity”).

  18. In slanted productions Oberon tends to wax stentorian at every opportunity given or taken, partly on the hint, no doubt, of Puck's telling a fairy that “The King doth keep his revels here to-night; / Take heed the Queen come not within his sight; / For Oberon is passing fell and wrath,” etc. (2.1.18-31). Puck's hyperbolical description expresses his swaggering for effect.

  19. Neither “mistress” nor “love” implies coition; the case on this evidence is one of courtly courtship.

  20. Greenblatt's reading differs: “Oberon and Titania have, we learn, long histories of amorous adventures; they are aware of each other's wayward passions; and, endowed with an extraordinary eroticizing rhetoric, they move endlessly through the spiced, moonlit night” (Norton 810-11). The character with a long history of amorous adventures is Theseus, four of whose liaisons are mentioned by Oberon (Perigenia, Aegles, Ariadne, and Antiopa; 2.1.77-80) in reproaching Hippolyta for her love of Theseus. Hippolyta and Antiopa are plainly differentiated here, but they were alternative names of the same Amazon, Antiopa/e the more common.

  21. I saw it on 22 May. As an exuberant adaptation, it was arguably closer to the spirit—and therefore to the original letter—of Dream than many a recent “production.” Bottom also played electric bass in the rock group providing the music, the “Hempen Homespuns.”

  22. The orchestra in ancient Greek and Greece was a dancing place. Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece, in rhyme royal like Orchestra, also was printed in 1594.

  23. Heptasyllabics are a distinctive verse-form of the fairies in Dream (though Puck usually speaks in pentameters) and of the Shakespearean Weïrd Sisters (but not Hecate) in Macbeth, among other uses. It has been written that “the brief waves of verse in other meters” than blank verse “serve mainly to change the rhythm or to provide a verse mode more appropriate for certain kinds of characters. The fairies … signal their peculiar status (at least part of the time) through tetrameter couplets” (Wright 114). But (acatalectic, octosyllabic) tetrameters are the exceptions to heptasyllabic lines rather than the rule; and trochaics are still less frequent than occasional iambic tetrameters—e.g., the first two and last two lines of the Epilogue.

    Heptasyllabics have a unique and variously exploitable lilt, and they are perhaps the most sense-enforcing kind of verse: the lines are almost invariably regular and the stresses especially serviceable in forcing the sense(s) and emphases intended. But most of Shakespeare's verse, including his blank verse, expresses its intended sense partly through meter, so it is a mistake to decide upon the sense and rhetoric of the words before entertaining the meter's dictates. This is one reason why it is useful for actors to understand versification—not technically, but functionally and semantically.

  24. Demetrius' waking declaration of love for Helena (3.2.137-44) is similar to Lysander's (2.2.102-05, 111-22) and is taken so by Helena, but this is part of the (not uneasy) comedy of mistaken identity at midplay: “There's no art / to find the mind's construction in the face” (Macbeth 1.4.11-12)—or in the amatory utterance.

  25. Dir. Adrian Noble, 1994-95; I saw it at the RST on 25 August 1994. In the 1970s a tergo became fashionable in productions of Jacobean tragedy, especially The Changeling.

  26. Greenblatt finds him “the most flatulently absurd of the mechanicals” (Norton 807).

  27. The F-based New Variorum Dream reads likewise.

  28. So far as I know, no one has made a strong case for the changes. Oxford cites Barbara Hodgdon's “Gaining a Father” as making a critical case for following F with Egeus, but her case is mainly rhetorical. She dismisses Brooks's thoughtful argument in favor of Q1's Philostrate as “mask[ing] only slightly the subjectivity of equating Shakespeare's wishes with his own; I would counter his argument by noting that rejections of the Folio variants as theatrical expediency are themselves speculative” (535). She handles the awkwardness of Egeus as “our usual manager of mirth” by saying that, “since Theseus asks four questions in rapid succession, all of which have to do with the evening's entertainment, it is most unlikely that an audience will pick up on only one and thus question Philostrate's absence. Even if they do, the inconsistency is of a kind Shakespeare is all too famous for elsewhere” (538).

  29. “The King's men appear not to have made use of such intervals before about 1609 (see Taylor, ‘The Structure of Performance’)” (Textual Companion 279b).

  30. Textual Companion 279b; if “Tawyer” came so late, why not Egeus and Lysander? “William Tawyer, as we know from the record of his burial [‘June 1625, at St. Saviour's, Southwark’], was ‘Mr. Heminges man’” (Brooks xxx). Extrapolating backward by way of Heminges, who was associated with Shakespeare's company from 1594 on, Berger infers that “Tawyer and his trumpet … could have been added at any time after the composition of the foul papers in the mid-1590s” (xi), whenever he was old enough, but we do not know when he was born.

  31. And “Assertions that” the change “was made for reasons of doubling are unfounded and implausible” (Textual Companion 285a,

  32. Recent writings on revision are by now legion, among the seminal works being those by Warren (1978), Urkowitz (1980), the collection edited by Taylor and Warren (1983), and Ioppolo (1991).

  33. In “All we like sheep …” elsewhere in this collection Susan Snyder includes consideration of Puck/Robin as an editorial problem in deciding how to designate characters in speech headings and stage directions.

  34. Used in full otherwise only—and curiously, given its unnecessary length, which seems not likely to be authorial—in Q1 SDs ( 367,, and

  35. “Robin Goodfellow, hobgoblins and pucks all belonged to the same group [genus?] of fairies. … Scot [Discovery of Witchcraft, 1584] lists all three as distinct and separate types of ‘bug[bear]s’” (Holland 35).

  36. Spellings vary: “Pu,” “Puck,” and “Pucke”; and “Ro,” “Rob,” “Robi,” and “Robin.” All could be Shakespearean. Some are instances of “decremental repetition,” which occurs also in the Shakespearean pages of the MS of Sir Thomas More (see Clayton, “Today” 67, 73).

  37. The word occurs with both 'd and ed pronunciations in Shakespeare.

  38. Cf. Brooks: at 5.1.371 “on his mission as Oberon's and the fairies' harbinger, he enters and speaks as ‘Puck’; but he addresses the audience in the Epilogue in the folk-lore character familiar to them: the epilogue prefix is Robin, and the last line promises: ‘Robin shall restore amends.’ Yet in the course of his address he has called himself ‘the Puck’ and ‘an honest Puck’ (l. [431]). By this time, no doubt, both appellations, ‘Robin’ and ‘Puck’, were always present in Shakespeare's mind” (xxv).

  39. No one seems to gloss “theme,” but perhaps it is not superfluous to give OED2 1b: “A subject treated by action (instead of by discourse, etc.); hence, that which is the cause of or for specified action, circumstance, or feeling; matter, subject. Obs.”—and note that the first examples are from Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus 5.2.80 (“See heere he comes, and I must play my theame”); and Hamlet.Hamlet. Why I will fight with him vppon this Theme” (5.1.289) and “Queen. “Oh my sonne, what Theame? Hamlet. I lou'd Ophelia [etc.].”

  40. The other plurals of the kind are Richard II 3.3.202 and The Taming of the Shrew 2.1.318. Two misleading “concordance cousins” are Henry VI, Part 3, 4.6.38 and The Two Noble Kinsmen 5.3.109; in these the speaker asks for the hands of two in order to join them together (Henry VI to Warwick and Clarence, Theseus to Emily and Arcite).

Works Cited

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Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Vol. 7 (Major Tragedies). New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.

Clayton, Thomas. “Today We Have Parting of Names: A Preliminary Inquiry into Some Editorial Speech-(Be)headings in Coriolanus.” In Shakespeare's Speech-Headings. Edited by George Walton Williams. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997. 61-99.

Cressy, David. Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Dawson, Anthony B. Watching Shakespeare: A Playgoers' Guide. London: Macmillan Press, 1988.

Dent, R. W. “Imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964): 115-29.

———. Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Evans, Bertrand. Shakespeare's Comedies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960.

Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Halio, Jay L. Shakespeare in Performance: “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Hodgdon, Barbara. “Gaining a Father: The Role of Egeus in the Quarto and the Folio.” Review of English Studies NS 37 (1986): 534-42.

Hunter, G. K. English Drama 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare. Oxford History of English Literature 6. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Ioppolo, Grace. Revising Shakespeare. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Kott, Jan. “Titania and the Ass's Head.” Translated by Boleslaw Taborski. In Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Rev edn. 1965, 171-90. London: Methuen & Co Ltd., 1967.

Long, William B. “John a Kent and John a Cumber: An Elizabethan Playbook and Its Implications.” Shakespeare and Dramatic Tradition: Essays in Honor of S. F. Johnson. Edited by W. R. Elton and William B. Long. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989, 125-43.

Maguire, Laurie E. Shakepearean Suspect Texts: The “Bad” Quartos and their Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Selbourne, David. The Making of [Brook's] “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” London: Methuen, 1982.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Edited by Harold F. Brooks. New Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1979.

———. Edited by R. A. Foakes. New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

———. Edited by Horace Howard Furness. 1895. New Variorum Shakespeare. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1963.

———. Edited by Trevor R. Griffiths. Shakespeare in Production. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

———. Edited by Peter Holland. World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

———. Edited by Gary Taylor (John Jowett, “Scrutinizer”). In William Shakespeare: The Collected Works. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

———. Edited by Stanley Wells. New Penguin Shakespeare. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1967.

———. A Midsummer Night's Dream 1600 [Q1]. Prepared by Thomas L. Berger. Malone Society Reprints. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

———. The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare. Prepared by Charlton Hinman. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1968.

———. The Norton Shakespeare. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt (general editor), Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

———. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2d ed. Edited by G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

———. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Spevack, Marvin, comp. A Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of [the Riverside, 1st ed.] Shakespeare. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1968-80.

Taylor, Gary, and Michael Warren, eds. The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of “King Lear.” Oxford Shakespeare Studies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Tilley, Morris Palmer. A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950.

Trewin, J. C. Going to Shakespeare. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978.

Urkowitz, Steven. Shakespeare's Revision of “King Lear.” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Warren, Michael J. “Quarto and Folio King Lear and the Interpretation of Albany and Edgar.” In Shakespeare, Pattern of Excelling Nature. Edited by David Bevington and Jay L. Halio. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1978.

Wells, Stanley, and Gary Taylor. William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Wright, George T. Shakespeare's Metrical Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

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

Gail Kern Paster and Skiles Howard (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3644

SOURCE: Paster, Gail Kern and Skiles Howard, eds. Introduction to A Midsummer Night's Dream: Texts and Contexts, edited by Gail Kern Paster and Skiles Howard, pp. 1-9. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.

[In the following essay, Paster and Howard survey the themes and central action of A Midsummer Night's Dream and provide a general review of critical trends.]

A Midsummer Night's Dream is enchanting, lyrical, and very funny. So say generations of readers and audiences captivated by the play's eclectic mingling of lovers, fairies, and artisan actors in an action filled with mythological allusions and moved by the combined power of love, magic, and self-conscious theatricality. Thematically, the play stands forth as a comedy about romantic desire and the trials of imagination. Its two central actions—the love chase of Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius and the encounter between a metamorphosed Bottom and the fairy queen Titania—symbolize the arbitrary power of lovers' imaginations to transform the beloved from just another human being into an incomparable individual. In its framing and subsidiary actions—the nuptial festivities of Theseus and Hippolyta and the artisans' hilarious rehearsal and performance of their version of “Pyramus and Thisbe”—the play extends its social reach to bring figures from classical legend together with humble (but aspiring) workingmen. In the melding of these comic materials, Shakespeare suggests that courtship, marriage, and putting on a play have much in common. All three are unpredictable, creative enterprises requiring daring, hope, and a willingness to look foolish in the eyes of others.

In the Athens of Theseus, the protocols of love are full of comic potential. Bottom opines wisely to Titania that “reason and love keep little company together nowadays” (3.1.119-20). In this summary judgment and commonplace wisdom, only the qualifying adverb “nowadays” is suspect. Nothing in the play's texture of allusion and mythology suggests that love was ever rational or comprehensible to the spectator from the outside or the desiring subject from within. In action, the onset of love produces events that are painful and/or hilarious to witness. From the opening of the play, Shakespeare hints at what troubles lovers in the passage from courtship to marriage. Theseus has had to conquer a woman's desire for autonomy—symbolized here by the Amazon Hippolyta. The four young lovers have to conquer various obstacles, both internal and external, ranging from the volatility of male desire to the opposition of Hermia's father and the mutual suspicions harbored by all four of them. These young lovers, while seeming overwhelmed by passion, have reason to be suspicious of love. When the men change from loving Hermia to loving Helena, their change of heart is violently expressed as hatred for the disavowed one: “Hang off, thou cat, thou burr,” Lysander shouts to the bewildered Hermia, “Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent!” (3.2.260-61). Lysander and Demetrius seem to know no intermediate form of address to the women, oscillating between extremes of adoration and degradation. Oberon has transformed their vision, has altered the object of their desire, but he is not responsible for everything that Lysander and Demetrius say. And, given Oberon's (mis)management of his powers to create and destroy desire through magical love juice, the three couples at the end of the play will need fairy blessings and more to stay faithful to one another, to bear and raise happy children, and to keep their houses from harm.

For their part, the fairy spouses quarrel so bitterly over custody of Titania's foster child that Oberon is moved to punish and humiliate his queen by causing her to dote absurdly on Bottom. When Puck reports how it came to pass that “Titania waked and straightway loved an ass,” Oberon replies with delight: “This falls out better than I could devise” (3.2.34-35). But its depiction of love as irrational, sudden, and even self-destructive does not prevent A Midsummer Night's Dream from finally endorsing romantic love as the basis of marriage, even if such endorsement requires myth, magic, and amnesia for its consummation. “These things seem small and undistinguishable,” Demetrius says with puzzlement when the four lovers awake after their strife-filled night in the woods, “Like far-off mountains turnèd into clouds” (4.1.182-83). The job of comedy—so the play's joyous conclusion implies—is to imagine the attainment of long life, true love, and good children not as an arbitrary accident of fortune but as a reward for suffering, albeit the limited and predictable kind of suffering that goes here under the fanciful rubric of romantic misadventure in the woods. Perhaps it is this complex combination of recognition and endorsement that has recommended the play to generation after generation of playgoers.

Its enduring popularity and its undeniable charm are proof of A Midsummer Night's Dream's greatness as comedy. But questions other than the play's greatness have also preoccupied scholars for a long time; we intend to address them, at least in part, through the documents included in this volume. In the last two decades, much literary scholarship has been engaged in showing that Shakespeare's plays, including the romantic comedies, are deeply entwined in the sociocultural circumstances of early modern England. In the case of A Midsummer Night's Dream, understanding of the play has been complicated and deepened by critical attention to the political tensions and social conflicts embedded in its contextual history. Scholars have investigated, for example, the play's reproduction of the social structures of rank and gender. They have noted that the play treats Peter Quince and his fellow laboring men as less than fully adult. The mechanicals even seem to acquiesce in such infantilizing treatment, referring repeatedly to themselves as “every mother's son.” Some scholars have wondered whether this affectionate but somewhat condescending portrayal is linked, defensively, to Elizabethan social tensions in the wake of widespread unrest and local uprisings in the mid-1590s (Leinwand, “‘I believe’”); others have seen the mechanicals as a complexly ironic self-representation by Shakespeare the professional man of the theater, as a playful strategy for distancing his company of the Lord Chamberlain's Men from amateur players (Montrose, Purpose 205).

As with the mechanicals, so with other elements of the play: tracing out the play's complex interconnections with its culture has led scholarship in many directions. Thus some scholars have wished to follow the leads offered by the text's geographical allusions to “the farthest step of India” (2.1.69), where Titania's beloved foster child was born and whence Oberon has come to witness the wedding of Hippolyta to Theseus. In these geographical references, post-colonialist critics argue, we may glimpse the early traces of England's imperial future and its emerging preoccupation with the structures of racial and geographical difference (Hendricks). For feminist historians in particular, the play's opening allusion to the conquered Amazons and Theseus's strange pronouncement to Hippolyta that he has “won thy love doing thee injuries” (1.1.17) have prompted historical and theoretical critique. Feminists have noted the gender tensions, the note of complaint directed at all women, implied in the impatient bridegroom Theseus's comparison of the moon to “a stepdame or a dowager / Long withering out a young man's revenue” (1.1.5-6). Rather than dismissing the opening dispute between Hermia and her father as merely the generic furniture of comedy, the romantic conflict required to move the action, scholars have paid serious historical attention to the generational, gender, and religious tensions suggested by so prominent a disagreement over whose desire counts most in the matter of marital choice. To them, Theseus's dictum to Hermia that “to you your father should be as a god” (1.1.47) sounds less like a patriarch's serene orthodoxy and more like his embattled hope. And, of course, cultural historians of all stripes have sought to understand the full force and political implications of the play's several allusions to Queen Elizabeth. It is she, and not Titania, whom literate Elizabethans would have identified as “the fairy queen,” whether or not they had read Edmund Spenser's great romantic poem. More specifically, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, it is Elizabeth to whom Oberon refers as “a fair vestal thronèd by the west,” the “imperial vot'ress” (2.1.158, 163). In the play's mythmaking, she alone is said to be immune to the lovebolts of Cupid, in her “maiden meditation, fancy-free” (164).

Flattering acknowledgment of offstage royal beings is characteristic—indeed virtually required—of court entertainments. It is one reason why arguments continue to flourish about whether or not A Midsummer Night's Dream was originally commissioned to celebrate an aristocratic wedding (Chambers 1: 358). Evidence to support such claims remains inconclusive (if tantalizing), and it seems safer to assume with Louis Montrose that Shakespeare, the public playwright, would have wanted to write plays with broad appeal, plays suitable for private performance at court or an aristocratic household (Purpose 160-61). Even so, flattery of royal personages is much less characteristic of plays written for the public theaters where kings and queens never came. Furthermore, it is important to recognize that the play's treatment of its fairy queen is far more complex and ambivalent than mere flattery would warrant. Hence scholars have seen real if ambiguous tensions in the play's relations to the monarch, perhaps fueled by what Montrose has called “processes of disenchantment,” which are “increasingly evident in Elizabethan cultural productions of the 1580s and 1590s” (Purpose 165). It has been important for recent scholarship to explicate the play's varied strategies of allusion and disenchantment, to note the tensions of class, gender, and generation often embedded in the play's metaphorical language or, as with the Amazons and the Indian boy, given importance through reference rather than representation. In such metaphors and allusions we may trace the cultural dialogue in which the play is rooted.

In the commentary and documents of this volume, we have sought to include what seem to us the most important of the many perspectives introduced by such recent historical scholarship, though to do them all justice would require many more pages and many more documents than we have space for. Suffice it to say that we, like others before us, see the play's text saturated by the massive, overarching social and cultural changes occurring in post-Reformation England over the course of the sixteenth century. While it may always be difficult to detail the effect of such changes on the production of specific literary texts, it is almost impossible to overstate their overall transformation of cultural practices. As historian Charles Phythian-Adams has suggested,

for urban communities in particular, the middle and later years of the sixteenth century represented a more abrupt break with the past than any period since the era of the Black Death or before the age of industrialization. Not only were specific customs and institutions brusquely changed or abolished, but a whole, vigorous, and variegated popular culture, the matrix of everyday life, was eroded and began to perish.


In England, the kind of changes that we highlight in this volume were wrought, directly and indirectly, by the Protestant Reformation—what happened during the 1530s when the English abandoned their allegiance to Roman Catholicism and created the national church, today's Church of England. We understand that Reformation not merely as a change in religious practice and doctrine, but rather as a large-scale social, cultural, and intellectual transformation. The revolutionary changes of most interest to us here include (but obviously are not limited to) the following: a transformation of holiday customs, festive practices, and the official calendar; the disappearance of monastic ways of life, especially for women; the centralization of state power around a charismatic ruler and the regularization of the patriarchal nuclear family; and a massive redefinition of supernatural agency and the proper objects of belief.

A history of the English Reformation is of course well beyond our intentions or authority. But our selection of documents is intended to illustrate our firm conviction—and that of other historical scholars of the play—that the Protestant Reformation spreads across the cultural map of early modern England like the letters on a road map, which get harder to see as they increase in size and sprawl across the page. The Reformation's influence on the play is so pervasive and widespread as to be almost invisible. This influence extends, for example, well beyond the obvious effect on the play's representation of marriage and the family (which we document especially in Chapter 3) into such apparently unlikely areas as the play's representation of holiday customs (Chapter 1), its allusive treatment of the Amazons (Chapter 3), and its characterization of the fairies (Chapter 4).

The Reformation's several effects on early modern English culture are of course interrelated. In the later Middle Ages, some 9,300 English men and women (or about 0.26 percent of the population) lived in monasteries or convents, with convents numbering approximately 138 (Crawford, Women and Religion 219, n.10). After the dissolution of monastic ways of life, many adults of both sexes, but women especially, found their life choices significantly constrained. Convent life had offered women an honored vocation, a large degree of self-government under the authority of abbesses and prioresses, and independence from the demands of family (Crawford, Women and Religion 22). The modern model of an affectionate marriage within a small, nuclear household became the newly normative—and even perhaps the only truly acceptable—basis of mature social identity. This relatively new cultural insistence upon marriage for women suggests why the defeat of the Amazons, that community of self-governing women, should serve as historical precursor for the opening events of the play. The state's dissolution of the conventual way of life may also account for Theseus's disparagement of female celibacy when he informs a defiant Hermia of the harsh Athenian law concerning women's marriages. It is your choice, Theseus informs her without a trace of irony, whether to die by state-sponsored execution (its exact means unspecified), to “live a barren sister all your life” (1.1.72), or to marry the man whom father Egeus wants as son-in-law. Students may gauge the extent of this social transformation by remembering Chaucer's Wife of Bath, who begins her own self-portrait as a much-married woman by defending marriage as a worthy way of life for men and women against the superior perfection of virginity. “Virginitee is greet perfeccion, / And continence eek with devocioun,” she admits, but defiantly declares “I wol bistowe the flour of al my age, / In the actes and the fruyt of mariage” (Wife of Bath's Prologue 105-06, 113-14). In England two centuries later, she need not have bothered to defend herself or the goodness and necessity of marriage.

Of other major changes brought about in the wake of the Reformation most relevant to A Midsummer Night's Dream, we have selected documents that highlight the change in belief practices implied in the play's treatment of the supernatural. As we will spell out in chapter 4, change in the official religion changed the consensus about the nature of supernatural agency. Belief in fairies, like belief in witches, became a matter of real debate instead of a matter of indifference or neutral disagreement. Medieval Catholicism had considered belief in fairies as paganism. Ironically, now that Catholicism was itself the superseded religion in England, Protestant reformers identified it with superstitious beliefs and practices. Placating fairies with gifts of food, as country people were said to do, now smacked of ignorant superstition or worse. But such disagreement about the supernatural is linked—as we shall see—to redefinitions of the natural and a reexamination of the possible. Are marvels the direct work and judgment of God, people increasingly began to wonder, or events susceptible to scientific explanation?

It is this complex of interlinked and overlapping historical issues on which we focus in the following chapters. Chapter 1 has the most general application to English culture, since it concerns holiday celebrations at a moment in the nation's social history when festive practices—May Day observances, civic theatricals, royal entertainments—had begun to divide and differentiate, had begun to signify “popular” or “elite.” Chapter 2 takes up the play's representation of male hierarchy and narratives of male development, both the normative development of an upper-class English male and the exceptional but still broadly symbolic development of a legendary hero such as Theseus. The social tensions surrounding the proper formation of the male subject surface in the fairies' custody dispute over the Indian boy. (They would have not quarreled at all, we must remember, had the child been a girl: Oberon's court is a household of male intimates.) Chapter 3 turns to women, first to representations of those who, both alone and in communities, sought to elude or resist marriage, then to representative selections from the literature that prescribed the duties of daughters and wives and narrated the exemplary lives and deaths of dutiful wives. Chapter 4 is occupied by many elements of the play's dazzling supernaturalism. We understand the play's magic as motivated, at least in part, by a rich post-Reformation debate about the causes of things (especially extraordinary or monstrous things). By highlighting this debate, we seek to offer an alternative to the folkloric interpretations that have sentimentalized the fairies—and often the rest of the play as a result. We define the play's make-believe as an intervention in competing post-Reformation beliefs and practices with the fairies as unknowing players in the religious controversies of late Elizabethan culture. In this context, the following parts of the play come together: Titania's allusions to the wet summers and successive bad harvests of the mid-1590s, the comic treatment of current theological debates about the scope and nature of supernatural agency, Ovidian mythological narratives about wonderful metamorphoses, Bottom's transformation and erotic encounter with Titania, the sin of bestiality, and contemporary theories of monstrous birth.

Romantic comedy's representation of love and marriage cannot escape the determinations of its historical moment, even when the romantic comedy in question is, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, explicitly distanced in time and place from the society where it was first performed. Thus when Titania and Oberon meet onstage for the first time and, for their benefit and our own, rehearse the grounds of their profound marital quarrel, we learn that their separation has had disastrous consequences in the natural order:

No night is now with hymn or carol blessed.
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. …


These references to wet weather, bad air, and poor harvests must have reminded Shakespeare's audiences of the succession of stormy springs and cold, wet summers that had caused several years of harvest failure not just in England but also in many parts of northern Europe. These events in nature had affected them all. Perhaps the lines evoked, more generally, the sense of crisis that hung over the last decade of the sixteenth century. For Europeans living in those years, and for the historians who have studied them, the 1590s seem to have been a terrible time. Political disorder, religious warfare, widespread inflation in the price of basic goods, collapse of the agricultural economy in many countries, subsistence and mortality crises, recurrent epidemics of plague—all these factors in combination created a general sense of crisis, even of catastrophe. Predictions of the end of the world were not uncommon (Clark, “Introduction” 4). England did not suffer the depopulation that afflicted other parts of Europe, including northern Ireland; indeed London was then undergoing a population explosion thanks to an influx of newcomers from elsewhere in England and abroad. To many, the urban landscape was violent and crime-infested, inundated with foreigners, threatened by rioting apprentices and other sources of unrest (some included in this category the theaters themselves). England was also spared the internal religious warfare that devastated France, though it too suffered ferocious ideological conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism of the sort that had spawned warfare on the continent. But overseas warfare—naval expeditions against Spain, military involvement in the Netherlands and France, and recurrent forays against the Irish—took a high toll on English society in the 1590s. It hindered trade, raised taxes, and took a steady stream of able-bodied men out of the labor force only to return some of them, much less able-bodied, as veterans.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, written during difficult years, cannot help being influenced by them, especially since the perception of crisis was a contemporary one. More to the point, Titania's obvious allusions to the recent bad weather seem to invite an audience's critical attention, to offer up the play's action and characters as magical encodings of their own time and space. This impression is reinforced by the play's unusually specific allusions to Queen Elizabeth, mentioned above. But the allusion seems to function here almost as a disclaimer, preventing the scandalous liaison between Titania and Bottom from being understood as a satiric attack on Queen Elizabeth and her manner of bestowing favors and attention upon favorites. The disclaimer cannot work, except tactically, of course. In Elizabethan England, no representation of a fairy queen could ever claim not to concern the real queen at some level. The question, as always, is to figure out just what social meanings are encoded in fictive transformations of the real.


Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. London, 1596.

Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1928.

Clark, Peter. Introduction. The European Crisis of the 1590s: Essays in Comparative History. Ed. Clark. London: Allen, 1985.

Crawford, Patricia. Women and Religion in England 1500-1720. London: Routledge, 1993.

Hendricks, Margo. “‘Obscured by Dreams’: Race, Empire, and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.Shakespeare Quarterly 47 (1996): 37-60.

Leinwand, Theodore. “‘I believe we must leave the killing out’: Deference and Accommodation in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Renaissance Papers, 1986. 11-30.

Montrose, Louis Adrian. The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.

Phythian-Adams, Charles. “Ceremony and the Citizen: The Communal Year at Coventry, 1450-1550.” Crisis and Order in English Towns, 1500-1700: Essays in Urban History. Ed. Peter Clark and Paul Slack. London: Routledge, 1972. 57-85.

Jan Kott (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15208

SOURCE: 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.

[In the following essay, Kott examines the significance of Bottom's metamorphosis in A Midsummer Night's Dream, particularly focusing on why Shakespeare alluded to both St. Paul and Apuleius in reference to Bottom's transformation.]


“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind” (1.1.234).1 This soliloquy of Helena's is part of a discourse on love and madness. Does desire also look with “the mind” and not with “the eyes”? Titania awakens from her dream, looks at the monster, and desires him. When Lysander and Demetrius awaken, they see only a girl's body and desire it. Is desire “blind” and love “seeing”? Or is love “blind” and desire “seeing”? “And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind” (1.1.235). Puck is the culprit in A Midsummer Night's Dream, for he awakens desire by dropping a love potion into the eyes of the sleeping lovers. In the poetic rhetoric of A Midsummer Night's Dream, “blind Cupid” is the agent of love. Are Puck and Cupid interchangeable?

Helena's soliloquy is recited by a young actress or, as in Elizabethan theater, by a boy acting the woman's part. The soliloquy is the voice of the actor. But it is not, or not only, the voice of the character. It is a part of a polyphonic, or many-voiced, discourse on love. In A Midsummer Night's Dream this discourse is more than the poetic commentary to the events taking place onstage. And the action onstage is more than illustration of the text. The discourse and the action not only complement each other but also appear to contradict each other. The dramatic tension and the intellectual richness result from this confrontation of discourse and action.

The same similes and emblems recur from the first to the last act of the play. Emblem may be the most appropriate term, for Cupid is the most significant image in this discourse. This “child” (1.1.238), “the boy Love” (1.1.241), waggish, foreswearing, and beguiling, repeats the post-classical icon of the blind or blindfolded Cupid.

From the early medieval poem, “I am blind and I make blind” to Erasmus' Praise of Folly, the icon is constant: “But why is Cupide alwaies lyke a yonge boie? why? but that he is a trifler, neither doyng, nor thynkyng any wyse acte” (20.20).2 But this blind or blindfolded Cupid, associated in the Middle Ages with personifications of evil and darkness—Night, Infidelity, and Fortune—became by the Renaissance a sign with two contradictory values set in semiotic opposition. “Blind” Cupid does “see,” but only at night, as in one of the most evocative lines in Marlowe's Hero and Leander, “dark night is Cupid's day”; or, once again he “sees” but “with an incorporeal eye,” as in Pico della Mirandola.3 This second Cupid, blind but seeing “with the mind,” appears soon after the first in Helena's soliloquy:

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


Who and what is spoken of? Hermia, who is “sweet” and “fair,” is hardly “base and vile.” Helena does not know yet that Hermia is soon to be her rival. The “real” Helena, a character in the comedy, cannot here be referring to Hermia. The voice of the actor speaking of the madness of Eros forecasts Titania's infatuation with the “monster.” But not only Bottom was “translated” that night. “Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated” (3.1.113). “Translation” was the word used by Ben Jonson for metaphor. But in Shakespeare, “translation” is the sudden discovery of desire. Both couples of young lovers were “translated”: “Am I not Hermia? Are you not Lysander?” (3.2.273). Bottom's metamorphosis is only the climax of the events in the forest. This “night-rule” (3.2.5) ends immediately after Bottom's return to human shape. Oberon and Titania “vanish.” Theseus and Hippolyta return with the beginning of the new day in place of their night doubles. The lovers wake up from their “dream.” And Bottom too wakes up from his: “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 … 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” (4.1.204-6, 209-12).

The source of these astonishing lines is well known. “It must be accepted,” wrote Frank Kermode in his Early Shakespeare (1961), “that this is a parody of 1 Corinthians 2:9-10”: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.”

Kermode quoted the King James version. In Tyndale (1534) and in the Geneva New Testament (1557) the last verse reads, “the Spirite searcheth all thinges, ye the botome of Goddes secrettes.”4 The “Athenian” weaver probably inherited his name from Paul's letter in old versions of Scripture. The spirit which reaches to “the botome” of all mysteries haunts Bottom. But just “translated” into an ass, Bottom translates Paul in his own way: “I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called ‘Bottom's Dream,’ because it hath no bottom” (4.1.212-15).

But Bottom was not the only one in A Midsummer Night's Dream to read 1 Corinthians. We find another echo of Paul's letter in Helena's soliloquy:

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

Paul had written, “And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not to bring to naught things that are” (1 Cor. 1:28). In Tyndale and in the Geneva Bible this verse starts, “and vile thinges of the worlde.” “Things base,” in Helena's lines, appears to be borrowed from the Geneva Bible, and “vile” repeats the wording of the Authorized Version.

For an interpreter a “text” does not exist independently of its readings. Great texts, and perhaps even more so quotations from classical texts, literal or parodistic, form, together with their readings, a literary and cultural tradition. The classical texts are constantly rewritten, they are “the writerly text,” to use Barthes's term.5 Interpretations and commentaries become a part of their life. Classical texts and quotations continuously repeated are active in intellectual emanation which gives them new meaning and changes old ones. This emanation is the history of the classical text as well as the history hidden in the literary text. Classical texts converse among themselves. But borrowings and quotations are never neutral. Each quotation enlists its own context to challenge the author's text for better understanding or for mockery. The literary tradition, “the writerly text,” works forward and backward, constructing and destroying the classical texts, illuminating or disintegrating them, consecrating or desecrating, or both. The literary history is, in a very literal sense, the eating and digesting of the classical texts.

The verse from Corinthians parodied by Bottom and the biblical “things base and vile” in Helena's lines refer to Bottom's transformation and to Titania's sudden infatuation with the monster—both borrowed from Apuleius' The Golden Ass. Shakespeare might have read Apuleius in Latin or in Adlington's translation of 1566.6 The riddle of A Midsummer Night's Dream is not only why Paul or Apuleius was evoked in it but also why both were evoked and involved in the dramatic nexus of Bottom's metamorphosis.

Both texts, Corinthians and The Golden Ass, were widely known, discussed, and quoted during the Renaissance. From the early sixteenth century until the late seventeenth century, both texts were read in two largely separate intellectual traditions having two discrete circuits, and interpreted in two codes which were complementary but contradictory. The first of these codes, which is simultaneously a tradition, a system of interpretation, and a “language,” can be called Neoplatonic or hermetic. The second is the code of the carnival or, in Mikhail Bakhtin's terms, the tradition of serio ludere.

The carnival attitude possesses an indestructible vivacity and the mighty, life-giving power to transform. … For the first time in ancient literature the object of a serious (though at the same time comical) representation is presented without epical or tragical distance, presented not in the absolute past of myth and legend, but on the contemporary level, in direct and even crudely familiar contact with living contemporaries. In these genres mythical heroes and historical figures out of the past are deliberately and emphatically contemporarized …

The serio-comical genres are not based on legend and do not elucidate themselves by means of the legend—they are consciously based on experience and on free imagination; their relationship to legend is in most cases deeply critical, and at times bears the cynical nature of the expose. … They reject the stylistic unity. … For them multiplicity of tone in a story and a mixture of the high and low, the serious and the comic, are typical: they made wide use … of parodically reconstructed quotations. In some of these genres the mixture of prose and poetic speech is observed, living dialects and slang are introduced, and various authorial masks appear.7


Paul's letter to the Corinthians is often invoked in the writings of Neoplatonists. In Mirandola, Ficino, Leone Ebreo, and Bruno, Paul can be found next to the Sibyl of the Aeneid, King David, Orpheus, Moses, or Plato. For the hermetics and Florentine philosophers, as for Lévi-Strauss, “myths rethink each other in a certain manner” (“d'une certaine manière, les mythes se pensent entre eux”).8 While icons and signifiers are borrowed from Plato and Plotinus, Heraclitus and Dionysius the Areopagite, the Psalms, Orphic hymns and cabalistic writings, the signified is always one and the same: the One beyond Being, unity in plurality, the God concealed. At times the method of the Neoplatonists resembles strangely the belief of poststructuralism and the new hermeneutics—that the permutation of signs, the inversion of their value and exchanges performed according to the rules of symbolic logic, will, like the philosopher's stone, uncover the deep structure of Being.

The blind Cupid of desire, the emblem of Elizabethan brothels, unveiled divine mysteries to Ficino and Mirandola. The “things base and vile” signify in this new hermetic code the “botome of Goddes secrettes.” “Man,” wrote Ficino, “ascends to the higher realms without discarding the lower world, and can descend to the lower world without foresaking the higher.”9

As an epigraph to The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud quotes from the Aeneid: “Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo [If I am unable to bend the gods above, I shall move the Underworld.]” Neoplatonic “topocosmos” reappear in Freud's “superego” and the underworld: the repressed, the unconscious, the id. In Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex Freud wrote: “The omnipotence of sex nowhere perhaps shows itself stronger than in this one of her aberrations. The highest and lowest in sexuality are everywhere most intimately connected (‘From heaven through the world to hell’).”10

In the Neoplatonic exchange of signs between heaven, earth, and hell, the celestial Venus is situated above, the Venus of animal sex below the sphere of the intellect. As in a mountain lake whose depths reflect the peaks of nearby mountains, the signs of the “bottom” are the image and the reflection of the “top.” Venus vulgaris, blind pleasure of sex, animal desire, becomes “a tool of the divine,” as Ficino called it, an initiation into mysteries which, as in Paul, “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard.” “Love is said by Orpheus,” wrote Mirandola, “to be without eyes, because he is above the intellect.” Above and at the same time below. For the Neoplatonists the descent to the bottom is also an ascent into heaven. Darkness is only another lighting. Blindness is only another seeing.11 Quoting Homer, Tiresias, and Paul as examples, Mirandola wrote: “Many who were rapt to the vision of spiritual beauty were by the same cause blinded in their corporeal eyes.”12 To the cave prisoners of Plato's parable, everything seen is but a shadow. Shadows are nothing but misty reflections of true beings and things outside the cave. But the shadow indicates the source of the light. “Shadow,” a word frequently used by Shakespeare, has many meanings, including “double” and “actor.” Oberon, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, is called the “king of shadows,” and Theseus says of theater: “The best in this kind are but shadows” (5.1.210). Theater is a shadow, that is, a double. “Revelry” also means “revelation.” In the Neoplatonic code the “revels” and plays performed by the actor-shadows are, like dreams, texts with a latent content.

And it may be said therefore that the mind has two powers. … The one is the vision of the sober mind, the other is the mind in a state of love: for when it loses its reason by becoming drunk with nectar, then it enters into a state of love, diffusing itself wholly into delight: and it is better for it thus to rage than to remain aloof from that drunkenness.

This paraphrased translation by Ficino from the Enneads of Plotinus could also be read as a Neoplatonic interpretation of Apuleius' Metamorphoses. In his famous commentary on the second Renaissance edition of The Golden Ass in 1600, Beroaldus quotes amply from Plato, Proclus, and Origen and sees in Apuleius' Metamorphoses the covert story and the mystical initiation into the secrets of divine love: “For Plato writes in the Symposium that the eyes of the mind begin to see clearly when the eyes of the body begin to fail.”13

This commentary might surprise a reader not familiar with the Neoplatonic exchange of signs, who reads in a straightforward way the crude story of Lucius transformed into an ass. His mistress, a maid in a witch's house, confused magic ointments and transformed him into a quadruped instead of a bird. Beaten, kicked, and starved by his successive owners, he wanders in his new shape through Thessaly all the way to Corinth. He witnesses kidnappings, murders, and rapes; sits with bandits in their cave; attends the blasphemous rituals of sodomites and eunuch priests, and nearly dies of exhaustion harnessed with slaves in a mill-house.

The Satyricon and The Golden Ass use the device of fictional autobiography. Each successive episode, like the picaresque novella later, yields a dry picture of human cruelty, lust for power, and untamed sex. Transformed into a thinking animal, Lucius wanders among unthinking men-animals. The most revealing episode is the meeting between Lucius, who performs tricks as a trained donkey in the circus, and the new Pasiphaë, a wealthy Corinthian matron who, like Titania under the influence of the love potion, has a specific urge for animal sex: “Thou art he whom I love, thou art he whom I onely desire.”

The infatuation of lunar Titania with a “sweet bully Bottom” (“So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape” [3.1.134]) is written under the spell of Apuleius: “how I should with my huge and great legs embrace so faire a Matron, or how I should touch her fine, dainty and silke skinne with my hard hoofes, or how it was possible to kisse her soft, her pretty and ruddy lips, with my monstrous great mouth and stony teeth, or how she, who was so young and tender, could be able to receive me.”14

Lucius is fearful that his monstrous endowment might “hurt the woman by any kind of meane,” but the Greek Titania hastens to dispel his fears: “I hold thee my cunny, I hold thee my nops, my sparrow, and therewithal she eftsoones embraced my body round about.” Even the grotesque humor of this strange mating was repeated in Midsummer Night's Dream:

Come, sit thee down upon this flowery bed,
While I thy amiable cheeks to coy,
And stick musk-roses in thy sleek smooth head,
And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.


But The Golden Ass contains yet another story inserted into the realistic train of Lucius' adventures in the ass's shape. The love story of Cupid and Psyche, an anilibus fabula, or “pleasant old wives' tale,” as Adlington calls it, may be the oldest literary version of the fable of “Beauty and the Beast.”15 The fable is known in folk traditions of many nations and distant cultures; catalogs of folk motifs place it in Scandinavia and Sicily, in Portugal and Russia. It also appears in India. In all versions of the fable, a young maiden who is to marry a prince is forbidden to look at her husband at night. In the daytime, he is a beautiful youth. At night she is happy with him, but never sees him and is anxious to know with whom she is sleeping. When she lights the lamp in the bedroom, the lover turns out to be an animal; a white wolf, a bear, an ass in one Hindu version, and most often a monstrous snake. When the wife breaks the night-rule, the husband/night animal departs or dies. In The Golden Ass this tale is told by “the trifling and drunken woman” to a virgin named Charite, abducted on the eve of her wedding and threatened with being sold to a brothel. This shocking, realistic frame for the mythical tale of Cupid and Psyche is a true introduction for the testing of caritas by cupiditas, or of the “top” by the “bottom,” in Metamorphoses.

Venus herself was jealous of the princess Psyche, the most beautiful of all mortals. She sent out her own son, winged Cupid, to humiliate Psyche and with one of his “piercing darts” to make her fall madly in love “with the most miserablest creature living, the most poore, the most crooked and the most vile, that there may be none found in all the world of like wretchedness.” Afterward, like Shakespeare's Titania, she would “wake when some vile thing is near” (2.2.33). But Cupid himself fell in love with Psyche and married her under the condition that she would never cast her eyes upon him in bed. Psyche broke her vow and lit a lamp. A drop of hot oil sputtered from the lamp and Cupid, burnt, ran off forever.

The story of Psyche ends with her giving birth to a daughter called Voluptas. The story of Lucius ends with his resumption of human form and his initiation into the mysteries of Isis and, after the return to Rome, into the rites of Osiris. Initiations are costly, but Lucius, a lawyer in the collegium established by Sulla, is able to pay the price of secret rites. The story of Psyche, the most beautiful of all mortal maidens, leads from beauty through the tortures of love to eternal pleasure. The story of Lucius, always sexually fascinated by hair before his own transformation into a hairy ass, leads from earthy delights to humiliating baldness: he is ordered twice to shave his head, once as a high priest of Isis and once for the rites of Osiris.

For Bakhtin, the tradition of serio ludere starts with Petronius and Apuleius. But which of the two metamorphoses in The Golden Ass is serious and mystical, and in which does one hear only the mocking risus?

For Beroaldus, Metamorphoses is a Platonic message of transcendent love, written in a cryptic language on two levels above and below reason. From Boccaccio's Genealogia Deorum (1472) to Calderón's auto sacramental, where the story of Psyche and Amor symbolizes the mystical union of the Church and Christ and ends with the glorification of the Eucharist, Apuleius was often read as an orphic, Platonic, or Christian allegory of mystical rapture or divine fury. But for at least three centuries The Golden Ass was also read in the code of “serious laughter.” In Decameron, two novellae were adopted from Apuleius. In Don Quixote, the episode of the charge on the jugs of wine was repeated after Metamorphoses. Adaptations are innumerable: from Molière's Psychè, La Fontaine's Les Amours du Psychè et Cupide, Le Sage's Gil Blas, to Anatole France's La Rôtisserie de la Reine Pedauque.16

In both the intellectual traditions and the codes of interpretation there are exchanges of icons and signs between the “top” and “bottom,” the above and below reason. In the “Platonic translation,” where the “above” logos outside the cave is the sole truth and the “below” is merely a murky shadow, the signs of the top are the ultimate test of the signs of the bottom. Venus vulgaris is but a reflection and a presentiment of the Celestial Venus. In serio ludere the top is only mythos; the bottom is the human condition. The signs and emblems of the bottom are the earthly probation of the signs and emblems of the top. Venus celestis is merely a projection, a mythical image of amore bestiale—the untamed libido. The true Olympus is the Hades of Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead or of Aristophanes' Frogs, where the coward and buffoon Dionysus appears in the cloak of Hercules. Having its origins in Saturnalia, serio ludere is a festive parodia sacra.

In hermetic interpretations, the story of Psyche and Cupid is a mythic version of Lucius' metamorphosis. The transformation into a donkey is a covert story whose mystical sense is concealed. Within the “carnival” as a code, ritual and poetry, Lucius' adventures in an ass's skin form an overt story concealing the hidden mockery in the tale of Amor and Cupid.

Psyche's two sisters, jealous of her happy marriage, insinuate to her that she shared her bed with a snake and monster. The poor woman does not know what she is really feeling since “at least in one person she hateth the beast (bestiam) and loveth her husband.” As in dreams, the latent content of the story of Psyche and Cupid becomes manifest in Lucius' adventures. The signs of the top are an inversion and a displacement of the signs of the bottom. Like the Corinthian matron fascinated by “monstrosity,” and like Titania aroused by Bottom's “beastliness,” Psyche loved the beast and hated the husband “in one person.” The evil sisters, like a Freudian analyst, uncovered her deep secret: “this servile and dangerous pleasure [clandestinae Veneris faetidi periculesique concubitus] … do more delight thee.”

In the Neoplatonic metaphysics as well as in the serio ludere of the carnival, the microcosm represents and repeats the macrocosm, and man is the image of the universe. In the vertical imagery man is divided in half: from the waist up he represents the heavens, from the waist down hell. But all hells, from the antique Tartarus through the hells of Dante and Hieronymus Bosch, are the image of Earth.

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though woman all above:
But to the girdle do the Gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiend's:
There's hell, there's darkness.

(King Lear 4.6.123-30)

In both systems the signs of the above and the below, the macro and the micro, correspond to each other and are interchangeable. But their values are opposed both in the Neoplatonic code and in the carnival tradition and, to a certain extent, in the poetics of tragedy and comedy. From the Saturnalia through the medieval and Renaissance carnivals and celebrations, the elevated and noble attributes of the human mind are exchanged—as Bakhtin shows convincingly—for the bodily functions (with a particular emphasis on the “lower stratum”: defecation, urination, copulation, and childbirth). In carnival wisdom they are the essence of life: a guarantee of its continuity.

Titania, like Psyche, was punished. The punishment is infatuation with the most “base and vile” of human beings. But this vile and base person is not transformed Cupid but the Bacchic donkey. Like the Corinthian matron of Apuleius, Titania sleeps with this carnival ass. In Shakespeare's adaptation of The Golden Ass, Psyche and the lascivious Corinthian matron are combined into the one person of Titania. In serio ludere piety and reverence do not exist as separate from mockery. Seriousness is mockery and mockery is seriousness.

The exchange of signs in serio ludere is the very same translation into the bottom, the low, and the obscene that takes place in folk rituals and carnival processions.17 The masterpiece of carnivalesque literature is Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. In the sixth chapter of the first book, Gargamelle feels birth pangs:

A few moments later, she began to groan, lament and cry out. Suddenly crowds of midwives came rushing in from all directions. Feeling and groping her below, they found certain loose shreds of skin, of rather unsavory odor, which they took to be a child. It was, on the contrary, her fundament which had escaped with the mollification of her right intestine (you call it the bumgut) because she had eaten too much tripe.18

Gargantua's mother had gorged herself so much the previous evening that the child found its natural exit blocked in this carnival physiology.

As a result of Gargamelle's discomfort, the cotyledons of the placenta of her matrix were enlarged. The child, leaping through the breach and entering the hollow vein, ascended through her diaphragm to a point above her shoulders. Here the vein divides into two: the child accordingly worked his way in a sinistral direction, to issue, finally, through the left ear.

In medieval moral treatises and sermons, the mystery of the virgin birth was explained again and again as the Holy Ghost entering the Virgin through her ear—invariably, through her left ear. The Holy Ghost descended to the Virgin Mary from the top to the bottom so she could conceive immaculately. A blow from the anus in Rabelais' parodia sacra propelled Gargantua from the bottom to the top so the child of carnival could be born in the upside-down world.19 In this bottom translation, earthly pneuma replaced the divine one and the movement along the vertical axis of the body, and of the cosmos as well, was reversed. Rabelais appeals directly to Corinthians. The patron saint of this carnival birth was Paul.

Now I suspect that you do not thoroughly believe this strange nativity. If you do not, I care but little, though an honest and sensible man believes what he is told and what he finds written. Does not Solomon say in Proverbs (14:15): Innocens credit omni verbo, the innocent believeth every word, and does not St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13) declare: Charitas omnia credit, Charity believeth all?20

In carnivalesque literature, the first letter to the Corinthians is quoted as often as in the writings of the Neoplatonists. And the choice of the most favored quotes is nearly the same:

Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?


And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to naught things that are.


If any among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.


For Florentine Neoplatonists, Paul is the teacher of supra intellectum mysteries. But in the carnival rites, the fool is wise and his madness is the wisdom of this world.21 For Rabelais, and perhaps even more so for Erasmus, the letter to the Corinthians was the praise of folly: “Therefore Salomon beyng so great a kynge, was naught ashamed of my name when he saied in his XXX chapitre, ‘I am most foole of all men:’ Nor Paule doctour of the gentiles … when writing to the Corinthians he said: ‘I speake it as unvise, hat I more than others, etc.,’ as who saieth it were a great dishonour for him to be ouercome in folie” (109.29 f.). In Erasmus' Moriae encomium Folly speaks in the first person and in its own name. In this most Menippean of Renaissance treatises, Folly appeals to Paul's “foolishness of God” on nearly every page. Near the end of The Praise of Folly, Erasmus describes heavenly raptures which, rarely occurring to mortals, may give the foretaste or “savour of that hieghest rewarde” and which, as in Paul, “was neuer mans eie sawe, nor eare heard.” But Erasmus' Folly, ever cynical and joyful, is more interested in returning to earth and awakening than in mystical raptures.

Who se euer therefore haue suche grace … by theyr life tyme to tast of this saied felicitee, they are subjecte to a certaine passion muche lyke vnto madnesse … or beyng in a truance, thei doo speake certaine thynges not hangyng one with an other … and sodeinely without any apparent cause why, dooe chaunge the state of theyr countenaunces. For now shall ye see theim of glad chere, now of as sadde againe, now thei wepe, now thei laugh, now thei sighe, for briefe, it is certaine, 192that they are wholly distraught and rapte out of theim selues.

(128.4 ff.)

Bottom speaks much as Folly after awakening from his own dream:

Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound his dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was—and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had.


We may now once more evoke the striking and ambivalent image of the return to daybreak after the mystical orgasm in The Praise of Folly.

In sort, that whan a little after thei come againe to their former wittes, thei denie plainly thei wote where thei became, or whether thei were than in theyr bodies, or out of theyr bodies, wakyng or slepyng: remembring also as little, either what they heard, saw, saied, or did than, sauyng as it were through a cloude, or by a dreame: but this they know certainely, that whiles their mindes so roued and wandred, thei were most happie and blisfull, so that they lament and wepe at theyr retourne vnto theyr former senses.

(128.16 ff.)

Let us now hear once more Bottom speak to his fellows:

Masters, I am to discourse wonders: but ask me not what; for if I tell you, I am not a true Athenian. I will tell you every thing, right as it fell out.
Let us hear, sweet Bottom.
Not a word of me.

The Praise of Folly, dedicated to Thomas More, was published in London in Chaloner's translation in 1549 and reprinted twice (1560, 1577), the last time almost twenty years before A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is hard to conceive that Shakespeare had never read one of the most provocative books of the century.22 Bottom's misquote from Corinthians appears after his sudden awakening after the stay in “heaven.” But what kind of heaven, the sexual climax in animal shape or mythical rapture? Apuleius, Paul, and Erasmus meet in Bottom's monologue. Of all encounters in A Midsummer Night's Dream, this one is least expected. “I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream.” The same word “vision(s)” was already uttered by Titania in a preceding scene, upon her waking from a “dream”: “My Oberon, what visions have I seen! / Methought I was enamour'd of an ass” (4.1.75-76).


From Saturnalia to medieval ludi the ass is one of the main actors in processions, comic rituals, and holiday revels. In Bakhtin's succinct formula the ass is “the Gospel—symbol of debasement and humility (as well as concomitant regeneration).” On festive days such as the Twelfth Night, Plough Monday, the Feast of Fools, and the Feast of the Ass, merry and often vulgar parodies of liturgy were allowed. On those days devoted to general folly, clerics often participated as masters of ceremony, and an “Asinine Mass” was the main event. An ass was occasionally brought into the church, and a hymn especially composed for the occasion would be sung:

Orientis partibus
Adventavit Asinus
Pulcher et fortissimus
Sarcinis aptissimus.

The symbolism of the carnival ass and sacred drôlerie survived from the Middle Ages until Elizabethan times.23 At the beginning of Elizabeth's reign donkeys dressed up as bishops or dogs with Hosts in their teeth would appear in court masques. But more significant than these animal disguises, which were a mockery of Catholic liturgy, was the appearance of the Bacchic donkey onstage. In Nashe's Summer's Last Will and Testament, performed in Croyden in 1592 or 1593, a few years before A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bacchus rode onto the stage atop an ass adorned with ivy and garlands of grapes.

Among all festival masques of animals the figure of the ass is most polysemic. The icon of an ass, for Bakhtin “the most ancient and lasting symbol of the material bodily lower stratum,” is the ritualistic and carnivalesque mediator between heaven and earth, which transforms the “top” into the earthly “bottom.” In its symbolic function of translation from the high to the low, the ass appears both in ancient tradition, in Apuleius, and in the Old and New Testaments as Balaam's she-ass, and as the ass on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem for the last time. “Tell ye the daughter of Si-on, Behold thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt foal of an ass” (Matt. 21:5). Graffiti from the third century on the wall of the Palace of Caesars on the Palatine in Rome represent Jesus on the cross with an ass's head. In the oldest mystic tradition an ass is a musician who has the knowledge of the divine rhythm and revelation. An ass appears in the medieval Processus prophetarum and speaks with a human voice to give testimony to the truth in French and English mystery plays.24 In Agrippa's De vanitate scientiarum (1526) we find the extravagant and striking “The Praise of an Ass” (Encomium asinu), which is a succinct repetition of and analogue to Erasmus' Encomium moriae.

The bodily meets with the spiritual in the figura and the masque of the ass. That is why the mating of Bottom and the Queen of the Fairies, which culminates the night and forest revelry, is so ambivalent and rich in meanings. In traditional interpretations of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the personae of the comedy belong to three different “worlds”: the court of Theseus and Hippolyta; the “Athenian” mechanicals; and the “supernatural” world of Oberon, Titania, and the fairies. But particularly in this traditional interpretation, the night Titania spent with an ass in her “consecrated bower” must appear all the stranger and more unexpected.

Titania is the night double of Hippolyta, her dramatic and theatrical paradigm. Perhaps, since during the Elizabethan period the doubling of roles was very common, these two parts were performed by the same young boy. This Elizabethan convention was taken up by Peter Brook in his famous production. But even if performed by different actors, Hippolyta's metamorphosis into Titania and her return to the previous state, like Theseus' transformation into Oberon, must have seemed much more obvious and natural to Elizabethan patrons than to audiences brought up on conventions of the fake realism of nineteenth-century theater. A play on the marriage of the Duke of Athens with the Queen of the Amazons was most likely performed at an aristocratic wedding where courtly spectators knew the mythological emblems as well as the rules of a masque.

Court masques during the Tudor and Elizabethan period were composed of three sequels: (1) appearance in mythological or shepherds' costumes; (2) dancing, occasionally with recitation or song; and (3) the ending of the masque, during which the masquers invited the courtly audience to participate in a general dance. Professional actors did not take part in masques, which were courtly masquerades and social entertainment. “Going off” or “taking out,” as this last dance was called, ended the metamorphosis and was a return of the masquers to their places at court.

The disguises corresponded to social distinctions. The hierarchies were preserved. Dukes and lords would never consent to represent anyone below the mythological standing of Theseus. Theseus himself could only assume the shape of the “King of the Fairies” and Hippolyta that of the “Queen of the Fairies.” The annual Records at the Office of the Revels document the figures that appeared in court masques. Among fifteen sets of masking garments in 1555, there were “Venetian senators,” “Venuses,” “Huntresses,” and “Nymphs.” During the Jacobean period Nymphs of English rivers were added to the Amazons and Nymphs accompanying Diana, and Oberon with his knights was added to Actaeon and his hunters. In 1611, nearly fifteen years after A Midsummer Night's Dream, young Henry, the king's son, appeared in the costume of the “faery Prince” in Jonson's Oberon.25

The most frequently portrayed and popular figure of both courtly and wedding masque was Cupid. In a painting of the wedding masque of Henry Unton in 1572, the guests seated at a table watch a procession of ten Cupids (five white and five black) acompanied by Mercury, Diana, and her six nymphs.26 From the early Tudor masque to the sophisticated spectacles at the Jacobean court, Cupid appears with golden wings, in the same attire, and with the same accessories: “a small boye to be cladd in a canvas hose and doblett sylverd over with a payre of winges of gold with bow and aroves, his eyes binded.”27 This Cupid—with or without a blindfold—would randomly shoot his arrows at shepherdesses, sometimes missing:

But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft
Quenched in the chaste beams of the watery moon;
And the imperial votaress passed on.


But the Renaissance Cupid, who appears eight times in the poetic discourse of A Midsummer Night's Dream, has a different name, a different costume, and a different language as a person onstage. The blindfolded Cupid is “Anglicised” or “translated” into Puck, or Robin Goodfellow. On the oldest woodcut representing the folk Robin Goodfellow, in the 1628 story of his “Mad Pranks and Merry Jests,” he holds in his right hand a large phallic candle and in his left hand a large broom. He has goat horns on his head and a goat's cloven feet. He is wearing only a skirt made of animal skins and is accompanied by black figures of men and women dressed in contemporary garments and dancing in a circle. This “folk” Robin Goodfellow is an Anglicized metamorphosis of a Satyr dancing with Nymphs.

This oldest image of Robin Goodfellow might refresh the imagination of scenographers and directors of A Midsummer Night's Dream who still see Puck as a romantic elf. But this engraving is equally important for the interpretation of the play, in which Shakespeare's syncretism mixes mythological icons of court masques with the pranks and rites of carnival. In A Midsummer Night's Dream the love potion replaces the mythological arrow. In poetic discourse this love potion still comes from the flower which turns red from Cupid's shaft. Shakespeare might have found the “love juice” in Montemayor's pastoral Diana, but he transposed the conventional simile into a sharp and evocative gesture, a metaphor enacted onstage: Puck's squeezing the juice from the pansy onto the eyelids of the sleeping lovers.

“And maidens call it ‘love-in-idleness’” (2.1.168). The pansy's other folk names are “Fancy,” “Kiss me,” “Cull me” or “Cuddle me to you,” “Tickle my fancy,” “Kiss me ere I arise,” “Kiss me at the garden gate,” and “Pink of my John.”28 These are “bottom translations” of Cupid's shaft.

But in the discourse of A Midsummer Night's Dream there is not one flower, but two: “love-in-idleness” and its antidote. The opposition of “blind Cupid” and of Cupid with an “incorporeal eye” is translated into the opposition of mythic flowers: “Diana's bud o'er Cupid's flower / Hath ever such force and blessed power” (4.1.72-73).

The Neoplatonic unity of Love and Chastity is personified in the transformation of Venus into virginal Diana. Neoplatonists borrowed this exchange of signs from a line in Virgil's Aeneid, in which Venus appears to Aeneas, carrying “on her shoulder a bow as a huntress would” (1.327). In the semantics of emblems, the bow, as the weapon both of Cupid-love and of Amazon-virgo, was a mediation between Venus and Diana. The harmony of the bow, as Plato called it, was for Pico “harmony in discord,” a unity of opposites.29 From the union of Cupid and Psyche, brutally interrupted on earth, the daughter Voluptas was born in the heavens; from the adulterous relation of Mars and Venus, the daughter Harmony was born. Harmony, as Neoplatonists repeated after Ovid, Horace, and Plutarch, is concordia discors and discordia concors.

For Elizabethan poets and for carpenters who designed court masques and entertainments, this exchange of icons and emblems became unexpectedly useful in the cult of the Virgin Queen. The transformation of Venus into Diana allowed them to praise Elizabeth simultaneously under the names of Cynthia/Diana and Venus, the goddess of love. In Paris's judgment, as Giordano Bruno explicated in Eroici furori, the apple awarded to the most beautiful goddess was symbolically given to the other two goddesses as well: “for in the simplicity of divine essence … all these perfections are equal because they are infinite.”30

George Peele must have read Bruno. In his Arraignement of Paris, the first extant English pastoral play with songs and dances by nymphs and shepherdesses, Paris hands the golden prize to Venus.31 Offended, Diana appeals to the gods on Olympus; the golden orb is finally delivered to Elizabeth, “queen of Second Troy.” The nymph Elise is “Queen Juno's peer” and “Minerva's mate”: “As fair and lovely as the Queen of Love / As chaste as Dian in her chaste desires” (5.1.86-87).

In Ovid's Metamorphoses, “Titania” is one of Diana's names. The bow is an emblem of the Queen of Amazons. In the first scene of act 1, Hippolyta in her first lines evokes the image of a bow: “And then the moon, like to a silver bow / New bent in Heaven, shall behold the night / Of our solemnities” (1.1.9-11). Liturgical carnival starts with the new moon after the winter solstice. The new moon resembles a strung bow. The moon, the “governess of floods” (2.1.103), is a sign of Titania; her nocturnal sports are “moonlight revels” (2.1.141). In the poetical discourse the bow of the Amazons and the bow of the moon relate Hippolyta and Titania.

A sophisticated game of the court, with allegorical eulogies and allusions, is played through the exchange of classical emblems called “hieroglyphiches” by Ben Jonson. Greek Arcadia was slowly moving from Italy to England. Mythical figures and classical themes in masques, entertainments, and plays easily lent themselves to pastoral settings. But in this new pastoral mode the “Queen of the Fairies” was still an allegory of Elizabeth. For the Entertainment of Elvetham behind the palace at the base of wooded hills, an artificial pond in the shape of a half-moon had been constructed. On an islet in the middle, the fairies dance with their queen, singing a song to the music of a consort:

Elisa is the fairest Queene
That euer trod vpon this greene …
O blessed bee each day and houre,
Where sweete Elisa builds her bowre.

The queen of the fairies, with a garland as an imperial crown, recites in blank verse:

I that abide in places under-ground
Aureola, the Queene of Fairy Land
… salute you with this chaplet,
Giuen me by Auberon, the fairy King.

The Entertainment at Elvetham took place in the autumn of 1591, only a few years before even the latest possible date of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Even if Shakespeare had not attended it, this magnificent event was prepared by poets, artists, and musicians with whom he was acquainted. The quarto with the libretto, the lyrics, and the songs of the four-day spectacle in Elizabeth's honor was published and twice reprinted.32 Oberon, Titania, and the fairies entered the Shakespearean comedy not from old romances such as Huon of Bordeaux, but from the stage, perhaps from Greene's play James IV in which Oberon dances with the fairies, and most certainly from that masque.

In masques and court pastorals, among the mythological figures next to Cupid we always find Mercury. In A Midsummer Night's Dream the place usually assigned to the messenger of the gods is empty. But Mercury is not merely the messenger, the psychopompos who induces and interrupts sleep as Puck and Ariel do.33 Hermes-Mercury belongs to the family of tricksters. The trickster is the most invariable, universal, and constant mythic character in the folklore of all peoples. As a mediator between gods and men—the bottom and the top—the trickster is a special broker: he both deceives the gods and cheats men. The trickster is the personification of mobility and changeability and transcends all boundaries, overthrowing all hierarchies. He turns everything upside-down. Within this world gone mad a new order emerges from chaos, and life's continuity is renewed.34

                                                                      Jack shall have Jill,
                                                                      Nought shall go ill;
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.


In the marvelous syncretism of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck the trickster is a bottom and carnivalesque translation of Cupid and Mercury.35 The Harlequin, Fool, and Lord of Misrule—called in Scotland the Abbot of Unreason—belong to this theatrical family of tricksters. The Lord of Misrule was the medieval successor of the Rex of the Saturnalia. Puck's practical joke (“An ass's noll I fixed on his head” [3.2.17]) has its origin in the oldest tradition of folk festivities. In the Feast of Fools, or festum asinorum, the low clerics parodied the Holy Offices while disguising themselves with the masks of animals.36 Mummery, painting the face red or white or covering it with grotesque or animal masks, is still often seen during Twelfth Night, Ash Wednesday, or Valentine's Day.

But putting on an ass's head was not only a theatrical repetition of mockeries and jokes of the Feast of Fools or the day of Boy-Bishop. Another universal rite is also repeated when a “boore,” a thing “base and vile,” or a mock-king of the carnival was crowned, and after his short reign, uncrowned, thrashed, mocked, and abused. As the drunken Christopher Sly, a tinker, is led into the palace in The Taming of the Shrew, so the bully Bottom is introduced into Titania's court of fairies. A coronet of flowers winds about his hairy temples, and the queen's servants fulfill all his fancies. Among Bottom's colleagues is also another “Athenian” tinker, Tom Snout. Like Christopher Sly and all mock-kings abused and uncrowned, Bottom, a weaver, wakes from his dream having played only the part of an ass at the court entertainment.

No one created Shakespearean scenes as strange and uncanny as those of Fuseli. “Fuseli's Shakespearean characters,” wrote Mario Praz in II patto col serpente, “stretch themselves, arch and contort, human catapaults about to burst through the walls of the narrow and suffocating world, oppressed by the pall of darkness on which speaks Lady Macbeth … It is a demonic world of obsessions, a museum filled with statues of athletes galvanised into action, galloping furies, falling down onto prostrate corpses in yawning sepulchres.”37 But this demonic world of Shakespeare was recreated by Fuseli not only in his drawings and paintings of Macbeth, Lear, and Richard III: fear and trembling, rebellion and frenzy are also present in Fuseli's scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The famous Fuseli painting Titania caressing Bottom with an ass's head was executed three months after the siege of the Bastille. Titania in a frenetic dance assumes the pose of Leonardo's Leda. With only a small transparent sash around her left hip and covering her pudenda, she is almost nude, but her hair is carefully coiffed. She sees no one, her eyes are half closed. The fairies, Pease blossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed, are not from fairyland, but from a rococo party at Court, or from some bizarre masquerade with dwarfs and midgets. At least two fairies wear long robes of white mousseline with decolleté necklines and the English hats seen in the vignettes of Pamela and Grandisson.

Next to Titania sits the huge Bottom, hunched over. He is pensive and sad. He looks as though, by some strange and unpredictable turn of events, he has found himself at a feast whose sense he does not grasp. In another painting by Fuseli, from 1793-94, Bottom looks even more alienated. Titania, naked from the waist up, embraces him lasciviously, and Pease-blossom, once again with a hat à la mode, scratches his scalp between his “fair, large ears.” But Bottom, with the enormous legs of a rustic, does not belong to the orgy of Titania's court. The strangest being in this painting is a small homunculus with the head of an insect and open legs with masculine genitalia. What is the most strange and unexpected in Fuseli's vision is the atmosphere of fear and trembling at the mating of Titania and Bottom as on the last night at Court before the revolution.

This “insolite” syncretism of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as seen by Fuseli, was recreated by Rimbaud in one of the most enigmatic of his Illuminations under the title Bottom:

Reality being too prickly for my lofty character, I became at my lady's a big blue-gray bird flying up near the moldings of the ceiling and dragging my wings after me in the shadows of the evening.

At the foot of the baldaquino supporting her precious jewels and her physical masterpieces, I was a fat bear with purple gums and thick sorry-looking fur, my eyes of crystal and silver from the consoles.

Evening grew dark like a burning aquarium.

In the morning—a battling June dawn—I ran to the fields, an ass, trumpeting and brandishing my grievance, until the Sabines came from the suburbs to hurl themselves on my chest.38

The raped Sabines from the new suburbs throw themselves upon the neck of the lost ass whining and running on the green. All metamorphoses from The Golden Ass and Beauty and the Beast are evoked in this short poem in prose. It is the most succinct and astonishing “writerly text” of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Rimbaud, with rare intuition, discovered both the mystery and the sexuality (“a network with a thousand entrances”) of the strange translation of Bottom.

In traditional performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which present Bottom's night at Titania's court as a romantic ballet, and in the spectacle staged by Peter Brook and many of his followers which emphasizes Titania's sexual fascination with a monstrous phallus (mea culpa!),39 the carnival ritual of Bottom's adventure is altogether lost. Even Lucius, as a frustrated ass in Apuleius, was amazed at the sexual eagerness of the Corinthian matron who, having “put off all her garments to her naked skinne … began to annoint all her body with balme” and caressed him more adeptly than “in the Courtesan schooles.” Bottom appreciates being treated as a very important person, but is more interested in the frugal pleasure of eating than in the bodily charms of Titania.

In Bottom's metamorphosis and in his encounters with Titania, not only do high and low, metaphysics and physics, pathos and burlesque, meet, but so do two theatrical traditions: the masque and the court entertainment meet the carnival world turned upside-down.40 In masques and entertainments, “noble” characters were sometimes accompanied by Barbarians, Wild Men, Fishwives, and Marketwives. At the Entertainment of Elvetham an “ugly” Nereus showed up, frightening the court ladies.41 But for the first time in both the history of revels and the history of theater, Titania/Diana/the Queen of Fairies sleeps with a donkey in her “flowery bower.”42 This encounter of Titania and Bottom, the ass and the mock-king of the carnival, is the very beginning of modern comedy and one of its glorious opening nights.


A musical interlude accompanies the transition from night to day: “To the winding of horns [within] enter THESEUS, HIPPOLITA, EGEUS, and Train” (stage direction, 4.1.101). In this poetic discourse, the blowing of the hunters' horns, the barking of the hounds, and the echo from the mountains are translated into a musical opposition in the Platonic tradition of “discord” and “concord.” In this opposition between day and night, not the night but precisely the musical orchestration of daybreak is called discord by Theseus and by Hippolyta. For Theseus this discord marks “the musical confusion / Of hounds and echo in conjunction” (4.1.109-10). “I never heard,” replies Hippolyta, “so musical a discord, such sweet thunder” (4.1.116-17). Only a few lines further, when Lysander and Demetrius kneel at Theseus' feet after the end of “night-rule,” the “discord” of the night turns into the new “concord” of the day: “I know you two are rival enemies. / How comes this gentle concord in the world?” (4.1.142).43

Both terms of the opposition, “concord” and “discord,” are connected by Theseus when Philostrate, his master of the revels, hands him the brief of an interlude to be presented by the “Athenian” mechanicals:

“A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth”?
Merry and tragical? Tedious and brief?
That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow!
How shall we find the concord of this discord?


This new concordia discors is a tragicomedy, and good Peter Quince gives a perfect definition of it when he tells the title of the play to his actors: “Marry, our play is ‘The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe’” (1.2.11-12). Although merely an Athenian carpenter, as it turns out, Quince is quite well-read in English repertory, having styled the title of his play after the “new tragical comedy” Damon and Pithias by Edwards (1565), or after Preston's Cambises (published ca. 1570), a “lamentable comedy mixed full of pleasant mirth.”44 The same traditional titles, judged by printers to be attractive to readers and spectators, appeared on playbills and title pages of quartos: The comicall History of the Merchant of Venice or The most Excellent and lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet. The latter title would fit better the story of Pyramus and Thisbe.

We do not know, and probably will not discover, whether Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night's Dream was written earlier. History repeats itself twice, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” Marx was right: world history and the theater teach us that opera buffa repeats the protagonists and situations of opera seria. The “most cruel death” of Romeo and Juliet is changed into a comedy, but this comedy is “lamentable.” The new tragicomedy, “concord of the discord,” is a double translation of tragedy into comedy and of comedy into burlesque. The burlesque and the parody are not only in the dialogue and in the songs; the “lamentable comedy” is played at Theseus' wedding by the clowns.

Burlesque is first the acting and stage business. A wall separates the lovers, and they can only whisper and try to kiss through a “hole,” a “cranny,” “chink.” This scene's crudity is both naive and sordid, as in sophomoric jokes and jests where innocent words possess obscene innuendo. Gestures here are more lewd than words.

The Wall was played by Snout. Bottom, who also meddled in directing, recommended: “Let him hold his fingers thus” (3.1.65-66). But what was this gesture supposed to be? Neither the text nor the stage directions (“Wall stretches out his fingers” [stage direction, 5.1.175]) are clear. In the nineteenth-century stage tradition, the Wall stretched out his fingers while the lovers kissed through the “cranny.” In Peter Hall's Royal Shakespeare Company film (1969), the Wall holds in his hands a brick which he puts between his legs. Only then does he make a “cranny” with his thumb and index finger. But it could have been yet another gesture. The “hole,” as the letter V made by the middle and index finger, would be horizontal and vertical. As Thomas Clayton argues, Snout in the Elizabethan theater of clowns straddled and stretched out his fingers between his legs wide apart. “And this the cranny is, right and sinister” (5.1.162). Snout, although an “Athenian” tinker, had a touch of Latin or Italian and knew what “sinister” meant.45

Romeo could not even touch Juliet when she leaned out the window. The Wall scene (“O kiss me through the hole of this vile wall” [198]) is the “bottom translation” of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. The sequel of suicides is the same in both plays. But Thisbe “dies” differently. The burlesque Juliet stabs herself perforce with the scabbard of Pyramus' sword.46 This is all we know for certain about how A Midsummer Night's Dream was performed in Shakespeare's lifetime.

The lovers from Athens did not meet a lion during their nightly adventure as Pyramus and Thisbe did in their forest, nor a dangerous lioness as Oliver and Orlando did in the very similar forest of Arden in As You Like It. But the menace of death hovers over the couple from the very beginning: “Either to die the death, or to abjure” (1.1.65). 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” (2.2.155); Lysander says of Helena: “Whom I do love, and will do till my death” (3.2.167); Helena says of Demetrius: “To die upon the hand I love so well” (2.1.244), and again: “tis partly my own fault. / Which death, or absence soon shall remedy” (3.2.243-44). Even sleep “with leaden legs and batty wings” is “death counterfeiting” (3.2.364).

In this polyphony of sexual frenzy, neither the classical Cupid with his “fiery shaft” nor the Neoplatonic Cupid with his “incorporeal eye” is present any longer. Desire ceases to hide under the symbolic cover. Now is the action of the body which seeks another body. In the language of the earthly gravitation, the eye sees the closeness of the other body, and the hand seeks rape or murder. The other is the flesh. But “I” is also the flesh. “My mistress with a monster is in love” (3.2.6).

“Death” and “dead” are uttered twenty-eight times; “dying” and “die” occur fourteen times. The field of “death” appears in nearly fifty verses of A Midsummer Night's Dream and is distributed almost evenly among the events in the forest and the play at Theseus' wedding. The frequency of “kill” and “killing” is thirteen, and “sick” and “sickness” occur six times. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, which has often been called a happy comedy of love, “kiss” and “kissing” occur only six times, always within the context of the burlesque; “joy” occurs eight times, “happy” six, and “happiness” none.

The forest happenings during the premarital night are only the first sports in A Midsummer Night's Dream; the main merriment is provided by clowns. In the “mirths,” in the forest and at court, Bottom is the leading actor. While rehearsing his part in the forest, “sweet Pyramus” was “translated” into an ass. He “dies” onstage as Pyramus, only to be called an ass by Theseus: “With the help of a surgeon, he might yet recover, and prove an ass” (5.1.298-300).

If Bottom's metamorphoses in the forest and at court are read synchronically, as one reads an opera score, the “sweet bully” boy in both of his roles—as an ass and as Pyramus—sleeps with the queen of the fairies, is crowned and uncrowned, dies, and is resurrected onstage. The true director of the night-rule in the woods is Puck, the Lord of Misrule. The interlude of Pyramus and Thisbe was chosen for the wedding ceremonies by Philostrate, the master of revels to Theseus. Within A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed as an interlude at an aristocratic wedding, the play within a play is a paradigm of comedy as a whole. The larger play has an enveloping structure: the small “box” repeats the larger one, as a wooden Russian doll contains smaller ones.

The change of partners during a single night and the mating with a “monster” on the eve of a marriage of convenience do not appear to be the most appropriate themes for wedding entertainment. Neither is the burlesque suicide of the antique models of Romeo and Juliet the most appropriate merriment for “a feast of great solemnity.”47 All dignity and seriousness vanish from the presentation of the “most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.” The night adventure of Titania and two young couples is reduced to a “dream.” “And think no more of this night's accidents / But as the fierce vexation of a dream” (4.1.67-68).

“The lunatic, the lover and the poet, / Are of imagination all compact” (5.1.7-8). These lines of Theseus, like those of Helena's monologue from the first scene in act 1, are a part of the poetic metadiscourse whose theme is self-referential: the dreams in A Midsummer Night's Dream and the whole play. And as in Helena's soliloquy, Neoplatonic oppositions return in it. Ficino, in In Platonis Phaedrum and in De amore, distinguishes four forms of inspired madness: furor divinus, the “fine frenzy” of the poet; “the ravishment of the diviner”; “the prophetic rapture of the mystic”; and the “ecstasy of the lover,” furor amatorius.48

Even more important than the repetition of Neoplatonic categories of “madness” is the inversion by Theseus/Shakespeare of the values and hierarchy in this exchange of topos:

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.


As opposed to the “fine frenzy” of the Platonic poet, Shakespeare's pen gives earthly names to shadows, “airy nothing,” and relocates them on earth.49 The “lunatic” who “sees more devil than vast hell can hold” (5.1.9) replaces Neoplatonic mystics. The frenzied lover “sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt” (5.1.11). All three—“the lunatic, the lover and the poet”—are similar to a Don Quixote who also gave to “phantasies,” shadows of wandering knights, the “local habitation and a name”; who saw a beautiful Dulcinea in a coarse country maid; and, like a Shakespearean madman who in a “bush supposed a bear” (5.1.22), would charge windmills with his lance, taking them to be giants, and stormed wineskins, thinking them to be brigands.

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping phantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.


In this metadiscourse, which is at the same time self-defeating and self-defending, a manifesto of Shakespeare's dramatic art and a defense of his comedy are contained. “More than cool reason ever comprehends” is not the Platonic “shadow” and the metaphysical supra intellectum of Pico and Ficino. “More than cool reason ever comprehends” is, as in Paul, the “foolish things of the world” which God designed “to confound the wise.” This “foolishness of God,” taken from the Corinthians, read and repeated after the carnival tradition, is the defense of the Fool and the praise of Folly.

The lunatics—the Fool, the Lord of Misrule, the Abbot of Unreason—know well that when a true king, as well as the carnival mock-king, is thrown off, he is turned into a thing “base and vile, holding no quantity”; that there are “more devils than vast hell can hold” and that Dianas, Psyches, and Titanias sleep not with winged Cupids but with an ass. “Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated.” You are translated. But into what language? Into a language of the earth. The bottom translation is the wisdom of Folly and delight of the Fool.


Bottom, soon after his death onstage, springs up and bids farewell to Wall with an indecent gesture. Thisbe is also resurrected; her body cannot remain onstage. The merry, joyful, and playful Bergomask ends the clowns' spectacle. It is midnight, and all three pairs of lovers are anxious to go to bed. In a ceremonial procession they leave the stage, illuminated by the torchbearers.

The stage is now empty for a moment. If A Midsummer Night's Dream was performed in the evening during the wedding ceremony, the stage was by then cast in shadows. Only after a while does Puck, the Master of night-rule, return to the stage.

Now the hungry lion roars
And the wolf behowls the moon …
Now is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite
In the church-way paths to glide.

(5.1.357-58, 365-68)

The somber line of Puck would be more appropriate for the night when Duncan was murdered than as a solemn “epithalamium” for the wedding night of the noble couple. The “screeching loud” (5.1.362) of the owl and “the triple Hecate's team” (5.1.370) are evoked in Puck's lines, as they were on the night of the regicide in Macbeth. It is the same night during which Romeo and Juliet, and Pyramus and Thisbe, committed suicide, during which Hermia might have killed Helena and Demetrius might have killed Lysander.50

Hecate is triformis: Proserpina in Hades, Diana on earth, and Luna in the heavens, Hecate/Luna/Titania is the mistress of this midnight hour when night starts changing into a new day. But it is still the night during which elves dance “following darkness like a dream” (5.1.372). Wedding follows the evocation of the rite of mourning.

Puck is holding a broom in his hand; the broom was a traditional prop of the rural Robin Goodfellow: “I am sent with broom before / To sweep the dust behind the door” (5.1.375-76). In this sweeping of the floor there is a strange and piercing sadness. Puck sweeps away dust from the stage, as one sweeps a house. Sweeping away recurs in all carnival and spring rituals in England, France, Italy, Germany, and Poland. The symbolism of sweeping is rich and complex. A broom is a polysemic sign. But invariably sweeping away is a symbol of the end and of the beginning of a new cycle. One sweeps rooms away after a death and before a wedding. Goethe beautifully shows this symbolism of sweeping on Saint John's Night:

Let the children enjoy
The fires of the night of Saint John,
Every broom must be worn out,
And children must be born.

In Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe, Goethe quotes his poem and comments: “It is enough for me to look out of the window to see, in the brooms which are used to sweep the streets and in the children running about the streets, the symbols of life ever to be worn out and renewed.”51 Puck's sweeping of the stage with a broom is a sign of death and of a wedding which is a renewal. This is but the first epilogue of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

There is yet another. Oberon and Titania, with crowns of waxen tapers on their heads, enter the darkened stage with their train. They sing and dance a pavane. At a court wedding they might have invited the guests to participate in the dance together: “Every fairy take his gait” (5.1.402). Peter Brook, in his famous staging, had the house lights come up while the actors stretched their hands out to the audience and threw them flowers.

Titania and Oberon appear for the second time in the play as the night doubles of their day shapes. If they are the same pair of actors who play Theseus and Hippolyta, Puck's soliloquy would give them enough time to change their costumes. The enveloping structure of the play had led, with astounding dramatic logic, to its final conclusion. Theseus and Titania, Philostrate, Hermia and Helena, Lysander and Demetrius—the spectators onstage of the “most lamentable comedy”—are the doubles of the audience watching A Midsummer Night's Dream in the house. The illusion of reality, as in Northrop Frye's succinct and brilliant formulation, becomes the reality of illusion. “Shadows”—doubles—are actors. But if actors-shadows are the doubles of spectators, the spectators are the doubles of actors.

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


Only Puck is left on the stage. This is the third and last epilogue. “Gentles, do not reprehend” (5.1.415). As in As You Like It and The Tempest, the leading actor asks the public to applaud. But who is Puck in this third and last epilogue?

The spirit Comus (Revelry), to whom men owe their revelling, is stationed at the doors of chamber … Yet night is not represented as a person, but rather it is suggested by what is going on; and the splendid entrance indicated that it is a wealthy pair just married who are lying on the couch … And what else is there of the revel? Well, what but the revellers? Do you not hear the castanets and the flute's shrill note and the disorderly singing? The torches give a faint light, enough for the revellers to see what is close in front of them but not enough for us to see them. Peals of laughter arise, and women rush along with men, wearing men's sandals and garments girt in a strange fashion; for the revel permits women to masquerade as men, and men to “put on women's garb” and to ape the talk of women. Their crowns are no longer free but, crushed down to the head on account of the wild running of the dancers, they have lost their joyous look.52

This quotation is from Philostratus, the Greek Sophist and scholar (ca. 176-245), whose Imagines became, during the Renaissance in Latin translation, one of the most popular textbooks and models for ancient icons of gods and mythical events. The most famous and most frequently quoted chapter of Imagines was “Comus.” Shakespeare could not have found a more appropriate name for Theseus' Master of the Revels. Philostratus became Philostrate at the “Athenian” court, so that in a system of successive exchanges he would be transformed into Puck, Lord of Misrule, and return in the epilogue to his antique prototype, the god of revelry and the festivities, Comus of the Imagines written by Philostratus the Sophist.53

There will always remain two interpretations of A Midsummer Night's Dream: the light and the somber. And even as we choose the light one, let us not forget the dark one. Heraclitus wrote: “If it were not to Dionysus that they performed the procession and sang the hymn to the pudenda, most shameful things would have been done. Hades and Dionysus are the same, to whichever they rave and revel.”54 In the scene described by Philostratus, Comus is holding a torch downward. He is standing with his legs crossed, in a slumbering stance, at the entrance to the wedding chamber. His pose is that of a funerary Eros of Roman sarcophagi.55 At the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream's first epilogue, Puck could assume the pose of the funerary Eros. Shakespeare is a legatee of all myths.

In both interpretations of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the bottom translation is full of different meanings. All of them, even in their contradiction, are important. The intellectual and dramatic richness of this most striking of Shakespeare's comedies consists in its evocation of the tradition of serio ludere. Only within “the concord of this discord” does blind Cupid meet the golden ass and the spiritual become transformed into the physical. The coincidentia oppositorum for the first time and most beautifully was presented onstage.


  1. All quotations from A Midsummer Night's Dream are taken from The Arden Shakespeare, ed. Harold F. Brooks (London: Methuen, 1979).

  2. The Praise of Folie, “A booke made in Latine by that great clerke Erasmus Roterodame. Englisshed by sir Thomas Chaloner knight. Anno 1549.” All quotations after Clarence F. Miller ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1965).

  3. Erwin Panofsky, “Blind Cupid,” in Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (1939; rpt. New York: Harper & Row, 1972), pp. 95-128; Edgar Wind, “Orpheus in Praise of Blind Love,” in Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (New York: Norton, 1968), pp. 53-80.

  4. Frank Kermode, “The Mature Comedies,” Early Shakespeare (New York: St. Martin's, 1961), pp. 214-20; Paul A. Olsen, “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage,” ELH 24 (1957): 95-119.

  5. “The commentary on a single text is not a contingent activity, assigned the reassuring alibi of the ‘concrete’: the single text is valid for all the texts of literature, not in that it represents them (abstracts and equalizes them), but in that literature itself is never anything but a single text: the one text is not an (inductive) access to a Model, but entrance into a network with a thousand entrances.” Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill & Wang, 1974), p. 12.

  6. The Xi Bookes of The Golden Asse, Conteininge the Metamorphosie of Lucius Apuleius. “Translated out of Latine into Englishe by William Adlington. Anno 1566.” Rpt. 1571, 1582, 1596. All quotations after Ch. Whibley ed. (London, 1893).

  7. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. R. W. Rotsel (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1973), pp. 88-89.

  8. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le cuit (Paris: Plon, 1964), p. 20.

  9. Quoted in Panofsky, “Blind Cupid,” p. 137.

  10. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud (New York: Random House, 1938), p. 572.

  11. “Perhaps good king Oedipus had one eye too many” (Hölderlin, In Lovely Blueness).

  12. Wind, “Orpheus,” p. 58.

  13. Ibid., pp. 58-59.

  14. Shakespeare's borrowings from The Golden Ass in A Midsummer Night's Dream (the meeting with the Corinthian lady, and the story of Psyche) were first noted by Sister M. Generosa in “Apuleius and A Midsummer Night's Dream: Analogue or Source. Which?” in Studies in Philology 42 (1945): 198-204. James A. S. McPeek, “The Psyche Myth and A Midsummer Night's Dream,Shakespeare Quarterly 23 (1972): 69-79.

  15. Emmanuel Cosquin, Contes populaires de Lorraine (Paris: V. F. Vieweg, 1886), 1:xxxii and 2:214-30.

  16. Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, Apuleius and His Influence (New York: Cooper Square, 1963), pp. 90 ff.

  17. “The theme of role reversal was commonplace in folk imagery from the end of the Middle Ages through the first half of the nineteenth century: engravings or pamphlets show, for instance, a man straddling an upside-down donkey and being beaten by his wife. In some pictures mice eat cats. A wolf watches over sheep; they devour him. Children spank parents. … Hens mount roosters, roosters lay eggs. The king goes on foot.” Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Carnival in Romans, trans. M. Finey (New York: Braziller, 1979), p. 191. “Hot ice” and “wondrous strange snow” (5.1.59) belong to this carnival language.

  18. Passages from Gargantua and Pantagruel in Jacques Leclerq's translation (New York: Heritage Press, 1964).

  19. From twelfth-century liturgical songs (Gaude Virgo, mater Christi / Quae per aurem concepisti) up to Molière's The School for Wives (“She came and asked me in a puzzled way … if children are begotten through the ear”) we have an interrupted tradition, first pious, later parodic, of the virgin conceiving through the ear. See Gaston Hall, “Parody in L'Ecole des femmes: Agnès's Question,” MLR 57 (1962): 63-65. See also Claude Gaignebet, Le Carnaval (Paris: Payot, 1974), p. 120.

  20. Rabelais possibly feared that the joke went too far, and this entire passage, beginning with “Does not Solomon” disappeared from the second and subsequent editions of Gargantua. Rabelais also ironically quotes from Corinthians in chapter 8, at the end of the description of his medallion with a picture of the hermaphrodite.

  21. “Rabelais' entire approach, his serio ludere, the grotesque mask, is deeply justified by his conviction that true wisdom often disguises itself as foolishness. … Because he is the most foolish, Panurge receives the divine revelation: the ‘Propos des bien yvres,’ apparent gibberish, contains God's truth.” Florence M. Weinberg, The Wine and the Will: Rabelais's Bacchic Christianity (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1972), p. 149.

  22. Ronald F. Miller, in “A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Fairies, Bottom and the Mystery of Things,” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 26 (1975), pointed out the possibility of a relation between Chaloner's translation and Bottom's monologue. This essay is perhaps the most advanced attempt at an allegorical, almost Neoplatonic interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream; the “mystery of the fairies” points to “other mysteries in the world offstage” (p. 266).

  23. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1968), pp. 78, 199; Enid Welsford, The Fool (London: Faber & Faber, 1935), pp. 200 ff.; E. K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1903), 1:13-15.

  24. Hardin Craig, English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960), p. 68; Anderson, pp. 20-21. See also Grace Frank, The Medieval French Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954, rpt. 1967), pp. 40-42: “At Rouen the play, preserved in several manuscripts, is frankly entitled Ordo Processionis Asinorum, although Balaam is only one of the more than twenty-eight characters involved. … The ass itself was not necessarily a comic figure; it served as the mount of the Virgin for the Flight into Egypt and of Christ for the Entry into Jerusalem; moreover it was associated with the ox in praesepe observances and at all times has been regarded as a faithful, patient beast of burden. But at the feast of the subdeacons the ass undoubtedly became an object of fun, a fact apparent from later church decrees forbidding its presence there.”

    “Quite probably the appearance of Balaam and his obstinata bestia in the prophet play owes something to the revels of the Feast of Fools: though the Ordo Prophetarum is the older ceremony, it seems likely that the use of the ass there was introduced late, perhaps as a kind of counter-attraction to the merrymaking of the subdeacons, ‘an attempt to turn the established presence of the ass in the church to purposes of edification, rather than ribaldry’ (Chambers, ii. 57). In any case the curious title of the Rouen play must be due to the conspicuous figure of Balaam and his asina, a beast that seems to have wandered into the prophet play from the Feast of Fools.”

  25. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Clarendon, 1923), 1:158 ff, 192. According to Chambers, Henry had appeared earlier in Daniel's masque Twelve Goddesses (1604), “taken out” and as a child “tost from hand to hand,” 1:199.

  26. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 1:163-64: The reproduction of a painting on frontispiece in vol. 1.

  27. Letter of George Ferrars, appointed Lord of Misrule by Edward VI. Quoted: Enid Welsford, The Court Masque (New York: Russell & Russell, 1927), p. 146.

  28. A Midsummer Night's Dream, ed. Henry Cuningham, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1905), note to 2.1.168. The poetic name of the love-potion flower was “lunary.” In Lyly's Sapho and Phao: “an herbe called Lunary, that being bound to the pulses of the sick, causes nothinge but dreames of wedding and daunces” (3.3.43); in Endymion: “On yonder banke neuer grove any thing but Lunary, and hereafter I neuer haue any bed but that banke” (2.3.9-10). The Complete Works of John Lyly, ed. R. Warwick Bend (Oxford: Clarendon, 1902), 3:38, 508.

  29. The harmony of the string symbolized for the Neoplatonists the concordia discors between the passions and the intellect: the bow's arrows wound, but the bowstring itself is held immobile by the hand and guided by the controlling eye. Wind, “Orpheus,” pp. 78f, 86f.

  30. Ibid., p. 77.

  31. In The Arraignement of Paris, performed at court ca. 1581-84, published in 1584, Venus bribes Paris. In this “Venus show,” Helena appears accompanied by four Cupids. The court masque is mixed with pastoral play. Yet perhaps for the first time the “body” of a nymph who fell unhappily in love appears on stage with a “crooked churl”—a folk Fool. But even if Peele's play did not influence Shakespeare, it does nevertheless demonstrate how, at least ten years before A Midsummer Night's Dream, Neoplatonic similes of blind and seeing Cupid became a cliché of euphuistic poetry. (“And Cupid's bow is not alone in his triumph, but his rod … His shafts keep heaven and earth in awe, and shape rewards for shame” [3.5.33, 36]; “Alas, that ever Love was blind, to shoot so far amiss!” [3.5.7].) Only Shakespeare was able to put new life into these banalities.

  32. The entertainment at Elvetham was prepared by, among others, Lyly, Thomas Morley, the organ player and choirmaster in St. Peters, and the composers John Baldwin and Edward Johnson. Ernest Brennecke, “The Entertainment at Elvetham, 1591,” in Music in English Renaissance Drama (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1968), pp. 32-172.

  33. The locus classicus of Hermes, the psychopompos who induces and dispels dreams, is in the first lines of the last book of the Odyssey: “Meanwhile Cyllenian Hermes was gathering in the souls of the Suitors, armed with the splendid golden wand that he can use at will to cast a spell on our eyes or wake us from the soundest sleep. He roused them up and marshalled them with this, and they obeyed his summons gibbering like bats that squeak and flutter in the depths of some mysterious cave” (Odyssey, trans. R. V. Rieu [Baltimore: Penguin, 1946]).

  34. “Fundamentally trickster tales represent the way a society defines the boundaries, states its rules and conventions (by showing what happens when the rules are broken), extracts order out of chaos, and reflects on the nature of its own identity, its differentiation from the rest of the universe.” Brian V. Street, “The Trickster Theme: Winnebago and Azanda,” in Zandae Themes, ed. André Singer and Brian V. Street (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 82-104. “Thus, like Ash-boy and Cinderella, the trickster is a mediator. Since his mediating function occupies a position half-way between two polar terms, he must retain something of that duality—namely an ambiguous and equivocal character.” Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (New York: Basic, 1963), p. 226.

  35. Puck was originally played by a mature actor, not by a young boy. Only since the Restoration has a ballerina played the part of Puck, as well as Oberon. Peter Brook, in his Midsummer Night's Dream (1970), repeated the Elizabethan tradition and had Puck's role performed by a tall and comical actor, John Kane (“thou lob of spirits” [2.1.16]).

  36. See Anderson, p. 20.

  37. Mario Praz, “Fuseli,” in Il patto col serpente (Milan: Mondadori, 1972), p. 15. See also T. S. R. Boase, “Illustrations of Shakespeare's Plays in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 10 (1947). See also John Heinrich Fuseli (1741-1825) (Musée du Petit Palais, 1975.)

  38. Rimbaud, Complete Works, trans. Wallace Fowlie (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), p. 227. On the impact of Fuseli on Gautier and on the debt of Rimbaud to Gautier, see Jean Richer, Etudes et recherches sur Théophile Gautier prosateur (Paris: Nizet, 1981), pp. 213-23.

  39. “In the most solid and dramatic parts of his play [MND] Shakespeare is only giving an idealized version of courtly and country revels and of the people that played a part in them.” Welsford, The Court Masque, p. 332. The most valid interpretation of the festive world in Shakespeare's plays remains still, after over thirty years, C. L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy.

  40. See Jan Kott, “Titania and the Ass's Head,” in Shakespeare Our Contemporary (New York: Doubleday, 1964), pp. 207-28.

  41. On the second day of interrupted spectacles Nereus appeared “so ugly as he ran toward his shelter that he ‘affrighted a number of the country people, that they ran from him for feare, and thereby moved great laughter’” (Brennecke, “Entertainment,” p. 45). Snout's fears that the ladies will be frightened by a lion are usually considered to be an allusion to the harnessing of a black moor to a chariot instead of a lion during the festivities of the christening of Prince Henry in 1594; perhaps it is also an amusing echo of “ugly” Nereus who frightened the ladies at Elvetham.

  42. Even in Ben Jonson, who introduced the “anti-Masque,” or false masque (in The Masque of Blackness, 1605), figures of the “anti-Masque” never mix with persons of the masque: they “vanish” after the “spectacle of strangenesse,” before the allegories of order and cosmic harmony start. As Jonson emphasized:

    For Dauncing is an exercise
    not only shews ye mouers wit,
    but maketh ye beholder wise
    as he hath powre to rise to it.

    (Works [1941], 7:489)

    See John C. Meagher, “The Dance and the Masques of Ben Jonson,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 25 (1962): 258-77.

  43. For Shakespeare's use of the terms “concord” and “discord” with musical connotations, see: Richard II, 5.5.40 ff., Two Gentlemen of Verona 1.2.93 ff., Romeo and Juliet 3.5.27, The Rape of Lucrece, line 1124. See also E. W. Naylor, Shakespeare and Music (New York: Da Capo, 1965), p. 24.

  44. Grimald's Christus Redivivus, performed in Oxford in 1540 (published in 1543), bears the subtitle “Comoedia Tragica.” This is probably the earliest mixture in England of “comedy” and “tragedy” in one term. For the history of titles used by Peter Quince, it is interesting to note The lamentable historye of the Pryunce Oedipus (1563) and The lamentable and true tragedie of M. Arden of Feversham in Kent (1592). The tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, published by Geoffrey Bullough (Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare [London, 1966], 3:411-22) as an “Analogue” to A Midsummer Night's Dream, bears the subtitle: “Tragoedia miserrima.” Chambers suspects that it is a seventeenth-century product, perhaps by Nathaniel Richards. Bullough holds that it dates from the sixteenth century. Richards' authorship appears to me out of the question; the language and Latin marginalia suggest that this “Tragoedia miserrima” is earlier than A Midsummer Night's Dream.

  45. Thomas Clayton, “‘Fie What a Question That If Thou Wert Near a Lewd Interpreter’: The Wall Scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream,Shakespeare Studies 7 (1974): 101-12; I. W. Robinson, “Palpable Hot Ice: Dramatic Burlesque in A Midsummer Night's Dream,Studies in Philology 61 (1964): 192-204.

  46. The last words of Juliet (“O happy dagger, / This is thy sheath; there rest, and let me die”) are not the most fortunate, and almost ask for burlesquing.

  47. Three other interludes for wedding entertainments offered by Philostrate seem even less appropriate for the occasion. The strangest one is the first: “‘The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung / By an Athenian eunuch to the harp’” (5.1.44-45). Commentators and notes invariably referred one to Ovid's Metamorphosis (12.210 ff.) or else to the “Life of Theseus” in North's Plutarch. But the locus classicus of this battle with centaurs in the Renaissance tradition was quite different. It is Lucian's Symposium or A Feast of Lapithae, in which the mythical battle of the Centaurs with the Lapiths is a part of a satirical description of a brawl of philosophers at a contemporary wedding: “The bridegroom … was taken off with head in bandages—in the carriage in which he was to have taken his bride home.” The Works of Lucian of Samosata, trans. H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1905), 4:144. In Apuleius' The Golden Ass unfortunate Charite also evokes the wedding interrupted by Centaurs in her story of her abduction by bandits from her would-be wedding: “In this sort was our marriage disturbed, like the marriage of Hypodame.” Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel also evokes that unfortunate wedding: “Do you call this a wedding? … Yes, by God, I call it the marriage described by Lucian in his Symposium. You remember; the philosopher of Samosata tells how the King of the Lapithae celebrates a marriage that ended in war between Lapithae and Centaurs” (4.15). Shakespeare's ironical intention in evoking this proverbially interrupted marriage appears self-evident.

  48. Panofsky, “Blind Cupid,” p. 140; and Kermode, Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 209: “To Pico, to Cornelius Agrippa, to Bruno, who distinguished nine kinds of fruitful love-blindness, this exaltation of the madness of love was both Christian and Orphic.”

  49. Michel Foucault, in The Order of Things (1966; New York: Vintage, 1971), discusses in his chapter on Don Quixote this new confrontation of poetry and madness, beginning at the age of Baroque: “But it is no longer the old Platonic theme of inspired madness. It is the mark of a new experience of language and things. At the fringes of a knowledge that separates beings, signs, and similitudes, and as though to limit its power, the madman fulfills the function of homosemanticism: he groups all signs together and leads them with a resemblance that never ceases to proliferate. The poet fulfills the opposite function: his is the allegorical role; beneath the language of signs and beneath the interplay of their precisely delineated distinctions, he strains his ears to catch that ‘other language,’ the language, without words or discourse, of resemblance” (pp. 49-50). But the poet in Theseus' lines is compared to the madman, and his function is to destroy the “allegorization.” The exchange between the noble functions of mind and the low function of body is a radical criticism of all appearances, and an attempt to show a real similitude of “things” and “attitudes.”

  50. Cf. the recitation of “fatal birds” by Bosola to the Duchess of Malfi in her cell before her strangling: “Hark, now everything is still, / The schreech owl, and the whistler shrill / Call upon our dame, aloud, / And bid her quickly don her shroud” (The Duchess of Malfi 4.2.179 ff.). An epithalamium, which bade such creatures to be silent on the wedding night, is astonishingly similar to the foreboding of the fearful events. In the carnival rites often, especially in the South, the images of death and wedding meet.

  51. Conversations with Goethe, January 17, 1827. Quoted by Bakhtin, in Rabelais, pp. 250-51.

  52. Philostratus, Imagines, trans. Arthur Fairbanks (London: Heinemann, 1931), pp. 9 ff. Philostratus, a Greek writer (ca. 170-245), author of The Life of Apollonius of Tyana and of Imagines, was well known during the Renaissance. Opera quae extant in Greek with Latin translation had been published in Venice, 1501-4, 1535, 1550, and in Florence in 1517. The “Stephani Nigri elegatissima” translation had at least three editions (Milan, 1521, 1532; Basel, 1532). Imagines was translated into French by de Vigenere: at least one edition (Paris, 1578) dates from before A Midsummer Night's Dream (Paris, 1614; L'Angelier rpt., New York: Garland, 1976). Imagines was extensively commented upon and quoted by Gyraldus and Cartari, whose Le imagini dei degli antichi often reads like a transcript of Philostratus. Imagines was highly esteemed by Shakespeare's fellow dramatists. Jonson directly quoted Philostratus six times in his abundant notes to his masques (i.e. in a note to “Cupids” in The Masque of Beauty, 1608: “especially Phil. in Icon. Amor. whom I haue particularly followed in this description.” Works, Hereford and Simpson, ed. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941], 7:188). See Allan H. Gilbert, The Symbolic Persons in the Masques of Ben Jonson (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1948), pp. 262-63. Samuel Daniel referred to Imagines and followed very precisely its image of Sleep in The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses (1604): “And therefore was Sleep / as he is described by Philostratus in Amphiarai imagine / apparelled.” A Book of Masques (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. 28.

  53. For over a hundred years commentaries suggested the source of the name Philostrate is borrowed from Chaucer's The Knight's Tale. But Chaucer's lover, who goes to Athens under the name of Philostrate, and Shakespeare's master of the revels have nothing in common. The author of Imagines as a possible source for the name of Philostrate is a guess one is tempted to make. Philostratus' “Comus” is generally thought to be the main source for the image of Comus opening Jonson's Pleasure Reconcild to Vertue (1618) and for Milton's Comus (1634). A Midsummer Night's Dream and the two plays have often been compared: Jonson's Pleasure with Comus (Paul Reyher, Les Masques anglaises [Paris, 1909; New York: B. Blom, 1964], pp. 212-13; Welsford, The Court Masque, pp. 314-20; the editors of Jonson, Works, 2:304-9); A Midsummer Night's Dream with Comus (Welsford, The Court Masque, pp. 330-35; Glynne Wickham, Shakespeare's Dramatic Heritage [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969], pp. 181-84). But the real link between these three plays is the passage on Comus in Imagines (1.2). See also Stephen Orgel, The Jonsonian Masque (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), pp. 151-69. Orgel compares the passage on Comus from Philostratus with Cartari's Le imagini and describes the iconographic tradition stemming from Imagines.

  54. Fragment B 15. Quoted from Albert Cook, “Heraclitus and the Conditions of Utterance,” Arion, n.s. 2/4 (1976): 473.

  55. Wind, “Orpheus,” pp. 104, 158.

Philip C. McGuire (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5855

SOURCE: McGuire, Philip C. “Egeus and the Implications of Silence.” In Shakespeare and the Sense of Performance, edited by Marvin Thompson and Ruth Thompson, pp. 103-115. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, McGuire explores the ways in which Egeus's silence in Act IV, scene i has been interpreted by modern directors.]

One way to glimpse what the future might hold for performance-centered criticism of Shakespeare's plays is to ponder the challenges posed by a silence that occurs in act 4, scene 1 of A Midsummer Night's Dream, soon after Duke Theseus and his hunting party find the four young lovers asleep on the forest ground following their baffling experiences of the night before. Lysander, “Half sleep, half waking” (4.1.146),1 begins to explain that he and Hermia were fleeing “the peril of the Athenian law” (152) that sentences Hermia to death or to a life of perpetual chastity if she persists in refusing to marry the man her father has chosen to be her husband. Egeus, Hermia's father, interrupts, fiercely calling upon Theseus to apply the law most rigorously: “Enough, enough, my lord! you have enough. / I beg the law, the law, upon his head” (153-54).

During act 1, Theseus had warned Hermia that “the law of Athens” was something “Which by no means we may extenuate” (1.1.119-20). Now, however, after hearing Demetrius, Egeus's choice to be Hermia's husband, explain that his love for Hermia has “Melted” (4.1.165) away, Theseus proceeds to set aside the very law upholding an Athenian father's right to “dispose” (1.1.42) of his daughter that he had earlier declared himself powerless to “extenuate.” Theseus declares,

Egeus, I will overbear your will,
For in the temple, by and by, with us,
These couples shall eternally be knit. …


What is Egeus's response to Theseus's decision to disregard not only his will but also Athenian law? In both the Quarto of 1600 and the Folio of 1623—the two texts of A Midsummer Night's Dream surviving from Shakespeare's time that are considered independently authoritative2—Egeus says nothing. The agreement between Quarto and Folio gives us as much certainty as we can get that Egeus's silence is an authentic feature of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but probing that silence in an effort to determine its specific meaning(s) and effect(s) brings us face-to-face with bedeviling uncertainties.

Evidence from Shakespeare's era prevents us from assuming that Egeus's silence is in and of itself definitive evidence that he withholds assent to a wedding that Theseus will no longer allow him to prevent. The marriage ritual set down in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer—like many of the rituals observed these days—specified functions for the bride's father that he is to carry out in silence. After bringing his daughter to the altar, the father “stands by in mute testimony that there are no impediments to the marriage.”3 A logical response to the question “Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?” is for the bride's father to say “I do,” but the response the ritual calls for him to make is nonverbal; he is to relinquish his daughter without speaking. However, since what happens in act 4 is not a marriage ceremony, we cannot take evidence of the kind provided by the 1559 Book of Common Prayer as certain proof that Egeus's silence establishes his consent.

Recent productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream demonstrate the range of alternative meanings and effects that can emerge from Egeus's silence. In Richard Cottrell's 1980 production for the Bristol Old Vic Company, Egeus said nothing after hearing Theseus “overbear” his will, but before exiting with Theseus, Hippolyta, and their attendants, Egeus embraced Hermia. In an act that suggested the traditional wedding ceremony, Egeus then relinquished his paternal authority by placing his daughter's hand in Lysander's. With that action he gave Hermia to the man whom he had earlier denounced before Theseus for having “filched my daughter's heart, / Turned her obedience (which is due to me) / To stubborn harshness” (1.1.36-38). The Egeus of that production was a father who had come to accept without reservation the combination of ducal authority and erotic attraction that was soon to make his daughter Lysander's wife.

Elijah Moshinsky's 1981 production for the BBC-TV/New York Life series “The Shakespeare Plays” enacted alternatives that are different but equally consistent with the silence that the Quarto and the Folio assign to Egeus. After hearing Theseus's words authorizing her marriage to Lysander, Hermia moved to her father and they embraced. The reconciliation implicit in those gestures took on an added dimension when, before exiting, Egeus kissed his daughter's hand. In the opening scene, Theseus had warned Hermia “To fit your fancies to your father's will” (1.1.118). By kissing Hermia's hand, the Egeus of Moshinsky's production conveyed that he would now “fit” his will not only to the duke's authority but also to his daughter's “fancies.”

In Celia Brannerman's 1980 production for the New Shakespeare Company at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London, Egeus, in his silence, submitted obediently but without any enthusiasm to Theseus's dictate. Egeus did not move to embrace Hermia after hearing Theseus declare, “Egeus, I will overbear your will.” He did allow Hippolyta to take his hand in a comforting gesture that also implied that he would remain a valued member of Athenian court. Egeus exited with Theseus and Hippolyta, but there was no reconciliation between father and daughter, and Hermia's father did not acknowledge her husband-to-be.

The most acclaimed of recent productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream—Peter Brook's for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 1970s—enacted possibilities radically different from those already described.4 When Theseus finished announcing “… by and by, with us, / These couples shall eternally be knit,” Egeus stepped from where he had been standing between Theseus and Hippolyta and strode toward the exit downstage right. He paused briefly, even expectantly, as he heard Theseus begin to speak again—“And, for the morning now is something overworn” (181). Once it was clear, however, that Theseus was simply announcing the cancellation of the hunting, Egeus continued to make his departure. Before Theseus could call, “Away, with us to Athens” (183), Egeus was gone, leaving through an exit different from the one used moments later, first by Theseus and Hippolyta and then by the four lovers as they returned “to Athens.” In the specific context established by that production, Theseus's words “Three and three, / We'll hold a feast in great solemnity” (183-84) registered the fact that “Three and three” did not include Egeus. The exit that Egeus made in Brook's production established that he was withdrawing from Athenian society.

The standard tactic for discriminating among alternatives such as those acted out in the four productions I have cited, for deciding which is “right” and which “wrong,” which honors Shakespeare's intentions and which violates them, is to scrutinize the words of the play for evidence of what Shakespeare himself intended. When we look to those words, however, we find that neither the Folio nor the Quarto gives information of the caliber we need. Because each gives Egeus nothing to say, there are no words of his to scrutinize. The stage directions in the Quarto and the Folio are also of limited utility. They give no precise sense of how the silent Egeus makes his exit, and they help to drive home how little the words others speak reveal about Egeus's response to Theseus's decision authorizing Hermia's marriage to Lysander.

The Folio specifically requires that Egeus enter in act 4, scene 1 with Theseus: “Enter Theseus, Egeus, Hippolita and all his traine.”5 The stage direction for the exit to be made after Theseus overrules Egeus is less precise: “Exit Duke and Lords.” There is, perhaps significantly, no specific mention of Egeus. Egeus could be one of those “Lords” who exit with Theseus—as happened in Elijah Moshinsky's 1981 production for BBC-TV. In such a case, Egeus remains a member of Athenian society, whether or not he accepts Hermia's marriage to Lysander.

However, nothing in the Folio requires that Egeus departs with Theseus. By first specifically including Egeus among those who enter with Theseus and by then not specifically listing him as one of those who leave with Theseus, the Folio allows for the possibility—enacted in Brook's production—that Theseus [sic] makes an exit separate from Theseus and those who go with him. Such an exit—which the Folio permits but does not mandate—would establish that Egeus's response to Theseus's exercise of ducal authority is to withdraw from Athens. Earlier Lysander and Hermia had fled from Athens in order to escape the punishments proscribed by “the sharp Athenian law” (1.1.162). The law they fled is the law that Egeus invokes when he calls for “the law, the law” upon Lysander's head, and it is that law that, overbearing Egeus's will, Theseus sets aside. The Athens to which Hermia and Lysander return is an Athens that will officially accept and validate their marriage: “In the temple, by and by, with us,” Theseus says, “These couples shall eternally be knit.” It is also the Athens from which Egeus could choose to withdraw. If he does, then Egeus in his silence is, like Malvolio and Jacques, a man who excludes himself from a renewed social order in which he is welcome to participate. We might even see in such an Egeus a forerunner of those tragic fathers, Lear and Brabantio, who cannot bring themselves to accept a daughter's will.

The corresponding stage directions in the Quarto are, if anything, open to even more diverse possibilities. The Quarto reads: “Enter Theseus and all his traine”—a phrasing that does not single out Egeus and Hippolyta as the Folio does. The Quarto provides no stage directions for the exit beyond what is implicit in Theseus's final words in the scene:

Away, with us, to Athens. Three and three,
Weele holde a feast, in great solemnitie. Come Hyppolita.

As stage directions, Theseus's words were inconclusive. “Away, with us, to Athens,” for example, may be words of reassurance to Egeus—an effort to include him that Egeus may either accept or refuse. The words could also be an order from the Duke to Egeus, a command that he may or may not obey. In the opening scene, after what might be called Hermia's trial, Egeus leaves with Theseus, emphasizing his allegiance by declaring, “With duty and desire we follow you” (1.1.127). His words on that occasion resonate against the silence with which Hippolyta responds to Theseus's words calling for her to depart with him, “Come, my Hippolyta” (1.1.122). Hippolyta again says nothing when in act 4 Theseus says, “Come Hyppolita.” This time, however, Egeus is silent too. He may wordlessly obey or he may wordlessly disobey the words that Theseus may direct to him: “Away, with us, to Athens.” However, those words need not be addressed specifically to Egeus. Spoken to Hermia after Egeus has departed in anger, they could be Theseus's effort to ease whatever anguish Hermia feels at the departure of her embittered father: “Away, with US, to Athens.6 Thus, like the Folio, the Quarto allows the possibility that Egeus exits with Theseus and his “traine” but does not require it. Also, like the Folio, the Quarto does not require that Egeus exit apart from them either.

If we seek to clarify the meanings and effect of Egeus's silence by looking at the wedding festivities of act 5, we find differences between the Quarto and the Folio that compound our difficulties.7 The Folio begins act 5 with a direction that specifies the presence of Egeus: “Enter Theseus, Hippolita, Egeus and his Lords.” The corresponding stage direction in the Quarto, however, reads “Enter Theseus, Hyppolita, and Philostrate.” There is no specific mention of Egeus as there is in the Folio, and there is no term equivalent to the “Lords” of the Folio that can be taken to include Egeus. In the Quarto Philostrate is the only person present to overhear the conversation between Theseus and Hippolyta, while the Folio requires that at least several be present, one of whom must be Egeus. Thus, the Folio, in contrast to the Quarto, establishes a situation in which Egeus stands by without speaking as he and others hear the Duke, who has overruled his will and Athenian law in order to permit Hermia's marriage, explain that he “never may beleeve” the lovers' account of what transpired during their night in the woods. Egeus must come to terms with a marriage that is one of the consequences of “Fairy toyes” in which Theseus himself does not believe.

Egeus's absence from festivities celebrating three weddings, one of which is his daughter's, is certainly compatible with interpreting Egeus's silence after Theseus overrules him as a refusal to accept Hermia's marriage to Lysander. The Quarto, then, justifies a production like Brook's in which Egeus, embittered at having Theseus “overbear” his will, ignores his daughter and withdraws from Athens rather than accept Hermia's marriage to Lysander. A father absent from his daughter's nuptial festivities would be another of those elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream that call attention to the darker, destructive possibilities inherent in the dynamics of sexual attraction and the processes of familial and communal renewal that the wedding revels and the play itself celebrate.8

Egeus's absence from the wedding festivities poses what I should like to call a dramaturgical problem: what means does Shakespeare provide to give that absence theatrical impact, to make it register on those watching a performance? One way to appreciate the problem is to try to remember whether Egeus was absent from the wedding festivities in the last performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream you saw. Shakespeare faced the same problem in act 5 of The Merchant of Venice, and there he insured that Shylock's absence would be an element of the audience's experience by having characters refer to Shylock. Lorenzo tells Jessica that the moonlit night they are enjoying together at Belmont reminds him of the night in Venice when she left her father to run away with him:

                                                                                          In such a night
Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew,
And with an unthrift love did run from Venice
As far as Belmont.


Antonio refers explicitly to his bond with Shylock when he offers to guarantee Basanio's fidelity to Portia by entering into another bond on his behalf:

I once did lend my body for his wealth,
Which but for him that had your husband's ring
Had quite miscarried. I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly.


After Portia and Nerissa reveal the parts they played at Shylock's trial, Nerissa explains to Lorenzo and Jessica how the sentence imposed on Shylock benefits them:

There do I give to you and Jessica
From the rich Jew, a special deed of gift,
After his death, of all he dies possessed of.


There are no equivalently direct references to the absent Egeus in act 5 of the Quarto version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Twice, however, what characters say could refer to Egeus. Early in act 5, Theseus asks, “Where is our usual manager / Of mirth?” The possibility that Egeus is the usual manager of mirth cannot be ruled out conclusively, but even if Theseus's question does refer to the absent Egeus, a reference so oblique is unlikely to register with much force on a theatre audience. A second possible reference to the absent father comes after the end of the play-within-the-play, when Snug, stepping out of his role as Lion, explains why Wall is not one of those “left to bury the dead”: “No, I assure you,” he tells Demetrius and others in the Athenian audience, “the wall is downe that parted their fathers.” Again, however, if this is a reference to Egeus, it is indirect and of questionable theatrical impact.

Words, however, are not the only means at a dramatist's disposal. Doubling Egeus with another character is a tactic available to Shakespeare that could use the visual dimension of drama in order to draw attention to Egeus's absence.10 Doubling Egeus and Philostrate, for example, would create a theatrical situation in which seeing Philostrate, whom Theseus calls upon in the Quarto to provide the wedding entertainment, could also make the audience conscious that Egeus has absented himself from the nuptial merriment. Brook's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream doubled Egeus and Peter Quince. The presence during act 5 of the novice director who struggles to bring theatrical order out of the impulses and imaginings of the rude mechanicals was a visual reminder of the absent father who had tried to make his daughter's fancy and sexual energies fit his will. I might also point out that the visual parallels generated by doubling Egeus would enhance the theatrical effectiveness of what are otherwise no more than possible, very indirect verbal references to him in the Quarto.

The Folio—in contrast to the Quarto—not only calls for Egeus to be present during act 5 but also provides a means for directing attention to him by giving him words to speak that the Quarto assigns to Philostrate. Clearly, by mandating the presence of Egeus during the wedding festivities, the Folio rules out the possibility that Egeus's response when Theseus overrides his will is to withdraw permanently from Athens. Even if the silent Egeus stalks off alone when he exits in act 4, he must, according to the Folio, be present in act 5. The presence of Egeus increases the possibility—more difficult to envision if, as the Quarto permits, he is absent—that he is fully reconciled to the marriage of Hermia and Lysander. The Folio has Egeus provide the list of “sports” from which Theseus selects the nuptial entertainment. In the Folio, it is Egeus, not Philostrate, who explains how the play of Pyramus and Thisby can be “merry” and “tragicall” as well as “tedious” and “briefe.” As part of that explanation, Egeus confesses that watching the play in rehearsal “made mine eyes water: / But more merrie teares, the passion of loud laughter / Never shed.”

Although the Folio certainly allows for full reconciliation between father and daughter, it does not mandate it. The first words that Egeus speaks are in response to the ducal command “Call Egeus.” Egeus answers, “Heere mighty Theseus,” and by stressing “mighty,” the actor playing Egeus can make his reply a telling reference to the power Theseus exercises, power capable of overriding both a father's will and the law upholding that father's right to exercise his will. Even Egeus's account of how his eyes watered is less conclusive than it first appears. The phrase “more merrie teares” can be spoken so that it implies that Hermia's father has also shed other, less merry tears. Note, too, that while “more” can serve as an adverb of comparison, it can equally well function as an adjective meaning “additional.” When it does, the sentence of which it is a part says that Egeus has not shed any merry tears since the rehearsal.

For me the most persuasive evidence for the possibility that Egeus's presence at the wedding festivities can signify nothing more than dutiful obedience to his duke is the fact that all the words he speaks are addressed to “mighty Theseus.” He never speaks to Hermia or Lysander, and neither of them ever speaks to him.11 Thus, Egeus's acts of speaking during act 5 also establish a silence that he maintains toward his daughter and her new husband and that they maintain toward him.

An especially important set of differences between Quarto and Folio turns on how the list of possible entertainments is presented. In the Folio Theseus asks Egeus what entertainments are available, while the Quarto has him ask Philostrate. In the Quarto Philostrate provides a “briefe” from which Thesus proceeds to read out the titles of the various sports, interspersing comments on each. The Folio changes what the Quarto presents as a single speech given by Theseus into a dialogue involving Lysander and Theseus. Lysander reads out the titles, and Theseus responds to each. What needs emphasis is that Egeus himself never carries out Theseus's charge that he “SAY, what abridgement have you for the evening” (my emphasis). That charge is the first of a series of questions Theseus asks: “What maske? What musicke? How shall we beguile / The lazie time, if not with some delight?” The questions can be asked very rapidly, but if Theseus pauses after each question, waiting for an answer that does not come before asking the next, the lines can emphasize that when Egeus does at last speak, he does not “Say” what the entertainments are. Instead, he says, “There is a breefe how many sports are rife [sic]: / Make choice of which your Highnesse will see first.”

By having Lysander be the one who then reads out what is in the brief, the Folio establishes a situation in which Hermia's new husband speaks what her father was called upon to say. Although it is clear that Lysander reads from the brief to which Egeus refers, it is not clear how that document gets into Lysander's hands, and it is equally unclear what significance emerges from the fact that Lysander rather than Egeus says what the “sports” are. Does Egeus himself hand the brief to Lysander and by that action both acknowledge and (literally) give his voice to Lysander? Does giving the brief to Lysander indicate that Egeus is declining to read it himself—a reluctance to speak that could echo his silence after Theseus overbears his will? Instead of giving the brief to Lysander, Egeus might place it on a table—“THERE is a briefe …” (my emphasis)—and Lysander could then step forward and read it. Another possibility is that Lysander snatches the brief from Egeus before he has a chance to read it, in effect taking Egeus's voice and his place as he has taken his daughter. Perhaps Egeus hands the brief—deferentially? defiantly?—to Theseus, who then passes it to Lysander. Such a sequence could establish a harmony between father and son-in-law centered on the figure of the duke. Alternatively, however, the same set of actions could convey that Theseus's response to an Egeus unwilling or unable to bring himself to “Say” what entertainment is available is to confer new status upon Lysander by giving him the opportunity to “Say” what Egeus will not.

By requiring the presence in act 5 of an Egeus who speaks, the Folio rules out the possibility that Egeus withdraws permanently from Athens rather than be present for a wedding he does not want, but the Folio leaves us unable to determine whether Egeus is present at his daughter's wedding festivities as a rejoicing father or as a dutiful courtier. Thus, neither the Folio nor the Quarto provides information that allows us to decide how Shakespeare wanted Egeus to respond to Theseus's decision authorizing Hermia's marriage to Lysander and to the marriage itself once it is performed. Even if we could convince ourselves that we had divined Shakespeare's intentions, the differences between the Quarto and the Folio suggest that those intentions did not remain fixed and constant but were fluid and changing. The Folio may be a revision of the Quarto, but if it is, the revising process was not one that worked toward clearer definition and greater specificity of intention. The aim of any revision that may have occurred seems to have been to give Egeus's response to Hermia's wedding—whatever that response is—greater theatrical effectiveness by requiring that, after his silence in act 4, he be present and speak during act 5.12

The differences in how the Quarto and the Folio present Egeus in act 5 are radically incompatible. There is no way to halve those differences nor to mediate them away by conflating the two texts. Egeus cannot be absent as well as present. The dialogue between Theseus and Hippolyta cannot be a relatively private conversation that only Philostrate is present to overhear and a public exchange that takes place in the presence of Egeus and the “Lords.” Nevertheless, recent editors—among them Madeleine Doran,13 David Bevington,14 G. Blakemore Evans,15 Stanley Wells,16 and R. A. Foakes17—have concurred in providing a stage direction at the beginning of act 5 that follows the Quarto in requiring the presence of Philostrate and follows the Folio in specifying the presence of others identified as lords and attendants. As a result of such conflation, the beginning of act 5 available to the vast majority of scholars, students, and theatre artists is significantly different from the two beginnings with the best claim to being Shakespeare's—the one in the Quarto and the one in the Folio.18

We can, of course, deal with the problems posed by Egeus's silence and the differences between the Quarto and the Folio by dismissing them as trivial. Egeus is a minor character, such a line of thinking would run, and his response to the wedding that Theseus declares will take place is a peripheral matter of no major significance. The inadequacy of such reasoning comes into focus if we think of A Midsummer Night's Dream in terms of the three phases that the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep has identified as the components of all rites of passage: separation, transition, and reincorporation.19 Lysander and Hermia enter the woods as part of a conscious decision to separate themselves from Athens, and once in the woods they, as well as Helena and Demetrius, undergo experiences that ultimately permit the four young lovers to pair off as male and female: each “Jill” ends up with a “Jack.” Theseus then makes possible the reincorporation of Lysander and Hermia into an Athens they had fled when he overrules Egeus and sanctions their marriage. The postnuptial festivities of act 5, which is set in Athens, make that reincorporation manifest, but the precise nature of that reincorporation varies according to how Egeus responds to his daughter's marriage.

If Egeus's silence and (in the Quarto) his absence from the wedding signifies his permanent withdrawal from Athens, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play in which marriage and the movement toward it occasion an irreparable break between father and daughter. The family composed of father and daughter fragments as the more inclusive social unit of the city accepts and validates the formation of a new family through marriage. Reincorporation coincides with Egeus's withdrawal. Athens loses a citizen in the process of acquiring a new couple with the potential to bring forth offspring who will be part of the next generation of Athenians. Renewal of the city becomes possible through a process of change that exacts a lasting cost.

The reincorporation that occurs in A Midsummer Night's Dream is radically different, however, if Egeus and Hermia are reconciled and he wholeheartedly accepts her marriage. In such a case, the family unit into which Hermia was born survives her entry into the marital family that she and Lysander form. The social unit of the family—in both its natal and its marital embodiments—and the social unit of the city emerge from the process of renewal intact and regenerated.

Should Egeus do no more than obediently submit to Theseus's authority, a third variety of reincorporation takes place. The continuing estrangement of father and daughter testifies to the shattering of the natal family, but the city itself remains capable of including both the embittered but dutiful father and the marital family her marriage to Lysander brings into existence. Egeus loses Hermia, and Hermia loses Egeus, but Athens loses no one. The city itself benefits as the result of a process that sees one family break apart as a new family that will help to ensure the city's future comes into being.

We are accustomed to thinking of Shakespeare's plays as works that he himself completed in all important details, and we routinely expect—if we do not demand—that those who study, teach, edit, and (especially) perform his plays will honor Shakespeare's intentions as codified in the words he wrote. Once we accept the importance to Egeus, however, the limits of the concepts of completeness and intentionality become inescapable. The very words mandating that Egeus respond to Theseus's decision to “overbear” his will and (in the Folio) to the fact of Hermia's marriage do not give us information adequate to determine what Shakespeare wanted those responses to be, yet those responses are essential components of the play's vision. In this instance, the notion of fidelity to Shakespeare's intentions does not suffice, and as we try to come to terms with the consequences of that insufficiency, one of our first priorities must be to rethink, to reenvision the relationship between Shakespeare and those who perform what we reflexively call his plays. Perhaps because of Shakespeare's own dramaturgical design, perhaps because of the accidents of textual transmission, the Quarto and the Folio present circumstances requiring that those who perform A Midsummer Night's Dream be responsible for determining what Egeus's responses are. The only way to know with anything approaching precision what those responses are is to know how the play has been performed, to take into account what actors actually do or have done. The responses enacted will vary—I would even say must and should vary—from performance to performance, production to production. Each time specific alternatives from among the panoply of available responses are enacted, A Midsummer Night's Dream achieves a particular state of completion, an actual coherence of vision, that it does not have in either its Quarto or its Folio manifestation. Those who perform the play endow it with essential, necessary details that Shakespeare's words require but do not themselves furnish. In so doing, theatre artists do more than serve as agents obediently implementing Shakespeare's intentions. They act as virtual cocreators with him, bringing to completion a process that he initiated. As they do, A Midsummer Night's Dream becomes their play as well as his and challenges all who study what we (misleadingly) call “Shakespeare's” plays to come to terms with their character as works that come into being through a process that is collaborative, collective, and communal in nature.


  1. The modern edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream from which I quote is Madeleine Doran's in William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, The Pelican Text revised, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (New York: Viking Press, 1977).

  2. A second quarto of A Midsummer Night's Dream was printed in 1619 with the false date of 1600 on the title page. Since it was based on the first, it has no independent authority.

  3. Lynda E. Boose, “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare,” PMLA 97 (1982): 326. In this impressive essay, Boose observes, “Hence in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play centered on marriage, the intransigent father Egeus, supported by the king-father figure Theseus, poses a threat that must be converted to a blessing to ensure the comic solution” (327). I am less certain than she is that the conversion she says must happen actually takes place.

  4. See Peter Brook's Production of William Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream” for the Royal Shakespeare Company: The Complete and Authorized Acting Edition, ed. Glen Loney (Chicago: Dramatic Publishing Company, 1974), 67b.

  5. Quotations from the Folio follow The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare, ed. Charlton Hinman (New York: Norton; London: Paul Hamlyn, 1968). Quotations from the Quarto of 1600 follow Shakespeare's Plays in Quarto: A Facsimile Edition of Copies Primarily from the Henry E. Huntington Library, ed. Michael J. B. Allen and Kenneth Muir (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981).

  6. Rather than italicize words that I emphasize, I have resorted to capitalizing all letters in them. This enables me to preserve the italicization present in the Folio. It should be noted, however, that we cannot be sure that in Shakespeare's time italicization was an indication of emphasis.

  7. I am deeply indebted to Barbara Hodgdon. Her essay “Gaining a Father: The Role of Egeus in the Quarto and Folio,” Review of English Studies, n.s. 37 (1986): 534-42, has enriched my understanding of Egeus's role in act 5 of the Folio.

  8. Those elements include Titania's account of how the changeling boy's mother died giving birth to him (2.1.135-37), the deaths of the lovers Pyramus and Thisby in the play-within-the-play, and Oberon's closing incantation against birth defects:

    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.


  9. Quotations follow Brent Stirling's edition of The Merchant of Venice in William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, Pelican Text revised.

  10. For a discussion of doubling in various plays by Shakespeare, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, see Stephen Booth's “Speculations on Doubling in Shakespeare's Plays,” in Shakespeare: The Theatrical Dimension, ed. Philip C. McGuire and David A. Samuelson (New York: AMS Press, 1979), 103-31. An expanded version of that essay was published as appendix 2 in Booth's book, “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” Indefinition, and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 129-55.

  11. In fact, Hermia, like Helena, says nothing at all during act 5. In both the Quarto and the Folio we have a situation in which two brides remain silent throughout festivities celebrating their weddings. Their silence is all the more intriguing when set against their insistence on speaking at other moments in the play. In act 1, for example, Hermia first asks Theseus's pardon, then “made bold” by “I know not” “what power,” goes on “In such a presence here to plead my thoughts” (1.1.59, 61). The silence of Hermia and Helena accentuates the fact that Hippolyta, who remained silent during Hermia's trial in act 1, is the only bride who speaks during the festivities. For a discussion of Hippolyta's silence in act 1, see chapter 1, “Hippolyta's Silence and the Poet's Pen,” in my Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), 1-18.

  12. In “Gaining a Father,” Barbara Hodgdon points out that by requiring Egeus's presence the Folio raises the issue of when and how he makes his exit. She comments on several possibilities, and the point I should like to emphasize is that his final exit, whenever and however it occurs, is made in silence and is therefore open to various, even conflicting alternatives.

  13. P. 169: “Enter Theseus, Hippolyta, and Philostrate [with Lords and Attendants].”

  14. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig and David Bevington, rev. ed. (Glenview, Illinois; Brighton, England: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1973), 201: “Enter THESEUS, HIPPOLYTA, and PHILOSTRATE, [Lords, and Attendants].”

  15. The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 241: “Enter THESEUS, HIPPOLYTA, and PHILOSTRATE, [Lords, and Attendants].”

  16. New Penguin edition (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1967), 107: “Enter Theseus, Hippolyta, Philostrate, Lords, and Attendants.”

  17. The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 115: “Enter THESEUS, HIPPOLYTA, PHILOSTRATE, Lords and Attendants.

  18. The New Oxford Shakespeare (William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, gen. ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986], 371), comes close to following the Folio: “Enter Theseus, Hippolyta, [Egeus], and attendant lords.”

  19. Boose, “Father and the Bride,” 325. Another way of establishing the importance of Egeus is to link him with the issue of authority; see Leonard Tennenhouse, “Strategies of State and Political Plays: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VIII,” in Political Shakespeare: New essays in cultural materialism (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985), 109-28.

John Bemrose (review date 1999)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715

SOURCE: Bemrose, John. “What Muddled Dreams May Come.” Maclean's 112, no. 20 (17 May 1999): 61.

[In the following review, Bemrose assesses the 1999 film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, starring Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer and directed by Michael Hoffman. Bemrose praises the performances of Kline as Bottom and Pfeiffer as Titania, but finds fault with the rest of the film, which seems to be, in Bemrose's opinion, a battle between a “tedious Hollywood costume drama” and an effort to remain true to Shakespeare's play.]

After Shakespeare in Love, Hamlet, Romeo + Juliet and all the other recent plunderings of Shakespeare, it was only a matter of time until someone got around to making a new version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. After all, it is the most perennially popular of Shakespeare's comedies, with a ready-made audience of millions who have studied it in school, or seen it acted in theatres great and small around the world. To watch Bottom, Puck and the quarrelling lovers is for many people like resuming an old friendship. Several cinematic versions have been made of the play: film audiences would seem to be ever-ripe ground for Shakespeare's intoxicating mix of romance and broad humour. And so A Midsummer Night's Dream hits the screen once more, ambitiously directed by Michael Hoffman and starring Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Those two might seem unlikely Shakespeareans, but both have acted the bard before, and they bring an exquisite tenderness to the famous meeting between Titania, Queen of the Fairies, and her ass-eared lover, Bottom. The major problems that afflict this film lie elsewhere. In fact, A Midsummer Night's Dream feels like two movies under the guise of one. One is a standard and fairly tedious Hollywood costume drama where the pretty locations, computer-driven special effects and booming operatic score, courtesy of Verdi and Puccini, matter most. The other movie is recognizably Shakespearean, where the momentum of the play's language and story is trusted to do its work. At the best of times, these two strands marry to generate some fine scenes. But too often the movie jolts along with a divided mind, never quite sure whether it wants to be a sugary Hollywood fantasy or guts-and-soul Shakespeare.

The split is clear right from the opening scene, which borrows heavily from Kenneth Branagh's 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing. Both films are set in the dry hills of Tuscany, and both open with an exuberant rush of operatic music. But while Branagh ultimately gives primacy to the text of the play, Dream's camera lingers typically over the preparations for the wedding feast of Duke Theseus (David Strathairn). So great is the press of servants and cooks that Theseus' famous opening speech to his bride, Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau), has to be breathed privately into her ear. There is nothing wrong with this, except that the actors seem unaware that they are speaking poetry: their conversation mumbles along like something overheard on a crowded bus.

The acting improves when the action shifts to the enchanted woods ruled over by the King of the Fairies, Oberon (Rupert Everett), and his mischievous executive assistant, Puck (a balding, behorned Stanley Tucci). Puck, of course, plays havoc with the four young lovers (Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Christian Bale, Dominic West) who are there to sort out their amorous complications. In a nice touch, Hoffman has them riding bicycles, and when Puck—who has never seen a bicycle before—steals one to carry out his errands, the film strikes a pleasing irony. After all, the rogue could fly if he wanted to, but instead he pedals around the woods in a transport of childlike joy.

Left to themselves, the actors might have saved this Dream. But time and again, it strays off into long uninteresting silences, or invented (but unnecessary) scenes, backed by passages of gorgeous music meant to manipulate our feelings. At such times, the whole enterprise falls flat, and the attempt to revive it with cute special effects (the worst portrays the fairies as a travelling crowd of Tinkerbell-like points of light) only makes matters worse. The best films of Shakespeare's plays know how to surf the powerful, unrelenting wave of his language. This Midsummer Night's Dream tries to find its magic elsewhere—and falls under a spell of confusion it cannot break.

Richard Alleva (review date 1999)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1264

SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. Review of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Commonweal 126, no. 12 (18 June 1999): 20-1.

[In the following review, Alleva offers a mixed assessment of Michael Hoffman's 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The critic censures some of the actors' performances, most notably Michelle Pfeiffer's “gracelessly spoken performance” as Titania. Alleva further claims that while Kevin Kline reduces Bottom to an emotionally fragile clown, this approach works well in Hoffman's production.]

Judged by the film he has made from it, two elements of A Midsummer Night's Dream seem to have fascinated the director Michael Hoffman nearly to the exclusion of everything else in the play: the supernatural sylvan community ruled by Oberon and Titania, and the character of Bottom the weaver.

Up to the moment when the camera enters the forest, this production is a typical example of the cute modernization of Shakespeare. Instead of ancient Athens, Hoffman sets the story in an imaginary Tuscan town called Monte Athena at the turn of the century. Its ruler, Theseus, is no warrior hero but a harassed bureaucrat, and his bride-to-be, Hippolyta, is a bluestocking chafed by masculine traditions. The men wear boaters and the women corsets; bicycles and phonographs are important props; the music of Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi fills the soundtrack.

As usual with such modernizations, some things in the play fit the director's scheme and some, egregiously, don't. Among the former: the rebellion of Hermia against a parental authority still powerful and, especially in southern Europe, still backed by the law in 1900. The craftsmen trying to put on a play are archetypal in any setting of any era. Less convincing is the threat of a death sentence for Hermia's defiance, though the alternate punishment of convent confinement is more plausible. Some of Hoffman's inventions fit neither the text nor his updating. Since we already accept the convention that these Italians are speaking Elizabethan English, why does Hoffman have villagers in the background chatter in Italian? When Lysander and Hermia camp down for the night, why does Hermia disrobe in the quickly cooling damp forest? (To add sex to a PG-13 movie, I hear you muttering. But surely a Hollywood producer would never stoop so low!) And, of course, to eliminate even more glaring incongruities, Hoffman has scissored away at the text and so, many verbal enchantments have disappeared. (One mustn't object that Shakespeare must be cut for the screen. Not after Kenneth Branagh's four-hour Hamlet.).

But, once the action shifts to the moonlit forest, we begin to discover that Hoffman has something fresh to bring to the play.

Initially startling is how unsupernatural, even flat-footed, the sprites and dryads and fairies seem. When Puck, well played by Stanley Tucci as a lecherous satyr, encounters one of Titania's nymphs, he comes on to her like a spiv trying to pick up a secretary on her lunch hour. A few seconds later, he's urinating against a tree. Oberon and Titania may be less vulgar, yet the fairy Queen, in Michelle Pfeiffer's gracelessly spoken performance, seems middle-class in her shrewishness rather than regally furious, like a Scarsdale matron whose ex-husband has missed his last two alimony payments; while Oberon takes on the manner of an overripe lounge lizard (but, granted this approach, skillfully done by Rupert Everett).

This mundanity is a function not of the director's incompetence but of his strategy. Hoffman sees the fairy world simply as a kingdom in exile, driven into the woods by the triumph of Christianity. These ousted deities, denied the fealty of mortals and confined to a sylvan ghetto, have become clumsy, enervated, aimless, petty, and irritable. (I began to wonder why the wings hadn't dropped off the fairies long ago.) In Shakespeare's text, Titania denies her mate the little page boy because of her regard for her friend, the lad's dead mother. But here, with that motive deemphasized, the real cause of the quarrel seems to be a kind of cabin fever. After sixteen hundred years of exile in a very small forest, Oberon and Titania just can't stand the sight of each other.

It is a severe reduction of Shakespeare's multilayered emotionality, but Hoffman's cleverness often prevails. For instance, being a community of exiles longing for news of home, the fairy folk have smuggled things out of Monte Athena in order to find out what mortals are up to nowadays. Titania may be able to command lightning and rain but she and her nymphs can't work the phonograph filched from the villa of Theseus. When Bottom finally winds the contraption up and plays “Casta Diva,” the nymphs look at him with new respect. He may not be the most glamorous lover Titania's ever had, but he sure is a handy guy to have around. (Shakespeare's term for working man, “mechanical,” here takes on new meaning.).

The highest compliment I can pay to the characterization of Nick Bottom as redesigned by Hoffman and actor Kevin Kline is also a backhanded one: Having banished Shakespeare's conception from their production, they have contrived a not unworthy substitute. The fellow you encounter in the play—surely Shakespeare's greatest purely comic character, for Falstaff is tragicomic—is a glorious monster of happy fatuity, deaf to all criticism, laving himself in fantasies of theatrical triumph, capable of receiving the amorous caresses of a goddess as but his due. But Kline's weaver, to the contrary, feels himself precariously situated in society (a local star but also a clown to be mocked), and has an all-too-fragile ego. When a mischief-maker pours wine on the weaver and ruins his best suit, Kline crumbles and goes home to sulk. (Shakespeare's Bottom would have received the drenching as a tribute: “Lo, how the commonality lauds me in manner Bacchic!”) This local-yokel hambone and would-be Lothario of Kline's is a relative of the overgrown boys in Fellini's I Vitelloni, tugging at the restraints of small-town life and yearning for a future of sensual bliss or artistic renown. (And Roger Rees's Peter Quince—a lovely, subtle piece of work—seems directly inspired by Vitelloni's Leopoldo, the aspiring poet.) This new characterization, though a reversal of what's in the play, nevertheless works on screen. When Kline is wooed by Titania, he wonderfully conveys a loser's amazement at suddenly winning. The comedy of Shakespeare's weaver is that he gets exactly what he thinks he deserves. But the pathos of Kline's Nick Bottom is that he achieves what he never imagined would come to him.

Whenever the fairies and Bottom aren't together on screen, the movie trudges. I've seen the lovers' spats and the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe work better in college productions than they do here. Above all, what this film lacks is a sense of ritual and mystery. With the special effects now available to any big-budget movie, Hoffman can convey Titania's wrath at her husband with lightning and thunder, but the insipid kiss and quick fade into the distance with which he stages their reconciliation doesn't distill the essence of “Come, my queen, take hands with me, / And rock the ground whereon these sleepers be.” Hoffman's cinematic shorthand doesn't rock the ground or us.

Thanks to much of the acting (I also liked David Strathairn's fusspot Theseus and Dominic West's dark, incisive Lysander) and to the director's flashes of invention, this movie is mainly amusing and worth seeing. But check your local video store or library for the BBC's 1982 Dream, directed by Moshinsky and featuring the best Nick Bottom (Brian Glover's) I've ever seen. It's easy to be amused by any moderately well-done production of this play. Dare to be awed.

Jim Welsh (review date 1999)

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SOURCE: Welsh, Jim. Review of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Literature/Film Quarterly 27, no. 2 (1999): 159-61.

[In the following review, Welsh compares Michael Hoffman's 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream to the 1935 Max Reinhardt-William Dieterle film production. The critic contends that the more recent version of the play is generally less compelling, despite the success of Calista Flockhart's Helena.]

Does Hollywood love Shakespeare, as some have suggested, or does Hollywood simply love Shakespeare in Love? John Madden's film was a surprise success, both at the box office and at the Academy Awards. Shakespeare in Love was made on a budget of $38 million and took in over $68 million in domestic revenues. Hollywood “loves” Shakespeare because Hollywood loves money, and Shakespeare in Love won the Oscar jackpot. Hence the current “Bard Boom” has little to do with the real Shakespeare and a whole lot to do with speculative greed.

In 1998 the much admired Shakespeare in Love put an appealing human face on the Droeshout engraving of the balding Bard, indulging in a biographical fantasy that made the Bard a sexy and energetic young lover who knew how to thrill with his quill. Call it the reinvention of Shakespeare, done with nimble dialogue and astonishing theatrical flourishes sufficient to dazzle the Motion Picture Academy. Newsweek credited the film with starting the so-called “Bard Boom,” even though the current Shakespeare revival has been going on for at least a decade, starting with Kenneth Branagh's Henry V in 1989.

One commentator rightly described Shakespeare in Love as a Shakespeare-highlight film, and so it is—a mishmash of the best bits of Romeo and Juliet squeezed into a faux-biographical framework, mostly invented, mostly fanciful. Kit Marlowe shows Will the way to shape his tragedy of star-crossed lovers, for example, according to Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, who turn the boy Bard into slick Willy, a lovesick puppy pining androgenously for blonde bombshell Viola DeLesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a poetry groupie who earns her hour on the stage before being sent to Virginia Beach and an arranged marriage in the Brave New World. The script is certainly clever. Shakespeare in Love interfaces amusingly with Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night to provide in-your-face entertainment, distorting the facts in a determined effort to popularize the Bard.

Can the recent adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream compete with this slick confection? That's part of the challenge. Another challenge for Hoffman is to match the enchantment of earlier screen adaptations of the play, especially the Max Reinhardt-William Dieterle production put together by MGM in 1935, embellished with Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music, a Russian ballet troupe, and a cast that included the leading comic character actors of the day. Small wonder, then, that Hoffman's film, though often charming and amusing in its way, comes up short.

Hoffman moves the action forward in time and sets it in late 19th-Century Tuscany, but does the Italianate setting make sense? The MGM version was given a God-knows-where setting that was vaguely and humorously “Athenian,” though this Athens seemed to border a mad German Black Forest setting of gnomes, trolls, fairies, and unicorns. Once the boundaries were firmly set, the film carefully made clear visual and musical transitions between the kingdoms of Theseus and Oberon. In this film the forest was a magical place, something other than a bicycle park on a quaint Italian holiday.

In Hoffman's film the roles of both Theseus and Oberon are strangely reduced. Shakespeare's Duke Theseus is a powerful warrior who has defeated the Amazon Queen Hippolyta in battle and is then determined to marry her and make merry. Hoffman's Theseus (David Strathairn) lacks the grandeur and the comic pomposity of Shakespeare's Theseus, and his lines are so abridged in keeping with the new setting that he appears to be merely the maitre d' of a swanky Italian resort, not a ruler truly in charge, but a stiff, wooden mannequin oddly detached from the festivities of his own nuptials. Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau) is likewise translated into a genteel, aristocratic lady, rather too frail to be imagined wearing Amazon battle-garb.

Rupert Everett's Oberon is perhaps nearer the mark, but more naked than lordly, and not nearly so sinister as Victor Jory's Oberon in the MGM version, attended by bat-winged spirits in contrast to the airy spirits of Titania, his Fairy Queen. Michelle Pfeiffer's Titania is overly made-up as she sweeps her monsterous lover—Kevin Kline with funny ears and a hairy face—into the privacy of her bower, where she discovers her ass-eared lover's other endowments (perhaps suggesting Jan Kott's lusty and bestial reading of the play). The long and the short of it is that Kline is obviously up for the role and makes a fine Bottom, but his Bottom is topped by Jimmy Cagney's performance in 1935, and one suspects Kline knows it, since he seems at times to be imitating Cagney. Though Roger Rees is not bad as Peter Quince, the “rude mechanicals” are altogether eclipsed by the comic talents of the 1935 film, with memorable turns by Hugh Herbert and Joe E. Brown, camping it up as Thisby. As Puck, Stanley Tucci looks like Mr. Spock with horns, oversized, rather than sprightly. Tucci gives a thoroughly professional and carefully modulated performance, but this Vulcanized Puck is no Mickey Rooney, whose performance was outrageously overdone and over the top, campy but fun.

Midsummer Night's Dream should be more fun than the current adaptation is. The only advantage it may have over the 1935 version is the casting of the confused and enchanted lovers. Calista Flockhart is outstanding as Helena. Christian Bale and Dominic West manage to personalize the look-alike beaux Demetrius and Lysander, and Anna Friel pouts mightily as the much-abused Hermia. In the final forest frenzy they muck about in a way that amusingly recalls Peter Hall's 1968 Royal Shakespeare adaptation.

But, again, I stress, the “Bard Boom” did not start last year after Hollywood had tired of exploiting Jane Austen, as witnessed by Branagh's realistic Henry V and his ambitious (if somewhat bloated and extravagant) Hamlet, Oliver Parker's Othello (with Branagh as Iago), and Trevor Nunn's miraculous Twelfth Night, which set a standard for both Shakespeare in Love and A Midsummer Night's Dream to live up to. The fallout of Shakespeare in Love will involve several more pictures. Opening almost concurrently with A Midsummer Night's Dream, was 10 Things I Hate About You, which attempted to translate The Taming of the Shrew into a teenpix set at “Padua High,” Shakespeare rendered Clueless, in other words.

Forthcoming titles promised by USA Today (29 January 1999) may be of more academic interest. Anthony Hopkins will undertake Titus Andronicus (described, not too promisingly, by Julie Taymor as “the Pulp Fiction of its day”) and Ethan Hawke will presume to play Hamlet (a courageous move, given the definitive treatment of Kenneth Branagh, but this one is said to be “transplanted to Manhattan.” One vividly recalls the freaky “transplantation” of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet and hopes for the best.) Meanwhile, Branagh apparently intends to transform Love's Labor's Lost into a 1930's styled musical, with Alicia Silverstone and the music of Irving Berlin. How long will it be before the Shakespeare boom goes bust?

Russell Jackson (review date 2000)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1849

SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon: Summer and Winter, 1999-2000.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 2 (2000): 217-29.

[In the following review, Jackson comments on Michael Boyd's 1999-2000 stage production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Boyd discusses the production's emphasis on the sexuality of the forest and its inhabitants and its use of dance and movement as unifying elements within the play.]

In my previous report on Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon I wondered more in sorrow than in anger what kind of artistic policy the RSC might lay claim to.1 Whether or not in the course of the “Summer Festival Season” the company found a policy, they certainly acquired a stage, which may amount to the same thing. The 1500-seat proscenium-arch main house, with whose architecture directors and designers have struggled since it opened in 1932, was remodeled under the direction of the company's resident designer, Anthony Rowe. For the summer season the company installed a deep, elliptical platform stage, on which the principal action of each play was performed. The space upstage of the proscenium arch was relegated to providing background images or (for long stretches of some of the season's plays) simply closed off from view. In order to make the actors visible to spectators at the back of the topmost level, the new platform was higher than in previous attempts to bring the stage forward (such as that of the 1976 season). Consequently, the front two rows of stalls on either side of it became “restricted-view” seats, and the performers' horizontal sight line was slightly above the heads of the audience in the middle and rear stall seats.

But two other elements of the past twelve months' work in Stratford were definitely signs of policy: an increased attention to clarity of speech (reinforced by company voice classes) and the designation of the main season, from March to September, as a “summer festival.” The voice work—together with the remodeled stage—addressed directly some criticisms made in recent years by giving speech and action priority over scenic display. The renaming amounted to a repackaging of the company's scheduling so that it at least seemed coherent, even as it revived a concept that the RSC left behind some two decades or more ago. Four Shakespeare plays over four months, all given in the largest of the Stratford spaces, were well attended. By the end of the period tickets for most performances (particularly Timon of Athens) were hard to come by, but this was still a considerable retrenchment on previous scheduling in terms of the number of productions and performances. The choice of Shakespeare plays (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, and Timon of Athens) was complemented by at least three later plays with a bearing on the dramatist's work: Schiller's Don Carlos in the Other Place and Eliot's The Family Reunion and a dramatized selection of Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid in the Swan. Schiller's play includes variations on Hamlet—a gloomy prince, the expectancy and rose of a not-very-fair state, is kept back from university in an oppressive court and has major problems with parents and paramour. There are also occasional smacks in it of The Winter's Tale, Othello, and King Lear, echoes of the last allowing John Woodvine as King Philip, both fearsome and pitiable, to suggest what he might do with a Shakespearean role that has yet to come his way. Tales from Ovid, adapted by Simon Reade and the director Tim Supple, was an eloquently spoken and choreographed ensemble piece, full of striking and simple story-telling devices for its tales of the gods' interference with humans and the sometimes terrifying consequences. It also included some larky male nudity (Pan and his newly acquired disciple Midas) and powerful erotic images (in the Semele episode, for example). In addition to these productions, the season included a powerful new adaptation of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko and a new work, Warwickshire Testimony, by April di Angelis at The Other Place. Greg Doran directed a stylish, dark Volpone at the Swan, with Malcolm Storry as Volpone and Guy Henry as Mosca.

In the opening scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Michael Boyd with designs by Tom Piper, Athens was distinctly chilly. The courtiers, in heavy overcoats and fur hats, stood stiffly at attention in front of the curving wall of plain white that bounded the back of the forestage. Snow fell from the dark sky visible above the wall. The bursts of applause with which the courtiers reacted to Theseus's and Hippolyta's speeches were prompted by a bowler-hatted, white-gloved master of ceremonies. This looked like Moscow, circa 1956, in a court where the stern Athenian law would be enforced with a kind of frigid absolutism. Hippolyta (Josette Simon) did not appear to be unduly displeased with her lot as the intended bride of Theseus (Nicholas Jones), but the harsh treatment of Egeus's daughter clearly disturbed her. She moved to Hermia's side during Theseus's harangue (he seemed embarrassed to have to deliver it), and as she left the stage, she lingered to look at the prospective victim.

With the move to the forest the curved wall of doorways at the back remained in place, but flowers suddenly sprang up through holes in the stage. One of the Athenian court ladies, wearing an all-enveloping overcoat, fur hat, and gloves, came on and began to pick them. The master of ceremonies, still in bowler hat and coat, accosted her—and they began to tear off each other's outer garments until she was revealed (once her spectacles were removed) as a very flirtatious and décolleté First Fairy and he as the barechested Puck. Only the impending arrival of Oberon and Titania (doubled with Theseus and Hippolyta) prevented them from having sex there and then. It was probably this moment of passion suddenly unbridled that provoked a teacher with a party of schoolchildren to make a protest—subsequently nurtured into a flurry of press interest—about the wholesale lubricity of the production. In fact, the director hardly went any further than other recent interpreters of the play, and there was a clear distinction between mortal passions before and after fairy influence. Hermia's insistence that Lysander “lie further off” and his clumsy attempts to lie closer when they decide to go to sleep were not played leeringly, and although Helena went into the woods wearing a short red dress and high heels—perhaps hoping this would get her man for her—it was the wood and its inhabitants that held the key to sexuality. In order to administer the juice of the vision-altering flower, Puck arrived onstage dressed as a gardener, with a wheelbarrow, a watering can, and a substantial plant, its roots clogged with soil. He pulled Lysander's coat up over his face, heaped some dirt on top of his head, “planted” the flower, and watered it in like a good gardener. The mayhem of the long lovers' scene (3.2) was appropriately acrobatic (Hermia being pitched head over heels offstage at one point) but scarcely erotic. However, goings-on elsewhere in the wood seemed to have some effect on these lovers. When Puck rearranged the recumbent and disheveled mortals after their night of confusion, he entwined them suggestively, having planted the antidote to the magic flower firmly over Lysander's groin. After all, these are the “lovebirds” that, as Theseus observes when he finds them, have begun “to couple now.”

Titania's seduction of Bottom (David Ryan) was as physically direct as has become customary, and her bower was a solid and commodious bed that descended from the flies: as the first part of the performance ended, she and Bottom were clearly already getting on well. When the bed was lowered again in 4.1, Titania's arms were hanging over the side as she sprawled in an attitude of satisfied exhaustion. Bottom appeared in a dressing-gown and smoking a postcoital cheroot, with the smug air of one relaxing after a job well done. It was clear that some of the fairy attendants fancied similar treatment from him and had to be kept in check.

The woodland selves of all the Athenians seemed transformed and enhanced by the production's doubling. This was simply effected by change of costume (Oberon had long tails to his coat and a tattoo-like mark on his bald head), a pattern of stylized movement using the whole stage, and the equipping of each fairy with a repeated gesture, half nervous tic, or half “magic” pass of the hands. The “fairy” who had been Egeus, for example, held his right hand in the air above his head and shook it as though inducing some kind of hypnotic trance: touchingly, he seemed to echo (and counterpose) his mortal self by holding this hand in benediction over Hermia. Oberon was as smoothly spoken and assured as Theseus had been, with the added abilities to be invisible, to fly (courtesy of a chair lowered from the flies), and to move through the earth (on a ladder that rose through a trap for him to ascend Titania's bower). Titania was only slightly less inhibited in demeanor than Hippolyta: Josette Simon took the stage in the first scene with an assurance befitting an Amazonian queen, captured or otherwise, while Theseus seemed a little nervous and hesitant once Egeus's demand for judgment against Hermia had placed him on the spot. Puck found aerial travel rather more troublesome: after collecting the magic flower, he arrived bedraggled and still sweating. Bottom, with asinine teeth, luxuriant facial hair, and eminently strokable ears, was an amiable monster for Titania to love. There were moments of darkness in the production (notably when Demetrius threatened Hermia with a knife), and the lovers' dismay and physical distress were not merely a matter of torn clothes and besmirched faces. On balance, though, this was no nightmare.

Dance and movement were a well-conceived unifying element. In their first scene the “hard-handed men of Athens” entered in a line, solemn and sober-suited, then turned to face the audience and performed a stamping line-dance reminiscent of The Full Monty. Later, disconsolate at the absence of Bottom, their chief actor, they made a half-hearted attempt at the same routine. In a pleasing coup, “Pyramus and Thisbe” was performed in Elizabethan dress, with Peter Quince looking somewhat like Shakespeare. After an appropriately hilarious rendition of the tragedy (Bottom lost his sword blade, Thisbe had to make do with the hilt), the bergamask consisted of a version of the men's steps seen in 1.2, which then became a solemn fandango-like number as Bottom—with some temerity—held out his hand to Hippolyta. When she took it and joined in, the dance turned into the more “primitive” stamping, hip-gyrating dance with which Oberon and Titania had rocked the ground in 4.1: the woodland had invaded the palace. At the end of the play, when the fairy king and queen returned, dance was varied into another ritualistic mode, again evoking fertility rites, as with sweeping gestures they waved fronds of greenery over their heads to scatter “field-dew” across the stage.


  1. See my “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1996-98: or the Search for a Policy,” Shakespeare Quarterly 50 (1999): 185-205.

Mark Thornton Burnett (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5310

SOURCE: Burnett, Mark Thornton. “Impressions of Fantasy: Adrian Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In Shakespeare, Film, Fin de Siècle, edited by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray, pp. 73-101. London: Macmillan, 2000.

[In the following essay, Burnett discusses Adrian Noble's 1996 film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, noting that while Noble's 1994-95 Royal Shakespeare Company stage production of the play was lauded by critics, the film adaptation received primarily negative reviews. Burnett reevaluates the film, praising it as a reinvention of the comedy “for the millennium.”]

When Adrian Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of its 1994-5 Stratford-upon-Avon and touring programme, the production attracted widespread acclaim. Eminent critics joined to sing the praises of a ‘magnificent’, ‘notable’, ‘outstanding’, ‘stunning’ and ‘vibrant’ reinterpretation of Shakespeare's play.1 No doubt spurred on by this theatrical success, the RSC, in collaboration with Channel Four, quickly set about transferring the production to celluloid. The film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, again directed by Noble, was commercially released to a limited number of cinemas in 1996 and, in 1997, made its way to a TV showing and the video market. But the passage from stage to screen proved an unhappy experience. As a film, A Midsummer Night's Dream, contrary to the expectations aroused by the reception of its previous incarnation, was roundly criticized. Directorial inadequacy had resulted in a ‘botched’ creation (stated The Daily Telegraph), an ‘unmitigated disaster’ (asserted The Observer: Review) and a ‘highbrow pantomime’ (agreed The Sunday Times: Culture).2 Concluded The Times: ‘Noble still thinks like a primitive’, offers us a reading of the play that is ‘charmless under the camera's close scrutiny’ and ‘puts the Bard's cause back a hundred years’.3 Such a chorus of condemnation invites a considered response. In this essay, I aim to redress the filmic reputation of Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream by concentrating on its stylistic felicities and postmodern aspirations. Rather than putting the Bard's cause back a hundred years, I will suggest, the film reinvents Shakespeare for the millennium, both recalling high Victorian decadence and looking ahead to the dawning of the new century. Before that argument can be developed, however, we need to return to the play itself.

In the opening scenes of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Egeus, outraged at his daughter Hermia's reluctance to accept his choice of marriage partner, accuses her lover, Lysander, of having ‘stolen the impression of her fantasy’.4 This printing metaphor is quickly taken up by Theseus, who reminds Hermia that her ‘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’ (I.i.47-50). Thus does the play evoke women's positions in relation to patriarchal discipline and perceived malleability in the hands of fathers and governors alike. But the metaphors deployed here also suggest the role of the imagination in the artistic process: at one and the same time Hermia is a pawn in a struggle for an appropriate alliance and the raw material out of which will be fashioned a new entity. Indeed, the shaping ‘imagination’ (V.i.8) can be seen as essential to the action as a whole. It is not accidental that the ‘mechanicals’ are made up of carpenters and joiners (both types of artist). Nor is it irrelevant that Theseus should, towards the conclusion, play a variation upon his original argument, claiming that ‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, / Such … fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends’ (V.i.4-6). In many ways, the power struggles of A Midsummer Night's Dream are conducted through representations of the myriad ‘forms’ (V.i.15) that the creative faculty is driven to produce.

In New Historicist criticism, in particular, these struggles have been read in terms of contemporary anxieties that obtained in the Elizabethan state. Louis Montrose, in a 1996 study, approaches A Midsummer Night's Dream by mapping the various contexts—the interplay among discourses of gender, social status and theatricality—that were a ‘condition of the play's imaginative possibility’.5 However, it also needs to be recognized that, as much as the play's prevailing concerns are in dialogue with the cultural complexion of the 1590s, they have an equally significant contextual location in later historical periods. Taking the various ‘impressions’ or ‘forms’ made by ‘fantasy’ or the ‘imagination’, Noble's filmic A Midsummer Night's Dream serves them up as a postmodern mixture of childhood reminiscences, self-conscious literary allusions, sexual awakenings and reminders of a turn-of-the-century environment.

Chiefly, it is through the interpolated character of the Boy (Osheen Jones) that the film manages to rewrite the play's imaginative topos. The film opens with the Boy asleep in his bedroom, which is crowded with books, puppets, a rocking-horse and a miniature theatre. It quickly modulates to the scene of the play itself—the Athenian court. By placing the Boy first under and then at the table in this aristocratic world, the film grants him a key responsibility in the ensuing narrative: his is the guiding perspective, to the extent that he is capable, dramaturge-like, of giving birth to fairies from the bubbles created by his own toy pipe. At other points, the Boy assumes a more directive role still, as when he pushes Bottom's motorbike and propels forward a spherical moon, suggesting the centrality of the child's imperatives and projections to the play's unfolding events. Like Puck (Barry Lynch), the Boy has the power to activate and to generate. He ‘bodies forth’ (V.i.14) in the ‘empty space’ of his invention both the personalities and the properties that will people his dream.6

Crucial to the film are the ways in which the Boy's imaginative energies simultaneously empower and enslave. Even as he authors the ‘forms’ of his ‘fantasies’, appropriately envisioning the fairies as much younger versions of himself (their baggy trousers recall infants in diapers), the Boy is represented as the ‘changeling’ (II.i.120) over whom Titania (Lindsay Duncan) and Oberon (Alex Jennings) fight. During the realization of Titania's speech about the ‘votaress’ of her ‘order’ (II.i.123), the camera focuses in on a conventionally ‘Indian’ (II.i.124) image of the Boy in a turban—his distraught expression indicates his alarm at becoming the object of the King and Queen's dissension. In addition, when the toy theatre is magically transported to the forest, the Boy must struggle with Oberon for ownership of the puppets' strings. Oberon's seizure of a model figure from the theatre implies that he has no qualms in usurping the Boy's manipulative privileges. Power in Noble's conception of things is a matter of contest, and no one is permitted to exercise a secure and unchanging control. If, in the play, then, tensions cluster about the father's hopes for his daughter, in the film, they are extended to encompass wider generational conflicts and the predicament of a child in a divided familial landscape. In common with other recent ‘Shakespearean’ films, such as Lloyd Kaufman's Tromeo and Juliet (1996) and Jocelyn Moorhouse's A Thousand Acres (1998), Noble in A Midsummer Night's Dream deploys the Bard to hint at the increasing untenability of the late twentieth-century nuclear family as a practical ideal. For all his imaginative abilities, the Boy is still subject to the crises and estrangements of his adoptive parents.

To shore up the role of the Boy in the imaginative process, the film draws upon a variety of motifs from children's literature. Its opening frame of the Boy asleep is lent additional force by the copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, which lies beside him on the bedclothes. When he falls through the night sky and a chimney pot to encounter the ‘mechanicals’, the descent of Alice down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and the depiction of the tornado in L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) are brought to mind. (Crying ‘Mummy!’ and screaming as he is pitched into darkness, the Boy seems on the point of entering not so much his dream at this point as his nightmare.) Each pivotal moment is accompanied by allusions to narratives that either evoke childhood richly or appeal to a collective children's memory. For instance, the flying umbrellas used by the fairies for their wonder-inducing entrances and exits recall P. L. Travers' Mary Poppins (1934); the departure of Bottom (Desmond Barrie) and Titania across the water in an upturned umbrella is reminiscent of Edward Lear's sea-loving and moon-seeking animals, the owl and the pussycat; and the scene of Bottom flying across the moon on his motorbike harks back to the escape of ‘E. T.’ in the film of the same name. The result is less an experience of Shakespeare as it is an intertextual rehearsal of familiar children's stories, past and present. In this way, Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream pushes back the perimeters of what constitutes ‘Shakespeare’, combining elements from ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultural traditions and mixing ‘old’ and ‘new’ representational materials.

The film's investment in the trappings of childhood has a three-fold effect. First, the echoes of both literary and filmic forms point to the ways in which the imaginative impetus has assumed a wide range of manifestations across history. On the one hand, A Midsummer Night's Dream longs nostalgically for the heyday of children's literature in a late Victorian context; on the other, it revels in the possibilities afforded by a unprecedented wave of children's films, as references to ‘E. T.’ and Home Alone suggest.7 (In this connection, the print culture outlined at the start is placed in a rivalrous relationship to the power of alternative media and new informational practices.) It is as if Noble seeks a mode of production that addresses the ‘special effects’ requirements of a younger, cinematically demanding spectator, while also answering to the more intellectual expectations of the twentieth-century Shakespearean filmgoer. The invocation of popular literary predecessors argues for the Bard's perennial appeal; the use of technological wizardry discovers the dramatist being appropriated to satisfy a modern sensibility.

Motifs from children's literature speak to the implied child in the audience in more specific ways, however. At a secondary level, the narratives alluded to in A Midsummer Night's Dream, like the film itself, work to equip the Boy (and thus the generation he represents) with important social skills and interpersonal capacities. Like Alice and Dorothy, to whom, in his parentless condition, he is allied, the Boy undergoes a series of extraordinary dislocations, as a result of which he is finally able to confront ‘reality’ in a more self-aware and constructive fashion than before.8 This, of course, is the pattern elaborated in children's stories in their more traditional guise. As Paul Schilder states of the Alice stories, ‘the child uses Carroll's … anxiety situations in a way similar to the manner in which the child uses Mother Goose Rhymes. They take them as an understood reality which one can hope to handle better after one has played and worked with it.’9 It is also the pattern characteristic of the fairy-tale, a form with a similar educative aspect. Bruno Bettelheim has said of fairy-tales that they explore the ‘need … to find meaning in our lives’. By suggesting ‘solutions to perturbing problems’, he argues, such tales reveal the ‘struggle to achieve maturity’ and ‘caution against the destructive consequences if one fails to develop higher levels of responsible self-hood’.10 Although A Midsummer Night's Dream, in its self-conscious elaboration of a child's experiences, follows neither of these trajectories exactly, the Boy's experiments with his creative abilities, involvement in his adoptive parents' conflicts and property disputes with a father figure reveal more than a passing resemblance to the generic processes whereby other fictional children are enabled to foster their personal development. They show the Boy testing and stretching the boundaries of childhood, striving towards a realizable autonomy.

A key element of the child's development is the confrontation with his or her own sexuality. In this regard, the third effect of Noble's investment in the cultural production of childhood comes into play. Through amalgamating a Shakespearean art form with the stuff of childhood ‘fantasies’, the director reactivates the sexual dimensions that underlie all mythic archetypes. In his classic The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim posits that fairy tales negotiate the uncertain sexual terrain between childhood, adolescence and adulthood, at times concerning themselves with specific crises such as ‘Oedipal anguish’.11 With reference to Alice in Wonderland, A. M. E. Goldschmidt makes more detailed claims for the sexual import of children's stories: the lock and the key, and the descent down the well, he contends, belong to ‘the common symbolism of … coitus’.12 Nowhere in Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream are obviously Oedipal crises hinted at; however, the film abounds in scenes of sexual revelation and voyeurism, which read in many ways as a working through of Goldschmidt's critical position. Sexuality in A Midsummer Night's Dream is initially brought to the Boy's attention via moments of heterosexual tension and displaced masculinity. Thus the Boy undergoes something of a primal scene when, at the start, he is privy to the chief protagonists' ‘nuptial’ (I.i.1) plans: Hippolyta's reference here to the ‘silver bow / New-bent’ (I.i.9-10) is, in Lindsay Duncan's delivery, made to bristle with all the erotic energy of unconsummated desire. More obscurely, perhaps, sexuality is paraded before the Boy during the rehearsals of the ‘mechanicals’, which take place in the war-time austerity of a corrugated hut. As Noble admitted in interview, a Dad's Army effect was aimed for in these scenes, and certainly the fire extinguishers, dartboards and old sporting trophies that adorn the hut walls appear as telling indicators of the 1940s.13 But the temporal markers are also instrumental in constructing the ‘mechanicals’ as sexual outcasts, who can have no place in the war effort. The effeminacy of Francis Flute (Mark Letheren), it is implied, identifies him as an unfit soldier, while the braggadocio of Bottom, the film suggests, constitutes the sublimated sexuality of a man debarred from the battlefield. Because the Boy is simultaneously the voyeuristic auditor of the rehearsals, the film allows him to bear witness to a range of expressions of sexuality, from pre-marital badinage to compensatory theatricals. His is the blank page on which A Midsummer Night's Dream writes a vicarious experience of sexuality's frustrations and possibilities.

Nor do glimpses into the sexual world of adulthood end with the opening scenes. What might be termed a floating phallus is, via visual details and linguistic emphases, frequently tied to the Boy, suggesting a particularly forceful engagement with the archetypal paradigms that inform mythic narratives. The elongated handle of the sumptuous red parasol in which Titania drapes herself first suggests the male member, and the spectacle is lent an additional phallic flavour by the arch rendering of the accompanying song: ‘You spotted snakes with double tongue, / Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen’ (II.ii.9-10). That which the film suggests at the level of metaphor it soon takes up in physical action. Once Bottom, as an ass, has been granted a view of Titania's pudenda, he is spurred on to penetrate her violently from the rear. Given the graphic nature of Bottom's transformation, it therefore seems appropriate that the recollection of his ‘vision’ (IV.i.203) should be imbued with a sexual charge: with its bawdy ‘methought I had’ refrain, his account is presented as a reverie upon the delights of priapic tumescence. Dovetailing with, and suffused through, these moments are the Boy's responses. In them, an audience is prompted to discover the ‘impression’ of an awakening consciousness, one poised between the child's sense of sexual wonder and the adult's knowledge of sexual practice. Indeed, at one point the Boy actually assumes the phallic qualities that characterize his adult counterparts. Coming across Hermia (Monica Dolan) as she dreams of the ‘crawling serpent [at her] breast’ (II.ii.152), the Boy, magician-like, subjects her to levitation, thereby becoming, through a process of association, the phallus that is at the heart of the nightmare. Confirming the connection are the broader visual links forged between the Boy's stripy pyjamas, the strip flooring and the snaky implications of the parasol handle. Part of the business of achieving sexual responsibility, it might be argued, is knowing what to do with the phallus, and this is borne out in A Midsummer Night's Dream in which the Boy is chief participant in a number of organ-oriented scenarios. Dominated and dominant in his imagined universe, the Boy is forewarned of both the pleasures and the dangers of his future maturity.

Such is the nature of Noble's direction, moreover, that the Boy's experience is not restricted to examples of heterosexual behaviour alone. The film, in fact, is equally rife with interludes of homoerotic attraction. Perhaps inspired by recent queer appropriations of Shakespeare, Noble chooses to have Demetrius (Kevin Doyle) highlight the phrase, ‘cheek by jowl’ (III.ii.338), as part of a homerotic alliance with Lysander (Daniel Evans) against Helena (Emily Raymond). Similarly, just before he is turned into an ass, Bottom struggles to rid himself of Puck, who has climbed aboard his back. The implication is that the same-sex combination of fairy and mortal sets the seal on the weaver's subsequent bestial metamorphosis. While the Boy is not directly involved in these scenes, the underlying idea is still that sexuality is an uncertain property, that a child's gendered identity may be ‘shape[d]’ (V.i.16) by the external factors with which it comes into contact.

Cumulatively, and not surprisingly, the shifting sexual perspectives that characterize Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream, as well as its ironic rewritings, invocations of modes of artistic production, confoundings of the states of ‘fantastic’ and ‘real’, conjurations of competing temporal markers and signifiers, and manipulations of forms of history mark the film out as a peculiarly postmodern phenomenon. As the late twentieth century draws to a close, Shakespeare and postmodernity, in fact, have become increasingly familiar bedfellows. In an age of post-capitalist ‘mechanical reproduction’, discussion invariably attends to the ways in which the dramatist operates less as a point of origin than as a prompt for all manner of cultural associations, a commodity that can be copied and imitated as well as applied and exploited.14 Richard Burt's Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares: Queer Theory and American Kiddie Culture (1998), a study of the semantics of Shakespearean authority in modern American culture, is indicative of this shift in the critical mindset. If hybridity, pastiche, pluralism, cultural ransacking and the recourse to other texts and images are the defining marks of postmodernity, then the mise-en-scène of Noble's film makes a timely contribution to the postmodern debate.15

Through its self-conscious deployment of a number of representational ‘forms’, A Midsummer Night's Dream makes newly relevant the play's ‘antique fables’ and ‘fairy toys’ (V.i.3). In particular, by granting the parentless Boy some of the power of the dramaturge himself, it questions the extent to which Shakespeare still signifies an ‘original’, the ‘parent’ (II.i.117) to which the later development of the ‘great literary tradition’ can be traced. Even the set design functions as an important element in the film's interrogative confrontation with the Bard's mythic status. Numerous mirrors festoon the Athenian and forest interiors. At court, Helena contemplates her reflection in a glass; in the forest, Bottom glimpses pursuing fairies in the mirror of his motorbike. Privileging mirrors in this way serves a meta-cinematic purpose. It urges us to be sensitive to another reflective surface (the lens of the camera) and thus to recognize the constructed nature of the visions the film provides. Mirrors in A Midsummer Night's Dream, then, provoke an attempt to distinguish the authentic from the counterfeit, to adjudicate between the various accretions of Shakespearean doubling, reproduction and imitation in postmodern culture. Noble reminds his audience that he deals not so much in Shakespeare as in the meanings that a filmic engagement with the Bard might stimulate. ‘Forgeries’ (II.i.81), in short, A Midsummer Night's Dream implies, may eventually prove more resilient than the ‘originals’ to which they are parodically related.

Postmodernity, as critics have recently argued, cannot be linked to the twentieth century in its entirety. For it acquires much of its impact from an association with specifically fin-de-siècle anxieties. As Hillel Schwartz observes, ‘what the postmodernist narrative celebrates is suspiciously millennial: a world of unending variety … a world of transitive and playful identities, a world unencumbered by traditional demarcations of space or normative experiences of time’.16 Ever alert to the implications of such connections, Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream elaborates its material in not one but several end-of-century modes. In itself, of course, as a play dating from 1594-5, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a millennial production, written in a decade of economic crisis. Ian Archer sums up the contemporary climate in the following terms: ‘Harvest failures spelt impoverishment for the mass of the people, and crime soared … Poor harvests in 1594 and 1595 were followed by two years of dearth in 1596 and 1597.’17 The play is acutely responsive to this situation, and Titania's extended meditation on ‘Contagious fogs’ (II.i.90), the bank-breaking ‘river’ (II.i.91), rotting ‘green corn’ (II.i.94), ‘distemperature’ (II.i.106) and altered ‘seasons’ (II.i.107) can be profitably read as a nervous reaction to a desperate moment in England's economic fortunes. Noble's filmic A Midsummer Night's Dream, too, works to acknowledge the speech's point of origin in the fraught years of the 1590s. As Lindsay Duncan as Titania intones the celebrated words, the camera pans out to show mists gathering ominously over the sea and the music swells to climax on a foreboding note. True to the film's postmodern credentials, however, the montage here simultaneously invites spectators of the 1990s to assimilate messages pertinent to their historical location. For a late twentieth-century audience, the visual conjunction between water and fog points to chemically induced ‘natural’ disasters in the same moment as it precipitates memories of the Holocaust and fears of the imminent apocalypse.

Both the 1590s and the 1990s, however, are arguably overshadowed in the film by references to the nineteenth century's final decade. From the very start of A Midsummer Night's Dream, it is the symbolic appurtenances of the 1890s that predominate. The Boy's copy of the play, for instance, emblazoned with the name of Arthur Rackham, evokes that turn-of-the-century artist who enjoyed considerable success with his illustrated edition, published in 1900, of Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.18 The turn of the century is returned to again in the borrowing from L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, also published in 1900, and finds cinematic confirmation in the scenes set at the Athenian court. Here, the cast-iron fireplaces, chandeliers, red and green corridors, sash windows, four-panelled doors and tessellated floors function as carefully chosen signifiers of a decadent late Victorian historical juncture: not surprisingly, Theseus comes into this Homes and Gardens setting dressed as a Wilde-attired aesthete. Commenting on the 1890s, Robert Newman observes: ‘In ways that present striking parallels to the 1590s and the 1990s, the 1890s attempted to constrain threats to the social order in a context marked by shifting articulations of gender, sexuality, class and ethnicity.’19 Newman does not elaborate, but it may be that he has in mind the traditional construction of the 1890s as a period in which the splendours of imperialism were beginning to be tarnished, in which fears of ‘anarchism’ circulated, in which established religion was on the decline, in which the so-called ‘New Woman’ was paving the way for the Suffragettes and in which belief was fading in the power of the middle classes.20 As a transitional moment in history, then, the 1890s lend themselves well to the premeditated imperatives and overall effect of Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Taking off from the 1590s, the film addresses the 1990s via a detour of the 1890s, borrowing from a spectrum of fantastic ‘impressions’ to reflect upon the future ‘forms’ that the ‘Shakespearean’ imagination will surely adopt or may never assume.

Nowhere are the connections between imagination and reproduction, overlapping sexualities and historical time-frames, and autonomy and domination more precisely illustrated than in the film's final moments. Earlier in the film, we have seen both the Boy and Puck as auditors at the rehearsals of the ‘mechanicals’, suggesting that each is an influence upon the ultimate shape of the play-within-a-play. This idea is elaborated upon in the closing stages of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the imaginative impetus features not so much as an autonomous endeavour as an aspect of collaborative enterprise. Reciprocity is hinted at when Philostrate (Barry Lynch) takes the Boy's hand and leads him into the theatre where the amateur theatricals are about to take place. The theatre itself is an enlarged version of the toy theatre, earlier seen in the forest scenes and the Boy's bedroom. Such a shift in scale implies that the Boy's power will be diminished while that of the ‘mechanicals’ is about to be increased: no longer is a child able to aspire to absolute control over the imaginative experience. Nor is an audience frustrated in its meta-theatrical suspicions. As the performance begins, the Boy is seen in the wings raising the curtain and generally pulling at the ropes of the stage machinery. Even if he is able to conjure images and sequences from his favourite texts, the film suggests, the Boy requires the assistance of a host of underlings to bring his visions to life. Bruno Bettelheim has argued that fairy stories enable children to achieve ‘meaningful and rewarding relations with the world around’ them, since they concentrate on integrating isolated ‘personalities’ with the social and cultural collective.21 A comparable operation can be detected in Noble's film, for it is only when he participates in a joint venture, rescinding theatrical authority to the ‘mechanicals’, that the Boy's dream can be fully realized.

Closely allied to his newly collaborative role is the Boy's developing grasp of the potential consequences of adult sexual conduct. The phallus, the film implies, cannot forever float irresponsibly, but must form part of an integrated whole. When the hymenal wall has been broken and the bloody ‘mantle’ (V.i.274) connoting deflowerment has been cast upon the stage, therefore, the mood of levity lifts, the Boy and the theatre audience becoming sober, calm and quiet. Along with his aristocratic auditors, the Boy hovers on the cusp of a liminal moment, an incipient awareness of the relationship between sexuality and mortality.

Illuminating still further the Boy's imaginative collaboration and evolving sexual identity is the film's concluding emphasis upon the restorative power of familial relations. Even before the closing celebrations, the Boy has been prepared for the healing of fractured families, having overheard the prediction made by Oberon that the lovers will soon be ‘Wedded with Theseus all in jollity’ (IV.i.91). At the end, the focus of the film thus moves away from the isolation of the Boy in his private box and toward his incorporation within a series of new family scenarios. Once the ‘mechanicals’ have concluded their performance, the back of the theatre gives way to reveal a magical, moon-lit stretch of water. The liquid spectacle suggests rebirth, and this is clarified in the accompanying shot of the Boy being embraced by Oberon, Titania, Puck and the fairies. Picking up upon the references to ‘nativity’ (V.i.403) in Oberon's benediction, the film constructs the assembly as a welcoming family, as a parent, child and sibling group that only now can announce itself with certainty. Given its postmodern credentials, however, A Midsummer Night's Dream does not settle upon one family alone. The film's very last image is of the Boy in the lap of another family: returned to the theatre, he is cradled by the whole cast for the curtain call. It is, of course, to the cinema spectators that the cast appeals for applause, a move which neatly identifies us as the key collaborative element in the exercise of imaginative judgement.

With these final moments, the film blurs purposefully once again the dividing-lines between its ‘realities’ and ‘fantasies’, court and forest locations, and characters and institutions. It hints, in fact, at the interchangeability of Shakespearean representations, reminding us, at a deeper level of its fabric, of the collaborative transferability of a production that, via a complex of funding agencies, managed to gravitate from a stage performance to a screen presentation. The play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, the film wants to suggest, does not only exist on the printed page; rather, it consorts with, and is revitalized by, the new media and technologies that have revolutionized the twentieth century. As the clock chimes twelve in the closing sequence, harking back to the striking of midnight in the Boy's bedroom at the start, it seems as if one era has ended and another is about to commence.


  1. Michael Coveney, ‘Filth well worth revelling in’, The Observer, 7 August 1994; Louise Doughty, ‘Dream lovers’, The Mail on Sunday: Review, 7 August 1994; John Gross, ‘Heady stuff, this reality’, The Sunday Telegraph, 21 August 1994; The Sunday Times, 7 August 1994.

  2. The Daily Telegraph, 26 December 1997, p. 31; The Observer: Review, 1 December 1996, p. 12; The Sunday Times: Culture, 1 December 1996, p. 9.

  3. The Times, 28 November 1996, p. 39.

  4. A Midsummer Night's Dream, ed. Stanley Wells (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), I.i.32. All further references appear in the text.

  5. Louis Montrose, The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 160.

  6. I am recalling here, of course, Peter Brook's famously unadorned production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1970-1 and the title of his book, The Empty Space (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980).

  7. On the Home Alone parallel, see Richard Burt, Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares: Queer Theory and American Kiddie Culture (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998), p. 3. Peter Pan (1953), Pinocchio (1940) and Time Bandits (1981) would be related films which transport a parentless child from ‘reality’ into an imaginative landscape.

  8. For further Alice/Dorothy parallels, see Martin Gardner, ‘A child's garden of bewilderment’, in Sheila Egoff, G. T. Stubbs and L. F. Ashley (eds), Only Connect: Readings of Children's Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 153.

  9. Paul Schilder, ‘Psychoanalytic Remarks on Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll’, in Robert Phillips (ed.), Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll's Dreamchild as seen through the Critics' Looking-Glasses, 1865-1971 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), p. 343.

  10. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Vintage, 1977), pp. 3, 5, 183.

  11. Bettelheim, Uses of Enchantment, p. 115.

  12. A. M. E. Goldschmidt, ‘Alice in Wonderland Psychoanalysed’, in Phillips (ed.), Aspects of Alice, p. 330.

  13. Matt Wolf, ‘From Stratford’, The Times, 19 December 1995.

  14. I draw here, of course, on Walter Benjamin's essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. See his Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (London: Fontana/Collins, 1982), pp. 219-53.

  15. See Zygmunt Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 187-8; Hans Bertens, The Idea of the Postmodern: A History (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 54, 161; Angela McRobbie, ‘Postmodernism and popular culture’, in Lisa Appignanesi (ed.), Postmodernism: ICA Documents 5 (London: ICA, 1986), pp. 54-7.

  16. Hillel Schwartz, ‘Economies of the Millennium’, in Charles B. Strozier and Michael Flynn (eds), The Year 2000: Essays on the End (New York and London: New York University Press, 1997), p. 315.

  17. Ian Archer, ‘The 1590s: Apotheosis or Nemesis of the Elizabethan Régime?’, in Asa Briggs and Daniel Snowman (eds), Fins de Siècle: How Centuries End (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996), pp. 65, 71.

  18. It might be suggested that Rackham is a particularly appropriate artist for the film to invoke. One of his reflections on his art—‘[I believe] in the educative power of imaginative … pictures … for children in their most impressionable years’—is conducted in language redolent of Shakespeare's play. See Margaret Drabble (ed.), The Oxford Companion to English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 806-7.

  19. Robert Newman, ‘Introduction’, in Robert Newman (ed.), Centuries' Ends, Narrative Means (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 7.

  20. See Asa Briggs, ‘The 1890s: Past, Present and Future in Headlines’, in Briggs and Snowman (eds), Fins de Siècle, pp. 157-95.

  21. Bettelheim, Uses of Enchantment, pp. 11, 14.

James A. S. McPeek (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6110

SOURCE: McPeek, James A. S. “The Psyche Myth and A Midsummer Night's Dream.Shakespeare Quarterly 23, no. 1 (winter 1972): 69-79.

[In the following essay, McPeek explores Shakespeare's treatment of the Psyche myth in A Midsummer Night's Dream, contending that the play provides a mythic translation of the Psyche legend.]

In the phantasmagoria of A Midsummer Night's Dream scholars have discerned and analyzed the elements of several antique fables and fairy toys, but they seem largely to have neglected the curious and extensive relationship of this dreamworld to the story of Psyche and its matrix in Lucius Apuleius' Golden Ass. Many will concede that though Shakespeare may have known other stories about ass-headed men,1 Apuleius' account of his adventures affords the most likely source for Titania's infatuation with a monster, as well as for some other motifs, as Sister M. Generosa has shown.2 But the relationship of the Dream to the story of Psyche appears deeper than that of a series of casual resemblances, such as might be based on vague recollection.

If one looks below the texture of the language, which tends to obscure the outlines of the story, one finds remarkable similarity between many events of the myth and the main adventures of the drama. In effect, it may be urged that the fundamental pattern of the myth and the patterns of the main stories in the play are similar in several interlocking ways, and that if Shakespeare did not consciously recall the Psyche tale as he wrote, he nevertheless had in mind many of its archetypal features, so that the Dream in part becomes yet another example of what Northrop Frye designates as displaced myth. The general impression is not that of an ordering of the play to correspond to the structure of the myth, but rather as if the mosaic of the myth had been shattered into its original tesserae, which Shakespeare has picked up and arranged to suit his own design. With his usual independence in deriving material from his sources, Shakespeare largely avoids borrowing the phrasing of the story, but his apparent use of a few terms suggests that he may have known the Latin text3, and the possible use of William Adlington's preface to his translation of the work indicates that he may have also known that version (1566), which was reprinted for the third time in 15964. The parallels are numerous and vary from notable resemblances to vague likenesses; but one does not have to defend the validity of all the parallels to sustain the thesis that Shakespeare probably had read The Golden Ass and that he has given the Psyche tale a truly mythic translation in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The reshaping of the Psyche myth in the play is dreamlike and strange in its new arrangements, but yet essentially true to the original story. The tale itself in its telling is associated with dreams. Before the story begins, the captive Charites has been distressed by a shocking dream-vision (Bk.iv, sec.27; 42-43). The “trifling old woman” set to guard her counsels her not to be afraid of strange visions and dreams, and then to revive her spirits tells her the tale of Psyche.

The Psyche image itself, the concept of the devoted woman patient in adversity and unfailingly true to her love, becomes an important construct in A Midsummer Night's Dream, involving both mortals and fairies. First let us consider it as embodied in the mortal women of the drama. It will perhaps be granted that in developing his archetypal pattern of the fair Helena and the dark Hermia Shakespeare was not interested in creating character, but rather in giving a composite impression of woman, universal woman in all her variety. The two are contrasted without prejudice (tall and short, fair and dark, phlegmatic and waspish); it is clear that one is not to be preferred to the other. For all their external differences they are “two lovely berries on one stem”, and they are manifest Psyches in their unfailing constancy to their lovers (Demetrius and Lysander change their loves, but Helena and Hermia remain true). If the persistence of Helena in following the estranged Demetrius to the woods may seem at first to associate her more notably with the Psyche pattern, later on the plight of Hermia, bedraggled and torn by briars, hopelessly searching for Lysander, redresses the balance.

At the outset in the myth and in the play, Psyche and Hermia are in somewhat similar circumstances. Hermia is faced with the necessity of complying with her father's wish that she wed Demetrius or die (Theseus offers her a third choice of becoming a devotee of Diana), and she spiritedly accepts the alternatives to marriage. Psyche is seemingly faced with the necessity of marrying a Serpent, a bridal of death, arranged for her by her father (against his wishes), courageously accepts her lot, and becomes, for a period, a votaress of Venus.

Helena and Hermia make use respectively of the monster and serpent images5, images of central importance to the Psyche tale and to the drama. These images are frequently employed by Shakespeare throughout his plays, sometimes, as with the serpent image, tracing to unambiguous sources, such as the stories of the serpents strangled by Hercules and the Serpent of Eden. The usages in A Midsummer Night's Dream, considered singly, may seem adventitious; taken together, in conjunction with other resemblances, they seem somehow to reflect the myth. In soliloquy Helena sees herself as being like a monster: remarking that she must be ugly as a bear, she considers it no wonder that Demetrius flies from her as from a monster (II.ii.94-97). One is reminded that all things fear the power of the fierce serpent who is to be the husband of Psyche—a slight resemblance by itself; but when one recalls the apparent fact that the monster image as applied to Bottom is based on Apuleius, the resemblance seems more plausible. But Helena will not give up her pursuit; in her unswerving devotion, as she remarks earlier, Demetrius is all her world and his face banishes night (“It is not night when I do see your face”, II.i.220-226). In comparable mood Psyche courts Cupid: “I little esteeme to see your visage and figure, little doo I regarde the night & darkness thereof, for you are my onely light” (Bk. V.7; 50). Later, Demetrius equates Helena's beauty with that of Venus (III.ii.60-61), and Oberon promises that (like Psyche) Helena shall rival Venus in beauty, that she shall “shine as gloriously / As the Venus of the sky” (III.ii.106-107).

In her turn, Hermia dreams that a serpent is eating her heart away while Lysander sits smiling at the deed (a forecast of his later mocking of her). She wakens to find Lysander gone without a word to her (“gone? No sound, no word?”), and, after almost fainting from fear, she sets out to find him or die (II.ii.145-156). In her search she meets Demetrius and applies the serpent image to him as a possible slayer of Lysander (III.ii.70-73). After she finds Lysander, now devoted to Helena, he mocks her and rejects her as a “Vile thing”, like a serpent (“Vile thing, let loose, / Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent”, III ii.260-261). In the myth, it will be recalled, Psyche is convinced by her sisters that her unseen husband is indeed the creature (“the most miserablest creature livinge, the most poore, the most crooked, and the most vile”, IV.31; 44v) that Venus would have her love, the dire Serpent of the Oracle of Apollo, who will devour both her and her child at its birth (V.18; 51). When she discovers his true identity and accidentally awakes him, he flies from her “without utteraunce of any woorde” (V.23; 53). She catches him as he rises into the air but shortly loses her grip and falls. Cupid pauses a moment to rebuke her and mock her for her folly, and then flies away, leaving her grief-stricken and lamenting. After he is out of sight, she first attempts suicide, but presently sets out to seek her alienated husband.

And Shakespeare's fairies, who preside over the fortunes of these mortals both in fickle love and in true love (as is fitting since there is magic in both states), exhibit action, themes, and imagery that are also paralleled in the myth. The fairies themselves have a mythic parallel in the unseen servitors who wait on Psyche and provide her with every need and luxury (V.3; 46v). That Shakespeare would translate these creatures to fairies follows the practice of English authors from the time of Sir Orfeo and Chaucer in reshaping classical myth. It is interesting that at the end of the play Shakespeare visualizes his fairies as attendants of Hecate: “And we fairies that do run / By the triple Hecate's team …” (V.i.390-391). Though Shakespeare's fairies are visible to the audience, like the servants of Psyche they are never seen by any of the characters except Bottom, and he finally remembers them only as a dream. In the shaping of the drama, aspects of both Venus and Psyche are fused in the person of Titania (it will be remembered that Psyche is a surrogate of Venus in the myth, IV.28; 43v), while Cupid plays a triple role in Oberon, Puck, and the Indian boy.

With his power over fickle love as well as true love Oberon is a manifest Cupid figure. His lieutenant Puck, as Sister M. Generosa has pointed out, has the propensities of Cupid added to his folklore characteristics. When Venus calls Cupid to her aid in taking vengeance on Psyche for usurping worship due her, Apuleius describes his nature in terms broadly suggestive of Puck's behavior: “And by and by she called her winged sonne Cupide, rashe inough, and hardie, who by his evil manners, contemninge all publique iustice and lawe, armed with fire & arrowes, runninge up and downe in the nightes from house to house, and corruptinge the lawfull marriages of every person, doth nothinge but that whiche is evill, who although that he weare of his owne proper nature sufficient prone to woorke mischiefe, yet she egged him forwarde with woordes” (IV.30; 44). Puck's delight later on in maneuvering the crossed loves completes his fashioning as a Cupid.

Venus urges Cupid to shoot his arrows at Psyche to make her fall in love with the “most miserablest”, the “most vile” of creatures. Then she goes off to the sea where sea gods and goddesses flock to her and follow her:

Sic effata … proximas oras reflui litoris petit, plantisque roseis vibrantium fluctuum summo rore calcato, ecce iam profundum6 maris sudo resedit vertice, et ipsum quod incipit velle, et statim, quasi pridem praeceperit, non moratur marinum obsequium. Adsunt Nerei filiae chorum canentes … et auriga parvulus delphini Palaemon; … iam passim maria persultantes Tritonum catervae Talis ad Oceanum pergentem Venerem comitatur exercitus

(IV. 31).

Adlington, as usual, translates very freely, omitting some significant details in the opening sentence:

When she had spoken these woordes, she … took her voiage towardes the sea.

When she was come to the sea, she began to call the Goddes & Goddesses, who were obedient to her voyce. For incontinent came ye daughters of Nereus singing with tunes melodiously … Palemon, the driver of the Dolphin, the trumpetters of Triton leapinge hither and thither. … Such was the cõpany which followed Venus marchinge towardes the Occean sea


Gaselee fills out the missing details in his revision of Adlington:

When she had spoken these words, she … took her voyage towards the shore hard by, where the tides flow to and fro: and when she was come there, and had trodden with her rosy feet upon the top of the trembling waters, then the deep sea became exceeding calm upon its whole surface, and at her will, as though she had before given her bidding, straightway appeared her servitors from the deep. …

Similarly, when Oberon, like Venus, wishes to take vengeance on Titania for denying him his right to the Indian boy, he calls Puck to his aid. He first reminds Puck of an earlier experience by the sea (II.i.148-160):

                                                                                Thou rememb'rest
Since once I sat upon a promontory
And heard a mermaid, on a dolphin's back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the sea-maid's music.
I remember.
That very time I saw (but thou couldst not)
Flying between the cold moon and the earth
Cupid, all arm'd. A certain aim he took
At a fair Vestal, throned by the West,
And loos'd his love-shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts.

It seems generally accepted that Shakespeare may have remembered here impressions, however derived, from the entertainments for Elizabeth at Kenilworth (1575)7 and Elvetham (1591),8 spectacles that presented singing mermaids, dolphins, Tritons, fireworks (shooting stars), and spells supposedly calming the seas—pageants similar to the one described by Apuleius. On the other hand, Apuleius clearly provides adequate background for most of the action and imagery of this episode as part of the continuing story. In his account we have Venus' summoning Cupid to aid her in taking vengeance on Psyche, her urging Cupid to aim his arrows at Psyche so that she will love the vilest of creatures, the pageant of Venus by the sea with her calming the waters, her melodious Nereids, and a dolphin ridden by Palemon. Furthermore, Psyche is described (in the following paragraph) as essentially a fair Vestal (a virgin of solitary life and of divine beauty). In aiming at her, as in aiming at Elizabeth, Cupid (in effect) missed his mark. All the images in the Dream are accounted for save for the shooting stars. In sum, though Shakespeare may have recalled the descriptions of the water pageants at Kenilworth and Elvetham, it seems very likely also that he knew this episode in Apuleius.

The Indian boy seems a marvellous objectification of one side of Oberon-Cupid's nature, in relation to Titania as a Venus figure. The quarrel between Oberon and Titania for possession of the Indian boy clearly represents a contention for mastery, Oberon asserting his male supremacy (“Am I not thy lord?”) and Titania insisting, in her turn, on matriarchal rule (“If you will patiently dance in our round”, II.i.140).9 If Oberon were to submit and allow Titania to retain the boy (a young Cupid figure who may be considered symbolic of Cupid himself under Venus' control), he would acknowledge the matriarchal rule, very much as Cupid does, so long as he lies wounded, virtually a prisoner in his mother's palace. But Oberon-Cupid rejects the dominance of Titania-Venus, and taking the Indian boy (the young Cupid should not remain indefinitely under feminine rule, as Juno and Ceres remind Venus in the myth, V.31; 56), he becomes truly Titania's lord, and the contention is over. The Indian boy, son of a votaress of Titania, seems almost a fulfillment in the play of Venus' threat to replace Cupid with the son of one of her retainers (V.29; 55). In her final patient submission to Oberon's will (IV.i.60-66), Titania becomes a Psyche, whose patient submission to the will of Venus attests her worthiness of Cupid's love.

Titania functions also as a Venus figure in representing Nature herself. Even her name, a patronymic of Diana as Shakespeare would have known from Ovid10, is one of the names used to designate “the natural mother of all things”, as Apuleius calls her (XI.4; 117), known variously as Ceres, Venus, Diana, and other goddesses. The creatures of nature are Titania's fairy servitors (II.i.8-15), and summer itself attends on her state (III.i.158). Her division with Oberon has reversed the seasons and created general disorder:

                                                                                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 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.

(II. i. 107-117)

Even the phrasing in the last lines of this quotation seems to recall the language of Apuleius or that of his translator. Through their quarrel, Titania declares, she and Oberon are the “parents and original” of this “progeny of evils”. Early in the myth Venus is inflamed to fury by the worship of Psyche, an anger which has been the cause for the desolation and desecration of her temples (IV.29; 43v). This disorder, though not described specifically as affecting the seasons, is reflected in all human affairs which “are now become no more gratious, no more pleasant, no more gentle, but incivill, mõstrous & horrible: moreover the marriages are not for any amitie, or for love of procreatiõ, but ful of envy, discorde, & debate” (V.28; 54v). Venus' anger is the greater since she is the mother of all, “the originall parent of all these elementes” (IV.30; 44), as Adlington translates Apuleius' phrasing, “rerum naturae prisca parens, en elementorum origo initialis.” Shakespeare's phrase, “parents and original”, is somewhat closer to the Latin in pattern. Later, in Book XI, Venus (to use one of her many names) speaks of herself as the “natural mother of all things, mistris and governesse of all the Elemenentes, the initiall progeny of worldes”, a fairly literal translation of Apuleius' “rerum naturae parens, elementorum omnium domina, saeculorum progenies initialis” (XI.4; 117). Though it cannot be proved that Shakespeare expropriated the word progeny from this source for his phrase “progeny of evils”, its use in this special context offers an interesting parallel. Possibly Apuleius' phrase, “governesse of all the Elementes”, may have begotten Titania's epithet for the moon, “governess of floods”, in the same speech.

In the same picture of Venus, Apuleius describes the goddess as crowned like Flora with garlands interlaced with flowers (Hiems uses such a chaplet in mockery), and apostrophizes her at length as controlling the stars, the seasons, the winds, seeds, and all life. After the “devine image” has departed, all things rejoice (and a reversal of seasons is suggested): “For after the horefrost, ensued the whote and temperat Sunne. … The barrein and sterrill were contented at their shadowe, rendering swete and pleasant shrilles: The seas were quiet from wyndes and tempestes: The heaven had chased away the cloudes, and appeared faire and cleare with his propre light” (XI.7; 118). Though Shakespeare doubtless remembered the inclement seasons of 1594-159511, these passages may have been stimulating to his imagination also, and it would appear that Apuleius' Venus could well be the parent and original of Shakespeare's concept of a bounteous goddess of nature which underlies his vision of Titania as the Fairy Queen.

Titania is also a Psyche figure in several aspects of the action. In the myth when Psyche is first conveyed to the paradisal garden of Cupid, she is laid on a “bedde of most sweete and fragrant flowers.” Though Apuleius does not name the flowers, he at once reiterates and emphasizes the image:

… florentis caespitis gremio leniter delapsam reclinat


Psyche teneris & herbosis locis, in ipso toro roscidi graminis suave recubans, tanta mentis perturbatione sedata, dulce conquievit


… she was laide in a bedde of most sweete and fragrant flowers.

Thus fayre Psyches beinge sweetely couched emongst the softe and fragrant flowers, and havinge quallified the troubles and thoughtes of her restles minde, was now well reposed


After awaking from a refreshing sleep, she espies a pleasant wood of mighty trees, and in it a “Princely edifice” not built by human hands. Entering this heavenly palace, she is waited on by unseen servants and entertained by their song and music; and after going to bed, she becomes the bride of an unseen husband, the supposed Serpent Bridegroom of the oracle, as Venus would have it, the “most vile” creature alive, “tamque infimi ut per totum orbem non inveniat miserae suae comparem” (IV.31).

Titania's experiences are curiously akin. In the Palace woods of Theseus, Titania is lulled to sleep by fairy song on a bank of wild thyme (a resilient herbal couch) and oxlips, muskroses, and other “sweete and fragrant flowres” (as Apuleius has precondensed the exquisite excursus). While Titania sleeps, Oberon squeezes the juice of his flower on her eyelids and conjures her to fall in love with whatever she sees on awakening: “Wake when some vile thing is near” (II.ii.35). She wakens to love, not a serpent bridegroom, but another monster, Bottom the ass-man, a mock figure of the Golden Ass12.

With this event the action and imagery relating Titania to Psyche take on a mocking tone and are applied by inversion to Bottom. As observed above, unseen servants attend on Psyche, ministering to her every desire, providing her all sorts of delicacies and wines, while invisible musicians sing and play on various instruments, giving her the impression that she is surrounded by a multitude (V.2-3; 46v-47). The palace is a storehouse of jewels and gold at her disposal. In the play Titania bids her elves and fairies wait on Bottom. They are to bring him jewels from the deep (Venus is attended, we remember, by servitors from the sea), and sing while he sleeps on pressed flowers. Does he wish to hear music? or would he like something to eat? The queries remind one of those addressed by the unseen voices to Psyche. Unlike Lucius, who retains his human appetities in food, Bottom prefers good dry oats, hay, and pease to the dainties Titania would offer him, such as new nuts from the squirrel's hoard (IV.i.33-38). For the detail of the new nuts, as Sister M. Generosa has shown, Shakespeare probably remembers the episode immediately following the Psyche story (VI.28; 65v) in which Charites promises Lucius that if he aids her in escaping the robbers, she will splendidly dress his forehead and mane, deck him with gold to shine like the stars, and bring him daily kernels of nuts and other dainties in her silken apron.

Moreover, for the scenes of Titania's dotage on Bottom, as Sister M. Generosa has indicated, Shakespeare may also have remembered the story of the noblewoman of Corinth (X.21-22; 109-110), who anoints Lucius' body and nose with balm, looks at him with burning eyes while uttering passionate endearments, and “eftsones embraced [his] bodie round about.” In her dalliance with Bottom Titania “coys” his cheeks, garlands his head with muskroses (Lucius is always seeking for a garland of roses to eat to effect his remetamorphosis into man), and kisses his “fair large ears”. As he goes to sleep, Titania declares her doting love for him, while clasping him in her woodbine embraces. The resemblances in manner are patent, the essential difference between the two episodes being that Shakespeare's delicate scene from its first staging up to recent times has apparently conveyed to its audiences and readers no hint of forbidden lust (Jan Kott's view presents a Shakespeare all too modern).

It is noteworthy also that on awakening from his transformation Bottom realizes that he has had a wondrous experience, which he interprets as a “most rare vision”, a dream that no man can expound: “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.i.212-214). Bottom the ass-man has seen the Fairy Queen. Lucius is more articulate about his experience, and he too has a most rare vision. In his sleep the “queene of heaven” appears to him in all her glory to answer his prayers for restoration to his human shape, and when he wakes he marvels at the details of his vision (XI.7; 118). Later on, in describing his initiation into the mysteries of the goddess, he will not reveal the details lest his reader's ears and his own tongue incur the “paine of rashe curiositie” (XI.23; 123v).

The ending of the main action of the drama and the conclusion of the Psyche myth also have an extensive dreamlike correspondence. After bewildered wandering in a drooping fog (created by Puck at Oberon's command) as black as Acheron (a common metonymy for Hades), the lovers are overcome by “death-counterfeiting sleep”; then Puck crushes the herb of true love into Lysander's eye (III.ii.355-369; 370-463), and after the lovers are wakened by Theseus to meet their true loves, they return to Athens to enjoy a bridal blest by supernatural beings. Oberon meanwhile tells Puck that when he saw Titania in her dotage, he taunted her, and she responded with gentle patience to his mocking and yielded him the Indian boy. Then Oberon removes the hateful imperfection from her eyes, awakens her, and after music charming the lovers into yet deeper sleep he announces his intention of blessing the house of Theseus to “all fair posterity”. In the ensuing scene, Theseus quickly overrules Egeus' earlier objection to the marriage of Hermia and Lysander and announces the nuptial feast and the imminent marriages, which in due course are blest by the fairies in their concluding song and dance.

All these events have notable parallels in the myth. After returning from Hades, Psyche opens the box given her by Proserpina for Venus, and, according to Adlington, an infernal sleep invades all her members: “and by and by she opened the boxe, where she coulde perceave no beautie nor any thinge els, save onely an infernall and deadly sleepe, whiche immediatly invaded all her members as sone as the boxe was uncovered, in such sort that she fel downe on the gronnde, & lay there as a sleepinge corps” (VI.62). The Latin is yet more pertinent: “nec quicquam ibi rerum nec formositas ulla, sed infernus somnus ac vere Stygius, qui statim coperculo revelatus invadit eam crassaque soporis nebula cunctis eius membris perfunditur et in ipso vestigio ipsaque semita collapsam possidet; et iacebat immobilis et nihil aliud quam dormiens cadaver” (VI.21).

In brief, Psyche was invaded by an infernal and Stygian sleep, a dense fog of sleep (crassa soporis nebula) which poured over her entire body so that she fell to the ground like a sleeping corpse (that is, in a “death-counterfeiting sleep”). Did Shakespeare remember this metaphor when he had Puck overcast the night with the drooping fog black as Acheron, fog that helps to produce a death-counterfeiting sleep for the lovers? In any event, when Cupid comes upon Psyche in her deathlike trance, he wipes the sleep from her face, wakens her, taunts her gently about her reckless curiosity, and then goes off to arrange all things for them with Jupiter, who overcomes the objections of Venus to the marriage by making Psyche immortal at a celestial banquet attended by the gods and goddesses, the Graces, and the Muses (VI.22-24; 62-63).

Finally, it seems possible that in evaluating the significance of his translation of Apuleius, Adlington may have influenced Shakespeare to some degree in his summing up of the fundamental meaning of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In his preface “To the Reader,” an apologia for the apparent frivolity of the text of The Golden Ass, Adlington expresses fear lest men may scorn his work as an idle fable and himself for his attention to such trifling toys; but he finds his justification in the praiseworthy intent of the author. Through this thing of jest, he says, men may come to know their present estate and be transformed to their better selves. But listen to Adlington:

… fearinge lest the translation of this present booke (which seemeth a meere iest and fable, and a woorke woorthy to be laughed at, by reason of the vanitie of the Author, mighte be contemned & despised of all men, and so consequently, I to be had in derisiõ to occupy my selfe in such frivolous and trifling toyes: but on the other side, when I had throughly learned the intent of the Author, and the purpose why he invented so sportfull a iest: I was verely perswaded, that my small travell, should not onely be accepted of many, but the matter it selfe allowed, & praised of all. Wherefore I intend (God willinge) as nighe as I can, to utter and open the meaning thereof to the simple and ignorant, whereby they may not take the same, as a thing only to iest and laugh at (for the Fables of Esope & the feigninge of Poetes, weare never writen for that purpose) but by the pleasauntnes therof, be rather induced to the knowledge of their present estate, and thereby trãsforme them selves into the right and perfect shape of men. … Verely under the wrappe of this transformation, is taxed the life of mortall men, when as we suffer our mindes so to be drowned in the sensuall lusts of the fleshe … we leese wholy the use of reason and vertue (which proprely should be in man) & play the partes of bruite and savage beastes”


It would appear that in this passage Adlington offers Shakespeare sentiments and a pattern for some of his reflections on the fundamental meaning of his drama. After their return from the woods, Theseus and Hippolyta reflect on the meaning of the fantastic adventures of the lovers. The rational Theseus is openly scornful of “these antique fables”, “these fairy toys.” Lovers and madmen, he says, imagine such fantasies, inexplicable by “cool reason”. Hippolyta, however, perceiving a deeper meaning to the story, protests this attack on the powers of fantasy and imagination:

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 experiences of the lovers were not, she says, their idle imaginings, mere fables and fairy toys; the transfiguring of their minds, their spiritual metamorphoses into their right and perfect shapes, if one may adapt Adlington's phrasing, is something that hints of cosmic mystery, truly strange and admirable. In just such a mood, Apuleius tells us, the people and the religious, moved by the miracle of his transformation, wondered at the visions that had taken place in the night, attesting the favor of the goddess: “then the people began to mervell, and the religious honored the Goddesse for so evident a miracle, they wondred at the visions which they sawe in the night, and the facilitie of my reformation, whereby they rendered testimony of so great a benefite which I receaved of the Goddesse” (XI.13; 120).

In his mythic translation of the various effects of Apuleius' story, Shakespeare seems to have accepted the moral intention of Adlington's preface as a guide, for he has refined the coarseness of the original, leaving little that could offend the most delicate sensibility. Lucius, prior to his final transformation, is lustful both as man and ass. No one can imagine a more unlustful creature than Bottom. And though Titania, an unlustful Venus, brings Bottom to her bower and coys his amiable cheeks, in her way she intends to reform his grosser nature: “And I will purge thy mortal grossness so / That thou shalt like an airy spirit go” (III.i.163-164).


  1. See A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare, ed. G. L. Kittredge (Boston, 1939), p. xi. My citations of the play are to this text.

  2. Sister M. Generosa “Apuleius and A Midsummer Night's Dream: Analogue or Source, Which?” SP, XLII (1945), 198-204.

  3. For the Latin passages in the present study I have used the Latin text prepared by Gaselee, Apuleius The Golden Ass Being the Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius With an English Translation by W. Adlington, Loeb Cl. Lib. (Cambridge, Mass., 1965). Citations of this text will follow its uses. The research of T. W. Baldwin (as Sister M. Generosa notes) makes it apparent that Shakespeare could have known the Latin text, since, assuming the availability of the work, Vives commends Apuleius to the student for logic and Erasmus recommends imitating him for matter (William Shakspere's Small Latine & Lesse Greeke, II (Urbana, 1944), 26, 185, 247). It is interesting to find that Adlington may have borrowed some ideas from Erasmus for the composition of his preface “To the Reader” (cf. Erasmus, Opera, I (1703), 358; Baldwin, II, 247).

  4. The STC lists printings in 1566, 1571, 1582, 1596. My citations of Adlington are to the 1566 text, whose title-page reads: “The xi Bookes of / the Golden Asse, / Conteininge the Metamorphosie / of Lucius Apuleius, enterlaced / with sondrie pleasaunt and delecta- / ble Tales, with an excellent / Narration of the Mari- / age of Cupide and / Psiches, set out / in the iiii. / v. and vi. Bookes. / Translated out of Latine into Englishe / by William Adlington. / Imprinted at London in Fleetstreate, / at the signe of the Oliphante, / by Henry VVykes. / Anno. 1566.” (STC 718, Huntington Lib. 12926, Univ. of Mich. Microfilm 10596.) Citations of this text will follow its uses in this study, preceded by references to the Latin text (see note 3).

  5. The numerous monster images in Shakespeare's plays preceding and following MND seem unrelated to the Psyche story except for the one notable usage in Rom. of the theme of the bridal of death and its mysterious palace: “Shall I believe / That unsubstantial Death is amorous, / And that the lean abhorred monster keeps / Thee here in dark to be his paramour? / For fear of that I still will stay with thee / And never from this palace of dim night / Depart again” (V.iii.102-108). There appears also no discernible relationship between Shakespeare's other numerous uses of the serpent image and that of the Psyche story.

  6. Koehler's emendation for the early textual reading, profundi. The early texts (those that Shakespeare might have known) at this point read “ecce iam profundi maris sudo resedit vertice”, a clause which seems to mean essentially, as Gaselee notes, that Venus took her seat on the sea, a meaning that does not fit the context. Koehler's emendation offers the improved (and expected) sense that with the coming of Venus the waters became entirely calm.

  7. In his Letter on the entertainment for Elizabeth at Kenilworth Castle in 1575, Laneham describes a pageant in which appeared a “swimming mermayd” (a boat), along with Triton who charged the waters to be still during the Queen's presence; then Arion on a dolphin ship sang a “delectable ditty … well apted to a melodious noiz” (John Nichols, The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, London, 1823; repr. New York: Burt Franklin, I (1966), 457-458). Gascoigne (The Princely Pleasures at the Courte of Kenelwoorth, Nichols, I, 485-523) visualizes Proteus rather than Triton as the singer on the back of a dolphin (a boat so fashioned). Gascoigne also represents Triton in Neptune's name charging the winds and waters to be calm during the Queen's presence, and both Laneham and Gascoigne remark the exhibition of fireworks over the waters (pp. 435, 494).

  8. Edith Rickert argues that Shakespeare was recalling instead the festival of Elvetham (“Political Propaganda and Satire in A Midsummer Night's Dream”, MP, XXI (1923), 53-87, 133-154), which has a speaking Nymph of the sea, Neaera, on a ship (possibly a dolphin ship, though not so described in Nichols, III, 111); Nereus and two “Echoes” sing. Elaborate fireworks burn in the water (p. 118), and the Fairy Queen Aureola says that “amorous starres fall nightly in [her] lap” (p. 119).

  9. On the conflict between Eros and Aphrodite, see Erich Neumann, Amor and Psyche, The Psychic Development of the Feminine (New York and Evanston, 1956).

  10. Ovid uses the name for Diana once (Met. III. 173) and twice for Circe (Met. XIV. 382, 438). Kittredge (p. xiii) objects that Diana is not a satisfactory prototype for Shakespeare's Titania; but Apuleius makes it clear that Diana is only one of the names and aspects of Queen Isis (XI. 5; 117). That Shakespeare was aware of the manifold nature of Diana is evident from his association of his fairies with the “triple Hecate” (V.i.390-391; cited earlier in this study).

  11. See Kittredge, p. viii; Furness, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Variorum ed., pp. 65-66.

  12. Sister M. Generosa studies in detail the differences and similarities of Bottom and Lucius. She suggests that Titania's line, “Tie up my love's tongue, bring him silently” (III. i. 206), is perhaps a reminiscence of the episode in which Lucius betrays his priestly masters by braying (VIII. 29; 86v). It is curious also that on his transformation into ass, Bottom fancies himself as a singer and sings a lay about various birds. Before his transformation, Lucius expects to be transformed into an owl.

Clifford Earl Ramsey (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7557

SOURCE: Ramsey, Clifford Earl. “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In Homer to Brecht: The European Epic and Dramatic Traditions, edited by Michael Seidel and Edward Mendelson, pp. 214-37. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, Ramsey examines the scenic structure in A Midsummer Night's Dream, maintaining that it expresses diversity and opposition, and yet it also emphasizes harmony and integration. According to the critic, the scenic structure ultimately underscores the play's dual themes of the power of love and the power of imagination.]

The history of interpretation, and misinterpretation, of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream demonstrates more strikingly than that of most works a deep truth of literary history: changes in critical fashion, changes in the theory of literature and in approaches to particular literary works, virtually alter those works themselves. Criticism shapes our fundamental responses to the works of art it contemplates. Whatever Iliad we hear, it surely is not the poem Homer sang.

In our time we have come increasingly to accept the idea, notably articulated by T. S. Eliot and Northrop Frye, that the “primary context” of any individual work of literature is other literature, that all literature—not just that we call neoclassical—is inherently and inescapably traditional. We are also beginning to see that criticism itself is an intrinsic part of this “primary context,” that the history of literature is deeply interfused with the history of interpretation. Thus the Aeneid, as well as growing out of the Iliad, also recoils upon it. Virgil is involved in an act of criticism as well as an act of creation. Criticism, hardly less than creation itself, is a consequence of and gives expression to our deepest needs—needs that are often unacknowledged. Euripides could not write plays like Sophocles any more than he could accept Homer's gods. The Middle Ages had to moralize Ovid. Shakespeare's plays will mean what we need them to mean.

The Midsummer Night's Dream we see and study today is, in an almost literal sense, not the play Coleridge saw and studied, not the play Johnson saw and studied, perhaps not even the play Shakespeare wrote. My point is not simply that modern criticism of A Midsummer Night's Dream differs from that of earlier periods. We expect that. The point I want to stress is that the differences are more striking in the case of this play and therefore that a consideration of it may have much to tell us about the way we think critically today; certainly as much as the way we think critically today has to tell us about A Midsummer Night's Dream.

It might be imprudent to claim that today's audiences enjoy A Midsummer Night's Dream more than audiences of previous eras, but it does seem clear that today's scholars and critics—and teachers—pay it far more attention. We do know that a shrewd member of one audience three centuries ago could not enjoy it. On Michaelmas Day in 1662 Samuel Pepys wrote this comment in his diary:

To the King's Theatre, where we saw “Midsummer Night's Dream,” which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, and which was all my pleasure.

To give Pepys and the play their due, we can assume that he is likely to have witnessed a very uninspired and truncated version. But a century and a half later we can catch an unquestionably great Shakespearean critic—Coleridge, discussing the dating and sequence of the plays—observing that A Midsummer Night's Dream “hardly appeared to belong to the complete maturity of his genius” because when writing that comedy Shakespeare was “ripening his powers” for such works as Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Coriolanus, and Cymbeline. As late as 1951, in a standard Introduction to Shakespeare, one could find the then still fairly common opinion that the play was mostly a glittering fabric of “moonlight, with a touch of moonshine.” But by 1961, in an essay provocatively entitled “The Mature Comedies,” Frank Kermode was “prepared to maintain that A Midsummer Night's Dream is Shakespeare's best comedy.”

If we take A Midsummer Night's Dream more seriously than former eras did, it is partly because the idea of comedy, the genre itself, is now taken more seriously. (The same point might be made about romance and about pastoral, the other genres most prominent in A Midsummer Night's Dream.) We have begun to glimpse the profound suggestiveness lurking in Socrates' oracular assertion, made in the presence of the drowsy Aristophanes at the close of Plato's Symposium, that the genius of comedy and the genius of tragedy is the same. So in our time we find Northrop Frye perceiving a ritual pattern of death-and-resurrection lying behind both comedy and tragedy, and thence arguing that two things follow from this: “first, that tragedy is really implicit or uncompleted comedy; second, that comedy contains a potential tragedy within itself.”

Such arguments are briefs for the parity of comedy and tragedy, not their identity. The genius of comedy and tragedy may be the same, they may be equally serious or equally profound, but their forms, their characteristic structures, will be different. The comic muse and the tragic muse dance to different rhythms. So Frye and modern critics like him stress the shape, the characteristic movement, of each genre: whereas the characteristic movement of tragedy is toward isolation, they theorize, that of comedy is toward integration. C. L. Barber describes “saturnalian” movement in Shakespearean comedy, a movement “through release to clarification.” Frye, in “The Argument of Comedy,” an account now so famous as to have become a shibboleth, speaks of Shakespeare's “drama of the green world” and defines the archetypal pattern of that drama as one of “withdrawal and return”: the characteristic action of a Shakespearean comedy, Frye hypothesizes, “begins in a world represented as a normal world, moves into the green world, goes into a metamorphosis there in which the comic resolution is achieved, and returns to the normal world.” Perhaps the common thread in such theories is a willingness to take seriously the wish-fulfillment pattern of all comedy. Comedy may only present the “beautiful lie,” but for all our cynicism and secularism there is something in each of us that wants to believe in those happy endings. What the modern theorists of comedy are finally claiming is that the comic muse responds to the renewing cycles of time, and so refreshes time.

What of the structure of this particular comedy? I will suggest that the elements of external form in A Midsummer Night's Dream correspond to its internal elements, that the play's structure is precisely commensurate with its argument, that its shape is its vision. The play's “scenic” structure articulates its thematic design. (By “scene” I mean a formal unit that is both dramatic and spatial.) What we shall find, if we examine the scenic structure of this play, is that the organization of scenes—the juxtaposition and interplay of scenes, the movement between and through them—is everywhere expressive of diversity and variety and opposition, and yet at the same time paradoxically everywhere expressive also of harmony and concord and integration; that is, everywhere expressive of the play's twin themes, the power of love and the power of the imagination.

In focusing on the scenic structure of A Midsummer Night's Dream, I am following out the implications of a suggestion made by Madeleine Doran, who reminds us that the original quarto was not divided into acts and scenes. Taking the quarto as the authoritative text and taking a clear stage to represent a change of scene, Doran concludes that there are only seven scenes in the whole play (no other play by Shakespeare has so few scenes). According to Doran's scheme, the play begins and ends, respectively, with two scenes outside the wood (the same two, but in reverse order). Podlike, these first two and last two scenes enclose the core of the play, the three scenes in the wood. If we place the first and last scenes in the court of Theseus, and the second and sixth somewhere inside Athens where Peter Quince and his crew of patches can rehearse (possibly Quince's house), we could diagram the play's scenic structure like this: T;Q// W, W, W //Q;T. Such a scheme crystallizes the fundamental thrust of the play. Thus anatomized, there can be little doubt that its central action is the movement into and out of the wood. Such a scheme also crystallizes our awareness that there are three major domains within the play: the play occurs in three places only, occupies only three landscapes. Each of these three landscapes constitutes what might be called a separate “world.” Such talk of “worlds” seems more persuasive than usual because it is solidly rooted in the spatial and dramatic facts of the play's setting and organization. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, there is the world of the court, presided over by Theseus; there is the world of the hardhanded amateur actors, presided over by Peter Quince (this second world, like the first, is inside Athens); and there is the world of the magical wood, presided over by Oberon (this world is outside Athens and obeys none of its rules). These three places or landscapes, these three separate environments or milieus, constitute three different “worlds” in the sense that each projects different values and styles, each offers a different slice or dimension of experience. These three worlds of the play define three separate aspects of reality; they provide three perspectives on reality. Each world of the play gives “a local habitation and a name” to, a different way of looking at, apprehending, or organizing human experience. Furthermore, the way the play holds these worlds up against each other, makes them balance and mirror and qualify each other, how the play moves between and through these worlds, is at the heart of its comic meaning.

For a brief and partial illustration, observe the movement of the young lovers through these “worlds”: they flee the court or normal world; they enter the wood or “green” world, for them a scene first of confusion, then of resolution; and they finally return to the court where, having been changed, they can be assimilated. Admittedly, this is a rather facile account of the young lovers' experience in the play; experience never reduces itself to a diagram. I ought to indicate that the lovers, after their assimilation into the court world, are entertained by a parody of their incongruous nighttime experience in the wood (one way to take the mechanicals' presentation of the Pyramus and Thisby story). Too, I ought to acknowledge the possibility that the court has changed more than the lovers (all the members of the court did, after all, finally enter the wood), and the possibility that the court—having relaxed its laws and solemnized three weddings—is now free and flexible enough to make room for the young lovers. But even such a facile account can suggest how, by the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the young lovers, having shuttled between worlds, have undergone a change of perspective; and, in contemplating them, so have we. Matters are not so crystal clear as our diagram because the play throughout manifests an extraordinary diversity, but the notion of perspective may help guide us through the diversity. Indeed, I would be willing to maintain that almost everything in this play can be understood as either the comically incongruous clash, or the richly inclusive fusion, of perspectives.

Together, the first three scenes of A Midsummer Night's Dream initiate its first major movement—the entrance into the wood. Individually, each scene defines one of the play's major worlds, one of its main perspectives on reality. The opening lines of the first scene quickly reveal an imposing world, the court of Athens. The first nineteen lines of the play introduce many of its most important concerns; these lines suggest what Theseus and his queen are like, and they orient us in the kind of world Theseus inhabits and controls, the kind of perspective he embodies. Theseus and Hippolyta open the play by speaking of their imminent nuptials:

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.
Four days will quickly steep themselves in
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.

Then Theseus instructs his master of revels, Philostrate, to stir the Athenian youth to merriment, to

Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth,
Turn melancholy forth to funerals;
The pale companion is not for our pomp.

After Philostrate exits, Theseus again addresses his Amazon bride-to-be:

Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling.

Here in these opening lines we already have the motifs of the moon, desire and dreams, mirth and solemnity. We have a sense of time as both a fructifying and a withering force, as something linked with the rhythms of nature and with the rhythms of human feeling and ceremony. Striking a dominant tone for the whole work, the first line's “nuptial hour” provides an overarching frame, an enveloping action, for the entire play. Partly a Renaissance prince, partly the great hero of antique fables, very much the Theseus of Plutarch and Chaucer, the lord of Athens seems established in these opening lines as a man of action and of reason, of authority and maturity and eloquence, as a figure of measured and civilized dignity. He seems very much in control of his world. Theseus knows what he feels and says what he means. Perhaps what most makes Theseus and Hippolyta imposing here is the cadence of their speech, their poised and urbane idiom. They seem to represent an achieved mastery of experience realized in great magnificence of style.

Here, and in the last scenes of the play too, Theseus is a figure of self-proclaimed potency. Pulsating just under the elegant surface of these first lines are Theseus's assertive energies: he wooed his Amazon queen with his sword, and he can't wait to get her into bed. Control may be less easy than it first appears. Such energies could have a darker, more threatening aspect. They could issue in injuries. In each of the play's first three scenes, we can observe a tendency for irrepressible desires to break out in quarreling or confusion. As modern critics unfailingly point out, these first scenes are haunted by the threat of contention.

Thus, immediately after the opening nineteen lines, Egeus comes in “full of vexation” (1.1.23) and appeals—against his daughter—to “the sharp Athenian law” (1.1.162), which “by no means” may be extenuated, according to Theseus (1.1.117 ff.). What is the “complaint” of Egeus?—simply that Hermia loves someone other than her father's choice. Theseus, less flexible than we might have hoped, leaves the stage ruling that Hermia must accept her father's choice or suffer the penalty of death or “single life.” Within a hundred lines, the court—at first a world ruled by thoughts of an imminent “nuptial hour”—has been revealed as a world inimical to young love, a world with little tolerance for “feigning” love or “feigning” verses (1.1.31). The rest of the play will be required to integrate the young lovers into the court. The rest of this first scene alternates, without resolution, between images of love as special pain (“The course of true love never did run smooth,” line 134) and images of love as special vision (“Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transpose to form and dignity. / Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,” lines 232-34). Let me pause over one image where, as it were, the “pain” and the “vision” come together. I speak of Lysander's description of his plan to flee Athens with Hermia. The urgings of unfulfilled desire drive them out of Athens, one presumes, but an image of beauty and repose—of glittering moonmade reflections—is used to describe the moment of their fleeing; the young lovers intend to flee the city when Phoebe beholds “her silver visage in the wat'ry glass, / Decking with liquid pearl the bladed grass” (1.1.209-11). In the image, if not yet in the action, frustration resolves itself into a dew.

From Theseus's court—a stately, aristocratic world of elegance and authority (though a world not yet elastic enough to accommodate the young lovers)—we pass to another, and startlingly different, version of the “normal” or “first” world. Athens is also the domain of Peter Quince and his handicraftsmen. The second scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream takes us into a more “barren sort” (3.2.13) of world. Quince and his “crew of patches” are “hempen homespuns,” “rude mechanicals” (3.1.74 and 3.2.9). Quince the Carpenter (and playwright), Snug the Joiner, Bottom the Weaver, Flute the Bellows-Mender, Snout the Tinker, and Robin Starveling the Tailor are “hard-handed men” that “never labored in their minds” until their interlude for Theseus's nuptial (5.1.72-75). In their world one must “hold” or “cut bowstrings” (1.2.111). Their language (unlike that of Theseus and Hippolyta or that of Oberon and Titania) consistently betrays disjunctions between intention and expression, fact and idiom. Today's critics see the mechanicals as well-intentioned literalists and stress the parodic value of their failure to comprehend the nature of dramatic illusion. The mechanicals repair plays much as they might repair houses. Quince's hope that “here is a play fitted” (1.2.66)—“Here is the scroll of every man's name which is thought fit, through all Athens, to play in our interlude before the Duke and the Duchess, on his wedding day at night” (1.2.4-7)—receives this judgment from Philostrate in the last scene: “in all the play / There is not one word apt, one player fitted.” Philostrate does admit, however, that he laughed until he cried (5.1.61-70).

Prosaic as the perspective of the mechanicals is, they project a world of sprawling energies. There is something vital about their good will and their rude wit. Like the young lovers, the mechanicals are headed for the wood too, where they expect to “rehearse most obscenely and courageously” (1.2.108). Yet at this point there is a sense in which the mechanicals, compared with the rather stiff, conventional, and undifferentiated lovers of the first scene, convince us that a “paramour” is, indeed, “a thing of naught” (4.2.14). Of course Bottom has his irrepressible desires too—he wants to play every role in Quince's interlude. No one ever had a stronger histrionic appetite than Nick Bottom. In fact, Bottom's irrepressible desires might have led to contentions like those of the first and third scenes (his desires do lead to a modest degree of confusion, one can safely say), if Quince were not able to “manage” his realm better than Theseus does his. Certainly Bottom well deserves the title “my mimic” that Puck gives him (3.2.19).

In a curious sense, Flute's hilarious pronouncement later that Bottom “hath simply the best wit of any handicraft man in Athens” (4.2.9-10) does not seem entirely unjustified. In his inadvertent way, Bottom often stumbles into some of the play's most trenchant utterances. In the third act, for example, Bottom tells Titania that she can “have little reason” for loving him and then utters lines that some critics find definitive of the play's theme:

And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays; the more the pity, that some honest neighbors will not make them friends. Nay, I can gleek upon occasion.


In a fine recent essay, J. Dennis Huston has demonstrated that one of Bottom's earliest “gleeks” is one of his most trenchant. When Peter Quince tells Bottom that he is set down for Pyramus, Bottom asks, “What is Pyramus? A lover, or a tyrant?” (1.2.22). Apparently Bottom believes that these two parts, lover and tyrant, subsume all the roles a man could play; curiously enough, as Huston demonstrates, the play's opening scenes suggest that Bottom is virtually correct. Egeus surely acts like a tyrant. The behavior of Oberon and Titania in the next scene to some degree convicts them of the charge of tyranny. If we extend the idea of tyranny to include the caprice of passion's oppressive hold on us when infatuated, then the young lovers tell us something of tyranny too. Perhaps Bottom's query most revealingly recoils upon Theseus himself. Having entered the stage in the first scene as a lover, Theseus leaves it as a tyrant. But Egeus may not be on the stage at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and as one of its final delights the play will appear to banish tyranny.

From the homely and literalistic yet strangely life-filled world of the mechanicals, we pass to yet another extraordinarily different scene, the green world of the wood and the exotic perspective of the fairies. Possibly expecting a world of fertility, we find a world of misrule. Oberon and Titania are contentious indeed. Their irrepressible desires for the “sweet” changeling boy have produced the most violent and pervasive disorder of the play, a “distemperature” throughout the natural world. Titania accuses Oberon of love for Hippolyta. Oberon in turn accuses his queen of love for Theseus. Titania's retort to Oberon's charges describes a world upside down, a scene of “brawls,” of the “forgeries of jealousy,” of “contagious fogs,” of flooding rivers, rotting grain, and diseased flocks:

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. …
.....… 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.


The cause of this “progeny of evils,” the “little changeling boy,” seems out of all proportion to the consequences.

The speech in which Titania explains her fervent determination to keep the changeling boy (2.1.121-37) is one of the most elusive and suggestive in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Titania tells Oberon to set his heart at rest; all fairyland cannot buy the child from her because she felt a deep attachment for his mother. Titania's remembrance of the delicately playful, affectionate relationship she had with the boy's mother seems at first to call up a happier and more perfect world:

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 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.

What Titania provides in these lines is a paradigm of visionary perception, a model of how the optics seeing generate the objects seen, a glimpse of poetic consciousness actively at work. Too, like Bottom, Titania and her votaress have rich histrionic sensibilities. Like Bottom, the votaress is a “mimic,” and with her at least imitation becomes transformation. But unlike Bottom, Titania and her votaress cannot be accused of literalness; they laugh all the while. Their visionary consciousness is suffused with self-consciousness.

Perhaps what is most important in Titania's speech is how she subtly, and yet very explicitly, interweaves love and the imagination. She and her big-bellied votaress playfully imagine the ships' sails to be big-bellied: “we have laughed to see the sails conceive / And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind.” The pun here on “conceive” is especially suggestive, and pertinent to the whole play. The lover and the poet both “conceive” a world, bring a world into being; each, being a visionary, returns from the voyage of experience “rich with merchandise.” But at this very moment Titania pulls us up short with what may be the most sobering and poignant lines in the play. Almost with casualness she reveals that this haunted grove is no paradise, reminds us that we inhabit a mutable, indeed a mortal, world. Titania tells the rest of her votaress's story:

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.

For the Renaissance, death is a corollary of the principle of plenitude. A world of growth is a world of change. A fecund world must be a mutable world. Does A Midsummer Night's Dream also hint that the reverse might be true? Is a world without change less fecund? Do Titania and Oberon possibly regret their immutability? Are they, like the Wife of Bath, possibly childless? Does their passionate desire for the changeling boy suggest that the creatures of eternity are in love with time?

In any event, Titania's loving remembrance of her votaress enforces an awareness of the human need to mythologize experience. Oberon continues in the same vein. He provides his own mythological remembrance of the powers of love and the imagination. Immediately after Titania leaves, Oberon asks Puck if he remembers the time

                    I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid, on a dolphin's back,
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea maid's music.


Oberon has given us a compelling image of art making rude nature harmonious. At the same time the image suggests that the source of the harmony—the sea maid's music—was also a source of disruption. What Oberon then saw from his promontory (we are told that Puck could not see it) was Cupid's empurpling of the pansy—“maidens call it love-in-idleness”—with “love's wound” (2.1.155-74). What Oberon saw, in effect, was a myth about the power of love (a myth designed to recall the change of the mulberry from white to crimson in Ovid's account, in the fourth book of the Metamorphoses, of the tragic love of Pyramus and Thisby). And just as certain stars shot “madly from their spheres” to hear the mermaid's song, the juice of love-in-idleness, laid upon sleeping eyelids, will make “man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature that it sees.” Oberon orders Puck to fetch him this herb, and at this point in the play the invasions of the wood by the Athenians begin.

The rest of the play's movement through this haunted grove will reveal it as simultaneously a scene of confusion and fertility, a place where folly is manifested and constancy is discovered, a place of midsummer madness and magical metamorphoses, of hateful fantasies and most rare visions; the play's movement, all this is to say, will reveal this “green plot” as the natural home of love and the imagination. In these first three scenes, A Midsummer Night's Dream has introduced three distinct realms, each radically different from the others, each thoroughly alive. What is most remarkable of all, by playing these three worlds off against each other, Shakespeare has somehow managed to affirm simultaneously their partialness and their integrity. Somehow the play's embrace of incompleteness assures its coherence. Building better than Peter Quince, Shakespeare “fits” all three worlds together on his stage.

These first three scenes get us into the wood. I would like to focus now on the precise moment when we begin to come back out; and then I would like to discuss the way we come out. The pivotal moment in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the moment where the movement back out of the wood begins, is that wonderful moment—almost a visual oxymoron—where Titania and Bottom embrace and fall asleep in each other's arms. Thoroughly enamored, Titania makes rapturous love to her ass:

Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms.
Fairies, be gone, and be all ways away.
So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.
Oh, how I love thee! How I dote on thee!


Shakespeare has indeed made his world “fit” together. This “sweet sight,” as Oberon calls it (4.1.49), is a moment of extreme incongruity, yet also a moment of great inclusiveness. The most diverse, indeed antithetical, perspectives have been fused in this single moment. The wood has done its utmost magic. I find it significant that Titania's language at the moment of her embrace of Bottom echoes precisely that of the earlier moment at the close of the third scene when Oberon had described her bower. Puck has returned with the love-in-idleness, and Oberon declares that he knows where to find Titania:

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


Taken together, these two passages go far toward defining the reconciling and transfiguring power that the wood, at its best, is said to possess. After the pivotal embrace of Titania and Bottom, every Jack can begin to have his Jill (as Puck puts it, 3.2.448 ff.), and “all things shall be peace” (as Oberon puts it, 3.2.370-77). Then, but only then, the play's resolutions begin to occur. After the pivotal embrace, but only after this, a sense of inclusiveness begins to dominate the play. After this, but only after this, Oberon can “begin to pity” Titania's “dotage” (4.1.49 ff.). Now the other members of the court can enter the wood. Now all the sleeping lovers can begin to awaken. Now the play begins to drive toward that great final scene in Theseus's hall where love seems to be the common will.

Fundamentally, we get out of the wood by watching a series of dreaming lovers awaken from their visions. First, right after Titania winds Bottom in her arms, Oberon (he now has the changeling boy) releases the fairy queen from her vision. He and Titania dance, and then the “king of shadows” (3.2.347) declares that he and his queen, now “new in amity,” will “tomorrow midnight” solemnly and triumphantly dance in Duke Theseus's house and “bless it to all fair prosperity”: “There shall the pairs of faithful lovers be / Wedded, with Theseus, all in jollity” (4.1.90-95). At this exact moment the altogether palpable rulers of Athens enter the wood. Theseus and Hippolyta have been engaged in May Day rites, and they have decided to spend the rest of the morning hunting. Anxious to impress Hippolyta, Theseus orders the attendants to uncouple his hounds in the western valley so that his love can hear their “music”:

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

This prompts Hippolyta to remember some rather spectacular hounds and hunts in her own past:

I was with Hercules and Cadmus once,
When in a wood of Crete they bayed the bear
With hounds of Sparta. Never did I hear
Such gallant chiding; for, besides the groves,
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seemed all one mutual cry. I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.

Not to be outdone, Theseus makes strong claims for the extraordinary muscularity, and musicality, of his hounds:

My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind,
So flewed, so sanded; and their heads are hung
With ears that sweep away the morning dew;
Crook-kneed, and dew-lapped like Thessalian bulls;
Slow in pursuit, but matched in mouth like bells,
Each under each. A cry more tuneable
Was never holloed to, nor cheered with horn,
In Crete, in Sparta, nor in Thessaly.
Judge when you hear. …


Theseus must want to convince Hippolyta that he is as physically impressive, as potent, as his hounds. I suspect this passage puzzled many earlier critics, but modern critics exult over these lines as a remarkable illustration of the play's habitual concern to make concordant music out of potential clamor. This talk of the hounds' “sweet thunder” also serves an important structural function. Here in the third scene from the end of the play we have the enactment of a perceptual and poetic activity very similar to that which occurred in the third scene from the beginning of the play; much as the fairy king and queen had done earlier (in 2.1.121-74), the human king and queen are mythologizing experience. It is entirely characteristic of A Midsummer Night's Dream that in one of the passages where the characters most overtly revel in dynamism, the play itself—as an artifact—calls covert attention to its own symmetries.

Theseus and Hippolyta came to the wood to hunt; expecting one kind of “sport,” they find another and better game: they find the four young Athenians. Seeing that the young lovers have now more amicably paired up (“Saint Valentine is past. / Begin these woodbirds but to couple now?”), Theseus wonders, “How comes this gentle concord in the world?” (4.1.142 ff.). None of the four young lovers is able to answer him with confidence. All their replies are full of wonder and amazement. For each of them the visionary experience of the moonlit night in the haunted grove now seems blurred and indistinguishable.

The reply of the one lover most changed during the midsummer night deserves attention. Demetrius confesses that he followed Hermia and Lysander into the wood “in fury,” but he now affirms his love for Helena. Anticipating the exchange between Theseus and Hippolyta at the beginning of the last scene, and echoing Hermia's defiance of her father in the first scene (“I know not by what power I am made bold,” 1.1.59), Demetrius assures Theseus that, no matter how indefinable, something real has happened to him:

… I wot not by what power—
But by some power it is—my love to Hermia,
Melted as the snow, seems to me now
As the remembrance of an idle gaud,
Which in my childhood I did dote upon. …

Possibly magical, certainly indefinable, but for Demetrius his change of heart seems as natural as growing up. Now that Demetrius has been in the wood, all his faith, all the virtue of his heart, the entire object and pleasure of his eye is “only Helena”; to her

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.


Does Theseus recognize the power Demetrius speaks of? We can never be certain, but it is at this precise moment that he decides to overbear the will of Egeus; he sets aside the “purposed hunting” and rules that “these couples shall eternally be knit” in the same ceremony with him and Hippolyta (4.1.180-88).

The last “lover” to awaken seems the least touched by his vision. Just when we might have allowed ourselves to believe that the stage had emptied, Bottom—irrepressibly histrionic as always—starts up and cries, “When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer” ( ff.). At first Bottom does not seem to recall his amorous experience with Titania. Not hearing his next cue, he searches frantically all over the stage for his lost companions. But Bottom has been “translated” (3.1.120), and the “change” (3.1.115) wrought in the haunted grove is too intense for even Bottom to ignore. Glimmerings of remembrance begin to steal over him:

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was—and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. …

Predictably, Bottom misquotes, but one of his sources here is Saint Paul (1 Corinthians 2:9). Realizing that, we can realize that we have just seen still another of the play's “translations”; we have watched the comically irrepressible slide into the profoundly inexpressible.

Bottom's dream may be too unfathomable to expound, but it seems too rare to waste; so having himself made his dream into “material for a performance,” as Alexander Leggatt puts it, Bottom will give it to Peter Quince as material for a work of art:

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.

Bottom rebounds quickly. He is “a patched fool,” but his vitality is, indeed, bottomless.

After Bottom's momentary uncertainties, we return to the daylight world of Athens. After the brief scene (the sixth in the Doran scheme) of the reunion of Bottom with Quince and the other handicraftsmen, we turn to the poised urbanities of Theseus's famous pronouncement on love and the imagination (5.1.2-22). Bottom and Theseus—so unutterably different, yet so curiously alike. Each has the desire, and the capacity, to play many parts. Each is extraordinarily alive, and yet each achieves a kind of repose—each is, in today's vernacular, “unflappable.” For all that he is “but a patched fool,” Bottom is in some respects a more beguiling interpreter of visionary experience than the rational and detached and self-possessed Duke. Of course Bottom speaks from firsthand experience, whereas the Duke has only been a spectator; but then the Duke may not need magic spells to realize his desires.

Still, for us the Duke is almost too cool a customer. For all Theseus's eloquence, almost no critic today sees his speech as the play's last word on love and the imagination. His pronouncement, from one perspective, is cool reason's cogent demonstration that, as Rosalind disarmingly puts it in As You Like It (3.2.376), “Love is merely a madness.” Yet, from another perspective, Theseus's pronouncement recoils upon him (he is himself an “antic fable”), and today's critics relish the way Shakespeare has insidiously used this speech to defend his own imaginative achievement. Perhaps imagination and love are forms of lunacy, but as Orlando had just said to Rosalind before she called love a mere madness, “Neither rhyme nor reason can express how much” he loves. Surely A Midsummer Night's Dream has apprehended “more than cool reason ever comprehends.” Surely Shakespeare wants us to see the value of Theseus's common sense, but just as surely he wants us to see that, behind common sense and beyond cool reason, his imagination has bodied forth the “forms of things unknown,” his “pen” has given palpable shape to such “strange” things and given “airy nothing” a “local habitation and a name.”

Theseus does not even get the last word here; Hippolyta does:

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.


It is Hippolyta's speech, not that of Theseus, that today's critics have grown to love. At the very moment of her final words, as if to prove the queen's point, the newly married young lovers, “full of joy and mirth,” stroll onto the stage, and the whole last scene is a compelling emblem, visual as well as verbal, of consummation and communion.

A bit later in the scene Theseus will get a last word. Just as Hippolyta has amended his view of love and the imagination, he amends hers of plays and players. Wearying of Quince's “tedious brief” interlude, Hippolyta growls, “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard” (5.1.211). Theseus's response to her remark, and their subsequent exchange, is often perceived today as one of Shakespeare's most incisive comments on the necessary contribution of the audience to the power of any dramatic illusion:

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.
If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men.

Now more amenable to the imagination than he appeared to be 180 lines earlier, Theseus seems to be acknowledging that we half create what we perceive. The idea of “amendment” will continue to reverberate throughout this final scene (most emphatically at the close in Puck's epilogue), and it might be said that A Midsummer Night's Dream is ultimately about the power of love and the imagination to amend the human condition. We might draw a moral for critics, as well as one for audiences, and speculate that criticism, too, must be a history of continuing amendment.

Have we, I wonder, finally accounted for this play's deep hold on the contemporary imagination? I have been trying to suggest that it is the dynamism and perspectivism of the play that fascinate modern critics. I would like further to suggest that the play's affirmations—self-conscious and guarded and mellow as they may be (Shakespeare never wears his heart on his sleeve)—engage us deeply too. The play may speak of things more “strange than true,” as Theseus declares (5.1.2); yet as well as being “strange,” such things, as Hippolyta urges, are also “admirable.” For the play's many ripe sports have abridged at least one evening, have forestalled and perhaps softened the “iron tongue of midnight” (5.1.39 and 365). Even Theseus, about to get Hippolyta into bed at last, slips and can be heard to exclaim “'tis almost fairy time.” Shakespeare does not of course expect us to believe literally that the fairies can keep “the blots of Nature's hand” from the “issue” of the newlyweds (5.1.403 ff.), but he may well expect us to agree that his “palpable-gross play hath well beguiled / The heavy gait of night” (5.1.368-69). Wouldn't Shakespeare ask of us, and have us ask in turn, “How shall we beguile / The lazy time, if not with some delight” (5.1.40-41)? We now regard A Midsummer Night's Dream as an authentic masterpiece because in it, better than in most works we know, we are persuaded that (to borrow words from Wallace Stevens) “Life's nonsense pierces us with strange relation.”

Bibliographical Note

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564; he died in Stratford in 1616. A Midsummer Night's Dream was probably performed in 1594-95. It was first published in 1600.

I have used the Signet edition, edited by Wolfgang Clemen (New York: New American Library, 1963), but also recommend the Pelican edition for Madeleine Doran's excellent introduction (Baltimore: Penguin, 1959). I am in debt throughout this essay to the felicitous and comprehensive study by David Young, Something of Great Constancy: The Art of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966). His book continues to be the point of departure for all serious study of this play. Most valuable for me among other studies have been essays by J. Dennis Huston, “Bottom Waking: Shakespeare's ‘Most Rare Vision,’” in Studies in English Literature 13 (1973): 208-22; Frank Kermode, “The Mature Comedies,” in Early Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London: Edward Arnold, 1961); and Paul A. Olson, “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage,” ELH 24 (1957):95-119. I owe the point that Demetrius seems to grow up in act 4 to Alexander Leggatt's useful chapter in Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974). On comic structure I refer to C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959); to Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957); and to Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” English Institute Essays, 1948 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949).

For general background material on Shakespeare see E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (London: Oxford University Press, 1930); S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970); S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975). For Shakespeare's sources see Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 6 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957-). For Elizabethan stage history see E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1923; rpt., 1945); and Enid Welsford, The Court Masque (New York: Macmillan, 1927). For additional material on Shakespeare see the bibliographical note to Mark Rose's essay on Hamlet in this volume.

Richard H. Cox (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13721

SOURCE: Cox, Richard H. “Shakespeare: Poetic Understanding and Comic Action (A Weaver's Dream).” In The Artist and Political Vision, edited by Benjamin R. Barber and Michael J. Gargas McGrath, pp. 165-92. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1982.

[In the following essay, Cox examines the discordant nature of A Midsummer Night's Dream, asserting that in Shakespeare's comic treatment of Theseus, and in the serious undertones of his portrayal of the artisans and especially Bottom, the playwright used comedy to teach his audience serious lessons about civic life.]

what hinders one to be merry and tell the truth? as good-natured teachers at first give cakes to their boys, that they may be willing to learn at first the rudiments.


imitation is a kind of play, and not serious



Political life generally is understood to be a serious matter. And in particular, founders of cities and regimes generally are understood to be serious men undertaking a supremely serious task: Lycurgus, Theseus, and Romulus, in the ancient world, and Washington, Lenin, and Hitler, in the modern world, are so regarded. How, then, are we to understand Shakespeare's playfulness in treating Theseus, legendary founder of Athens, one of the most extraordinary polities that ever existed, in a “comedy”?

This question is the starting point for my musings on A Midsummer Night's Dream. The musings are rooted in wonder and perplexity concerning the purpose of this dazzling display of Shakespeare's poetic art and buttressed by certain views I hold concerning how one should go about the study of a play by Shakespeare. Because those views underlie and inform the substance of the musings, it is necessary to say a few words about them at the outset.

It is easy to call Shakespeare a poet, and everyone does. It is a good deal more difficult, as the heap of critical works attests, to specify what Shakespeare himself conceived the poetic art to be: its nature; its purpose; its relationship to other human activities, including the making arts (e.g., carpentry), the doing arts (e.g., ruling), and not least, philosophy, in its original sense of the desire to become wise about the nature of things. It is instructive, on this point, to compare the problem as it pertains to Shakespeare and to Sir Philip Sidney, his distinguished contemporary.

Shakespeare, for whatever reason, left nothing but his poetic works: a series of intelligible yet partially enigmatic compounds of action and speech, much like Plato's dialogues. Sidney, on the other hand, wrote not just poetic works, such as the New Arcadia, but also a prose analysis of the poetic art, An Apology for Poetry (1595). Sidney argues that the true poet practices the noblest form of the art of imitation: he seeks, by his deeds and words, to teach men to be virtuous. He does so, first, by delighting men with his imitations of virtuous actions and repelling them with his imitations of vicious actions. Having thus enticed men's souls with his “speaking picture,”3 he then teaches them to seek virtue and flee vice. He does so at the lowest level by artfully drawing upon the soul's general moral tendency to imitate what is good and shun what is bad; and at the highest level, by stimulating the tendency of the reasoning part of the soul to seek the good, in and for itself. The poet, so understood, is the “right popular philosopher.” His mode of teaching is intrinsically superior not only to the historian, who necessarily deals in specific cases, but even to the moral philosopher, who seeks to give compelling precepts. Sidney recognizes that the moral philosopher—such as Aristotle, in his treatment of justice in Book V of the Nichomachean Ethics—seeks, and may even discover, conclusive definitions of virtue and of vice. But even though the moral philosopher may thus, in principle, furnish men with “infallible grounds of wisdom,” these must “lie dark before the imaginative and judging power if they be not illuminated or figured forth by the speaking picture of poesy.”4

As for “comedy” in particular, it is, according to Sidney, that kind of poetic imitation that fuses actions and speeches that teach us by both “delighting” us, and by moving us to the “scornful tickling” called laughter. In Sidney's own words: “all the end of the comical part of comedy [is] not upon such scornful matters as stirreth laughter only, but mixed with it, that delightful teaching which is the end of poesy.”5

The task of musing on A Midsummer Night's Dream might be easier if we had a comparable argument by Shakespeare to turn to, but we do not. On the other hand, inasmuch as, as one scholar recently has shown,6 Shakespeare evidently knew and even at times drew upon Sidney's Apology, it seems reasonable to consider the possibility that the two poets' understanding of the nature and purpose of poetry is similar if not identical. And yet, however suggestive such a procedure may be, it clearly is inconclusive, and we are thus compelled to recognize that Shakespeare's poetic works directly confront us, time and again, in all their puzzling and beguiling concreteness. If there is a “delightful teaching” imbedded in them, it seems that we must seek it in the interstices of the action and speech that make up the whole of a given work.

How, then, to proceed? I confess that I am not altogether sure, and that what follows on A Midsummer Night's Dream is, essentially, a playfully serious set of conjectures. The procedural premises that underlie its substance are these: First, Shakespeare's poetic works present themselves to us as “deeds”—something done by him, that is, but presented to us with no explicit explanation as to what the given work, as deed, seeks to do. Second, we thus seem always to have to work our way from the surface of the work toward an attempt to grasp the meaning of its parts, and then toward an understanding of the whole that makes up the context for the parts. Third, Shakespeare's general “deed” in constructing a given work includes specific “deeds”: the title, the setting, the names of the characters, the overall movement of the action, the placement as well as the content of the speeches, the interaction of speeches and actions, and the problems posed “in speech” that may be imitated by the “action.”7


A Midsummer Night's Dream is the only play in which Shakespeare treats one of the founders of antiquity.8 By that deed he singles out Theseus and Athens above all other ancient founders and cities. Furthermore, within the play, Shakespeare makes Hermia, whose name evokes that of the god Hermes, compare Athens to “paradise” (I, i, 205).9 Nowhere else in the corpus does Shakespeare make a character compare a city to “paradise.”

However one eventually construes Hermia's remark, the singling out of Theseus and of Athens is at once compelling and perplexing. It is compelling because it seems fitting: is not Athens the glory of the ancient world, indeed, the glory of Western civilization? Is it not the city renowned in its own time, and ever since, for its architecture, poetry, political greatness, military valor, and not least, for its being the city of antiquity famous for “philosophy”?

It is perplexing, however, because of these features of the play—features that constitute specific “deeds” by Shakespeare:

  1. The title itself shrouds Theseus and Athens. Stated somewhat differently, Shakespeare's deed in titling this play, in contrast to Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens, and Coriolanus, wholly obscures the political setting. Furthermore, the title points away from the political world altogether: it suggests darkness, sleeping, and dreaming, rather than the light, wakefulness, and vivid consciousness ordinarily associated with the works of the mind and the body so gloriously displayed by Athens in her greatness.
  2. “Midsummer” is connected with the notion “height of madness,” as is the lunar month in which “midsummer day,” or the summer solstice, occurs. And the word “wood,” in addition to its ordinary meaning, in Shakespeare's time, also had the meaning of “madness.”10 Given the fact that the central, longest, and most complex sequence of actions in the play occurs in the “wood” outside the walls of Athens, it seems that a triple madness is pointed to by the season, the moon, and the physical setting of the central action of the play.
  3. The greatest part of the action concerns not Theseus and the display of the ruling art, but the adventures of lovers (whether humans or fairies); and even more puzzling, the antics of “rude mechanicals” (III, ii, 9), who have leapt out of their station to engage in a dramatic form of the poetic art.
  4. The title, taken literally and in abstraction from the body of the work, evokes the notion of a particular dream that occurs on the eve of the summer solstice. Yet within the body of the play, not only is there no specific reference to that astronomical event—just as, in Twelfth Night, or What You Will, there is no specific reference to the Epiphany—but, in fact, Theseus' speech at the moment of discovering the young lovers in the woods seems to change the seasonal locus to that of May Day (IV, i, 133).
  5. The title, taken in relation to the epilogue spoken by Puck, suggests that the entire body of the play may be “thought” of as but a “dream.” But given Puck's notorious penchant for mischief at the expense of humans, it surely is a problem whether to take him seriously or no. And even if we do, we are left to wonder how to interpret the play's words and deeds in terms of the involuntary activity of dreaming.

Stated in the language Bottom uses at one point, the question is: how to go about “expounding” the meaning of a poetic drama disguised as a “dream”? Or is it a dream disguised as a poetic drama? And whatever it is, how to expound its meaning? Indeed, should one even make the attempt to do so? Should one be warned of the folly one may thereby fall into, warned, that is, by Nick Bottom's wondering speech that he makes when he awakes from his “dream”: “Man is but an ass, if he go about [t'] expound this dream”? (IV, i, 206-7). But perhaps this is to take seriously what Shakespeare only means to be laughable. Perhaps a man is an ass who would apply to the poet's “dream” what the poet makes a weaver turned tragic actor for a day utter in his perplexity. And yet, could it be that a serious warning against “expounding” is meant to be conveyed by the playfulness of Shakespeare's treatment of Nick Bottom? Or is it, possibly, a playful warning against taking poetry seriously? But if the latter, what, then, should one take seriously? Political life? Philosophy? The revealed truth of the Bible? More questions than answers thus bubble up when one permits oneself the luxury of dwelling on titles and on the risible speech of a lowly weaver.

At the risk, then, of imitating Bottom, when one tries to expound on Shakespeare's “dream” one begins to wonder how to reconcile the discord between the sense of the play as a single dream and these two qualities of the action: (a) The play includes waking as well as dreaming activity. (b) The dreaming activity, which takes place only in the woods outside the city walls, is multiple: (1) Hermia's dream which occurs when she and Lysander first fall asleep in the woods (II, ii, 144-156); (2) the four lovers' dream-vision of what happened to them in the woods (IV, i, 187-199); (3) Bottom's dream-vision of what happened to him in the woods (IV, i, 200-219). If the title is meant to focus on one of these “dreams,” it certainly is not obvious which one. A case might be made that the lovers' dream is most crucial; and yet, to make that case requires that one consider it on its merits in relation to the dream that precedes and the one that follows.

These features of A Midsummer Night's Dream suggest that there is a “discord” among its elements. That discord reverberates in the poet's playing on the antinomies of dreaming/waking, madness/sanity, woods/city, fairies/humans, artisans/nobles, and the like. In attempting to discover whether there is an underlying concord in the discord, and whether such a concord might itself convey the kind of “delightful teaching” so praised by Sidney, I have been struck by the pains Shakespeare took to make the artisans play an integral part in the action of the whole. On the supposition that such a deed may be rooted in something more than a mere desire to reduce us to the “scornful tickling” Sidney refers to, I will scrutinize Shakespeare's treatment of the denizens of Athens's stalls.

I will begin again, by looking briefly at two classical treatments of Theseus: Plutarch's in his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, and Socrates' in Plato's Republic. I will do so to throw into sharper relief the strangeness of Shakespeare's comic treatment, a prime element of which is the prominence and the hilarity of the deeds and speeches of the artisans. I will then analyze certain features of the treatment of the artisans; most importantly, their place in the structure, and the nature of the problems that emerge from what they are made to do and say. Next, I will look closely at the most singular of the artisans, Nick Bottom the weaver. And I will conclude with a few observations on why I think that the treatment of the artisans has an underlying, serious purpose that makes the poetic art, strangely, become the ruling art.


Plutarch's Theseus—manifestly known to Shakespeare from his partial drawing on Sir Thomas North's translation of the Lives—is a fusion of hero and lawgiver. As hero, Theseus, whose descent from the gods is emphatically conveyed by Plutarch, had many adventures, amorous and military. Among the latter was his audacious slaying of the Minotaur, the monster that annually devoured seven each of the cream of Athenian youths and maidens. As lawgiver, Theseus—in North's words—“dyd gather a people together of all nations.” Further, he at length resigned his “regall power” to constitute a “common weale or popular estate.” The commonwealth had three “orders”: noblemen, husbandmen, and artificers. To the noblemen Theseus assigned the judging of “matters of religion,” the bearing of civil office, the determination of the laws, and the telling of “all holy and divine things.” And thus the noblemen “dyd passe the other [two orders] in honour: even so the artificers exceeded them in number, and the husbandmen in profit.”11 In sum, although Plutarch's account of Theseus emphasizes his giving a place in the civil order to the common people, its focus is simply on Theseus, and its treatment of the common people is not only minimal but utterly sober, as contrasted to Shakespeare's treatment.

Socrates' Theseus—possibly known to Shakespeare—is also a hero and lawgiver, descended of the gods. However, Socrates, in speaking to young Adeimantus about the poetic education of the young in his “city in speech,” blames the poets' accounts that portray Theseus, son of Poseidon, and Perithous, son of Zeus, as “eagerly” undertaking “terrible rapes,” or as engaging in other “terrible and impious deeds.” Socrates then says to Adeimantus: “… we should compel the poets to deny either that such deeds are theirs, or that they are children of gods …”12 Thus Socrates' brief account, though it says nothing directly about Theseus in relation to the common people, draws on the civic sense that Adeimantus has of that aspect of the lawgiving activity of Theseus at Athens, and portrays Theseus even more soberly than does Plutarch.

Shakespeare's comic framework for the portrayal of Theseus thus stands out the more sharply when one considers that classical treatments of the ancient lawgiver place him in a strictly sober, heroic context, and that those classical treatments were the very images that educated persons of Shakespeare's time would have brought to the play.13 It is true, of course, that Shakespeare seems to retain the sense of the heroic, and even the sense of the kinship to the gods (by Theseus' reference to Hercules as his “kinsman”). (V, i, 43ff). Even so, on balance, there is a great tension with the persistent sobriety of the classical treatments.

The tension between the sobriety of lawgiving and the comedy of mad adventures of lovers, fairies, and artisans in the woods is greatest precisely at the point where Theseus is made by Shakespeare to take his greatest political action: Theseus suddenly overrules the ancient marriage laws of Athens. Let us see how and why that is so.14

At the beginning of the action, when the play seems to have all the makings of a tragedy—in the mode of Romeo and Juliet, for example—Hermia appeals to Duke15 Theseus to override the ancient law of Athens which requires her either to marry the man her father chooses (Demetrius) instead of the man she loves (Lysander), or else suffer one of two other fates: to be killed, or to live out her life as a cloistered virgin. But Theseus at once replies that not even he has the power to “extenuate” its application (I, i, 120). What is the status of this law that makes it exempt from the power of a god-related heroic duke? It seems that it must be one of those awe-inspiring nomoi which exist from the most remote past of the city: a law derived from the gods, or at least having the aura of such divinity. And yet, in the aftermath of the lovers' and the artisans' often hilarious adventures in the woods, and as a prelude to the hilarity of the performance of the artisans' comic-tragedy in the Duke's palace, Theseus peremptorily overrules that ancient law. But then, taken in abstraction from Shakespeare's deliberate framing of Theseus' singular political action, that action must appear as an act of great impiety. Yet precisely by the way in which Shakespeare does frame it—above all by making the last phase of Bottom's adventures with Titania and his wondering and comical speech about those adventures constitute the immediate dramatic frame for Theseus' action—the impious act is greatly muted.16

That Shakespeare's comic framing of this singularly political episode is intended to have that moral effect is reinforced, I believe, by the framing that he also gives to what is, strictly speaking, Hermia's impious act in fleeing the reach of the city's laws. Following this act Hermia has a remarkable dream—the only dream that occurs in the woods as a natural dream, rather than as a retrospective, magic-induced dream-vision of waking events that actually occur there.

Hermia flees to the “wood”—the place of madness, in the punning sense of that word—in the company of Lysander. They manifestly intend to defy the city's law that forbids them to marry in opposition to Egeus' will. The lovers lose their way in the woods and at last fall asleep. When Hermia awakes, she is nearly mad with fear. Her fear, at first, is occasioned by starting into bewildered consciousness from a nightmare: a serpent has entered her breast and is eating her heart away; meanwhile, Lysander sits by and only smiles at that cruel act. But Hermia's fear becomes terror when she suddenly realizes that Lysander, who had been asleep nearby, has vanished. Hermia calls to him in great anguish. He does not respond. Hermia then races madly off to find him, determined to meet death if necessary.

Now as I have just summarized this episode, I have deliberately falsified it. I have, that is, torn it out of its framework in the whole play, and in so doing, I have made it appear much more an episode of fear and near-madness than it is when we react to it in that framework. For then we, the auditors/witnesses, are aware of two crucial circumstances: first, that nearly all of what is happening in the woods is somehow under the control of the fairies, and especially Oberon, who has already indicated his benevolence toward the young lovers. Second, that given the hilarity of the earlier deportment of Peter Quince and company, and given the expectation we have of soon seeing them cavort in these same woods, at the rehearsal of their ludicrous play, we have every reason to suppose that no harm can come to Hermia. But our assurance of that is, ultimately, the effect of the poet's deed—his practicing his poetic art on our souls. In particular, he makes us know what Hermia cannot know; and that knowledge works in us by causing the painful passions of fear and pity to be replaced, or overridden, by wonder, amusement, and perhaps even laughter.17

To restate the preceding point in relation to the problem of impiety: The natural moral consequence of willfully breaking man-made laws is that the offender deserves to be punished by human punishment. But the natural moral consequence of willfully breaking sacred laws is that the offender deserves to be punished by divine punishment. And we know from ancient tragedies that one form of punishment for breaking sacred laws is madness. Hermia, one may say, is portrayed as coming close to madness as an immediate aftermath of her fleeing the sacred law of marriage of the city, yet as being saved from it, in the action within the play, by the poet's deed in causing Oberon to reunite the lovers, and bless them. As for us, Shakespeare's so framing the episode saves us from the sense of dread that ordinarily derives from contemplating just punishment inflicted on one who has broken a sacred law.

To sum up: Shakespeare's comic framing of both Hermia's dream and of Theseus' bold action in overriding the sacred law of marriage gently assuages the awe that the nomoi naturally inspire in us. It seems that the poetic art, as practiced by Shakespeare, seeks to teach statesmen by indicating to them the reason and the means to assuage that awe.


Now the most hilarious element in the comic framing of Theseus' action is what happens to Nick Bottom, weaver turned tragedian, metamorphosed into an ass/man, and beloved of Titania. In order to see more exactly how that element is integrated into the action and speech of the entire play, we need to look closely at the precision and care with which Shakespeare treats the “rude mechanicals.”

Dramatically speaking, the artisans' drollery first bursts upon us as a charming, comical discord in what seems to be an impending tragedy: Peter Quince calls the artisans to order to rehearse their play immediately following Helena's anguished soliloquy, which concludes with her fateful decision to betray Lysander and Hermia by revealing to Demetrius their plan to flee Athens. Historically speaking, the artisans' appearance is even more of a charming, comical discord: we suddenly hear Anglo-Saxon, presumably Christian, artisans who have somehow miraculously been transposed to the ancient pagan Athens of Theseus. Thus they are given, with one exception, Christian names: Peter, Nick (Nicholas), Francis, Tom (Thomas), and Robin (Robert). And each of their English surnames is either a technical word that refers to the art practiced, or alludes to it: Quince comes from quoins or quines, wedge-shaped blocks of wood used by carpenters; Bottom comes from the bottom or core of the skein on which the weaver winds the yarn; Flute comes from the flute stop of an organ, which a bellows mender would repair; Snug refers to the compact joining that a joiner would do; Snout refers to a spout of a kettle, a common object mended by tinkers; Starveling alludes to the proverbial leanness of tailors: according to an old phrase, “Nine tailors make a man.”18

I will comment later on the significance of this specification of the arts practiced by each artisan. For now, it suffices to remark that it is an integral element of the sudden, comic appearance of the artisans; and that the comic turning curiously and unexpectedly produces a shift in the political focus of the action: Up to this point, the focus is wholly on ruler and nobles; now, of a sudden, it is on men who represent the lowest order in the city, which is to say the people, or demos.

The initial, sudden shift in the political focus of the action proves, on reflection, to be linked to a series of shifts in the locus of the play's action. The action begins inside the city walls at the palace of Duke Theseus. It then moves to Peter Quince's cottage. The next, and much the longest part of the action, takes place outside the city walls in the “wood” of Athens. It then returns to Peter Quince's cottage. And it concludes in the great hall in the Duke's palace. The placement of the action, abstracted, thus proves to be highly symmetrical: palace, to carpenter's cottage, to woods, to carpenter's cottage, to palace. The mediation, then, between the palace, the place of rule, and the woods, the place of nature where no rule as such is characteristic, proves to be the abode of an artisan—and a carpenter, at that, whose natural material is the wood of trees. His art, as carpenter, is indispensable for transforming the natural material into shelter for men. But as such, it is an art that proves, in cities, to be dependent on other arts—on what has come to be called the “division of labor.” Shakespeare has seen fit, on the one hand, to make the artisans of this strange Athens practice six related arts that have to do with the provision of shelter and clothing within the city and, on the other hand, in contrast with Plutarch, to exclude any arts that have to do with agriculture. He also has seen fit, on the one hand, to specify the arts of his handicraftsmen and, on the other hand, to give no indication whatever of whether they are truly skilled at their art. Instead, these artisans take on themselves an art—the dramatic part of the art of imitation—for which they are, as their deeds and words at once make apparent, wholly unfit. One must wonder what will happen to Athens, simply in terms of its ability to survive, if Quince and Bottom are as inept at carpentering and weaving as they are at the imitative art. But of course, such a mundane question hardly arises, at least not now. Instead, we are charmed into a blissful state of hilarity by the antics of the group, especially by Nick Bottom. The acme of mirth produced by Bottom in the woods, and at the palace, is already foreshadowed in this opening scene, and comes to a focus on his being transformed in seeking to play many parts, even as Socrates' “democratic man” does play many parts in The Republic.19 Bottom is a thespian to keep an eye on.

In any case, the comic quality of the portrayal of the artisans depends decisively on their being made, temporarily, to forego the practice of the productive arts in order to engage, with stunning ineptitude, in one of the imitative arts—the dramatic art, the imitative art that has the greatest power to move men's souls, which is why Socrates seeks to purge it in his best city (kallipolis). Now the artisans' practice of the dramatic form of imitative art takes place in three phases: (1) the statement of the theme and the assignment of the parts (Quince's cottage: II,i); (2) the aborted rehearsal, during which certain problems concerning the presentation of the play are broached (the wood: III,i); (3) the actual presentation of the play (Theseus' palace: V,i). It thus happens that the central segment of the artisans' practice of the dramatic art coincides (1) with the central scene of the entire play (it is the fifth in a series of nine scenes), and; (2) with the central part of the action that takes place in the woods at night. It also thus happens that in a triple sense Shakespeare has formed his play so that the artisans of the city are at the center of the action; and so that at the center of that center, Bottom is made to enter for a time into the fairy world. The occasion for Bottom's temporary entry into that world is, of course, the intended rehearsal of the artisans' play. But the proximate cause of his entry proves to be the chance intersection of Puck's and Oberon's scheme with that of the artisans. The effect is that Bottom's adventures with Titania replace the rehearsal: a ludicrous, magic-induced transformation of a weaver into a man/beast, beloved of a fairy queen, replaces a ludicrous, self-induced transformation of that same weaver into an imitator of a tragic hero. What Shakespeare's purpose is in bringing about such a replacement—one that imitates and plays on the sense of “transformation”—is itself a good question, and one to which I shall turn a bit later, in looking more directly at Bottom's part in the whole action. For now, I observe only that by that transformation of a transformation, Shakespeare causes Bottom to be the only human privileged to enter directly into the fairy world. That is startling, when one ponders its political implication: Bottom is made to do that which not even great Duke Theseus, nor Hippolyta, nor any of the four young noble lovers, is permitted to do.

Let us now take a closer look at the central segment of the artisans' practice of the dramatic art. As I have previously noted, it opens as the artisans treat certain problems concerning how to mount their play. Those problems, one may say, are made by Shakespeare to focus on the artisans' curious—to say the least—understanding of how the dramatic art achieves its effects on the souls of the audience. The treatment falls into two phases. In the first phase, Bottom and Snug raise the question of the presumed fearful, even terrible, effect of two episodes on the ladies in the audience: Pyramus' suicide by stabbing, and the lion's roar. Nick Bottom, peerless at his newly-acquired art, divines the solution to both problems: let a prologue be spoken by Quince, which will remove the fear from the ladies' souls by reassuring them that the actions presented are not “real,” that Pyramus is really Bottom the weaver, and Lion really Snug the joiner.

In the second phase, two further problems are raised, one by one, by the poet, Peter Quince: how to bring in the needed moonlight, and how to depict the needed wall. Bottom, as eager to solve every problem as he was to play every part, now proposes, as a solution to the first problem, that the moonlight from the sky be permitted to enter the casement window of the chamber in the palace. It is a solution that depends on Quince's having first ascertained—from God help us, a printed almanac, in Thesean Athens!—that the moon “doth shine that night.” (III, i, 50-55). Yet Quince does not at once accept Bottom's suggestion; instead, he suggests an alternative: let the moonlight be personified, even as the lion will be personified. The second problem raised in the second phase, that of how to depict the wall, is resolved quickly by Bottom's suggestion that it, too, be personified.

Taking them in abstraction now, Bottom makes three kinds of proposals: the use of a prologue, the use of the moonlight from the sky, and the use of a man to personify the wall. His central proposal is set off against Quince's proposal, but no resolution is reached in this central segment of the artisans' practice of the dramatic art. We are thus left to wonder how it will be resolved, and we do not find that out until the night of the performance. Then at last in his prologue Quince tells us, as well as the three newly-married couples, that wall, moonshine, and lion all are to be personified. It thus happens that Quince's proposed personification triumphs over Bottom's proposed reliance on moonlight at the casement. And it thus also happens—oh blessed triumph of Quince over Bottom!—that we, as well as the lovers, are treated to a rare display of the imitative art. That is to say: If Bottom's solution had prevailed, the light of the moon from the casement would surely have been a tame business. But in the event, the triumph of the poet Quince's solution produces some of the most extended mirth in the play; for the personification of moonlight becomes the occasion, not just for the antics of Robin Starveling, the tailor, but for a comic interaction between him and four members of the audience.

I will turn to that interaction in a moment. But it first must be emphasized that Shakespeare's deed in so ordering the treatment of moonlight in the artisans' play is part of a complex set of deeds concerning moonlight. Perhaps the most obvious such deed is his setting the longest sequence of his play in the moonlit woods outside of Athens, and his making fairies, human lovers, and artisans alike, speak of the moonlight there on a number of occasions. A less obvious deed is forty-six uses of words referring to moonlight: moon (31), moonbeams (1), moonlight (6), and moonshine (8). This is the densest concentration of words about moonlight in any single play in Shakespeare's corpus, and by a considerable margin. Another less obvious deed is making the majority of these forty-six uses involve the artisans, and above all their comic-tragedy. I doubt that is merely accidental, in a play in which the centrality of the artisans and their play is thrice pointed to by the structure itself. Let us therefore more deliberately explore the emphasis on the moonlight in the artisans' play.

Bottom's first proposal, to use a prologue, depends on the power of speech to persuade the ladies that their fear is groundless. His last proposal, to personify the wall, depends on the power of action and speech to persuade the entire audience that a man dressed in rough garments and made to tell them that he is a massive human artifact is that artifact. But his central proposal, to admit moonlight at the casement, depends on the conjunction of two natural conditions being met—the moon has to be in its bright phase, and the sky has to be free of fog or clouds—with the enactment of Pyramus and Thisby. But the alternative solution—that of personifying moonlight—depends only on the power of words and deeds to exert a poetic charm. Shakespeare thus sets up a tension between a “natural” and a “poetic” solution, and causes that tension to come to a sharp focus on the artisans' words and deeds concerning the problem of moonlight.

When one scrutinizes the actual presentation of moonlight in the play within a play, three things stand out. First, Quince's poetic solution to the problem of bringing in moonlight contains an astronomical impossibility: On the one hand, Quince makes Moonshine three times claim to be the crescent moon (thus echoing the natural crescent moon that Theseus and Hippolyta awaited for their nuptials); and on the other hand, he makes Pyramus speak as though the moon were full. (V, i, 238-239, 272-275). Quince either is ignorant of the natural difference between a crescent and a full moon, or has forgotten what he wrote in his speech for Moonshine when he wrote his speech for Pyramus. In either case, the artisan-poet's ineptitude draws our attention all the more sharply to the problem of moonlight in the play within a play. And, as I shall argue a little later, it eventually directs our attention, by reflection, to the problem of moonlight in A Midsummer Night's Dream as a whole.

Second, the densest, most complex jesting by the royal and noble members of the audience occurs precisely in the eleven-speech sequence in which Moonshine makes his first appearance.20 The jests' surface target is Moonshine's perfect ineptitude in the practice of the dramatic art. The jests' deeper target, however, is the artisan's intrinsic ineptitude as a human being. There is a complex interaction between the two levels of jests. That interaction is a remarkable example of Shakespeare's integration of the poetic with the political, as I shall now argue.

The jests' surface target is, to be more precise now, the perfect if wholly unintended comedy of Moonshine's serious attempt thrice to persuade the audience that he is the man in the moon, that the lantern he holds in his hand is the moon itself, and that the moon is in its crescent phase. In reply to Moonshine's central attempt to persuade, Theseus at once mocks Moonshine. The essence of that mocking is the absurdity of the man holding the thing within which he is supposed to be; stated generally, Theseus mocks the fundamental absurdity of making “the whole” be held by or contained in “the part.”

Now the sequence which provokes such mocking is, of course, itself a part of the whole enactment of Pyramus and Thisby. And the play within a play is, in turn, a part of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Moonshine “part” surely provokes us, as well as the interior audience, to laughter. But more fundamentally, its playing with the problem of the relation of part to whole incites us to thought—if we will let it—concerning the meaning of the play within a play in relation to the meaning of the whole of which it is a part. I suggest that the perfect ineptitude of the play within a play is itself part of the perfection of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and that that perfect ineptitude is intended to throw light, by reflection, on the problematic character of the realization of poetic perfection.

Nor is that all. The problem of the realization of poetic perfection is intrinsically connected to that of the realization of political perfection. This is revealed by a further analysis of the deeper target of the royal and noble jesting. We must start, here, with this observation about the political situation that is depicted: It is the artisans of Athens, the lowest “part” of the political order—indeed, the part which is only problematically even in the political order as such—who unwittingly incite the royal and noble parts of the city to mockery. At the core of that mockery is a punning playfulness concerning the meaning of the “crescent” moon, whether as the thin bow of the waxing moon (which is the exact astronomical sense), or the thin bow of the waning moon (which is the more ambiguous general sense). Now in either case, of course, the “crescent” moon gives very little light. The punning on “crescent,” as signifying “little light,” is most pointed and revealing in the two-speech dialogue that takes place between the royal couple, Theseus and Hippolyta.

The dialogue begins with the first of three speeches Hippolyta makes about the moon, and the only speech she makes within the eleven-speech sequence with Moonshine. Hippolyta expresses weariness with “this moon,” and a punning desire that it would “change”—i.e., that it would quickly enter its last phase and thus disappear for good. Theseus' reply to this central speech of the five-speech rejoinder to Moonshine's central speech proves to be the densest punning speech in the whole of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is, in fact, a complex series of puns on “light,” “discretion,” “wane,” “courtesy,” (one of the meanings of discretion), “reason,” and “time.” I will not try to sort out all aspects of this double punning by the rulers of the city, but simply limit myself to these observations: Shakespeare makes the two most “political” characters of his play engage in a brief exchange that dwells, however playfully, on the intrinsic limitation of the artisan who plays Moonshine—on, that is, his weak “light” of “discretion.” Yet Shakespeare also makes Theseus, however playfully, indicate that in all civility, yes, even “in all reason,” they must accept the presence of that artisan: his “light,” it seems, dim though it is, is required by the city.

Third, the playful interaction between politically lowest and politically highest parts of the city concerning the problem of moonlight reaches its climax in Pyramus-Bottom's death scene. His final speech is: “Tongue, lose thy light! / Moon, take thy flight!” Whereupon Moonshine-Starveling, ever eager to please, and blessed, as Theseus observed, with but a “small light” of “discretion,” takes his leave of the action, considering himself dismissed by Pyramus-Bottom's imperative. This causes poor Thisby-Flute to try to discover her dead lover solely by the dim light of the stars, a fact gleefully commented on in Hippolyta's third and last speech on the moon, and Theseus' rejoinder to it.

This final comic collapse of Quince's poetic solution to the problem of bringing in moonlight depends, of course, on Bottom's strangely deranged speech. And the derangement, in turn, depends on the chance event that is wholly unknown to the royal couple, only confusedly known to Bottom, but clearly known to us: Bottom's temporary sojourn in the land of the fairies. For Bottom's unwitting transposition of “moon” and “tongue” is a sign, in speech, of a confusion in the soul that first afflicted him when he awakened in the woods. He then gave the first and most complex of four speeches which reveal that confusion: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was” (V, i, 211-213). All three of the later speeches take place back in the city; all three occur in or with respect to the play within a play; and all three continue the initial emphasis on a confusion, above all, concerning the sense of sight, the sense that is utterly dependent for its function on the existence of external light (whether the sun, in the natural realm, or a lantern, in the artificial realm). That Bottom's sojourn in the fairies' realm has the unexpected effect, at last, of making the moon disappear should make us reflect on Bottom's derangement and on what the disappearance of the moon may signify or point to. That reflection entails a closer consideration, first, of the light that is associated with the events in the woods; and second, of the traditional symbolic sense of light, in relation to the main actions of the play.

The sense of bright moonlight bathing the woods is conveyed by speeches of several of the characters, and is maintained except for one episode: Oberon makes a black fog temporarily cut off all heavenly light around the human lovers, to prevent Lysander and Demetrius from harming each other. The surface sense of the action in the woods thus is that of bright natural moonlight interrupted, for a short time, by the black, magically-induced fog that surrounds the lovers.

Let us consider, next, the traditional symbolic sense of light. According to a common understanding widespread in Shakespeare's time, an understanding going back to antiquity and exemplified in perhaps its most famous form in the eikon or “image” of the cave in Plato's Republic,21 the sun is symbolically connected to reason and the moon to unreason, or to reason paled by the operations of mere opinions and the force of the passions.22

If we now apply this traditional symbolic sense of the meaning of “moonlight” to the surface impression of moonlight bathing the adventures of the human lovers and of Bottom, it seems to make sense: those moonlit adventures result from the wholly unforeseen, fortunate intersection of the humans with the fairies. But by the same token, the happiness of the human lovers, in particular, proves to depend decisively on fortune, not on knowledge, and hence is precarious, to say the least. And when one realizes that bright moonlight is made to give way, for a time, to utter blackness—when no light whatever from the heavens reaches the human lovers—the sense of that precariousness is reinforced. As moonlight—which at least gives the human eye some possibility of engaging in its natural function—gives way to utter darkness, the loss of function of the sense of sight naturally reaches its peak; and by analogy, the dependence of human happiness on the blindness of fortuna reaches its peak. It is true that in this instance the blackness is benevolent and thus not charged with the deepest sense of an utter dependence. But Shakespeare's playing, in two connected contexts, on the theme of the disappearance of the natural light of the heavens should make us consider further the implications of the disappearance of Moonshine from Pyramus and Thisby. To do this, we need to move from the impression of bright moonlight in the woods outside of Athens to an examination of the details of the treatment of moonlight in the play as a whole.

The play begins with Theseus and Hippolyta eagerly awaiting the appearance of the new moon, for the night when the “silver bow” of that moon appears in the heavens will be the night of their nuptials. Now the night in the woods—when Bottom, as well as the lovers, engage in their adventures by bright moonlight—is the night before the nuptials. But in astronomical terms, with respect to the natural phases of the moon, it is impossible for those adventures to take place by moonlight. The moon is invisible for a few nights between the last thin bow of the old and the first thin bow of the new moon. What is more, on the night when the crescent moon appears, it gives little light, and is visible only for a short time, near sunset.

What, then, does Shakespeare do? In his own way, he does what he makes his poetic counterpart, Peter Quince, seek to do. That is, Shakespeare, with consummate skill in the poetic art, calls on the charms of that art to induce in us a waking-dreaming state, such that we will “see” moonlight where, in nature, there can be none. But he also reminds us, by the artisans' bumbling efforts to bring in moonlight, by the jesting of the nobles and the rulers at those efforts, and above all, by the final foolishness of Bottom's inadvertently making the moon disappear, that there is a tension between the natural and the poetic solutions to the problem of bringing in moonlight, and that his own practice of the poetic art is the ultimate cause of making the poetic solution prevail over the natural one. The political bearing of that complex, playful, and imitative treatment of the relation of the poetic art to nature remains now to be explored, above all in its application to Bottom's adventures in the woods.


The delightful effect of A Midsummer Night's Dream surely is in part the product of the extraordinary beauty of the poetry, the hilarity of the artisans' adventures, the mischief of Puck, and so on. But it is also in part the product of the supposition, first of all, that war for now is at an end. Theseus has lately been at war, but that has been successfully concluded: indeed, from that war has come not just victory, but the winning of Hippolyta, and thus the prospect of the gratification of wedded erotic love. Second, the city is at peace within. The artisans, so far from being in a state of unrest or rebellion, are obedient. And so are the nobles: Lysander, far from seeking to challenge the rule of Theseus or the ancient laws, instead chooses to lead his love away from the city. Third, the city is possessed, it seems, of sufficient goods for the support of life and is sufficiently free of the ravages of disease that its denizens can indulge themselves in the revelry of feasting and entertainments. In short, the duke and the nobles, but no less the artisans can afford to enjoy the sweets of life.

It might seem that the portrayal of such a condition is easily managed by a poet: all he need do is imagine it, then figure it forth in deeds and words. But such a way of conceiving of the poetic art seems to presuppose that the poet need not be concerned with the problematic basis of such a condition—with the problem, that is, of the degree to which such a condition of civil peace, plenty, health, and leisure, is necessarily, in the real world, dependent on the arduous and often marginally successful transformation of nature by human arts. Is that Shakespeare's understanding of the poetic art? I seriously doubt it, for reasons that I will now elaborate.

A key aspect of Shakespeare's poetic art is his deed in causing Bottom's entry into the fairy world. That entry is central to the action of the play; it elevates Bottom, a mere “rude mechanical,” above nobles and duke; it provides the occasion for those experiences that give rise to the first speech in which he confuses the senses; and it thus also lays the basis for his later confused speech which causes the moon to disappear. It is also a key aspect of Shakespeare's poetic art so to construct the play that we are made to be the only humans privileged (1) to know what was done and said in the fairy world, and (2) to hear Bottom's first confused speech about what happened to him in that world. Our privileged status brings us, in a curious way, closer to Bottom, yet differentiates us from him. That is, we are made to know a great deal more than Bottom about what went on in the fairy world, and to know it in a way that he is not privileged to do: we are made to know it in a conscious way, whereas Bottom's residual “knowing” is but a dream that is “past the wit of man to say what dream it was.” Above all, as I shall now argue, we are thus privileged to know things that connect the fairy world's effects on nature to the ordinary world of human activity and that reveal a dependence of the latter on the former, a dependence that becomes inextricably interwoven with Bottom's adventures.

The revelry at the palace, which marks the threshold of a new generative activity by the three newly married couples, is framed by the adventures with the fairies in the woods and the unusual entry of the fairies into the palace. The revelry presupposes, as I have noted, peace, leisure, and plenty. But such a condition presupposes, in turn, that the ordinary transformation of nature by the human arts—the arts of the city and the arts of the country—has been successful. Whether it also presupposes that such a transformation of nature depends upon forces beyond human control is a question that does not obtrude itself on the revelers. It is we, the privileged ones, who are made to see that “framing” I have referred to, and perhaps to reflect on its connection to the joyousness of the revelers.

In the first part of the fairies' framing of the reverly, we learn, at once, of the quarrel between Titania and Oberon. We also learn that the quarrel can have a devastating effect on the natural world, and therefore also on the human world, especially on the human world's dependence on the transformation of nature through the human arts. In the longest speech in the entire play, Titania articulates the fateful consequences of their lovers' quarrel. The speech begins and ends with an emphasis on the quarrel itself. In between, it is a catalogue of disasters that characteristically accompany the actual quarreling: raging winds, contagious fogs, rampaging rivers, and a profound confusion of the seasons, which destroys the natural cycle of the seasons, and worse still, thus destroys the generative cycle itself. At the center of this “progeny of evils,” the effect on humans is brought into sharp and dismaying focus in one of only two passages in the play that refer to the “ploughman”: the “ploughman” loses his “sweat”; the cattle and the sheep die in droves from diseases; and the corn rots before it is ripe. As for humans, they are stricken with “rheumatic diseases,” a result of the angry activity of the moon, that same heavenly body about whose light Shakespeare takes such pains in every dimension of his “dream.”

Titania's speech, given its setting in the woods outside of Athens and its ominous contents, evokes in us, who are the privileged ones, memories of a terrible and altogether real natural catastrophe that did in fact befall that beautiful city. In the early part of the Peloponnesian Wars, in 430 b.c., when Pericles was still the leading man of the city, a devastating plague struck the Athenians. A most remarkable description of that catastrophe, and especially its political effects on civil life—such as the reduction of men to impiety and lawlessness on a great scale—is given by Thucydides. His account, in turn, forms the basis of the stark and even terrifying description of the plague that occurs at the end of one of the great classical philosophical poems, Lucretius' Of the Nature of Things.

Lucretius' poem begins with an invocation of Venus, the goddess of love and generation. That invocation becomes the basis of the hymn to Venus in Book IV of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, first published in 1596.23 Listen, for a moment, to Lucretius as transformed by Spenser, Shakespeare's great contemporary:

Great Venus, queene of beautie and of grace, …
That with thy smyling looke doest pacifie
The raging seas, and makst the stormes to flie;
Thee, goddesse, thee the winds, the clouds doe feare,
And when thou Spredst thy mantle forth on hie,
The waters play, and pleasant lands appeare,
And heavens laugh, and al the world shews joyous cheare.
Then doth the daedale earth throw forth to thee
Out of her fruitful lap abundant flowres …(24)

The last book of Lucretius' poem begins and ends with passages on Athens, the only book in the poem to be so constructed. At the beginning, Lucretius praises Athens above all cities that have ever existed:

It was Athens of illustrious name that first in former days spread abroad the corn-bearing crops amongst unhappy mankind; Athens bestowed on them a new life and established laws; Athens first gave the sweet consolations of life, when she brought forth a man endowed with such wisdom, who in past days poured forth all revelations from truth-telling lips.25

Reflection on this passage shows that, in order of ascending importance, Athens has established the arts, given laws, and brought forth philosophy. Lucretius has in mind, in particular, the philosophy of Epicurus; but that single example seems to stand for the activity of philosophy as such, as the highest human activity. Athens, then, is the city of philosophy. Yet the emergence of philosophy decisively presupposes the arts, above all the art of agriculture, and the political art, needed for the establishment of the city as a city. The activity of the founder, it seems, is central to the human activity of bringing forth not just the city, but what the city makes possible, the life of the mind. Theseus may not himself be philosophic, but his actions underlie the emergence of philosophia, or the love of being wise.

At the end of Lucretius' last book, however, we see that not even Athens is exempt from the devastation of natural calamities, which destroy the ordered life of the city. Furthermore, it is irony of the deepest kind that the very artisans whose art first gave rise to the settled life of the city should now be the proximate cause of the city's undoing: the calamity proceeds from the country into the city. Listen again to Lucretius:

And in no small degree this affliction was brought from the country into the city, for the fainting crowd of countrymen brought it, gathering from all quarters with seeds of disease. They filled all places and buildings; so, by the stifling heat, death all the more piled them in heaps, being thus packed.26

Lucretius' intention in formulating a stark and startling contrast between the loveliness of Venus and of generation at the beginning and the ugliness of plague and civil destruction at the end has been summarized by Leo Strauss in these words:

The plague is as much the work of nature as the golden deeds of Venus, nay, as the understanding of nature. It is doubtful whether philosophy has any remedy against the helplessness and the debasement which afflicts anyone struck by such events as the plague.27

Now as we well know, A Midsummer Night's Dream ends happily—not with deaths of lovers, let alone plagues and civil destruction, but with revelry. More exactly, as a final counterpoint to the human revelry, it ends with fairies dancing in an unusual place, in the Duke's palace, and with their pronouncement of a remarkable blessing. I will come to that blessing in a few moments. But first, I must take a further look at Titania's speech in relation to the sequence of actions in the whole play. Titania's speech catalogues natural disasters that accompany the quarrel of Oberon and Titania wherever they happen to be. Fortunately for Athens, the natural catastrophes have not as yet visited that fair city, for only belatedly have Oberon and Titania come to Athens from far-off India, and they separate just before, as Titania puts it, they are inclined to “chide downright.” (II,i,145). But if the quarrel is not ended very soon, what can prevent catastrophe of the kind so poignantly described in Lucretius?

And now, at this moment of potential peril for the city, lo and behold, it is Bottom to the rescue. Yes, Bottom, that weaver who has left his loom to become a master of the imitative arts. Bottom, who eagerly seeks to play any part and above all a tyrant, but who settles for the part of a tragic lover. Bottom, who will play the part of the lion so well that he will roar as “gently as any sucking dove,” so as not to frighten the ladies; or so well as to cause his ruler, the Duke, to say “Let him roar again; let him roar again!” (I,ii,30-73). In any case, it is Bottom, who happens to be the means of reconciliation between Oberon and Titania, hence also the means of forefending against natural catastrophes that may erupt from their quarrels, hence a kind of savior of Athens.

Not that Bottom has any intention of doing all those things, nor, of course, any real understanding of what has happened to him in the woods: he retains only that rare vision, that dream that it is past the wit of man to expound, and which is a strange blend of being lifted up—that is, being loved by a beautiful queen, with many servants at his command—and being driven down—that is, being possessed of the head of an ass, that most foolish, stubborn, and burden-bearing of beasts, which brays and cavorts, but cannot speak, let alone sing a song. Bottom has the consolation, that is to say, of not having lost his humanity, even if he has been made temporarily to wear the revolting head of an ass; for even in his extermity, he retains the faculty of speech, which depends decisively on the faculty of reason.

This is shown in a comic but instructive way in the first exchange between Titania and Bottom. Titania first becomes aware of Bottom's presence when she hears his braying song about the birds. She then sees him and exclaims that her ear is “enamoured” by his song, her eye “enthralled” by his shape, and her soul seized with love for his “fair virtue's force,” or the power of his beauty. Bottom modestly replies that Titania has “little reason” for loving him, then indulges in a “gleek,” or jest, the core of which is the problem of whether—and if so how—“reason” and “love” may be “friends.” Whereupon Titania says, “Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful,” and Bottom again modestly claims “Not so, neither …” (III,i,128-150).

This is the only place in A Midsummer Night's Dream where someone is called “wise” as well as “beautiful.” But for it to be Bottom is ridiculous: we laugh at Titania's remark, for we know that Bottom is no more wise than he is beautiful. The immediate comic effect of this episode depends, I think, on our eyes and our reason being simultaneously exempt from, yet naturally charmed by, the imagined transformations wrought on Bottom and Titania. But the comic effect's basis comes into view only when the charm gives way to reason's natural function of thinking how the effect is rooted in certain absurdities. That is to say that “love” gives way to “reason,” or that reason replaces that which is loved merely because it is charming with that which is loved because it is intelligible. But for this to happen, there has at first to be the charmed awareness of the discrepancy between what we see and know and what the deranged senses and perception of Titania cause her to see and know.

We are reminded of this episode in the perplexed speech Bottom gives on awakening from his adventures with Titania. Bottom is charmed by what he recalls; and he seeks to reason concerning what it means, as well as whether it can be expounded in speech. It happens, however, that Bottom's articulation of the problem of perceiving and expounding is confused in a way that echoes the confusion of the charmed Titania, in that it reveals a derangement of the function of the senses, above all the senses of sight and hearing. Yet Bottom's speech goes beyond Titania's, for it proves to be a parody of one of the most famous passages in the New Testament, Saint Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (chapter II vs. 9): “But as it is written, The things which eye hath not sene, nether eare hathe heard, nether came into man's heart, are, which God hathe prepared for them that loue him.”28 In Bottom's confused state that becomes, as we have seen, “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.”

Now it is important to observe, first, that the context within which the original biblical verse is found is one of the New Testament's most important treatments of the tension between revelation and philosophy. To be more precise, Saint Paul's first chapter sets forth a profound tension between Christian revelation and Greek philosophy. Thus Saint Paul says: “… the Jewes require a signe, and the Grecians seke after wisdome. But we preache Christ crucified: unto the Jewes, even a stombling blocke, & unto the Grecians, foolishnes” (I: 22-23). Second, the parody spoken by Bottom draws our attention to the confusion of the senses; but in so doing, it also draws attention away from that which is omitted by Bottom's speech: Saint Paul's decisive emphasis on “the things” God “has prepared for them that love him.” Substituted for those “things” are the things that happened to Bottom in the woods, things that transcend the sphere of the natural understanding, but in a direction that is, by Saint Paul's lights, all but blasphemous. Third, not only has Shakespeare made Bottom's adventure cause a confusion in his soul concerning the senses, but he also has made the adventure somehow add to the senses dwelt on in the biblical original. That is, in Saint Paul's text the senses of sight and of hearing are set in contrast to the “things of God,” which are “revealed” to us by “the Spirit.” And later in the second chapter, Saint Paul stresses the conflict between that “revealing” and the operations of the soul of the “natural man” to whom such things are “foolishness.” (II: 14). But in Bottom's wondering speech the senses of sight, hearing, taste, and touch are dwelt on, thus adding the two senses most integral to the demands of the body. Finally, added to the senses of that “natural man” so excoriated by Saint Paul is the faculty of “conceiving.” One wonders whether that faculty is not the root of the “natural man's” temptation to seek after that “wisdom” which the Grecians seek. I know that one ought not to put too much stock in what a confused weaver says in his perplexity. But it is worth recalling that Bottom's parodic speech in the woods outside of Athens provides an integral part of the comic framing for Theseus' overriding the nomoi of the city.

I must hasten, however, from the woods to the last sequence in the palace, the sequence in which the fairies leave their natural place in the woods in order to preside—unseen—over the removal of the human lovers to their respective nuptial beds.

Theseus' last speech urges all the lovers at last to bed, and jestingly adds, “'tis almost fairy time,” little suspecting that the fairies are indeed close at hand. His last speech then closes with the promise of a whole fortnight of “revels,” and new “jollity,” as befits ducal and noble nuptials.

Between Theseus' last speech and Oberon's last speech is a single speech by Puck. The beginning of Puck's speech is starkly in contrast to Theseus' benediction, for it evokes the ordinary harshness of the world of nature. It does this, for example, by speaking of a lion's roar, and a wolf's howl. But it does so even more tellingly with respect to the toil of the human arts in extracting the substance of life from nature, with these laconic words: “the heavy ploughman snores, / All with weary task fordone.” (V,i,373-74) This is the second and last time in the play that we are reminded of the ploughman, he who practices the art that underlies all the other arts on which the city depends, the art that stands closest to, and has most constantly to contend with, the world of living nature. The exhaustion of the ploughman is begotten of the practice of his art in extracting from nature what nature, in the absence of human art, provides in only the most minimal and problematically available way. That exhaustion is the condition, one may say, for the prolonged amorous revelry that Theseus has promised. But it is also the condition for the leisure in which the practice of the poetic art and the turning to philosophy may take place. When we place the last reference to the ploughman alongside the first reference, we may recall Titania's evocation of the fearful dislocations in nature that may afflict the city; we are reminded, that is, that the descent from the level of mere hard toil on the meager provisions of nature, as nature, to the level of natural catastrophe has been narrowly averted for this lovely city, whose potential for realizing the highest humans are capable of is yet to unfold.

Lest we forget that the saving of Athens took place in the woods, through the fortunate conjunction of the artisans' practice of the dramatic art with the appearance of the fairies, Shakespeare now makes the fairies leave their natural place, come into the palace, the seat of political rule, and pronounce a remarkable blessing on the married couples as their generative activity is about to commence. It is not just that they all will “Ever true in loving be.” More remarkable still, the promise is that all their children will be free of the “blots of nature's hand”: no deformities, not even a mole, let alone a “mark prodigious,” such as is “despised in nativity.” (V,i,401-415). The fairies thus assume, for a moment, the role of Venus, the goddess of love and generation. Their blessing on the couples replaces the somber ending of Lucretius' poem, even as Bottom's adventure replaces the rehearsal of the artisans' comic-tragedy.


If action and speech are the warp and the woof of poetic drama, then it seems Shakespeare is a kind of weaver. I will conclude with a few remarks that indicate the way in which Shakespeare's weaving in A Midsummer Night's Dream seems to me to be akin to the royal art of weaving that is so praised in Plato's Statesman.29

When the artisans first enter into the action, Bottom, weaver turned actor, says to Quince, carpenter turned poet: “First, good Peter Quince, say what the play treats on …” Quince says: “Marry, our play is The Most Lamentable Comedy, and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby.” We are at once reduced to mirth, by Quince's seriousness, and even more by the title itself: this craftsman has unwittingly given his play a title that contains an arrant self-contradiction, a discord, a confusion of two distinct modes of dramatic poetry, tragedy and comedy. Later, in act V, Philostrate presents a list of possible entertainments to Theseus, who rejects the first three, then comes at last to Peter Quince's opus, now referred to as “A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisby; very tragical mirth.” Whereupon Theseus laughingly exclaims:

Merry and tragical! tedious and brief!
That is hot ice and wondrous snow.
How shall we find the concord of this discord?


Stated in terms of the conventional names for two essentially different types of poetic drama, Theseus' question means: How is it possible to reconcile the fundamental discord between the end of tragedy and the end of comedy? The first seeks to move us to a catharsis of fear and pity, felt for those who are intrinsically noble; the second seeks to move us to a catharsis of contempt for those who are base and/or foolish.

The answer to Theseus' question (and to ours) proves to be the artisans' actual performance of their “lamentable comedy”: The artisans, that is, inadvertently transform the tragic into the comic, and thus also unintentionally overturn the traditional order of nobility and seriousness of the two forms of poetic drama. The effect of that overturning is to reduce the ruling and the noble parts of the city to mirth and jesting mockery; they are seized with what Sir Philip Sidney called a “scornful tickling.” Yet the tickling itself attenuates the hate-filled contempt that higher natures may feel for lower natures. We are reminded of the fundamental political problem represented by such contempt in various places in Shakespeare's “dream,” but nowhere more pointedly than in a single remark entrusted to Oberon. Having at first himself been reduced to mirth by the drollery of Titania's loving the ass-headed Bottom, Oberon at last says to Puck that he has begun to feel “pity” for Titania's mad “dotage,” which has reduced her to “seeking sweet favours” for Bottom, this “hateful fool.” (IV,i,49).

Shakespeare's poetic art causes that same “hateful fool” to be transformed, if only for a time, from a mere “rude mechanical” into an ardent yet ludicrous “hero” (and, as we alone see, into the savior of Athens). Bottom's nature, so transformed, is then briefly joined by the balm and the catharsis of laughter into a tenuous and fragile harmony with the other natures in the city. The comic as well as the fortuitous and transitory character of such a weaving together may well appear to be an exceedingly problematic solution to the fundamental political problem of joining essentially different natures into a well-ordered whole. But even Socrates, confronted with that problem, was compelled to yearn for a poet who could persuade all three kinds of “natures,” and not least those of the demiourgoi, whose technai provide the basis of civil existence, that their place in the city is itself wholly the product of nature, not of human acts, or of accidents. Indeed, Socrates was compelled to make that “noble lie” be the very cornerstone of his “city in speech,” the city that is simply kata phusin, or according to nature.

To say, then, that Shakespeare's and Socrates' respective poetic solutions to the problem of weaving essentially different natures together in the city are foolish, not least because they are so little likely to become actual, may only be to say that the modern mind's conviction that the solution to that problem is wholly within the power of human art is itself the most comical thing of all; or rather, it would be comical if modern men, who cling with unabated zeal to that conviction bred of the revolutionary possibilities opened by Shakespeare's countryman, Francis Bacon,30 did not take themselves and their project with such deadly seriousness. I myself wonder, in fact, whether that deadly seriousness is not itself the obstacle, today, to every attempt to articulate the problem in the comprehensive terms in which it appears in Shakespeare's “dream.”

In any case, if the foolishness of the comic weaving together of natures in the city is foolishness of the first power, then surely it is foolishness raised to the second power to make the poetic art prevail over the natural solution to the problem of bringing in light, and foolishness raised to the third power to make a weaver who has been translated into an ass/man become the savior of the city by his accidental sojourn with a fairy queen in the woods outside of Athens. Yet who among us is so bold, then, as to tell exactly how that city did manage to rise from obscurity and ascend to the pinnacle of the possibilities available to human life? The rarity, and even more, the cause of such a remarkable realization have ever since reduced those who truly reflect on it to wonder and perplexity. Shakespeare's comical treatment of ancient Athens at its founding phase thus seems to me itself to be rooted in those states of the soul; and his artful weaving of action and speech seems to me to be his comically serious way of teaching us something about the possibilities, and yet the harsh and perhaps ultimately unpassable limits and dependencies, of life in the city as such.

Shakespeare knew full well that even Athens was at last subject to the ravages of political and natural destruction. He knew it well enough to write a somber work in which a cynic philosopher, Apemantus, says: “The commonwealth of Athens is become a forest of beasts.”31 That Athens thus proved, like the love of unfortunate lovers, to be a “quick bright thing,” come, at last, to “confusion” (I,i,149), redirects our attention to the problem of what is highest and what it is rooted in. Or it does so if we will let Shakespeare's “dream” take us outside the city by reducing us to laughter about the things that are inside it. But whether we can learn again to imbibe the delightful pharmakon of such laughter is as uncertain as whether a Bottom will come, again, to be in our midst.


  1. The Satires, I.1. 24-27, in The Works of Horace, trans. C. Smart (New York: Evert Cuyckinck et al., 1821), pp. 6-7.

  2. Plato, The Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 602b.

  3. Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Forrest G. Robinson (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), pp. 18 and 28.

  4. Ibid., p. 28.

  5. Ibid., p. 79. Cf. the following statement in James Amoyt's “To the Readers,” at the head of Sir Thomas North's rendering of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, a statement Shakespeare very likely had read: “such books as yield pleasure and profit, and do both delight and teache, have all that a man can desire why they should be universally liked and allowed of all sortes of men, according to the common saying of the poet Horace: ‘that he which matcheth profit with delight, / Doth winne the price in every poynt aright.’” Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans Englished by Sir Thomas North anno 1579, ed. George Wyndham (London: David Nutt, 1895), vol. 1. p. 8.

  6. See Alwin Thaler, Shakespeare and Sir Philip Sidney (New York: Russell & Russell, 1967), especially pp. 42-48.

  7. Jacob Klein's penetrating analysis of “action” and “speech” in Platonic dialogues, and in particular, his treatment of the mimetic function of action in relation to speech, seem to me to be very pertinent to the study of Shakespeare's plays. See Klein's introductory remarks to his A Commentary of Plato's Meno (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), pp. 3-31.

  8. Theseus appears, of course, in the play The Two Noble Kinsmen, but given the disputed authorship of that play, I have excluded it. See Hallet Smith's introduction to the play in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974), pp. 1639-41.

  9. All citations to the text of Shakespeare's plays are from The Riverside Shakespeare. All statements about uses of words in the plays are based on Marvin Spevack's The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1973). The Spevack Concordance is keyed to the Evans text. In the speech in which Hermia refers to Athens as “paradise,” she is momentarily disenchanted with Athens because of its marriage law. All that is required for that enchantment to resume is for her to be permitted to marry Lysander.

  10. See the various articles for these words in the Oxford English Dictionary.

  11. See Plutarch's “Life of Theseus,” pp. 53-54.

  12. Plato, The Republic, 391c.

  13. It is possible that the classical sense of Theseus underlay Samuel Pepys's reaction, in 1622, to Shakespeare's “dream”; for Pepys called it “the most ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” See Anne Barton's introduction in The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 217.

  14. See Howard B. White's analysis of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in his Copp'd Hills Towards Heaven: Shakespeare and the Classical Polity (The Hague: Martinus Nijoff, 1970), Chap. III. I have been much stimulated and influenced by White's general line of thought, but have sought to look more directly and intensively than he did at the specifically comic aspect of the play, and in particular at the comic aspect as it emerges in the treatment of the artisians.

  15. The title “duke” seems to be used in this play—and other plays, such as Twelfth Night, or What you Will—in sense 1 in the OED; “A leader; a leader of an army, a captain or general; a chief, ruler.”

  16. Act IV, scene i begins with the last phase of Bottom's involvement with Titania, it moves through the key episode in which the ancient law is overriden, and ends with Bottom's soliloquy.

  17. See also what I argue, later on, concerning the intended moral effect of Quince's “prologue” that will overcome the fear of the ladies.

  18. See the note to I, ii, p. 225 of The Riverside Shakespeare; and cf. the edition of the play edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 102.

  19. Republic, 560c-d

  20. MOON.
    This lanthorn doth the horned moon present—
    He should have worn the horns on his head.
    He is no crescent, and his horns are invisible within the circumference.
    This lanthorn doth the horned moon present;
    Myself the man i' th' moon do seem to be.
    This is the greatest error of all the rest. The man should be put into the lanthorn. How is it else the man i' th' moon?
    He dares not come there for the candle; for, you see, it is already in snuff.
    I am a-weary of this moon. Would he would change!
    It appears, by his small light of discretion, that he is in the wane; but yet in courtesy, in all reason, we must stay the time.
    Proceed, Moon.
    All that I have to say is to tell you that the lanthorn is the moon. I the man i' th' moon, this thorn-bush my thorn-bush, and this dog my dog.
    Why, all these should be in the lanthorn; for all these are in the moon.
  21. Plato, The Republic, 514a-517b.

  22. On the title page of Robert Record's The Castle of Knowledge (1556), the sun is made to shine above the “sphere of destinye, whose gouenour is knowledge,” while the crescent of a new moon is made to shine above the “wheele of fortune, whose ruler is ignorance.” On the left side, Urania, or heavenly wisdom, with open eyes, holds a pair of compasses in her right hand, and the handle of the sphere of destiny in her left. On the right side, the goddess Fortuna, blindfolded, holds a cloth in her left hand, and pulls on the cord of the wheel of fortune with her right. The verses at the center treat the contest between the two, and conclude: “The heavens to fortune are not thralle / These spheres surmount al fortunes chance.” See plate 16 in The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 1134, for a reproduction of Record's title page.

  23. See the account of “Lucretius and the Renaissance” in George D. Hadzsits, Lucretius and His Influence (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1935), pp. 248-83.

  24. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, in The Complete Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1908), Book IV, Canto X, sections xliv-xlv.

  25. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, trans. W. H. D. Rouse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937), VI, ll. 1-9.

  26. Ibid., VI, ll. 1259-1265.

  27. Leo Strauss, “Notes on Lucretius,” in Liberalism Ancient and Modern (New York: Basic Books, 1968), p. 83.

  28. It is a problem which translation of the Bible Shakespeare used. On balance, the evidence seems to me to point to the Geneva Bible. I have quoted from the 1560 version, published in a facsimile version by the University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. See p. 20 of the introduction for a brief treatment of Shakespeare's use of the Geneva Bible.

  29. See especially the last speech by the Eleatic Stranger, at 311b-c.

  30. See Howard B. White, Peace Among the Willows: The Political Philosophy of Francis Bacon (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968) especially chapter 1, “Political Faith and Utopian Thought.”

  31. Timon of Athens, IV,iii,348.

Virgil Hutton (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6323

SOURCE: Hutton, Virgil. “A Midsummer Night's Dream: Tragedy in Comic Disguise.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 25, no. 2 (spring 1985): 289-305.

[In the following essay, Hutton explores the religious and philosophical issues which he claims Shakespeare deliberately raised in A Midsummer Night's Dream.]

Even though the seriousness of A Midsummer Night's Dream has long been getting its due, T. Walter Herbert is the only critic to treat at length the metaphysical implications as the dominant concern of the play. A rapid survey of the criticism of the play reveals an early concentration on the theme of love, which, with Barber's rejection of love as the play's major motif, gradually yields to a stress on the theme of art (perhaps climaxing with Young's view of the play as Shakespeare's Ars Poetica), which in turn may, under the provocation of Herbert's study, shift to a probing of the play's metaphysical dimensions.1 Herbert opens an inviting prospect for critics by claiming to make statements not about Shakespeare's intentions but only about a contemporary spectator's reactions to the play. Through linking the theme of art with the metaphysical issues raised by Herbert, I will argue that Shakespeare did deliberately raise the philosophical and religious issues so perceptively pondered by Herbert's spectator.

Herbert's spectator sees two contrasting worlds in the play: the comic animist world of Athens, under the guidance of the fairies, and the tragic nonanimist “Babylonian” world in the play-within-a-play of “Pyramus and Thisby,” where there is no guidance of any gods or spirits whatsoever. Because “Pyramus and Thisby” is produced by citizen mechanicals, the spectator, with the aid of Herbert's centuries of hindsight, links their soulless play world with the future soulless world of commerce, industry, and technology that they are to construct in real life. Thus, for him, the play provides not merely a representation of contemporary currents of thought and belief but also a prophetic glimpse and warning of the “brave new world” to come. Though accepting some of the premises of this new naturalistic world himself, and though not being able to reconcile his religiously oriented beliefs in a beneficent animist world with the actualities of life around him, Herbert's spectator in the end rejects the Babylonian vision of the mechanicals' play and rests in the more comfortable world of the fairy King.

If one could choose which world to live in, one might certainly, along with Herbert's spectator, prefer the world of benevolent fairies to the fairyless world of “Pyramus and Thisby.” But of course we have no such choice. If our world is a world with fairies or gods, none of our beliefs or actions can make it otherwise, any more than Lysander's or Theseus's lack of belief in the fairies prevents them from existing and operating. And if our world is a world without fairies or gods, no beliefs or actions of ours can make it otherwise, just as the godless world of “Pyramus and Thisby” would not be changed by any appeals for godly aid Pyramus or Thisby might have made. The only choice we have is one of belief, and through A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare does seem to offer us this choice, after hinting at his own belief concerning the reality.

For many critics, the choice offered by the play is either between the rational and the irrational or between reason and the imagination. For those stressing the theme of love, rational love is said to triumph over irrational love as the young lovers, after their night of irrationality, return to the bonds of rational love and marriage exemplified by Theseus and Hippolyta. When linked to the theme of art, however, “cool reason” usually loses out to the presumably warmer imagination.2

Though both views suffer from the absence of a clear example of dramatized “reason” in the play, the rational-irrational love dichotomy is particularly vulnerable. First, the designation of Theseus as the standard of rational love is unconvincing because Shakespeare does not develop the quality of Theseus's love sufficiently for us to apply any special label to it. Second, at the beginning of the play the young lovers are endeavoring not to avoid marriage but to avoid marriage to parties not of their choice, which seems quite rational. Third, at the end of the play no difference in the quality of the young peoples' love is portrayed. Those who claim that the juice of “Dian's bud” represents rational love as opposed to the irrational love induced by the flower “love-in-idleness” must, like Frank Kermode, pass over with embarrassing silence the fact that Demetrius's charmed eyes are never washed with the antidote.3

The dichotomy of reason and imagination also relies heavily on linking Theseus to reason (often tagged “skeptical reason”) in opposition to the fairy realm of imagination. But, as some critics have recently pointed out, Theseus represents reason in general no better than he represents reason in love. Huston, for example, likens Theseus's behavior in the first scene of the play to that of an irrational tyrant,4 and certainly one might easily view Oberon's behavior toward the lovers as more reasonable than Theseus's blustering threats. Even in the opening exchange of Act V, where Theseus is usually labeled the defender of reason and Hippolyta of the imagination, Hippolyta's openmindedness, as Herbert's spectator observes (pp. 160-61), is more reasonable than Theseus's dogmatic dismissal of the evidence.

Here we pause to note that Theseus's unreasonableness lies particularly in his refusal to grant any more reason to the poet's imaginings than to the lunatic's ravings. Hippolyta grants some credibility to the lovers' stories because she discerns an order or pattern in their account—that is, she finds some “reason” in them—that differentiates them from “fancy's images.” Shakespeare's point seems to be that the poet's imaginings, unlike the lunatic's, also contain an order or pattern as a result of being under the guidance of reason, and therefore deserve some consideration as purveyors of truth.

After Hippolyta's superior reasonableness here, however, Theseus, during the mechanicals' play, becomes the more reasonable in his gracious tolerance and willingness to mend the mechanicals' efforts with his imagination. No characters consistently embody reason, just as no scenes illustrate a world of reason as opposed to a world of imagination. And this deficiency is to be expected, since Shakespeare's comedies, as well as his tragedies, are devoted to showing that reason and people, like reason and love, in the words of Bottom, “keep little company together now-a-days” (III.i.129-30). Only the play as a whole remains to exemplify that necessary fusion of reason and imagination in art that Hippolyta's speech and Shakespeare's ars poetica call for.

But though the reconciliation of reason and imagination remains an important theme, it is not the major concern of the play. In order to be a complete embodiment of Shakespeare's ars poetica as well as his defense of poetry, the play would have to go beyond a presentation of mere method. It would have to contain a discernible pattern or order that would produce a meaning beyond “fancy's images.” That such a meaning arises from the worlds perceived by Herbert's spectator appears likely not only because the worlds are concretely dramatized within the play but because other interpretations centering on love or the imagination have not been able satisfactorily to account for the carefully constructed parallels, antitheses, and paradoxes generated by the mechanicals' play.

Through the mechanicals' rehearsal scenes, Shakespeare confronts many of the problems and paradoxes arising from the art of drama; I will concentrate on one problem slighted by critics. Once in the first rehearsal scene and twice in the second the mechanicals worry over how to keep their play from frightening the ladies. In considering this worry, critics have largely concentrated on how Shakespeare satirizes the mechanicals' overly literal-minded solution to the problem;5 but little attention has been devoted to the problem itself, which, though raised so lightly and comically by the mechanicals, is of fundamental importance to any artist.

Behind the mechanicals' concern for “the ladies,” which is comparable in some respects to our modern expressions of concern for “the children,” lies the general concern over how much should be shown to anyone. And the problem for artists, as with the mechanicals, becomes particularly pressing when their material is perceived as being frightening or offensive. The mechanicals' worry is twofold: first, they fear the effect on the audience (that they will be too frightened to continue watching the play); and second, they fear the repercussions on themselves (that the ladies will have them hanged).

In relation to the first fear, a consideration of Hamlet's “Mousetrap” may prove instructive. There we see a clear example of the audience (Claudius) being so upset by a performance that he cannot see it through. When we ask why, we find that Hamlet's theory of art is to blame. The mirror image he holds up to Claudius is too exact, too close to Claudius's secret reality for him to bear. The theory suits Hamlet's purposes, but it is not appropriate as a general theory of art; for if it succeeds splendidly in art's one traditional aim of instructing Claudius as to his faults, it fails miserably in art's other aim of providing him with delightful entertainment. The mirror must be sufficiently distorted to keep the audience's shoe from pinching so tightly that they cannot enjoy the performance. And even Hamlet's mirror is sufficiently distorted to allow the more innocent spectators to enjoy the performance by preventing them from realizing its sinister purposes.

Hamlet's “Mousetrap” may also illustrate the mechanicals' fear of repercussions. By making Claudius perceive that his crimes are discovered, Hamlet rouses not only Claudius's conscience, but also his determination to kill the one who has revealed knowledge of his guilt. The real death Hamlet faces and the imagined death the mechanicals predict are extreme but realistic manifestations of the resentment aroused toward anyone who exposes the follies and crimes of another too openly. Through censorship, society both reveals where it is most vulnerably fearful and warns artists to avoid portraying these subjects too openly. But of course artists are most attracted to these forbidden subjects because it is obviously just in these areas that society is most in need of enlightenment and instruction. Thus, as many have pointed out, the artist must distort his mirror to penetrate the censorship shield of society just as Freud's dreamwork distorts the dream content in order to deceive the individual's internal censor.

Since they are to provide entertainment for a marriage celebration, the mechanicals fear that the threat of violence, posed by the lion, as well as the actual violence of the onstage suicides of Pyramus and Thisby will be too much for their audience's sensibilities. Shakespeare must share this concern because, if scholarly conjecture is correct, he too is preparing an entertainment to celebrate a marriage, and he would not wish to bathe both the stage and the audience in a bloody tragedy. Yet the seemingly inept decision of the mechanicals to entertain with a tragedy that they must then sweat to divest of its tragic content is also Shakespeare's. And we must ask what he had in mind.

Simply to entertain is the goal of the mechanicals, and, judging from Theseus's assertion that “This palpable gross play hath well beguil'd / The heavy gait of night” (V.i.356-57), they achieve this aim brilliantly. But if we include instruction as a goal of art, their play utterly fails, for, as many critics have observed, the audience of newlyweds gives no indication of receiving any instruction whatsoever. They fail to perceive the parallels between themselves and the story of Pyramus and Thisby. By a clumsy performance and by striving to palliate everything unpleasing to their audience, the mechanicals have so distorted their artistic mirror that the newlyweds do not recognize their own features in it.

Shakespeare's deliberate rather than unwitting decision to include a tragic story within his comedy surely reflects his desire to instruct as well as to entertain; for if a wedding celebration demands entertainment, the newlyweds also need instruction as preparation for sustaining their new commitments. As Hugh Richmond notes, having our obtuse stage audience witness a play-within-a-play is a device, used earlier in Love's Labor's Lost, to incite the theater audience to grasp meanings lost to the stage audience.6 In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the theater audience, including perhaps a pair of newlyweds, should be able to observe the pertinent parallels overlooked by the stage couples and to apply to themselves the clear warning of the tragic consequences that may result from rash actions induced by passionate love. From their superior viewpoint the theater audience can then smile at the stage audience, and Shakespeare's instruction neatly gives rise to comic pleasure.

But since such instruction does not seem frightful enough either to drive away the audience or to attract the wrath of society's censorship—if we are to apply the mechanicals' fears over the effect of their play to A Midsummer Night's Dream itself, as I believe we should—we must gaze more deeply into Shakespeare's distorted mirror. Here we must return to the speculations of Herbert's spectator over the “Babylonian,” godless world of the mechanicals' play, for these speculations uncover strong reasons for Shakespeare's having fears similar to those of the mechanicals concerning the reaction to his play. After perceiving the parallels between the story of Pyramus and Thisby and the adventures of the young lovers watching the skit, Herbert's spectator, through induction, concludes that the tragic outcome of the mechanicals' play can be explained by the one major lack of parallelism: the absence of any benevolent fairies or gods to protect Pyramus and Thisby from the fatal consequences of their misguided assumptions.7 But Herbert's spectator makes no attempt to decide where Shakespeare stands in relation to the contrasting worlds in the play. We must still ask what it is that Shakespeare tried so cunningly both to present and to conceal.

Pursuing the reasoning of Herbert's spectator a bit further may help. Though the absence of benevolent gods in the mechanicals' play may account for the tragic deaths of the lovers, we need not conclude that such a world of accident must always produce tragic results, for there may be happy as well as unhappy accidents. The crucial point being made is that tragedy can occur only in a world not under the guidance of benevolent gods. Both the world of Lysander and Hermia and the world of Pyramus and Thisby are full of accidents, but the one pair of lovers is saved from their unlucky accidents by the benevolent fairies, whereas the other pair is not. And neither pair is more deserving of help than the other.

Which of these worlds does the play present as an image of reality? If my reasoning in the preceding paragraph is correct, the answer immediately becomes apparent. Our world of daily tragedies is more faithfully mirrored in the godless world of Pyramus and Thisby than in the fairy world of the Athenian woods. C. L. Barber, for instance, stresses the play's skeptical attitude toward the existence of the fairies,8 and certainly the fanciful representation of the fairies is not calculated to instill belief in their literal existence. Indeed, it is the presence of the fairies that creates the dreamlike atmosphere of unreality in the play once we move into the woods, and it is this air of fantasy that makes the contrasting tragedy of Pyramus and Thisby appear all the more shocking and realistic.

Shakespeare also, I believe, uses the play's moon symbolism to reinforce the realism of the Pyramus and Thisby tragedy. The opening speeches of A Midsummer Night's Dream reveal a moonless or virtually moonless world as Theseus and Hippolyta await the new moon's appearance in four days. This moonlessness emphasizes the realism of the first scene, where the motifs of love and sex are treated by government and parent with the heavy-handed obtuseness so familiar in our society. When, upon the scene's shifting to the woods, the moon, with comic inconsistency, shines brightly overhead, it becomes apparent that Shakespeare is using the moon to signal, among other things, a fantasy world of wish-fulfilling dreams. In the mechanicals' play the moon also plays a singularly important role, though it has not been overly commented on by critics.

As in the main play, the moon makes its entrance when the scene shifts to the night meeting place of the lovers fleeing their parents' cruelty. Ominous signs, however, accompany this moon. It enters not with fairies but with a lion, and it shines not on palace woods but on a tomb. Furthermore, this moon, instead of being associated with the magical moonlight of Act II, is linked to the waning moon of Act I by two speeches of Theseus:

                              but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes!


It appears, by his small light of discretion, that he is in the wane.


Still, the moon's dim presence preserves a faint atmosphere of romance as it ironically provides just enough light for Pyramus to spy the bloodstained mantle of Thisby. But even this faint glimmer disappears when Pyramus, in the throes of death, orders the moon to depart: “Pyramus: Moon, take thy flight. / Now die, die, die, die, die!” (V.i.293-94). And in case the audience has overlooked the moon's obedient departure, Shakespeare has Hippolyta ask “How chance Moonshine is gone before Thisby comes back and finds her lover?” We must supply the answer to Hippolyta's unanswered query. The moon's exit at the crucial moment of Pyramus's death marks the turn to tragedy just as Mercutio's death performs the same function in Romeo and Juliet. Here, of course, the multiple distancing of the action enables the comic tone to continue, but the symbolic message is clear. The moonless conclusion of “Pyramus and Thisby” represents the intrusion of dark reality into the midst of comic romance, and Pyramus's “now die, die, die, die, die!” becomes the comic equivalent of Lear's “Never, never, never, never, never.”

But Shakespeare is not yet through with this moon. At the close of the mechanicals' play we are again reminded that their moon is no longer creating a world of benevolent magic; Theseus pairs the moon with the lion to perform a ritual symbolizing not the joy of restoration but the finality of death: “Moonshine and Lion are left to bury the dead” (V.i.334). And following this symbolic return from fantasy to reality brought about by the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisby, Shakespeare is ready to present the play's final image of the moon—the cold, naturalistic moon that chilled Herbert's spectator:9

Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf beholds the moon.


Our shock should double when we recall the play's opening promise of a forthcoming new moon, a symbol of renewal suitable for the traditional comic ending. The reversal is so extreme and unexpected that I don't believe it can be satisfactorily explained as merely a foil to heighten our sense of joy. A consideration of Shakespeare's technical strategy here may help.

By abruptly transferring the lion and moon from the play-within-a-play to the main action, Shakespeare heightens the realism of Puck's images through the seeming change from fiction to “fact,” from Snug's and Starveling's make-believe back to reality. The use of Puck and then Oberon as spokesmen here further strengthens our acceptance of the realities they describe; the fairies, in contrast with the mechanicals and even with Theseus, give the effect of a godlike chorus.

Comic distancing, however, continues to create the ambivalent tone of tragicomedy. If the fairies as spokesmen add a godlike credibility to their images of disaster, their godlike status also adds credibility to their more happy promises of protection from these disasters, so that we can cheerfully leave our characters to the comic fate of being happy ever after. But still our emotions at the end must remain mixed. For though we can accept the happy prophecies for the characters within the framework of the play, we cannot convincingly apply those prophecies to ourselves within the framework of reality, just as the newly married spectators could not be certain that none of their children would ever suffer any “blots of Nature's hand” (V.i.392). The images of surrounding threats and potential disasters ultimately derive their powerful authority not from the credibility of the speakers but from the everyday evidence of experience, which, paradoxically, refutes the existence of the godlike spokesmen.

For the theater spectators, then, the final effect should be the mingling of comic delight with tragic instruction. Specifically to the newlyweds Shakespeare's message, which of course applies to all, seems clear: in order to have any chance of preserving your marriage and some degree of happiness you must recognize and be ready to meet and endure all sorts of possible calamities that may occur in a world where one cannot count on the continual guidance and aid of benevolent fairies or gods.

The stage spectators experience the delight but fail, for various reasons, to receive the instruction. Distracted by the bungling performance of the mechanicals and blinded by the desire to reinforce their egos after their own recent follies, the stage lovers do not recognize even the most obvious instructive parallels with themselves. But they cannot be faulted for snobbish obtuseness in missing the even bleaker philosophical implications of the wedding entertainment, since they are not in a position to be able to draw the inferences open to Herbert's spectator and to us concerning the presence and absence of the fairy gods in the two stories. Being unaware of the presence of the fairies, the stage spectators cannot perceive that their good fortune resulted from the aid of the fairies, whereas the bad fortune of Pyramus and Thisby resulted from the absence of any such aid. Why then shouldn't the stage lovers be proud of their own sagacity in comparison both with the hapless Pyramus and Thisby and with the clumsy actors portraying them?

Seeing the young lovers, even at the end of the play, so full of ignorance, can we be at all hopeful that their present happiness will outlast even the short night left after the “iron tongue of midnight” has spoken? We can, because, in lieu of the instruction they missed, they have the fairies to protect them from the disasters so common among less fortunate married couples. The prognostication for the newlyweds in the theater audience may be favorable to the extent that they grasp and assimilate the play's instruction, which has been generally neglected, perhaps, because it seems less appropriate to comedy than to tragedy.

In 1957 Frank Kermode was applauding the new seriousness with which critics were approaching Shakespeare's comedies in general and A Midsummer Night's Dream in particular,10 and succeeding critics have continued to call attention to the dark, nightmarish, and potentially tragic undercurrents of the play. But to my knowledge, Herbert, through his spectator, was the first to apply the term “cosmic comedy” to the play.11 The term is apt because it recognizes the play's treatment of themes conventionally reserved for tragedy: the nature of the universe; man's relation to the universe; the existence of the gods; man's relation to the gods if they exist; human suffering; and death. Whether or not one wishes to establish a separate genre for such plays, the label, as a working hypothesis for the “intrinsic genre” of the play, to use the term of E. D. Hirsch, Jr.,12 allows one to see and to take seriously many things in the play that have been overlooked or dismissed because the play is supposed to be merely a comedy.

Critics have seldom expressed difficulty over labeling A Midsummer Night's Dream because they have apparently not been sufficiently aware of the play's tragic content. It is time to observe that the esthetic theory stated and exemplified in A Midsummer Night's Dream is also operating in a “dark” comedy or “problem” play such as Measure for Measure; only in the latter play there is not so great a disparity between the comic surface and the serious undercurrents—the tragic content is not so cautiously disguised. Herbert's spectator begins to suspect that A Midsummer Night's Dream may be a cosmic comedy when he hears Titania “bemoan the misplaced seasons and the excessive rain.”13 By creating his fairies in the image of the Homeric gods, Shakespeare provides a broad clue that his play will be cosmic in scope, just as the mechanicals' “Lamentable Comedy” (I.ii.9) and “tragical mirth” (V.i.57)—labels that also fit A Midsummer Night's Dream—point to the intrusion of tragic content. Let us consider how the play's fairy world, which represents, I believe, an approach to an ideal world for Shakespeare, contributes to a mingled effect of comic delight and tragic pathos.

Some have seen the workings of Providence in the fairies,14 but the fairies contrast rather than compare with the gods of conventional Christianity. Most obviously, the fairies are sexual lovers, who, like any man and wife, are in the midst of a domestic quarrel, unlike Christian deities who are not susceptible to such mortal antics. The fairies' susceptibility to sexual involvement with humans is also, of course, Homeric rather than Christian, though the New Testament stories of the virgin birth retain the motif in spiritualized form. Of even greater importance is a difference seldom if ever commented on: the fairies, unlike Christianity's God, do not hesitate to accept responsibility for some of the evils in the world. After enumerating the recent disturbances in the order of nature, Titania, instead of trying to blame “sinful” man, emphatically places the responsibility on herself and Oberon:

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


“Parents” is a key term here because it links the fairies to Egeus, the parent of Hermia, and to the unseen parents of Pyramus and Thisby. Through implication, Shakespeare places the burden of responsibility for the potential tragedy of Hermia and the real tragedy of Pyramus and Thisby on the parents, those who, like the gods, have the most authority and power. In taking responsibility, the fairies further parallel the Homeric gods, who, as symbols of forces beyond human control, are regularly assigned responsibility for the behavior of nature and of humans.

As for lending aid to humans, the fairies, again unlike Christianity's God, are not deterred from preventing a fall into disaster by the excuse that they would thereby be interfering with human “free will.” Shakespeare's fairy world humbly concedes that humans are masters neither of their fate nor of their wills, although the characters retain the illusion that they are acting freely. And this situation, though an anathema to some peoples' notions of human dignity and pride, seems to be presented as preferable to one in which the gods, if they exist, sit idly by, for whatever excuses, while Pyramus and Thisby, like Romeo and Juliet, blunder into death.

The Homeric gods too are not deterred from giving aid to humans by any concerns over free will, but the fairies surpass both Christianity's God and the Homeric gods in one important respect: selfless benevolence. The fairies are willing to go out of their way to help hapless humans without first demanding belief or worship or sacrifices. The lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream, far from calling upon the fairies for help, are wholly unaware of the fairies' existence. And the fairies, instead of showing any eagerness to be recognized and worshiped, provide their aid invisibly throughout, except for their appearance to Bottom, who provides no threat to their secrecy. Such altruism sets an ideal standard for gods, who surely should be kind enough to help suffering mortals without prescribing any preconditions or demanding any succeeding gratuities.

Kind as they are, however, the fairies, because they are not omnipotent, cannot totally alleviate the sufferings of mortals, nor can they be held responsible for all of the world's evils. Their sphere of operation is limited both in space (wherever they happen to be) and in time (largely the night). Similarly, the Homeric gods, besides having to contend with each other's interference, suffer at crucial times the limitations of Fate—as when Zeus cannot save his son Sarpedon from being killed in battle—and therefore cannot bear total responsibility for human suffering. Paradoxically, the omnipotent, omniscient God of conventional Christianity, who is most eligible to bear total responsibility for human suffering, is the God who totally declines to accept such responsibility.

Curiously enough, the fairies' lack of omnipotence enhances rather than diminishes the ideal status of their world. For one thing, their world is not subject to the irreconcilable moral and logical dilemmas that automatically arise whenever omnipotence is assigned to any being. For another, the fairies exercise upon our imagination a gentle charm that could not be attached to an omnipotent figure, who must remain as unlovable as an unclimbable cliff. But most importantly, the fairy world represents an ideal because, as many have noted, it symbolizes, like the Homeric world, a union between man and nature. Since nature may be too restrictively understood, however, we must add that the union is between man and the gods, between man and the universe. In Shakespeare's play, the parallels between the fairies and the mortals, like the anthropomorphism of the Homeric gods, establishes this perception of unity, which is perhaps most unforgettably symbolized in the brief twining of Titania around Bottom. Add omnipotence to any of the characters, however, and the attractive vision of unity is irrevocably contorted into absurdity.

Herbert's spectator speculates on how the coming age of science, business, industry, and technology was creating the godless Babylonian world of the mechanicals' play. But in a more fundamental sense the gods had already been stripped away from man by Christianity, which, as it strove to distinguish itself from paganism and as it became more and more rationalized and intellectualized, disparaged the anthropomorphism of previous religions through stressing the differences rather than the parallels between man and God. The persistent belief in fairies, which Shakespeare lovingly exploits, manifests the effort to bring the gods back to earth in an understandable and meaningful relationship with humans, who cannot psychologically sustain a position of isolation from the rest of the universe. As the increasing remoteness of orthodox gods induces a feeling of being unimportantly lost in an indifferent abyss, people seek, by reverting to earlier beliefs or turning to new ones, to re-establish their place in the universe, to re-establish their union with the universe, to become part of things once more.

Shakespeare's ideal world of Homeric fairies fits almost any meaning of “dream” one might think of. It is certainly, to use Freud's terminology, a wish-fulfillment dream that provides at least temporary psychological solace to our waking frustrations. To serve as meaningful wish fulfillment, however, the play must also contain the nightmare world of Pyramus and Thisby, from which we are psychologically protected by the play's equivalent of Freud's dreamwork—the artistic triple distancing of the play-within-a-play.

The play's ideal world is also a dream in the sense of something that in reality does not exist. At the play's end we are allowed to wake up to the fact that the fairy world was but an artistic dream, and it is only then that the play's suppressed content of extreme tragic pathos has a chance to surface. As in the opening of Chaucer's Wife of Bath's tale and in Wordsworth's sonnet, “The world is too much with us,” the displacement of the fairies and of the Homeric gods by later beliefs is not seen as an improvement. Rather, all three works, through a recreation of past worlds, stress how much has been lost. Shakespeare's vision, however, may be the bleakest, since it suggests that even these mourned lost worlds never existed except in the mind of dreaming man. The classical story of Pyramus and Thisby seems deliberately chosen to illustrate that the ancient gods were no more benevolent and protective in reality than the more recent gods who presided over the destiny of Romeo and Juliet. And the supposed newly-married couples in the audience will, like the couple in Arnold's “Dover Beach,” have to rely on their own resources of love and mutual support to maintain their happiness in an unpromising world.

The final sense of dream I will treat is the one raised in the epilogue—that a dream is something of such little value and significance that one need not pay it serious attention:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumb'red here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream
Gentles do not reprehend.

The irony behind Shakespeare's belittling of his play has regularly been noted, but its relation to the play's theory of art, which demands the employment of sufficient distancing devices to allow the presentation of unsettling views without destroying the purveyance of pleasure, has been overlooked. Under the conventional concern that the performance has not been sufficiently pleasing lies a more serious concern. For, if my reading of the play has any validity, there would be ample reason to fear that some of the audience might be offended by its instruction, and we can recognize how the word dream, from the title to the end of the play, serves as the last layer of defense to ward off any who might be both perceptive enough to grasp the play's serious implications and orthodox enough to protest against them.

Frequently A Midsummer Night's Dream has been interpreted as a defense of the irrational and of the imagination against the attacks of reason. Marjorie Garber, for instance, concludes: “But if illusion and the imagination are not without their dangers, they are nonetheless, in the terms of this play, preferable to their radical opposite, ‘cool reason,’ in Theseus's phrase.” She sees Bottom's efforts to avoid frightening the ladies as resulting from his being “aware of the dangers of imagination and illusion” and wanting to protect the court audience from them just as dreamwork, she claims, warns us “against the dangers of the irrational.”15 Certainly both illusion and the irrational may be dangerous if mistaken for reality and reason, but Garber's analysis seems slightly awry. Dreamwork does not warn against the irrational; it protects the mind from too direct a confrontation with unpleasant reality. Similarly, Bottom and the mechanicals strive to protect their audience not from illusion but from too clear a confrontation with the terrifying realities of their story; and their imagination must be exercised to discover means to avoid frightening their audience, just as Shakespeare exercised his imagination to present unpleasant messages without frightening away his audience. Here again, reason and the imagination should be seen not as opposing duellists in a game of one-upmanship but as necessary partners in any artistic enterprise.

Without “cool reason” the efforts of the imagination are apt to be wasted, for the careful calculations of reason are needed not only to produce artistic order and meaning out of chaos, but also to determine how much unpleasantness or strangeness an audience can tolerate. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare demonstrates his understanding of the fragile human psyche by not only using the distancing device of a play-within-a-play but also by having the players of this internal drama use distancing devices. But somewhat like the magician who pretends to reveal his secret while continuing to deceive his audience, Shakespeare has so artfully exposed his secrets under the guise of farcical parody that few have grasped what he was up to. In another way, however, Shakespeare's employment of artistic illusion in A Midsummer Night's Dream is the opposite of the magician's: the magician creates the illusion that bodies are being cut in half and heads are being chopped off while in reality no such things are happening at all; Shakespeare creates the illusion that all is well while in reality heads are rolling all over the place. The magician presents comedy under the guise of tragedy; Shakespeare presents tragedy under the guise of comedy.


  1. Henry B. Charlton, Shakespearian Comedy (London: Methuen, 1938). Charlton's chapter on the play represents an influential interpretation focusing on the love theme. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959); David P. Young, Something of Great Constancy: The Art ofA Midsummer Night's Dream” (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1966); T. Walter Herbert, Oberon's Mazéd World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1977). Quotations from the play are from the text in Irving Ribner and George Lyman Kittredge, eds., The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Waltham: Xerox, 1971).

  2. George A. Bonnard, “Shakespeare's Purpose in Midsummer-Night's Dream,” Shakespeare Jahrbuch 92 (1956):268-79; Paul A. Olson, “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage,” ELH 24, 2 (1957):95-119; Marjorie B. Garber, Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1974), ch. 2.

  3. Frank Kermode, “The Mature Comedies,” in Early Shakespeare, ed. John R. Brown and Bernard Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1961), p. 218. An attack on Kermode's interpretation is offered by R. W. Dent's “Imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream,SQ 15, 2 (Spring 1964):115-29.

  4. J. Dennis Huston, “Bottom Waking: Shakespeare's ‘Most Rare Vision,’” SEL 13, 2 (1973):217.

  5. Barber, pp. 148-51.

  6. Hugh M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy: A Mirror for Lovers (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), p. 121.

  7. Herbert, pp. 53, 143-44.

  8. Barber, pp. 123, 140-43.

  9. Herbert, pp. 61-62. Here I follow, with Herbert, the Folio's “beholds.”

  10. Kermode, pp. 214, 220.

  11. Herbert, p. 153.

  12. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 78-89.

  13. Herbert, p. 153.

  14. John A. Allen, “Bottom and Titania,” SQ 18 (1967):111; Stephen Fender, Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream (London: Edward Arnold, 1968), pp. 48-49, 54-55.

  15. Garber, pp. 82, 84.

A. D. Nuttall (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6898

SOURCE: Nuttall, A. D. “A Midsummer Night's Dream: Comedy as Apotrope of Myth.” Shakespeare Survey 53 (2000): 49-59.

[In the following essay, Nuttall contends that in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare used comedy to suppress, however incompletely, the darker aspects of the myths that influence the play.]

Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries.
But I will wed thee in another key—
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.


Thus Theseus, benignly, to Hippolyta in the opening scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Everyone watching, in 1595 or 1596, would have known that the speaker was an important personage. He enters, splendidly dressed (we may be certain) and, according to the Folio stage direction, ‘with others’ (rightly interpreted by Theobald as implying a train of attendants). His speech contrives, within a small compass, to be stately. It at once receives from Egeus, a kind of underlining, a graceful, articulate equivalent of loyal (servile?) applause: ‘Happy be Theseus, our renowned Duke.’ Now we are clearly aware of the exact social status of Theseus, which is of course very high. The cadence of Egeus' words anticipates that of the courtier Amiens in As You Like it, ‘Happy is your grace’, after Duke Senior's similarly stately (if deeply implausible) speech on the merits of the simple life, although, interestingly, Amiens' ‘happy’ carries, as Egeus' ‘happy’ does not, a connotation of stylistic felicity. Theseus, then, is a grand fellow of whom we should all take notice. Do we know anything else? Do we know—to put the question more precisely—who he is?

A little more than eighty years after the London audience listened to the words of Shakespeare's Duke of Athens, another audience in another country could be found listening to the words of one Thésée (or Theseus) in another play. This other play—Racine's Phèdre—is, to put it mildly, different from Shakespeare's. It is black tragedy. This Theseus is a harsh figure of sexual violence. Racine builds explicitly on Euripides and Seneca.

The full mythological information is made available. Indeed it impregnates the semantic fabric of the drama. This, we are left in no doubt, is the Herculean hero who with his sword defeated the army of women, the Amazons, and afterwards carried off their queen, Antiope, begetting on her his son, Hippolytus—that Hippolytus who describes his father as the deliverer of Crete, ‘fumant du sang du Minotaure’ (1.i.82). Behind this line stands a passage in Shakespeare's favourite poet, Ovid, beginning,

                                                                                          Te, Maxime Theseu,
Mirata est Marathon, Cretaei sanguine tauri

(Metamorphoses, vii.433-4)

You, greatest Theseus, Marathon adores for the blood shed of the Cretan bull.

Racine, however, has actually darkened the bestial allusion. Where Ovid evokes the slaying of the Marathonian bull, Racine slides to the far more frightening Minotaur, half bull, half man (equally part of the Theseus myth). The Minotaur was the creature who lived in the labyrinth, the monstrous issue of the unnatural coupling of Pasiphae with a bull. We now meet perhaps the most grotesque, the most disturbing, of all the Greek myths. When Pasiphae was overcome with lust for the beautiful bull she was at first at a loss how to contrive physical intercourse with the brute. To solve her problem she had a wooden cow constructed, to attract the bull. He mounted the wooden cow and she, straddling within, received the bull's member. The story is so gross that even Ovid seems to flinch from it, in his uncharacteristically hurried account of Pasiphae ‘quae torvum ligno decepit adultera taurum’, literally, ‘who, unchaste, deceived the savage bull with wood’ (Metamorphoses, viii.132). Theseus was aided in his defeat of this monster by a daughter of the same Pasiphae, Ariadne, whom he later ditched in Naxos. After the death of the Amazon queen Antiope he married (in the normal version of the myth) Phaedra (Racine's Phèdre), another daughter of Pasiphae. She it is, in Racine, who, infected by her terrible lineage (‘la fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé’, 1.i.36) is incestuously drawn to her son-in-law, Hippolytus. We are, quite obviously, in another world. On the one hand, in the English comedy, we have moonlight, fairies and happy love. On the other, in the French tragedy, we have sexual horror. Can Shakespeare's Theseus be in any sense the same person as the one we meet in Racine?

When we passed from Racine to Ovid we crossed over from drama to narrative poetry. Yet the answer, from the point of view of a mythographer, is, ‘Yes, Shakespeare's Theseus is quite clearly the Theseus of Greek myth; it is the same man.’ Racine's tragedy is in immediate accord with ancient story. Shakespeare's comedy, perhaps, is not. The first thing Shakespeare's Theseus tells us, however, is that he wooed Hippolyta ‘with my sword’ (1.1.16). This is—must be—an allusion to the war with the Amazons. Good scholarly editions of the play accordingly cite at this point Shakespeare's source, which is, once more narrative: North's Plutarch.

Touching the voyage he made by the sea Major, Philochorus, and some other holde opinion, that he went thither with Hercules against the Amazones: and that to honour his valiantnes, Hercules gave him Antiopa the Amazone. But the more part of the other Historiographers, namely Hellanicus, Pherecydes, and Herodotus, doe write, that Theseus went thither alone, after Hercules voyage, and that he tooke this Amazone prisoner, which is likeliest to be true.1

At this point we have in North's margin the shoulder-note, ‘Antiopa the Amazone ravished by Theseus’. Then, a little later, after the shoulder-note, ‘Theseus fighteth a battell with the Amazones’, we are told how

The graves of the women which dyed in this first encounter, are founde yet in the great streete, which goeth towards the gate Piraica, neere unto the chappell of the litle god Chalcodus. And the Athenians … were in this place repulsed by the Amazones, even to the place where the images of Eumenides are, that is to saye, of the furies. But on th'other side also, the Athenians comming towards the quarters of Palladium, Ardettus and Lucium, drove backe their right poynte even to within their campe, and slewe a great number of them. Afterwards, at the ende of foure moneths, peace was taken betwene them by meanes of one of the women called Hypollita. For this Historiographer calleth the Amazone which Theseus maried, Hyppolita, and not Antiopa … It is very true, that after the death of Antiopa, Theseus maried Phaedra, having had before of Antiopa a sonne called Hippolytus …2

Far more lightly than Racine but nevertheless unmistakably Shakespeare is touching on this Greek story. Near the beginning of Act 2 Oberon and Titania are squabbling, each half-accusing the other of adulterous desires. Oberon says,

How canst thou thus for shame, Titania,
Glance at my credit with Hippolyta,
Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?
Didst thou not lead him through the glimmering night
From Perigouna, whom he ravishèd,
And make him with fair Aegles break his faith,
With Ariadne and Antiopa?


The myth wobbles as myths do. Antiope, queen of the conquered Amazons can, as we saw already in Plutarch, reappear with another name, Hippolyta—a name which seems somehow to have moved, with the necessary change of gender, from Hippolytus, Theseus' son. Shakespeare went for ‘Hippolyta’ in his main action, yet Antiopa is still there in Oberon's speech. Theseus appears alternately as ravisher and bridegroom. Most wonderfully, when the story is told by the king of the fairies, the myth itself is drawn into the distinctive magic of Shakespeare's comedy: Theseus, we learn, was led through a ‘glimmering night’ by a fairy to his harsh conquests. Titania, it seems, played Robin Goodfellow to the erotic Hercules of antiquity.

Obviously the scholars are not wrong to cite North's Plutarch. But still, it might be said, the source, though certainly that, a source, remains poetically extraneous. Does the Theseus of myth figure in the theatrical experience of A Midsummer Night's Dream? I think the answer to this question must be blurred. The mythological Theseus will be there for some, not there for others. Those who see only the benign conquering bridegroom will be happy. Others, however, will not be able to help knowing more (and Shakespeare knows that some will know more). The flowery train of names in Oberon's speech especially will be largely dead matter to the former class. To the latter it will work, as allusive poetry properly works, as a series of casements opening on the wild foam of European story. Shakespeare, I am sure, would not have allowed Theseus his reference to the sword used in winning Hippolyta if he had not wanted such thoughts to arise. He reminds us—very swiftly, I grant—of past violence in the opening sequence of the play; it is a prominent, mind-setting speech.

And of course if we admit the ravisher Theseus we at once let in a strand of meaning which is as congenial to feminist criticism as it is uncongenial to old-fashioned bardolatry. It is, I suppose, a good rule in criticism to be especially mistrustful of anything you find with delight and, conversely, to be prepared to concede, as it were, with clenched teeth, the presence of undesired matter. It is for the reader to judge which of these injunctions (if either) is being followed in the rest of this essay.

Surely nothing can be more evident—and more obstinately irremovable—than the contrast to which I carefully alluded at the outset. Racine's Phèdre and Shakespeare's comedy, whatever off-stage links may be discovered in the hinterland of sources, present substantially different universes. Mythologically this may be the same Theseus, but poetically this is another person altogether. What happens in Theseus' wholly benevolent speech to Hippolyta is a successful banishing of the old dark narrative from the play. With these words the myth is turned on its head; the harsh Theseus drops out of sight and the smiling Duke of Athens springs up in its place. What we see is a verbal equivalent of a visual transformation in a masque. Still more it resembles a transition in music (Theseus himself says ‘in another key’, 1.1.18). The whole point of A Midsummer Night's Dream is its gossamer beauty. The twentieth century is marked by a prejudice in favour of the discordant. Shakespeare is saying, as clearly as it can be said, that this is not what he is after. Préjudice de siècle is nowhere so evident as in Jan Kott. His notorious description of Titania as ‘longing for animal love’3 (as if Titania were Pasiphae) is simply ludicrous. Has he not noticed that Titania is deluded? She is attracted by what she sees as a wise and beautiful being. She cannot see the grotesque half-donkey available to the rest of us. A play in which Titania said, ‘Give me a beast to make love to me’ would be essentially different from Shakespeare's. In his words to Hippolyta Theseus actually changes the story itself; it is now another story, one (why should we be so reluctant to receive it?) of happy love.

All of that sounds like good sense. It is, I think, 90 per cent true. This leaves, the alert will perceive, a troubling 10 per cent which I propose now to consider. I have just said that Shakespeare has changed the myth and moved on to new territory. If he had wished simply to produce a new story why did he allow Theseus to mention his sword at all? Why, after the great switch, did he let the word ‘ravished’ appear in Oberon's speech? Why did he not present a smiling wooer who could quite easily have been called by some other name than Theseus?

When I was trying to describe the transformation of the myth the phrase ‘turns all to favour and to prettiness’ came into my mind. These of course are the words of Laertes as he looks at Ophelia. The full speech runs,

Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself
She turns to favour and to prettiness.

(Hamlet 4.5.186-7)

Laertes is responding to a speech by Ophelia which is, in fact, faintly evocative of the world of A Midsummer Night's Dream: it is all flowers and greenery and ends with a snatch from the song ‘Sweet Robin’. There is a robin—Robin Goodfellow—in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The effect of this sequence of speeches in Hamlet is not to enforce the absolute division of tragedy from comedy, Phèdre from the Dream, but to mediate between them. Just as triple Hecate, goddess of hell in Ovid and Seneca4 finds her way into A Midsummer Night's Dream, drawing the fairies after her from the rising sun (5.2.14), so hell and passion, the stuff of Phèdre are the matter of Ophelia's feat of transformation. If we had no sense of the material, we would not know that a feat had been performed. Of course in the tragic world of Hamlet, confronted as we are by the wreckage of Ophelia's mind, we cannot forget these things. In A Midsummer Night's Dream it is all so much lighter, so much swifter, that we can forget. Nevertheless A Midsummer Night's Dream, likewise, presents not the accomplished fact of terror disarmed but a feat of disarming. To understand the feat, to feel the proper energy within the lines, we must be aware in some degree, if only for a moment, of background terror.

George Herbert in his ‘Jordan’ poems did not make an editorial decision in advance to exclude all artful ingenuity from his divine poems; instead he risked his soul and made poetry from the act of exclusion. Shakespeare similarly did not decide in advance not to use the old myth. Instead he chose to exhibit the exclusion, as a process within the drama. Having said this, I will now push the thesis a little further. The suppression of dark forces is not only incomplete at the beginning of the play; there is a sense in which it remains incomplete throughout. The play is haunted to the end by that residual ten per cent.

Listen again to Theseus:

Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries.
But I will wed thee in another key—
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.

I wish now to draw attention to the fact that a certain disquiet can persist, even in the latter, supposedly joyous half of this ‘over-turning’ speech. Instead of making Theseus say ‘I won you by violence but now I will seek to gain your trust by a loving devotion’, Shakespeare makes him say, ‘I won you with my sword, but now we will proceed in joyous triumph.’ The second half of the antithesis actually fails to achieve a fully antithetical status. ‘Triumph’ remains, obstinately, an arrogant, masculine word. It carries the idea of military victory into the new world of marriage. The actor who delivers this speech is in no danger of kneeling to his lady, as Lear would have knelt to Cordelia. Rather the very words will cause him almost to strut.

Later in the play, in the famous dialogue about the lunatic, the lover and the poet, Theseus (who certainly won the battle of the citations-index since his are the words endlessly quoted in anthologies) uncomprehendingly occludes the far subtler observations of Hippolyta. It is not too much to say that the entire ‘Coherence Theory’ of truth is sketched in her phrase ‘grows to something of great constancy’ (5.1.26). Her IQ is as far above Theseus' as her real status is, quite evidently, below. As Graham Bradshaw saw, there is a delicious gaucherie in a lover telling his lady, de haut en bas, that all lovers are crazy.5 It is not galant.

Thus the new, smiling Theseus remains oddly stiff. He is indeed no longer the ravisher. Nor does he ever come close to bullying Hippolyta. But he is still harshly masculine. We cannot quite say, with a whole heart, ‘Now all is well!’ It is as if, after all, Shakespeare wants a half-memory to continue, at the edge of consciousness.

Another work famous for turning enmity into beauty and lightness is Pope's Rape of the Lock, written, it is said, to laugh quarrelling parties out of their difference. The very title enacts, within a monosyllable, the healing transformation. The word ‘rape’, then as now, applied to forced sexual intercourse. But as we reach the words ‘of the lock’ we begin to guess, with relief, that the word is being used in its milder, Latin sense: ‘seizure’, ‘carrying off’. Nevertheless, having achieved the soothing modification and dispelled all anxieties (we might suppose), Pope keeps the harsher meaning alive, at the back of the reader's mind, through imagery of cracked porcelain, scissors (‘the glittering forfex’) and the like. The alternatives before us are, first, that A Midsummer Night's Dream enacts a complete suppression of sexual violence, replacing it with unbroken felicity and, second, that there is indeed just such a suppression but it is laced with a nervous, intermittent memory of the matter suppressed. It will be obvious by now that I am going for the second alternative.

I want at this point to shift focus from Theseus to the fairies. If Theseus is, by mythological birthright, the figure who could have brought a Greek violence into the play had he not been softened, the very English fairies are surely the obvious agents of that softening, powerfully assist the change of tone, embody the opposite principle, the principle of beauty. Once more, however, the absoluteness of our initial distinction will not survive close inspection. The fairies, no less than Theseus, carry the burden of a dark history. Shakespeare's fairies, indeed, are miniature, pretty creatures, but to say this is very like saying that Shakespeare's Theseus is a benign figure. We can no longer assert with Latham that Shakespeare was the first to present minuscule fairies, since earlier examples have been found, but we can say that he chose the then unusual miniature fairy, in preference to the more usual version. And of course Titania, herself a fairy, is clearly full-size; she can entwine Bottom the Weaver in her arms. Even if Peaseblossom and the rest were played by children, children are not nearly small enough to lie in a cowslip's bell (from The Tempest, I know, but really a bit of A Midsummer Night's Dream which has somehow strayed into The Tempest, at 5.1.89). The truth is that Shakespeare knows that one element in the pleasure taken in all this pretty flimsiness will be relief. The fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with their redemptive beauty chasing away all tragic elements may be the same people as the fairies who were once feared. At the end of the play Oberon has to promise that no child born from the marriages forged on that magic night will be deformed:

Never mole, harelip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despisèd in nativity
Shall upon their children be.


The promise is urgently required because the fear of these effects is still there—fairies are notorious for pranks, but the infliction of a hare-lip on a new born child is something worse than a prank.

In a way everything I have been saying is already present in the phrase, ‘The Good Folk’, a minor anthropological curiosity in its own right. The fairies were called ‘The Good Folk’ not because they were benevolent but in the hope of making them so—we can almost say, because they were in fact the reverse of benevolent. The phrase does not occur in A Midsummer Night's Dream but ‘Goodfellow’ does, as another name for Puck. There is a seventeenth-century woodcut of Robin Goodfellow which shows him with horns, shaggy thighs, cloven hooves and graphically emphasized animal genitalia.6 ‘Good Folk’, then, is a conciliating, propitiatory description, which can be paralleled in other languages. For example the avenging Furies whom we have already met in Plutarch and can find again in Aeschylus were called the ‘Eumenides’, ‘The Kindly Ones’. In Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus the chorus sings …

As we call them the kindly ones, that they may receive the supplicant safe, with kindly heart.7

Near the end of the seventeenth century Robert Kirk wrote in The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, ‘These sith's or Fairies, they call sluagh-maith or the good people (it would seem, to prevent the dint of their ill attempts: for the Irish use to bless all they fear harme of)’.8

We are dealing with a kind of euphemism, but not the kind we employ simply to avoid an undesired image (as in ‘passed away’ for ‘died’). Rather, this euphemism is put to work (presumably in the hope of inducing the hearer to conform to the flattering description) with the design of turning away hostility. It is therefore an apotropaic euphemism, from the Greek … ‘turning away’. Richard Wilson applies the term ‘apotropaic’ to this comedy in his brilliant essay, ‘The Kindly Ones: The Death of the Author in Shakespearian Athens’.9 He observes that the play procedes through a series of rejected scripts, ‘Seneca's Hercules, Euripides' Bacchae … all are evaded during the action’.10 Of course I want to say ‘not quite rejected, not exactly evaded’, but Wilson is basically right. Duke Theseus performs an apotrope of his former self at the beginning of the play. Could A Midsummer Night's Dream constitute, as a whole, an apotrope? Myths are essentially recounted; the story of the things that happened long ago is told, and re-told. But apotrope is not narrative but action upon those very beings whose exploits are set forth in myth. It is the product of efficacious ritual. Remember here how drama in Greek once meant ‘doing’. When Theseus re-describes himself in that opening volta, in a euphemism which we hope will ‘take’, like an inoculation, Shakespeare is perhaps banishing, or ‘praying-away’ from his drama that mythic darkness which Racine will later let back in. But Shakespeare also knows that the joy and relief consequent upon the apotrope will lose their keenness if all sense of danger is lost. Hence the keeping-alive of the disquiet after the opening apotrope.

How does Bully Bottom figure in this play of nervous delight? The answer (which may strike the reader as vacuously pious) is ‘With a deep, very Shakespearian complex coherence’. Once more, the first thing to be said is that Bottom, translated into the form of a beast, is (hilariously) innocent. He lolls, like some degenerate Roman emperor, in the midst of a feast, as a beautiful woman climbs all over him, and his great hairy head is full of thoughts of food, not sex. He is like a small boy. Yeats famously said (in ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’) that Keats was like a schoolboy ‘with face and nose pressed to a sweetshop window’, which makes some sense if one thinks of The Eve of Saint Agnes. But, in spite of the notorious ‘feast in the dorm’ passage, we are in fact clearly aware that Porphyro in that poem is interested in sex as well as food. Bottom is interested only in the jellies and ice-creams (or rather, since the donkey is beginning to take over, in hay).

I am now repeating the move I made at the beginning of this essay. I said then that the most obvious thing—and the most obvious thing can be the most important thing—about Shakespeare's Theseus is that he differs from Racine's Thésée, as A Midsummer Night's Dream differs from Phèdre, toto coelo. But then I admitted a darker penumbra of meaning. So here, having asserted the comic innocence of Bottom, I must acknowledge that the mere sight of a woman entwined with a beast or half-beast of itself suggests monstrosity. Again I have to ask, are the demons completely removed? Is our laughter simple, unmixed, or is it the louder because energized by a surviving anxiety? Again, I go for the second alternative.

While the ‘primary move’ of Theseus is from hostility to benevolence, the ‘primary move’ of Bottom, at the level of action, is in the opposite direction, from human being to beast. That is why the Bottom sequence is immediately funny, as Theseus is not. In Bottom's case there is an element of shock to be surmounted and this supplies the incongruity needed. ‘Jupiter / Became a bull, and bellowed’, says Florizel in The Winter's Tale, (4.4.28) (apparently in the hope of cheering up the rustic Perdita with august precedents of sexual condescension). But Bottom, who becomes not a bull but half an ass, is no Jupiter but a hard-handed mechanical. Yet Europa and the bull, Leda and the swan and all the other ancient stories of bestial coupling remain critically relevant. They are part of the material to be comically inverted or apotropaically defused. Again, a quantum of anxiety survives the apotrope. As I have said, it is difficult to look at a woman entwined with something which is turning, as we watch, into an animal—Beauty and the Beast—without worrying. The worry, at the back of one's mind, may be partly about physiology. ‘Will she be hurt if they have sexual intercourse? Oh, no danger of that, I see’ (laughter here)—but then the thought returns.

This obstinate refusal ever quite to go away is admirably caught by Peter Holland in his essay, ‘Theseus' Shadows in A Midsummer Night's Dream’.11 Holland quotes the sinister jingle of Hughes Mearns,

As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there,
He wasn't there again today.
I wish, I wish he'd stay away.

For Holland, Seneca's Hippolytus is a shadow—an absence-presence—in the play, ‘a man on the stair’. Surely sane persons take care not to be seriously distracted by such things? Holland writes, ‘Hippolytus cannot be ignored, but does that mean he should be noticed?’ It is a good question. That criticism which soldifies the properly fluid, changes glimpses into full percepts, must be falsifying its material. But meanwhile it remains just (as Holland sees) to register shadows as—merely—shadows. Moreover our relation to these shadows may be more dynamically charged than at first appears. The last line of the jingle expresses a wish. Translate that wish into magical action and you have, once more, apotrope.

As the Plutarchian Theseus stands behind the Duke of Athens, so the Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius stands behind Bottom the Weaver. Once more, the scholarly editions rightly cite Adlington's translation of 1566 as a source. Here is Lucius' account of how he, transformed into an ass, became involved with a lustful matron. In this passage all the anxieties I was just alluding to are explicit.

Then she put off all her Garments to her naked skinne, and taking the Lampe that stood next to her, began to anoint her body with balme, and mine likewise, but especially my nose … Then she tooke me by the halter and cast me downe upon the bed, which was nothing strange unto me, considering that she was so beautifull a matron and I so wel boldened out with wine, and perfumed with balme, whereby I was readily prepared for the purpose: But nothing grieved me so much as to think, how I should with my huge and great legs imbrace so fair a Matron, or how I should touch her fine, dainty and silken skinne, with my hard hoofes, or how it was possible to kisse her soft, pretty and ruddy lips, with my monstrous mouth and stony teeth, or how she, who was young and tender, could be able to receive me.12

That last word, ‘me’ is a euphemism, on Adlington's part, a euphemism of the ordinary kind. The Latin at this point (x.22) is ‘Tam vastum genitale’. Remember Pasiphae, within the wooden cow, receiving the organ of the bull. Apuleius, certainly, has not forgotten. He writes how the matron ‘had her pleasure with me, whereby I thought the mother of Minotarus [sic] did not causelesse quench her inordinate desire with a Bull’.13 Earlier, when the matron is introduced, she is likened to Pasiphae. Here Adlington says, simply ‘as Pasiphae had with a Bull’, eliding the note of comic incongruity, essential to the Shakespearian version, which is present in the Latin, instar asinariae Pasiphaae ‘like some asinine Pasiphae’.

With Bottom, as with Theseus, if we read backwards into prior myth, we are led into the world of Phèdre. Bottom is a happily averted Minotaur, or Bull, Titania Pasiphae. In Peter Holland's essay the Minotaur is the second major ‘shadow’ of the play, after Hippolytus.14 It will be said, ‘There is nothing in Shakespeare about a huge penis.’ True. But this thought must lie behind the physiological anxiety, the physiological comic incongruity. Titania's words,

While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,
And stick musk-roses in thy sleek smooth head


are funny because, as she speaks, we are looking at a monstrous, hairy head. She herself betrays, a line later, that even to the eye of infatuation Bottom's ears are oddly large. A moment afterwards he says himself, ‘I am marvellous hairy about the face’ and the scratchy word ‘scratch’ appears twice in the same speech (4.1.22-5). A sense of physical incompatibility is present in the faint Ovidian surrealism of Titania's image of ‘the female ivy’ encircling ‘the barky fingers of the elm’ at 4.1.42-3. Think of Apollo feeling the breast of Daphne as the bark began to form over it, the heart fluttering under the roughened surface, at Metamorphoses, i.554. Horror is successfully averted. We laugh and we are happy. But the horror is there, to be averted, and in some degree survive the act of aversion. The director who caused Bottom to cast on the backcloth a shadow (Peter Holland's word!) that looked for a moment more like a minotaur than a donkey would not, I suggest, be exceeding his interpretative brief.

There is a nasty poem by Martial about a promiscuous lady, one Marulla, whose children can be seen by their looks to have many fathers, none of which is the lady's husband. One with frizzy hair looks like the African cook; another, with flat nose and thickened lips is the very image of Pannicus, the wrestler and so on. The poem includes these lines,

Hunc vero acuto capite, et auribus longis,
Quae sic moventur ut solent assellorum
Quis morionis filium neget Cyrrhae?(15)

And this one with his tapering head and long ears which have a way of twitching like those of an ass, who will deny that he is the son of the idiot Cyrrha?

No grand mythology now, but a sneer at the woman who will go with anyone, even a cretin. Bottom may not be an idiot, which seems to be the sense of morio here. But another sense of morio is ‘one kept as a laughing stock, a fool’, and this is not a million miles away from Bottom's function in relation to the grand persons of the play. Although Shakespeare gives him the most profound speech in the comedy, ‘It shall be called “Bottom's Dream”, because it hath no bottom’ (4.1.213-4), his best friend could not call him wise. When the love-crazed Titania applies this word to him at 3.1.140 (‘Thou art as wise as thou are beautiful’), it always gets a laugh. I cite Martial's donkey-man not because I am sure—or even think—that Shakespeare read this poem but because it highlights discomforts of a more trivial kind than those broached in the more ancient myths—discomforts arising from perceived social and intellectual disparity. This is also relevant to the comedy of A Midsummer Night's Dream. But the myths, with their deeper violence, though they may seem more remote from comedy, really are more deeply pertinent to the major effects of this play.

It is often said that Shakespeare continued to be an adventurous, experimental poet to the very end. The Tempest, his last complete play, is a very strange pastoral. A displaced duke and his entourage find themselves in an uncivilized place, where the issues of nature and nurture are debated and all are sorted out, so that they can begin their lives afresh at the end. Thus far I could be describing As You Like it. But we are not in Arden or Arcadia. We are on a supposedly Mediterranean island which is removed by more than Atlantic distances from the North African coast, in a place having its own physical laws and lawlessness—almost an alternative, science-fiction world. The Tempest, therefore, is transposed pastoral. But long before all this, A Midsummer Night's Dream was also, in its own way, a transposed pastoral. The transposition is achieved by darkening, and by placing the trees closer together. In ordinary pastoral there are spaces for the sheep to crop the grass, spaces for reflection, singing-competitions and so on. But the dense, tangled wood—an Athenian labyrinth to answer that of Crete—is frightening. This is the same wood that we find in Milton's Comus or in Kenneth Graham's The Wind in the Willows—the Wild Wood. Shakespeare has in this early play given us a Nocturnal Pastoral, itself, generically, a strange thing. Even the weather is unpastorally bad. You hear people say ‘Oh, we don't have summers now like the summers I remember in my childhood.’ A Midsummer Night's Dream, if indistinctly remembered, can seem (there are so many flowers in it) to embody this golden world. Yet if we re-enter the play we meet people complaining, exactly as people complain today, about the rotten weather this year.

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


Even this speech, which might seem the purest contemporary realism, has its roots in ancient materials. There is a running reference to ancient plague: the plague of Aegina in Ovid (Metamorphoses, vii), the plague of Thebes in Seneca's Oedipus, Medea and Hippolytus (the last of these is of course Seneca's ‘Phèdre’). But the reader may say, ‘Stop! You are reading backwards again’.

In what sense is A Midsummer Night's Dream an apotropaic work? Shakespeare has performed an active, suasive euphemism upon ancient myth, and this, I have suggested is in accord with the element of quasi-ritual efficacy still present in comic drama but absent from pure narrative. But presumably in this irreligious, unsuperstitious age we cannot believe that a full apotrope, in the old sense, has occurred. We cannot believe that demons have been driven off, because we do not believe in demons. Could the play, nevertheless, have been a full apotrope for the original audience, in the 1590s? I am not sure, but I suspect not. The magic of A Midsummer Night's Dream is not like the magic of The Tempest. Prospero is a serious (highly fashionable) proto-scientific magician, a little like the real Dr Dee, but the magic and fairies of the earlier play are perceptibly becoming picturesque, the stuff of the old tales at which city people now smile. If that is right, this apotrope never had the status of an efficacious ritual, actually turning aside malign spirits. Weakening of belief makes inversion of tone easier. It is obviously a simpler matter to vary a mere tale than to alter a known, inherited truth. If people in the seventeenth century had really believed that, once, Apollo pursued Daphne, it would have been harder for Andrew Marvell in ‘The Garden’ to turn the myth on its head, suggesting that the god, so far from being frustrated when Daphne was turned into a laurel, was actually pursuing her, with dendrophiliac intent, because she was turning into a very attractive plant.

It might be thought that Theseus would have been history not myth for Shakespeare because he is in Plutarch. But it is pretty evident that we are not in the historically constrained environment of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare knows his audience will have some notion of Theseus as a character but will have few rigid expectations. But all of this, while it facilitates the transformation we see in A Midsummer Night's Dream, seems at the same time to deprive it of apotropaic force.

Indeed, we have made it all too easy. While we may not believe in demons, we still believe in what those demons mean. The fears remain. Could Shakespeare have performed a real apotrope not at the level of spirits and demons but at the psychological level? Has he turned away fear, not only within his fiction but in the minds and hearts of those who watch?

Within the fiction he has turned aside not only ancient myth but also incipient tragedy. We have the Hippolytus of Euripides and Seneca, the Phèdre of Racine, but we know, when we see Duke Theseus smiling on Hippolyta, that we are not going to get Shakespeare's—I suspect that it would have been called—Hippolytus and Phaedra. While Shakespeare is carefully not writing Phèdre the mechanicals are carefully not performing Romeo and Juliet. ‘I believe we must leave the killing out, when all is done,’ says Starveling (3.1.12-13) and they all assent. At the same time Shakespeare is concerned not simply that his audience should be happy but that it should experience the more specific pleasure of relief. The myths, though not felt to be literally true, are still full of meaning and that meaning is black. Shakespeare triumphs over horror not only with humour but with a still-ambiguous beauty, a beauty mediated by the pale fire of moonlight, itself somehow half-way between darkness and day. In America at Halloween little children shriek with alarm at the first appearance of witches and goblins and then the shrieks turn to peals of laughter. Most of them (not all) are, I think, psychically strengthened and protected by the process. A successful apotrope of fear is performed. We seem now very close indeed to the real apotrope of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

It is, however, one thing to comfort a person by saying ‘It's all right—wake up—the thing you feared was never real at all’ and another to say, ‘You can deal with your fear if you pretend it isn't there—tell a different story to yourself—give the demons smiling faces.’ The former kind gives the more complete victory; indeed it is not so much an apotrope as a complete exorcism, or abolition. There is no need, in this scheme, to evoke the notion of suasive euphemism, for there is no malign entity to be flatteringly re-described. But the latter scheme—‘Give the demons smiling faces’—implicitly allows that the dark forces continue in existence. We turn them aside, keep them off, at least for a while, by pretending in their hearing—as a placating courtesy—that they are benevolent. Which of these is the scheme of A Midsummer Night's Dream? Puck's epilogue in which he draws a line under the whole experience by terming it a mere dream—‘you have but slumber'd here’ (Epilogue.3)—is the first. The logic is the re-assuring logic of Theseus' ‘lunatic/lover’ speech, always obscurely annoying to lovers of poetry. But Hippolyta's reply to Theseus, Bottom's ‘It hath no bottom’ and Demetrius' love for Helena, which, wonderfully, spills over from the enchanted night into the following, civil day, are the other. These powers and their effects are not, after all, so easily erased. Thus a sense of euphemism survives the close of the play. This entails a negotiation—with a long spoon, as it were—between comedy and tragedy, between comedy and myth, a negotiation, that is, between joy and fear, resulting in an apotrope of the latter. Just that, apotrope, not abolition.


  1. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 1 (London:, 1957), p. 386.

  2. Ibid., pp. 387-8.

  3. Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (2nd edn (London, 1967)), p. 183.

  4. Ovid, Metamorphoses, vii.194; Seneca, Hippolytus, 406-17.

  5. Shakespeare's Scepticism (Brighton, 1987), p. 44.

  6. Reproduced in Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde (London, 1994), p. 257.

  7. The Greek is tricky. … See Sir Richard Jebb's edn (Cambridge, 1885), p. 85.

  8. Ed. Stewart Anderson (Cambridge, 1976), p. 49.

  9. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, ‘New Casebooks’, ed. Richard Dutton (London, 1996), pp. 198-222, at p. 213. See also D'Orsay W. Pearson, ‘“Unkinde Theseus': A Study of Renaissance Mythography”, English Literary Renaissance, 4 (1974), 276-98; M. E. Lamb, ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 21 (1979), 478-91; David Ormerod, ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Monster in the Labyrinth’, Shakespeare Studies, 11 (1978), 39-52; Barbara A. Mowat, ‘“A Local Habitation and a Name”: Shakespeare's text as construct’, Style, 23 (1989), 335-51.

  10. Ibid., p. 205.

  11. Shakespeare Survey 47 (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 139-51.

  12. The Golden Ass of Apuleius, translated by William Adlington. The Tudor Translations, ed. W. E. Henley, iv (London, 1893), p. 218.

  13. Ibid., p. 217.

  14. ‘Theseus' Shadows in A Midsummer Night's Dream’, pp. 149 f.

  15. Epigrams. vi.39. ‘To Cinna’.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418


Burns, Edward. “‘Two of both kinds makes up four’: The Human and the Mortal in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In ‘Divers toyes mengled’: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Culture, edited by Michel Bitot in collaboration with Roberta Mullini and Peter Happ, pp. 299-309. Tours: Publication de l'Université François Rabelais, 1996.

Discusses how rhetoric in relation to emotion and theatrical situation distinguishes the mortals and fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Lamb, Mary Ellen. “Taken by the Fairies: Fairy Practices and the Production of Popular Culture in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 3 (fall 2000): 277-312.

Argues that there are profound social and political implications inherent in Shakespeare's dramatic representation of the fairies, particularly Puck, in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Lowenthal, David. “The Portrait of Athens in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In Shakespeare's Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, pp. 77-88. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1996.

Demonstrates the ways in which Shakespeare portrayed Athens as the origin of democracy, philosophy, and drama in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Mahood, M. M. “A Midsummer Night's Dream as Exorcism.” In Essays on Shakespeare, edited by T. R. Sharma, pp. 136-49. Meerut, India: Shalabh Book House, 1986.

Examines A Midsummer Night's Dream as a wedding play in which the action serves to exorcise the fear and anxiety associated with the act of marriage.

Mikics, David. “Poetry and Politics in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Raritan 18, no. 2 (fall 1998): 99-119.

Maintains that Shakespeare employed imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream to demonstrate the superiority of the poet dedicated to synthesis and coordination over the willful, dictatorial politician.

Olson, Paul A. “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage.” ELH 24, no. 2 (June 1957): 95-119.

Analyzes A Midsummer Night's Dream within the context of the Renaissance tradition of the court marriage, noting how the play's structure and masque elements illuminate the traditional conception of marriage.

Taylor, Marion A. “The Allegorical Roles of Alençon and Queen Elizabeth in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In Bottom, Thou Art Translated: Political Allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Related Literature, pp. 131-65. Amsterdam: Rodopi NV, 1973.

Suggests that Shakespeare addressed Elizabethan political issues in A Midsummer Night's Dream, employing Bottom and Titania to represent the Duke of Alençon and Queen Elizabeth.

Weller, Barry. “Identity Dis-figured: A Midsummer Night's Dream.The Kenyon Review, new series, 12, no. 3 (summer 1985): 66-78.

Examines how devices such as metamorphosis, metaphor, and the physical nature of theatrical performance represent issues relating to identity in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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