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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 believed to have been written in the early part of Shakespeare's career, sometime between 1594 and 1596. The title places the action of the play on the eve of the summer solstice, which folklore marks as the time of fairies—a time ripe for magic and adventure. The play 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, led by Bottom the weaver, also inhabit the play and enhance its comedic effects. Although the plot seems whimsical and amusing and the play ends happily, many critics argue against examining the play on simply a comedic level, noting that the unnerving twists and turns of the plot often veer toward tragedy. Critical commentary on A Midsummer Night's Dream has tended to focus on Shakespeare's views on the nature of love, the meaning and purpose of art and imagination, the reconciliation of discordant dramatic elements, and the role of perception, illusion, and ambiguity in the play.

Character studies of A Midsummer Night's Dream have included analyses of both the human and non-human characters. Lou Agnes Reynolds and Paul Sawyer (1959) examine Titania's four fairy servants—Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth—and contend that they represent the healing properties of folk medicine and the importance of folklore practices in forging a connection between the natural and supernatural world. Urban Morén (2000) argues that the fairy Puck is a representative of sexuality in A Midsummer Night's Dream and points to the distinctive meanings of his name in the text of the play to support this analysis. Jeffrey D. Frame (1999) also explores the sexuality expressed in the play and focuses on the voyeurism of the characters. Frame suggests that the voyeuristic actions of the male and female characters in the play constitute maneuvers for power over one another. Diana Akers Rhoads (1985) examines the role of Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Rhoads maintains that Shakespeare portrayed Theseus as both an ideal ruler and a ruler who lacks the ability to understand love in order to highlight the incompatibility of “desire and politics.”

Although A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the most frequently performed of Shakespeare's works, staging the play presents a challenge to many directors as they attempt to meet its disparate demands: the play is filled with music and dance, peopled by fantastical creatures, and infused with a delicate balance of comic and tragic elements. Some directors view these varied elements as an invitation to experiment with the theatrical traditions of the play. Bruce Weber (2002), reviewing the 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Richard Jones, praises Jones's unique and nightmarish take on the play, which was performed entirely in black and white and was “willfully unattractive, drained of color and demonic in spirit.” The critic notes that the director created a kind of “anti-Midsummer Night's Dream” that confounded expectations. By contrast, Douglas McQueen-Thomson (2000) gives a negative review of director Elke Neidhardt's dark interpretation of the play for the Bell Shakespeare Company's 2000 production. McQueen-Thomson argues that the production's “unrelieved austerity and frostiness” produced a “tired disjointedness rather than original coherence.” Heather Neill (2002) reviews another unique take on the play, Mike Alfreds's 2002 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, noting that the director highlighted the “dream” aspect of the play by dressing the cast in pyjamas and negligees. Kenneth S. Rothwell reviews Michael Hoffman's 1999 star-studded film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which he praises as a visual masterpiece. Rothwell points out that Hoffman focused his attention on the character of Nick Bottom, even providing him with a nagging wife, and lauds Kevin Kline's ability to turn the cartoonish character of Bottom into “a living, breathing, and very vulnerable, human being.”

Critics are also interested in A Midsummer Night's Dream's representation of Elizabethan England, especially the traditions of court marriage. Paul A. Olson (1957) suggests that the play was intended to serve as a guidebook for married aristocratic couples and, by extension, for a moral society. According to David Wiles (1988), the play was historically part of an “aristocratic carnival” used to celebrate weddings in upper-class society. In a 1993 essay, Wiles asserts that play is effectively an epithalamium, or poem in honor of marriage. Other scholars have examined such issues as the play's incorporation of imagination, social issues, and politics. For example, Anne Barton (1974) comments on A Midsummer Night's Dream's “preoccupation with the idea of imagination” and contends that the products of imagination, including “dreams, the illusions of love, poetry and plays,” are central to the play. Deborah Baker Wyrick (1982) explores the symbolism associated with the ass motif in A Midsummer Night's Dream and examines how the word “ass” is used to create a complex code that is the key to many of the play's themes. Theodore B. Leinwand (1986) studies the conflict between social classes in the play and notes how this conflict influences the actions of the characters. Lastly, Maurice Hunt (2000-01) alleges that A Midsummer Night's Dream functions as a cryptic allegory that criticizes Elizabeth I and calls attention to the problem of securing a successor to her throne.

Ruth Nevo (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5567

SOURCE: Nevo, Ruth. “Fancy's Images.” In William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 57-72. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1980, Nevo contends that A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of Shakespeare's original inventions—“a complex and witty exploration of the infirmities and frailties and deficiencies and possibilities of the imaginative faculty itself.”]

A Midsummer Night's Dream is best seen,” says G. K. Hunter, “as a lyric divertissement … Shakespeare has lavished his art on the separate excellencies of the different parts, but has not sought to show them growing out of one another in a process analogous to that of symphonic ‘development.’” I would claim, on the contrary, symphonic development of a particularly subtle kind; both itself an impressive achievement in the unifying of complexities, and a distinct conquest in the zig-zag progress towards Shakespeare's comic paradigm. This is a highly intellectual, highly speculative comedy, like Love's Labour's Lost not the refashioning of a previously-treated story or play but an original invention. Through his basic comic structure of initial privation or perversity, comic device both deceptive and remedial, knots of errors and final recognitions, Shakespeare has achieved not only a benign resolution to the dialectic of folly and wisdom, but a complex and witty exploration of the infirmities and frailties and deficiencies and possibilities of the imaginative faculty itself.

The problem presented to Theseus four days before his wedding is a knotty one. From the point of view of the father, what is required is that his daughter yield to his bidding and accept the suitor he has approved. But this would please no one but himself (and Demetrius). Theseus adopts the patriarchal view, naturally enough. But suppose (in another age and another clime) the young people had been left to choose their own mates? This procedure would not have solved the problem any more satisfactorily than the first, since the predicament we are asked to take in consists precisely of the asymmetry in the feelings of these four young people. The father's peremptoriness and the Duke's supportive edict lend urgency to their problem, but do not create it. The initial presentation of the situation invites us to perceive that while the tyrannical senex provides the outward and immediate obstacle to be surmounted, the root of the problem is elsewhere and within. The initiating recalcitrancy is the fact that two young men are competing with each other for one girl, when there is another available, and willing, to turn a triangle into a suitable set of couples. Two of both kinds makes up four, as Puck succinctly expresses it. And, it seems, some such arrangement had once been contemplated by these young Athenians themselves. Lysander (and later Helena) tells us that Demetrius made love to Helena before obtaining Egeus's consent to a match with Hermia. He deserted her then, it seems, for Hermia. But why? And when? “This man,” says Egeus (of Demetrius) “hath my consent to marry her” (Hermia). “This man” (of Lysander), “hath bewitch'd the bosom of my child.” But it is impossible to determine the sequence of tenses. Did the bewitching occur before the consent, or since, or simultaneously? Was it perhaps some sudden new interest in Hermia on the part of Demetrius that stimulated Lysander's desire for her? Or could it possibly be a case of the other foot? Did Lysander's interest in Hermia deflect Demetrius's previous affection for Helena and draw it with magnetic attraction towards the object of Lysander's love?

The square-dance view of these proceedings is less helpful than it seems, mainly because it takes no account of the girls. “The lovers are like dancers,” says G. K. Hunter, “who change partners in the middle of a figure; the point at which partners are exchanged is determined by the dance, the pattern, and not by the psychological state of the dancers.” But we are asked to attend quite closely to “the psychological state of the dancers,” to the “fierce vexations” of their dream. The girls, in point of fact, do not change partners at all. They are subjected to drastic changes in their lovers' attitudes, to which they bewilderedly respond, but their own attachments do not waver. Moreover, the play's peripeteia is a comic reversal which leaves in effect everything exactly where it was: Puck's mistake with the magic juice—designed by Oberon to rectify unrequited love—in fact compounds error and disturbance by causing the two young men to continue to be both in love with the same love object, though this time in the shape of the other girl. It is thus not a question of mistaken identity, or of disguise, those time-honoured sources of identity confusion in New Comedy plots. Nor it is quite true to say, though it is often said, that the lovers simply don't know what they want, are fickle, capricious and unreasonable, creatures of the senses, of the eye merely. It is worth attending to Helena's observations at the play's outset:

How happy some o'er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so;
He will not know what all but he do know;
And as he errs, doting on Hermia's eyes,
So I, admiring of his qualities.
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgment taste;
Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste;
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguil'd.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjur'd every where;
For ere Demetrius look'd on Hermia's eyne,
He hail'd down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolv'd, and show'rs of oaths did melt.


If only Demetrius would use his eyes she says in effect, he would see that I am as fair as Hermia. If Demetrius' infected will did not betray him he would recognize this open and palpable truth. But if Helena and Hermia are identical in this cardinal matter of their beauty, then there are no visual grounds for preference either way, and therefore there can be no question of errors in choice. Helena intelligently perceives this catch and she also perceives that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. “So I” (err), she says, “admiring in his qualities.” Helena announces with bitterness this insight concerning the total and wayward non-dependence of erotic preference upon visual perception: “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind; / And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind.” The comedy of the speech lies, of course, in Helena's asumption that “eyes” offer a more objective basis for judgment in love than mind. Eyes don't indeed provide any security for love, nor any true representation of reality, as the woods prove; but then neither does (rational) mind. Later the bewitched Lysander's assertion that “the will of man is by his reason sway'd; / And reason says you are the worthier maid” will be sufficient evidence of that. Helena's “mind” is Desdemona's: “I saw Othello's visage in his mind” (1.3.252) and Othello's: “I therefore beg it not … But to be free and bounteous to her mind” (1.3.-265). Only there (tragically) and here (comically) the mind, that subjective source of value, of form and of dignity, is subject to all kinds of disabilities and derangements. Mind, in its aspect as the image-making and image-perceiving faculty, is an errant faculty indeed, unstable, uncertain, wavering, and seeking anchorage among a welter of rival images and self-images. It is to these, I believe, that the opening of the play draws our attention.

What we are invited to perceive is a falling out among rivals, and what we are invited to infer is that, at a deeper psychic level than they are aware of, they do indeed know what they want: each wants what his brother-at-arms or rival has. We have the case of Proteus and Valentine for confirmation of Shakespeare's interest in the phenomenon. Says Proteus, with admirable candour:

Even as one heat another heat expels,
Or as one nail by strength drives out another,
So the remembrance of my former love
Is by a newer object quite forgotten.
[Is it] mine [eye], or Valentinus' praise,
Her true perfection, or my false transgression,
That makes me, reasonless, to reason thus?


Consider the extremely provoking nature of Lysander's remark to Demetrius:

You have her father's love, Demetrius,
Let me have Hermia's; do you marry him

(my italics; 1.1.93-94)

Consider too the amplitude and intensity with which the sisterly affection between the two girls is treated:

          all the counsel that we two have shar'd,
The sister's vows, the hours that we have spent
.....All school-day's friendship, childhood innocence
.....Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key
.....                                        So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry.

(3.2. 198-209 passim)

It furthermore transpires, as the play winds deeper into its conflicts in act 2, that Oberon and Titania are also at odds over a love object they both want. The competitive marital duel of this couple features antecedent jealousies, but at the moment in time the play dramatizes they are quarrelling over possession of the changeling child. We find immediate parodic confirmation of the incidence of this malady as early as act 1, scene 2, where the good Bottom, magnifier of folly, wants to play all the parts Peter Quince distributes to his cast—tyrants, lovers, ladies and lions—and is in his comic hubris convinced that he can do better at them all than any of his fellows.

Rivalry, then, fraternal or quasi-sibling, or marital is the comic disposition which the comic device exposes and exacerbates. It is also worth noting that the story of the night is set within a frame of concordia discors between erstwhile military rivals. Theseus wooed Hippolyta, we learn, with his sword, and won her love doing her injuries. This reconciliatory concordia discors is symbolized in the description of the hunt in act 4, scene 1, just before the royal pair discovers the one time “rival enemies” now “new in amity.” Theseus invites his Queen to the mountain top to

                    mark the musical confusion
Of hounds and echo in conjunction


and she, remembering the hounds of Sparta, transforms his notion of dissonant confusion into the perception of a higher harmony:

                                                                                                              Never did I hear
Such gallant chiding; for besides the groves,
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seem all one mutual cry. I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.


Hippolyta is consistently Theseus's informant in the play and indeed Egeus might have done well to appeal to her judgment rather than his at the beginning. Fortunately, however, for what the play enables us to discover about rivalries, he did not. Rivalry is benign when it leads to differentiation, since concord requires distinct entities between which to exist; and harmful when it leads to the blurring of boundaries, to “unnatural” imitative, or confusing conjunctions. Hippolyta is no longer playing the role of a man-woman Amazon by this time. The play explores the comedy of mimicry in four different and complementary perspectives—that of the quasi-fraternal lovers, the quasi-sibling “sisters,” the Fairy Queen and her votaress, and the amateur comedians, the artisans of Athens, with the putative arch-mimic Bottom, who is never anything but himself, at their head.

Sibling rivalry takes the form of unconscious mimicry, an identification with the brother who must therefore be outdone in his sphere. I am as good as he. I am better than he. I must have what he has. “I am, my lord as well deriv'd as he, / As well possess'd,” says Lysander, and what is more, beloved of beauteous Hermia. And Demetrius later: “I love thee more than he can do.” From the girls' side of the picture we have Helena: “Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.” Sensible siblings fight their way into maturity by seeking, finding, exploiting, inventing if necessary, precisely those differences and distinctions between them which establish their individual identities, on the basis of which they can freely choose their mates. This is no doubt why identical twins are such a problem, and so disturbing we are told, to the primitive mind encountering sameness where difference is not only in order, is not only expected, but is indispensable to individuation. But identical twins are an accident of nature which the comic artist may exploit for errors, if he wishes. What we have in Midsummer Night's Dream is imagined identical twinship. It is just such an idealized childhood twinship that Helena invokes in her remonstrance to Hermia over the latter's treacherous confederacy (as she believes) with the men, both now in pursuit of her to mock her:

Is all the counsel that we two have shar'd,
The sisters' vows, the hours that we have spent,
When we have chid the hasty-footed time
For parting us—O, is all forgot?
All school-days' friendship, childhood innocence?
We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds
Had been incorporate. So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition,
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart,
.....And will you rent our ancient love asunder,
To join with men in scorning your poor friend?

(3.2.198-212; 215-16)

A replica of such an “incorporation” at a later and more complex stage of a woman's life is Titania's relationship with her favourite votaress. Titania's account of her friendship with the boy's mother contains a wonderfully articulated image of imaginative mimicry:

His mother was a vot'ress of my order.
And in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip'd by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune's yellow sands,
Marking th' embarked traders on the flood;
When we have laugh'd to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait,
Following (her womb then rich with my young squire)
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles, and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.

(2.1. 123-34)

Peter Quince's troupe literalize metaphors, too, but here the Indian maid's imitation of the big-bellied sails has a function other than reductio ad absurdum. The friends share the playful vision of the billowing sails as pregnant, which the expectant mother then playfully mimes, for the amusement and gratification of her companion. What is rendered here, we are invited to infer, is a vividly emphathetic, imaginative sharing of the experience of pregnancy; and therefore when the mother dies it is no wonder that Titania's attachment to the child is more than the charitable rearing of an orphan. “And for her sake do I rear up her boy: / And for her sake I will not part with him” has the ring of self-justification—she is claiming nothing for this adoption but an act of conventional piety—but what we see is that she has so identified herself with her votaress that the child has become her own. Oberon, furiously observing his exclusion from this relationship, wants to possess himself of the love object she is so wrapped up in, and, failing, will punish her by caricaturing her defection. She is to dote upon the first living creature she sees:

(Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape),


The animus, however, of

                                                            Set your heart at rest;
The fairy land buys not the child of me.


invites us to infer (especially if we remember “childing” autumn in her description of the disordered and distemperatured seasons) that Oberon might mend his marriage more effectively by getting Titania with child than by trying to get Titania without child. But rivalry and revenge (for previous peccadilloes real or imagined, with Theseus and Hippolyta) is the order of the day at this stage—a midsummer madness—of the battle of the sexes, and at this stage of the comic development, which is the laying bare of the particular comic disposition dominant in the play.

The double plotting of A Midsummer Night's Dream is superb because it is so subtly related. Marital rivalry is more complex because double-decked: marriage partners must maintain their distinctive personalities, recognize each other's and enter into a new corporate personality, or transaction of personalities. But in this marriage on the rocks, with Titania playing the part of imagined twin to her votaress, and Oberon competing with her for possession of the Indian boy, rivalry has taken the place of reciprocity, competition of co-operation, and a riotous mimicry of clearly differentiated sexual roles.

We begin to perceive the nature of the comic infirmity in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is that fluidity and instability of imagination which causes an individual to be either too identified or not identified enough; to resemble when to discriminate would be more politic and more appropriate; to represent reality in images generated by the desires of the mind.

Nature spirits that they are, these fairies, nature perfectly reflects their marital dissensions:

Therefore the winds
.....As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which, falling in the land,
Hath every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents
.....                                                   and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard
.....The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green,
For lack of tread, are undistinguishable 
.....                                                  hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Heims' [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.

(2.1.88-114 passim)

“Undistinguishability” and the wilder follies of not knowing which is which receive their richest comic gloss from the good artisans of Athens in their entanglement with the problems of dramatic representation—when a wall is a wall for example, or a lion Snug the Joiner; but the message of this paysage moralisé is quite clear: confusion, disorder, disarray, mock mimicry reign in the woods, and with all distinction gone, all relations are perverse or fruitless or unnatural. Puck's mischievous translation of Bottom literally embodies asininity. But it also reflects Titania's wrong-headed “incorporation” of the Indian boy. It is a bonus for Oberon's punitive plan (he did not envisage monsters), while the metamorphosis and the coupling of Titania with this comic monster inflates the folly of misconceived images ad absurdum, revealing (but not to the victims) truth in motley.

The strategy of comedy is to maximalize error before matters will mend; the maximalizing indeed generates the mending. To Helena there does come a glimmer of liberating wisdom in the woods when she says: “What wicked and dissembling glass of mine / Made me compare with Hermia's sphery eyne?’ (2.2.98-99). This anticipates remedy but is as yet in too self-abasing a form. The processus turbarum, with its cumulative and preposterous turbulence brings about for the lovers an intensification of folly to the point of giddying exhaustion; and discernment—the wisdom of discrimination, of getting images right—will emerge from the chaos, or de-composition of topsy-turvydom.

There should be no expounding of dreams, as Bottom knows, but the magic juice applied to sleeping eyes—the comic device—reveals in this play its fully Shakespearean iridescence. It is both delusive and applied in error and so causes the knot of errors and perturbations; but it is also the cause of ultimate reclamation and recognition. The magic at work operates therapeutically, cathartically, like dreams indeed. It discovers, enlarging as in a distorting mirror, the shadowy wishes and fears of the mind, and by so doing enables the victims to enfranchize themselves from their obsessions. Shakespeare's moonlit wood, alive with trolls, grotesques and ambivalence is a potent symbol for the creative subconscious. And Puck, conveyor of dreams and potions, impish homogenizer, can be seen as a genius of comedy itself, mimicking (in the likeness of a filly foal, or a roasted crab), mocking, decreating as he gives all nature's ingredients a great stir. As does Bottom, counterpoint Buffoon to Puck's Eiron (and unwitting Impostor as Titania's lover), giving all the theatre's ingredients a great stir:

Nay; you must name his name, and half his face must be seen through the lion's neck, and he himself must speak through, saying thus, or to the same defect: … my life for yours. If you think I come hither as a lion, it were pity of my life.


Puck's error—to him all Athenians are alike—is homeopathic. It reflects the comic disposition of the play, exposes it, and is exactly what is required to exacerbate and exorcise it.

Thus, so far from the warblings of one song in one key, the fierce vexations of misprision in act 3 bring about a positively inflamed consciousness of difference: “‘Little’ again? Nothing but ‘low’ and ‘little’?” Abuse and vilification are not lacking on all sides: “Thou cat, thou bur! Vile thing … tawny Tartar … loathed medicine” are a string of epithets from a sometime lover sufficient to draw from Hermia (to Helena) “You juggler! You canker-blossom! You thief of love!” For which she gets as good as she gives with Helena's “Fie, fie, you counterfeit, you puppet, you!” “‘Puppet’?” shouts Hermia at this point:

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


“O, when she is angry,” retorts a onetime part of an incorporate double cherry,

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


This knot of errors is the world upside down, and Helena's idyllic and lost childhood “incorporation” is well and truly mocked, as are Lysander's protestations of love to Hermia when transposed to

                                                  Get you gone, you dwarf;
You minimus, of hind'ring knot-grass made;
You bead, you acorn.


At the same time these frenetic hyperboles are the fulfilment and the acting out of everyone's deepest anxieties, misgivings and obsessions. Hermia foresaw all and foresuffered all when she dreamt of Lysander watching a serpent eating her heart away, and Helena's masochism—her seeking to “enrich her pain”—to cause the pain she dreads and loves—has progressed from her embracing of the role of fawning and beaten spaniel (1.1.246-51) to a paroxysm of self-abasement: “No, no; I am as ugly as a bear” (2.2.94). And this even before she becomes convinced of her victimization at the hand of all.

The processus turbarum of act 3, by intensifying aberration and detonating hidden psychic dynamite discomposes, disorients and disintegrates. They all collapse in the end, exhausted by these traumas and by the hectic pursuit through the woods, and when they awake they are tranquil and clear-seeing. Now that vision is improved they are able to look back upon their “dream” experience as upon something distant and blurred. Hermia says: “Methinks I see these things with parted eye, / When every thing seems double”, and Helena concurs: “So methinks; / And I have found Demetrius like a jewel, / Mine own, and not mine own” (4.1.189-92). These are pregnant sayings, these musings of the wondering and half-enlightened lovers. Perception and self-perception have passed through the alembic of dream and have been catalyzed. Demetrius, now seeing his love for Hermia as a childhood gaud and Helena as once again “the object and the pleasure of (his) eye” speaks for all four when he says:

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


It is an interesting word “undistinguishable.” And it occurs only once again in Shakespeare: in Titania's description of confusion and disorder in nature already quoted.

The formal remedy, as Puck himself calls it, of the play is purely ophthalmic. Oberon's corrective juice causes the lovers when they awake from their sleep to sort themselves out into suitable couples—Jacks and Jills, as Puck puts it with benign contempt—and Titania to be released from her unsuitable coupling with sweet bully Bottom. But the whole question of corrected vision, of the tutored imagination, goes beyond the merely technical exigencies of plot. It is the essential mediator of the benign, non-disjunctive dialectic which conjures rejoicing out of mockery, and wisdom out of folly.

In the lovers' case errors of “vision” are removed so that true relations can be re-discerned. The lovers recuperate, literally, from their “trip.” Lysander, it is now clear, fell into an infatuation with Helena when he was really in love with Hermia, and Demetrius fell into an infatuation with Hermia when he was really in love with Helena. But in the fairies' case, Titania, chastened by the onslaughts of the tender passion, relinquishes the child; and this yielding to Oberon's will produces in him the impulse of compassion required to melt hard-heartedness, soften anger and renounce retaliation. The passage is worth particular attention:

Her dotage now I do begin to pity.
For meeting her of late behind the wood,
Seeking sweet favors for this hateful fool,
I did upbraid her, and fall out with her.
For she his hairy temples then had rounded
With coronet of fresh and fragrant flowers;
And that same dew which sometime on the buds
Was wont to swell like round and orient pearls,
Stood now within the pretty flouriets' eyes,
Like tears that did their own disgrace bewail.
When I had at my pleasure taunted her,
And she in mild terms begg'd my patience,
I then did ask of her her changeling child;
Which straight she gave me, and her fairy sent
To bear him to my bower in fairy land.
And now I have the boy, I will undo
This hateful imperfection of her eyes.


In this recognition scene Oberon sees her, perhaps for the first time, certainly for the first time since “Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania” in act 2, with detachment and tenderness.

Eyes are organs of visions; eyes (especially when starry) are beautiful objects of vision. But eyes are also vessels for tears. Titania's amorous fantasy as she orders Bottom led away to her bower will be recalled:

The moon methinks looks with a wat'ry eye;
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,
Lamenting some enforced chastity.


Drugs, potions, condiments alter vision and visibility, but the true transfigurations are those which take place invisibly at the heart. Bottom himself makes this point, as modestly as ever. When told by Peter Quince that Pyramus had been a lover “that kills himself most gallant for love,” “That,” remarks the sage Bottom, “will ask some tears in the true performing of it. If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream juggles conspicuously with multiple levels of representation, with plays-within-plays and visions within dreams. What is performed, what is meant, what is seen are often, as Theseus said of Peter Quince's prologue “like a tangled chain; nothing impair'd, but all disorder'd” (5.1.125-26). The Athenian lovers, Lysander and Hermia, fall asleep and dream (in act 2), fall asleep and wake (in act 4), and what happens to them is ambiguously dream/reality, just as Oberon king of shadows, is ambiguously real/not real, visible to the audience but not to the lovers; and the “angel” that wakes Titania “from her flow'ry bed” (3.1.129) is visible to her but not to the audience, who perceive only Nick Bottom assified. Puck stage-manages these “transfigurations” for Oberon's delectation just as Peter Quince does for Theseus' and Shakespeare for ours. And the audience is more than once pointedly invited to conflate these frames. When Theseus says “The best in this kind are but shadows,” his remark applies with equal validity to the artisans of Athens and the Lord Chamberlain's Men. By the same token Puck's “shadows” in the epilogue (“if we shadows have offended”) refers, intentionally, both to the fairies and the actors—the visible and the invisible.

Act 5 dazzlingly catches up and re-focuses the issues of the play, recapitulating its schooling of the imagination. When Theseus tempers Hippolyta's impatience with the mechanicals' efforts: “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard” (5.1.210) with “The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them” (5.1.211-12) he is retracting his previous repudiation of the imagination as the faculty which “sees more devils than vast hell can hold,” or “Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt,” or some bringer of what is a merely “apprehended” joy, or a bear in a bush on a dark night. The rationalistic and empirically minded duke has been more than cautious about the seething tricks of that fertile and moonstruck faculty; and it is in reply to his dismissal of the lovers' story as so much irrational and illusory dream stuff that Hippolyta enters her caveat concerning the story of the night:

But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigur'd so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy

(5.1. 23-26)

The ducal pair, as we have seen, are a model of concordia discors (“How shall we find the concord of this discord?” Theseus asks of the “very tragical mirth” about to be presented by the artisans) and so it is fitting that they should conduct the dialectic of real and imaginary, meant and performed, visible and invisible towards a resolution for theatre-goers and lovers alike. When Hippolyta reflects upon the story of the night, she is inviting not only Theseus but the theatre audience as well to further reflection. She is inviting a retrospective reappraisal of all that has been enacted in the moonlit woods. Hippolyta's organic metaphor is interesting; cognition, it says, or re-cognition, grows in the mind in the process of recounting, re-telling. What the play celebrates as remedial, beneficient, recuperative it will have discovered by working its way through the fantastic follies the initial deficiencies or infirmities generated. These follies, reduced (or expanded) to absurdity, will prove to have been homeopathically therapeutic, if imagination amend them by making them intelligible. “It must be your imagination then, not theirs,” says wise Hippolyta, knowing that to stout bully Bottom nothing is invisible, not even a voice from behind a wall. So far as that parodic literalist of the imagination is concerned, moonlight cannot be better represented than by moonlight, shining in at the casement in all its factual actuality. And when a person is a wall, he must be well and truly plastered and roughcast. No fancy Brechtian placards will do for him, any more than he can conceive that anyone (of any size) called Mustardseed should not be instantly applied to roast beef.

Pyramus and Thisbe presents a tragedy of lovers misprisions, and neutralizes disaster with its ludicrous comicality. It is irresistibly amusing in itself and needs no amending, by imagination or any other means; and it is also the vehicle of Shakespeare's most ironic private joke to his audience over the heads, so to speak, of Peter Quince and his. The latter possess the capacity to distinguish between walls and witty partitions, between run-on and end-stopped pentameters, between a lion and a goose and between a man and a moon. But they haven't always been so good at distinguishing. Their own follies have been, in their own way, no less de-constructive; but also no less recreative.

“Your play needs no excuse,” says Theseus, amused, ironic and kind. “Marry, if he that writ it had play'd Pyramus, and hang'd himself in Thisby's garter, it would have been a fine tragedy; and so it is truly, and very notably discharg'd” (5.1.357-61). A great deal, and of great constancy, has been “discharged” in this play. And not only Hippolyta, it has been suggested, has had an inkling that the fantasy of folly may grow into the wisdom of the imagination.

This resonant insight marks, at the level of overt theme, the dramatic growth in A Midsummer Night's Dream of the dramatist's capacity to conceive and render the interlacing of sexual and individual roles. Further growth will issue, in due course, in the achievement of a comic form completely adequate for the dialectical battle of sex and self, a form which will resolve the ambivalencies of that warfare's tamings and matings. Here the idea is still inchoate, for it lacks as yet the crystallizing force of the heroine protagonist in all the fullness of her virtuosity and her autonomy.

Davis Mikics (essay date fall 1998)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7451

SOURCE: Mikics, Davis. “Poetry and Politics in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Raritan 18, no. 2 (fall 1998): 99-119.

[In the following essay, Mikics examines the dichotomy between poetry and politics in A Midsummer Night's Dream and contends that Shakespeare makes a claim “for poetry in the face of power.”]

James Nohrnberg begins his vast summa of Spenser and Renaissance poetics, The Analogy of the Faerie Queene, with a line from Pico: “He who cannot attract Pan, approaches Proteus in vain.” For a long time Renaissance studies wrestled Proteus, trying to whip the various energies of the era into encyclopedic shape. But new historicism, the alpha and omega of current Renaissance criticism, has largely abandoned the earlier critical interest in coherence and harmony. This is true, sadly, on a programmatic as well as a thematic level. Current work on Shakespeare rarely attempts an explanatory account of a given play in light of its whole critical and literary-historical legacy. Instead, critics busy themselves with polemical reflection, with the poses now fashionably known as “interventions.” In this essay, I want to illuminate some of the costs of the shift in emphasis from synthesis to polemical maneuvering by exploring how synthesis, and the literary imagination that produces it, works itself out in one Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Dream is a favorite text for new historicists, who use it to illustrate the way that sovereign power, in the rather unattractive person of Theseus, imposes its will. In making this point, though, historicizing critics ignore Shakespeare's view of poetic imagination as a synthesizing and coordinating rather than a willful, dictatorial power. In short, a protoromantic text like the Dream uses its interest in wholeness, the harmony that only literary creation can engender, to distinguish poetic from political work. In doing so, the play runs counter to the array of Renaissance practices that equate poets with courtiers or rulers. A Midsummer Night's Dream shows what art can do that politics cannot: an assertion that, contrary to much current criticism, is not merely (though it is also) the expression of an historical situation in which political absolutism encroaches on writerly work. The standoff between imaginative action and political manipulation remains permanent and unresolvable. The result is that poetry begins where politics leaves off, and the poet, though constrained as well as informed by politics, accomplishes what the politician does not begin to dream of.

I will name Shakespeare's mode in A Midsummer Night's Dream metamorphic, though the play's festive conclusion obviously contrasts with the punishing, allegorical fixity that ends many of Ovid's tales. Metamorphosis, real and imagined, is prominent in the Dream for a reason. It allows Shakespeare to incorporate in his play the disfigurement and delusion that desire induces, and by doing so to domesticate eros in time for a comic finish. Shakespeare's poetic means of moderating and controlling desire through its outrageous literalization is meant to contrast, I suggest, with Theseus's way of ruling, which proves unable to coordinate the harmony that comedy requires. The action of A Midsummer Night's Dream is driven, not by Theseus's commands, but by the larger, magical powers exploited by Oberon, Puck, and Shakespeare himself. Theseus's wishful version of patriarchal power differs radically from the sway of these other figures, who work their will by manipulating sexual desire. For Theseus, sex is a foreign force, embodied in Hippolyta and in the waning moon that, as he remarks in the play's first scene, “lingers my desires”: a force to be tamed, so far as possible, rather than enjoyed. At the end of their metamorphic journey, Shakespeare's young lovers acknowledge a confusion about the workings of desire that must be repressed in the case of ruler (Theseus) and subject (Hippolyta, his conquered bride). Each beloved in the play is also a lover, with the exception of Bottom, and each is dependent on, as well as resistant to, a lover's gaze. The poet creates first confusion and then harmony by drawing on the perspectival distortions that desire engenders, its “wicked and dissembling glass.” During the lovers' night in the woods, the glass's distortions can make the same character look “ugly as a bear” or beautiful as a “goddess, nymph, perfect, divine.” Both hyperboles are, of course, severely partial, and one is induced by magic love-juice; but in love, whether magically induced or not, hyperbole is the irresistible rule.

Shakespeare engages in metaphoric theater so that he can break the rule of hyperbole by fulfilling and literalizing it, rather than mocking it as Theseus does in his comparison of poet, lover, and madman in act 5. Shakespeare's flagrant literalizations—most memorably, Bottom's ass's head—drew Hazlitt's criticism of the Dream as a play that ought not to be staged. Though “Bottom's head” on the page is “a fantastic illustion,” Hazlitt wrote, “on the stage it is an ass's head, and nothing more. … Fancy cannot be embodied any more than a simile can be painted; and it is as idle to attempt it as to personate Wall or Moonshine.”

Equating Shakespeare's play with the mechanicals' efforts, Hazlitt ignores the point of Shakespeare's deliberate awkwardness. The Dream's blunt, often shocking metamorphoses serve a purpose: Shakespeare enacts love's illusions in their most extreme form in order to dispel them. Part of our frustration as the audience of a play, as Hazlitt reminds us, is that the stage's costumed actors embody a story too fully: they reveal fantasies to us so concretely that the fantasies are dissipated. We are denied the vision we want, the consummation and—therefore—the dissolution of theater, what James Calderwood calls “perfect access to a world of imagined presence.” The perfect finding of beloved presence, a dream compared to which “crystal is muddy” (as Demetrius puts it during the high jinks of act 3), would allow the spectator to become invisible, the scene and its actors to melt into an audience's imagination: an impossible situation, by definition, in the theater. If theater aspires toward the dream of perfect sight (for us, toward the condition of cinema), at the same time it frustrates the aspiration. In the comedy of Shakespeare's Dream, the frustration occurs not, as Stanley Cavell powerfully suggests in the case of tragedy, in order to call the audience to account, but rather to release us from such accounting. Shakespeare underlines the impossibility of innocent, perfect vision, of a realized erotic idealism, in order to orchestrate a congeries of amorous relations that can incorporate, instead of trying to rise above, the varied foolishness that drives the loves of mortals. The Shakespearean realization of foolishness attains therapeutic purpose by combining a sense of the erotic as central to our lives with a healthy disillusionment concerning the distortions that eros relies on to do its work. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, knowledge of imagination's mechanics, of how the poetic process works, provides the necessary detachment from both erotic and patriarchal manipulations.

Hazlitt complained that he wanted to read rather than see A Midsummer Night's Dream because the play's magical transformations take on an appearance too palpably gross when enacted on stage. But the clumsiness of asshead Bottom, like that of the mechanicals' rehearsals, provides the thematic center of the Dream. The literal fact of metamorphosis is crucial to poetic embodiment. It is exactly the crudeness of desire's literal enacting that Shakespeare relies on, especially in the mechanicals' Pyramus and Thisbe playlet, in order to tame desire's pervasive capacity for delusion. Helena, the play's most thoughtful character, tries to discipline her desires through reflection, but she falls short of this aim: she too fails to evade the ludicrous shapeshifting that love imposes on us. It is only through the broadest of comedies, Shakespeare here implies, that the subtlest of imaginative visions can emerge.

Visions are reticent by definition, in literary tradition at least. As in the Faerie Queene's scenes of interrupted pastoral liaisons, or as in its Faunus-Diana story, in the Dream the excited presence of an observer or lover makes the goddess depart. Whether she is Hermia, Helena, or Titania, the beloved shares the constitutional shyness of all ideals. An acknowledged dynamic of mutuality displays the humor of the play's magic, showing the ridiculous character of the loving, and hating, perspectives that magic defines so drastically. At the same time, though, the play fulfills its impulse to poetic conjuring by giving it consummately dramatic form.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream the poet's enterprise of engineering harmony requires him to reunite one of the play's parental couples, Oberon and Titania, as well as its pairs of lovers. If union is the Dream's telos, the separations, errors, and anxieties that desire causes provide its starting point. We learn in act 2 that Oberon and Titania have split up over Titania's possession of a fair “changeling boy,” whom Oberon determines to steal from her: the pair's division causes serious meteorological upheavals. The changeling boy, who never appears in the play, is as Northrop Frye notes, magnified in the Cupid-like figure of Puck, who is akin to Mozart's Cherubino in his role as unmoved mover of erotic action. Puck's magic finally reconciles the play's characters through substitution: he makes the transformed Bottom take the place of the changeling boy whom Titania “crowns … with flowers, and makes … all her joy.” Here is a narratological puzzle. We want to know how the play's final union comes about, with its awakening from a dream of mismatching and delusion into the fresh symmetry of a new order. But the charm of the plot's solution lies in its surprisingly inexplicable emergence. As often in comedy, this conclusive shift has the air of rebirth, a shocking change to contrast with the remorselessly logical conclusions that tragedy specializes in.

Oberon's orders to Puck seem to enjoin the creation of an asymmetry rather than a balance. “A sweet Athenian lady is in love / With a disdainful youth,” Oberon tells Puck: “Anoint his eyes,” so that “he may prove / More fond on her, than she upon her love.” More fond: though Oberon wants the reconciliation of the lovers as he wants the renewal of his marriage with Titania, these unions can only be pursued through an amour that thrives on imbalance. But at play's end the imbalance will, apparently, disappear with an unblotted flick of the Shakespearean pen. As he gives Puck his instructions, Oberon underlines the flagrant and sudden shift from night's labyrinthine confusion to the lasting hymeneal clarity of day:

Hie therefore, Robin, overcast the night,
The starry welkin cover thou anon …
Like to Lysander sometime frame thy tongue,
Then stir Demetrius up with bitter wrong;
And sometime rail thou like Demetrius:
And from each other look thou lead them thus,
Till o'er their brows death-counterfeiting sleep
With leaden legs and batty wings doth creep.
Then crush this herb into Lysander's eye,
Whose liquor hath this virtuous property,
To take from thence all error with his might,
And make his eyeballs roll with wonted sight.
When next they wake, all this derision
Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision;
And back to Athens shall the lovers wend,
With league whose date till death shall never end.

As we shall see, Theseus in fact considers the night's affairs to be what Oberon jestingly describes them as: “fruitless vision,” an inconsequential collective hallucination. But the night does bear fruit. Its errors lead directly to the play's conclusion, a sudden maturation of desire into married truth. Shakespeare establishes the relevance of the lovers' Puck-induced dreams by enacting a literalization of the figurative metamorphoses that the lover effects in her or his beloved. In the speech cited above, Puck is credited with the Protean, metamorphic capacity that Bottom claims during the mechanicals' rehearsal when he urges that he himself play both parts, lover and tyrant. The flaw in tyrannical power that Shakespeare exposes is its antimetamorphic insistence on a fixed, hierarchical relation between father and daughter, master and servant, a relation that gives the former interpretive freedom over the latter. As the case of Oberon and Titania demonstrates, the symbolic child, the “changeling boy” that Oberon wants from Titania, can be appropriated by either party, and it must be repossessed by magical means rather than patriarchal commands. The more fluid, openly contentious universe of the fairy couple shadows the world of Theseus and Hippolyta, who have warred openly against each other but whose relation has now solidified into a hierarchy, with Theseus on top. The solid character of Theseus's victory over his amazon, the play shows, is precisely what renders him a faulty reader of poetry. He cannot admit the mutuality of desire's power struggles, and therefore cannot sway the world as Oberon can.

At this point I owe the reader a brief description of that world. On occasion, I will compare A Midsummer Night's Dream with another Renaissance story of marriage, Milton's Paradise Lost. If this seems an unlikely pairing, it will, I hope, suggest the pervasiveness, even across genres, of the Renaissance ideal of imaginative harmony—and perhaps the source of the appeal that Shakespeare's play had for the young Milton, who alludes to it frequently in “L'Allegro” and Comus.

Readers have traditionally seen in much Renaissance fiction-making the vision of a Protean but unified cosmos. The enterprise of unification allows writers like Spenser, Shakespeare, or Milton a vast poetic privilege: these authors are masters of the universe. Shakespeare's grand prerogative, especially, is his elaboration of a hugely varied coherence. His Gesamtkunst joins poetry and prose, masculine and feminine, noble and commoner, magic and reality. In Harry Berger's words, the Renaissance author presides over:

the norm of a complex harmony, an equilibrium in which opposites are at once distinct and reconciled, an experience in which the mind reveals not only the ability to organize the diversity of existence into a unified whole but also the ability to fix and vividly convey this whole in the immediacy of a visual or verbal or aural image.

Here Berger the contemporary critic echoes a Renaissance text, Elyot's Governor, on the symbolic import of dancing, the way it suggests a fully orchestrated universe, a complex harmony or equilibrium in which opposites are reconciled. As if to prove that the ultimate grace of such movement is its nearness to still perfection, Renaissance images of the mind's powers of discernment and unification seem most powerful when they rise to emblematic form: the dance of Spenser's graces on Mt. Acidale, the privileged repose of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra as a latter-day Mars and Venus, and perhaps most of all, the subtle and complete harmony of Milton's Adam and Eve before the fall. Here is vision fully realized, a paradisal universe of art.

There is a substantial critical tradition devoted to harmony as the dominant Renaissance ideal. The best book on Shakespeare's comedies, C. L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, emphasizes balance and reconciliation as the ends of Shakespeare's art: festive practice upends the usual pattern of civic interaction only in order to render it more stable, because it has been proven capable of accommodating misrule. Barber saw festivity not as a case of Marcusean repressive tolerance but as a desirable enhancement of social health. Barber's picture of a Shakespeare fundamentally interested in the health that comes from balance, from a fuller acknowledgement and working through of destructive impulses, carried over into later psychoanalytic accounts (by Richard Wheeler and Janet Adelman) of how Shakespeare's romances complete his career by taming the masculine aggression that magnificently unhinges the tragedies.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the customary emphasis of Renaissance studies on what Berger called a “complex harmony” yielded to a new focus on the imposition of power. New historicists began to suspect the older idealizations of concordia discors, and accused previous critics of covering up for the corrupt works of Renaissance ambition. Earlier readers have devoted themselves to aspects of Renaissance fictions that, they claimed, offer us the liberating image of human life as a spontaneous yet finely ordered conversation. The valuing of play, flexibility, and ceremonial attunement now gave way to a sense that form is always strategy, a rhetorical act that serves aggressive, usually political, intent.

In the new historicist version, authors are often seen as agents of a power system larger than they are. Lawrence Danson reminds us that the word agency carries a double meaning: it can suggest loyal submission, like that of the secret agent, as well as self-sufficiency and independence. According to Stephen Greenblatt's formula in Renaissance Self-Fashioning, the two meanings are layered, with the impersonal-systematic one on top. Autonomy can only be gained through submission to an entity larger than the self.

Everywhere Renaissance critics prided, and still pride, themselves on their efforts to historicize the works of the period, in keeping with Jameson's transhistorical dictum, “Always historicize!” By the mid-eighties, historicizing ceased to mean the placing of literary works in the proper cultural surroundings, seeing them as artifacts of the period. Renaissance scholars have always done that. Instead, to historicize came to mean to efface the boundary between an act of literature and an act of political power. Both the writer and the monarch, we were instructed, achieve power through ideological imposition, what Franco Moretti called “the drama conceived by the sovereign.” Moretti's statement appears in his essay in The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance, an influential collection edited by Greenblatt in 1982. In the same volume, Stephen Orgel claimed that Elizabethan “theatrical pageantry … employs precisely the same methods the crown was using to assert and validate its authority.” And Jonathan Goldberg chimed in: “The poet claims an unequivocal univocality, giving voice to the language of sovereignty, taking on a sovereign voice of power.”

Little mention of the conversational model occurs anymore in Renaissance studies, certainly not among new historicists. Instead, these critics suggest that powerful works, like powerful leaders, issue commanding statements (even if ambivalent ones) in defense of, or in protest against, Renaissance patriarchy. Sovereignty imposes. Even if authors, no real sovereigns, have to be careful about asserting themselves, they dream after kingly privileges, in the characteristic new historicist reading.

For all their emphasis on the way that ideology, rather than personality, ruled the Renaissance, some new historicists attribute a preeminence to the absolute monarch's agency that surpasses anything in Burckhardt. Frequently, the new historicist conjures up a sovereign authority—whether that authority is personal or impersonal—working its will with an utter, artful effectiveness that needs no partner. The emblem of the ideal is no longer the graceful intertwined dance, or the sexual bliss of the united couple, but a different sort of performance: the ruler or magus—or the patriarchal system they represent—conjuring a vision of the world, even creating that world, through sheer force of authorship.

The sovereign's imposition of will takes, in some recent readings, a graceful shape. Sovereignty requires not the mere threat or practice of violence, but, as Machiavelli suggests, the ability to sustain an imagination of authority sufficient to compel the people's and the nobles' loyalty. That is to say, political authority relies on poetry; it takes poetic form. Daniel Javitch, in his elegant and influential study Poetry and Courtliness in Renaissance England (1978), laid the groundwork for new historicism by displaying in some detail the emulative as well as competitive relations between poet and courtier. But while the faithful new historicist insists that poet and politician are true counterparts, Javitch showed that the very difference between them spurred politicians' adoption of poetic devices, and vice versa. If Puttenham proposed that English poets, as yet rude and uncouth, attempt the sophistication of court life, Spenser reversed the charges, alleging that poets were truer heirs to courtly grace than corrupt Elizabethan politicians, whose courtliness was merely instrumental, a means of manipulation and profitable disguise. From Elizabeth on down, the politicians of sixteenth-century England adopted poetic devices to secure their positions and to prevent politics from looking like what it often was, a disciplined project of bullying and exploitation. Frequently, a poet like Spenser adopts the courtier's role in order to suggest, faintly but unmistakably, that real courtiers all too often lack poetic grace. Spenser ends the Faerie Queene's book 6, as Donald Cheney has argued, with a resounding sense of the fragility of the poetic game-world when it finds itself threatened by the blatant verities of political power. If Spenser is on the defensive, his poetry exceptionally vulnerable to the competing force of politics, in the last three books of the Faerie Queene, Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream takes the offensive against this force.

Stephen Orgel, persuasively evolving the power of a Renaissance magus like Prospero, links his bookish capabilities to the real-world dominion of the prince. The magus practices an artistry analogous to that of the absolute ruler; his works are “the mirrors of his mind.” “Imagination here is really power,” Orgel writes in The Illusion of Power,

to rule, to control and order the world, to change or subdue other men, to create; and the source of the power is imagination, the ability to make images, to project the workings of the mind outward in a physical, active form, to actualize ideas, to conceive actions.

Stephen Greenblatt agrees with Orgel that, in the Renaissance at least, “We can scarcely write of prince or poet without accepting the fiction that power directly emanates from him and that society draws upon this power.” Recently historicists have been citing the fashionable models of “negotiation” and “circulation of social energy,” which picture Renaissance worlds as authorless, yet purposive in their ideological leanings. But an adulation of the sheer force of authorship, its ability to fashion a consummate, distinctive world, remains central to critics like Orgel and Greenblatt.

Is the godlike power of organization that artist and writer enjoy in fact shared, as Burckhardt and the new historicists alike claim, by the political ruler? Dreams of a successful narcissism, a proudly autonomous and therefore truly creative self-fashioning, have been central to our image of the Renaissance since Burckhardt. Idealizing creative power as sovereign did come naturally to this ambitious era. So, however, did an insistence on the distinction between two forms of agency, poetic and political. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, my proof-text in this essay, only the poetic imagination, not princely power, can sustain, because only it is fundamentally interested in, the idea of a cosmos as concerted form or concordia discors. A Midsummer Night's Dream privileges poetic realization as a form superior to the conquests engineered by rulers like Theseus, the ragged assertions of political will in which an unpoetic world trades. In A Midsummer Night's Dream this harmony works to clarify the difference between the world of poetic drama, akin to fairyland's magic, and the far less innocent realm of politics over which Theseus presides. While this is an unfashionable emphasis, it is, I believe, a just one. Previous generations of readers sometimes yielded too much to Theseus by idealizing him as a wise, moderate ruler; but current readers also grant him more power than he actually has by construing his domain, now recognized as patriarchially sinister, as coextensive with the play itself, and with Shakespeare's art.

There has been a certain inheritance in current criticism of Jan Kott's and Peter Brook's long-ago debunking of the Victorian notion that A Midsummer Night's Dream is a gently whimsical piece of sugar candy. Harold Brooks responded in his Arden edition with a defense of the old school's fey wispiness, and the comment that Brook's production, which replaced festive innocence with orgiastic brutality, “lacked charm.” Finally, Empson cast a comic plague on both houses in one of his last published pieces, a review of Brooks's edition in the New York Review of Books. New historicists feel strangely duty-bound to sustain the monotonous fantasy, derived from Kott, that A Midsummer Night's Dream lays bare our darker, exploitative instincts; while the effort to purge any Shakespeare play of mortal grossness and make it harmlessly festive remains cowardly and nostalgically misguided. Empson's critique suggests that the alternative of dreamy mystification and cynical shock tactics fails to capture the point of Shakespeare's art, which supersedes both these reductive views. The Dream does not shirk human reality, but it trusts in the ways that poetry and sexual desire mediate that reality, rather than stripping it naked. In doing so, Shakespeare the creator-god builds a greater real, a true golden world.

Theseus delivers the initial statement of patriarchal authority in A Midsummer Night's Dream when he advises Hermia, in act 1, scene 1:

To you your father should be as a god,
One that composed your beauties; yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.

In the case of Theseus, unlike that of Titania and Oberon, parental will aims at a controlling distance from its filial object, rather than wishing for reunion or recovery of that object, as in the case of the changeling boy. Theseus's will, in contrast to Oberon's, is solitary. He tries to deny the fact that parental power must by definition be the product of a contentious but united twosome, father and mother.

Theseus's glorified reference to the quasi-divine father as “composer” of feminine “beauties” turns brutal in the lines that follow. That father is not, in fact, a composer or maker like the poet, but rather a bullying unmaker. Theseus sees woman, not as a site of beauty to be artistically organized, but as mere dull matter, a waxy glob to be either left mercifully alone or else “disfigured” by masculine force. The image is itself disfiguring. It reveals a lack of trust in art's metamorphic potency, so richly established by the action of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Puck can truly figure and disfigure—that is, cause metamorphoses in the Dream's characters—as Theseus cannot. It is not surprising that Theseus, in his famous speech at the beginning of act 5, slanders all poetry as “apprehending” in loose, confused fashion, rather than “comprehending” in a more organized way. Before he sees the mechanicals' play, Theseus even finds a model for dramatic art in the stuttering fear of a court underling. Shakespeare's fairy king Oberon manages the world of art as Theseus cannot, and is therefore a truer ruler. (Prospero in The Tempest neatly combines Oberon and Theseus, conjurer and authoritarian.).

Oberon, against Theseus, proves that there is more than one way to lend form to chaos. In act 2, Oberon and Titania have been arguing about order and disorder; their conversation both shapes and shakes the nightworld they preside over. Oberon demands of Titania the changeling boy. She refuses and stalks off. The mutuality and overtness of Oberon and Titania's contention is a far cry from Theseus's overbearing sway and Hippolyta's covert criticism of him (in 5.1, for example, during their discussion of poetic theory). Here comic bluster—“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania”—offers hope of freedom. The recognition that, as Titania puts it, “we are their parents and original,” that the cosmos is out of kilter in delicate response to a fairy king and queen who are on the rocks, suggests our wish, the world's wish, to repair the ruin of this primal couple. Instead of Theseus's fantasy, which requires the silencing of the woman, we want her satisfaction, along with that of her husband; so that, if not erotically inseparable, they are at least partners in the play's final dance. Titania and Oberon have separate fairy staffs and separate amorous interests—but, with contention quieted for the moment, they return to harmony. This is a vastly less homebound version of an integrated marriage than Milton's, and the difference may have a source in biographical fact, since Shakespeare probably saw Anne Hathaway only once or twice a year during most of their married life. But Titania and Oberon are a truly equal, because independent, couple in a way that is impossible in Milton, for whom subordination founds and circumscribes independence. At no point in A Midsummer Night's Dream is Titania subordinate to Oberon. Oberon, jealous and plotting as he is, remains starkly unlike Theseus in his utter lack of desire to subject Titania to his rule. Trick her, embarrass her, win the changeling boy, yes; but not subject her. As William Flesch suggests, the play's final vision of a happy, reconciled-enough Titania and Oberon may hint at our adult fantasy of making reparations to our parents, whose marital disasters we often see as our own fault. Shades of Paradise Lost indeed; but in the case of Shakespeare's drama reparation takes the form of renewed play utterly free from Milton's preoccupation, his need to negotiate the license for play. Not a Miltonic refounding, and refinding, of marriage occurs here, but rather a purely occasional healing of it, a relief and respite from its miserable wrangling won by the simple tactic of making that wrangling joyous, revealing its basis in partnership. The fairy couple's past is wide open matter for one-upmanship: Oberon has romanced Hippolyta, his queen asserts, when he protests her “love to Theseus.” Oberon and Titania throw the book of past flirtations and affairs at each other. But the past is malleable, legendary: the stuff of present charge and countercharge, not potent and ineradicable as in Shakespearean tragedy and Miltonic epic.

Of course, it is finally Oberon, rather than Titania, who wins the game. In act 4, scene 1 she gives him the changeling child, and he celebrates by stage-managing their newfound “amity” and the ensuing wedding of the lovers. But the manner of Oberon's victory is crucial. Struck with sudden pity, Oberon judges that Titania's pathetic infatuation with Bottom has gone on long enough—now that he has won the changeling from her! Like a proto-Prospero ending his revels, he gives up the cruel “taunting” of his fairy queen, ordering Puck to undo his spell. Titania, rubbing her eyes, reacts to Oberon not with the rebellious grudging that Hippolyta aims at Theseus, but instead with a simple wonder at her own case. “My Oberon!” she exclaims. “What visions I have seen! / Methought I was enamour'd of an ass.” Now seeing herself as a fictional character, becoming spectator of her own foolishness, Titania gains a magical neutrality like Bottom's. She resembles the “weird fairy tale image” of the artistic creator mentioned in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, who achieves strange dignity in knowing that he himself, like the work he produces, is a mere projection on the screen of existence. Both Titania and Bottom are like, in Nietzsche's words, “the creature that can turn its eyes around and look at itself … at once subject and object, at once poet, actor and audience.”

There is, to be sure, a real imbalance of power here. Oberon commands the impressive talents of Puck; Titania, the merely decorative attentions of her miniaturized fairy attendants. Moreover, Titania lacks the barbed wit that Shakespeare's women characteristically employ against their male partners in other early comedies like Much Ado About Nothing or Love's Labour's Lost. But the inequality in the royal couple's powers does not imply the sort of hierarchical need felt by Theseus, who inclines toward the repression rather than the Puck inspired acting out of contention. Titania is bested at the play's end, but this does not mean that she submits to Oberon in recognition of ideological principle—the kind of recognition that Theseus and Egeus want. Rather than surrendering her will, she finds willfulness suddenly beside the point. Everything indicates that, rather than being overmastered by the play's ending, Titania enjoys the freedom offered by this resounding, unexpected pause in marital strife. The fight over the changeling looks distant and unreal now, just last night's dream.

Titania's stunned vision of herself corresponds to the new mood of harmony that Oberon strikes through all levels of the play. Egeus now seems a vain irrelevance, even to Theseus, who echoes Oberon by “overbearing” the angry father's will. Theseus has been swayed, but not converted from his attachment to power: his main interest remains a condescending, detached enjoyment of the “mistakes” that the mechanicals make during their play. Oberon, by contrast, recognizes such mistakes, the crazy misapprehensions summed up in Titania's love for Bottom, as the very stuff of desire.

It is significant that Oberon is not just a ruler but, in contrast to Theseus, an appreciative, aesthetically sophisticated spectator. Speaking to Puck in 2.1, Oberon pictures himself as the charmed observer in a sensuous ecstasy:

Thou remembrest
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.

As Furness's variorum explains at length, these lines, along with the ensuing passage on the “imperial votress” whom Cupid aims at and the “little Western flower” his arrow lands on, have provoked endless streams of historical allegorizing, with Mary Queen of Scots a special obsession. I wish for the moment to discount the possibility of historical reference and take the passage straight. Here civility is born, not from a patriarch's threats, but from the magical soothing voice of a woman. (Milton will remember this in the Lady's song in Comus.) The ravishing song of the mermaid provides the model for Oberon's own use of love-in-idleness, the magic juice that Oberon commands Puck to search out. The love-in-idleness produces, finally, a “dulcet and harmonious” pairing of the lovers, but not before they dissolve into a beautiful and witty madness.

The combination in Oberon's speech of the calmed waves and the wild energy of “certain stars shot madly from their spheres” is echoed, in his lowly way, by Bottom. Bottom announces during the rehearsal of the Pyramus and Thisbe play that, as a theatrical lion, he will “roar you gently as any sucking dove.” “I will move storms,” he says, yet “I will condole in some measure.” It is just such measure, a balance of tension and release, frenzied desire and married peace, that animates Shakespeare's whole play. Oberon's image, a few lines further on from the passage I have quoted, of “young Cupid's fiery shaft / Quencht in the chaste beams of the watry moon” answers Theseus's threat in the play's first scene that, unless Hermia obey her father, she will “live a barren sister all” her “life, / Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.” Here chastity, like Diana herself, spurs an elegance of “quenched” (ameliorated? fulfilled?) desire that shines down on us, rather than refusing to answer our prayers, as in Theseus's lines. Oberon's power, which finally unites the couples, harmonizes sexuality, bringing it to a graceful quenching both chaste and fiery. Theseus, by contrast, clamps down on wild daughters by brandishing against their desires the cold prison of enforced virginity.

Early on in Richard Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie (1589), Puttenham, addressing the queen, writes that she is herself “the most excellent Poet,” or maker:

Forsooth by your Princely purse favours and countenance, making in maner what ye list, the poore man rich, the lewd i.e., ignorant well learned, the coward courageous, and vile both noble and valiant.

Yet Puttenham's praise of his ruler, though it doubtless pleased Elizabeth's flattery-tuned ears, rings false: at one point he claims that, as a poet, his dear queen puts Sidney, Wyatt, and all the rest to shame. This queen was no doubt a consummate “maker,” though not, pace Puttenham, an especially poetic one. Those courtiers, including Puttenham himself, whose lives were redirected to the fast lane by the royalty industry did become made men in the mafioso sense, but not in any truly metamorphic one. Elizabeth did not magically alter her nation. Though she made herself famous for charity and for expressing love for her people, one's prevailing sense is that her subjects liked her, at least until her drop in popularity in the 1590s, because she let them alone. The sovereign's main force is felt, not in the education or transformation of her people, but in her safeguarding of social order and her punishment of wrongdoers. Elizabethan sovereignty preserves the reigning system, rather than using it to transmute or reorganize the nation.

Poetry can transform and enchant where political rule cannot. For all the convoluted magic of Shakespeare's fabulous midsummer night, its changes coalesce into (as Hippolyta puts it in the play's last act) “something of great constancy,” a story “strange and admirable.” This is real metamorphosis. The lovers appear in one another's dreams, and, as in Kushner's Angels in America, this interpenetration of different characters' desires makes the difference between mere solitary hallucination and true collective vision. As I have noted, the story is set in motion by the dissension of a fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania. From their strife, and from Puck's trickery and Bottom's credulity, grows a work all the more constant for its ludicrous mismatches and confusion. Shakespeare here manages, through sheer art, to give form to the amorphous arena of desire, as Theseus and his ilk cannot do through the less exalted method of laying down the law. Despite this, David Marshall in his essay on A Midsummer Night's Dream writes that he will “show that the realm of politics and the realm of poetry here … figure each other.” But just as Cupid's arrow misses the “imperial votress” of 2.1, presumably Elizabeth, so her regal power falls short of Shakespeare's dramatic art.

If Helena is the play's central victim of love, foreshadowing the bright stars of two later Shakespearean comedies, Viola and Rosalind, Bottom is its central nonvictim. Helena does not want to drop out of the romantic game, however much it pains her. “I am your spaniel,” she tells Demetrius in act 2: “The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.” The childlike Bottom, a homespun realist, has never truly been in the game. His interest in imaginative vision eclipses whatever potential erotic identity he might have. He is simply fascinated, as we are, by the play's most astonishing tableau: Bottom himself luxuriously attended by the adoring Titania and her fairies. Shakespeare, by means of Bottom's surprised, spectatorial detachment from his own situation, draws a limit to the power of eros, here as in no other of his comedies.

Bottom's obliviousness to the erotic often tempts critics to sociopolitical explanation. Louis Montrose, for example, approaches Bottom's unique stature with a warmed-over conflation of vulgar Freud and vulgar Marx. “Bottom's dream,” as Montrose would have it, is “recognizable to us as a parodic fantasy of infantile narcissism and dependency. But it is also, at the same time, a parodic fantasy of upward social mobility.” Malvolio, who does fantasize social advancement, is a sort of sour version of Bottom; but the good, naive Bottom has no such crass ambitions. When he fantasizes in act 4 about Peter Quince setting his dream to music so that it might be played before the Duke, Bottom has in mind not currying favor with the powers that be, but rather simply indulging in the delights of mimesis, an indulgence as pure in its way as the good Christian's urge to spread the news of salvation. Bottom, like Christopher Sly at the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew, takes center stage in a parody of the fairy-tale motif of the commoner who suddenly finds himself treated as royalty and decides to play along, since the new situation, however absurd it may be, is clearly to his advantage. But Bottom differs from Christopher Sly, who resists the illusion for some time before finally admitting “I am a lord indeed.” Bottom, unlike Sly, has no such canny sense of the practical advantages of being a lord. (Snug's motives are more suspect: “If our sport had gone forward,” he says, “we had all been made men.”) As for infantile narcissism, Bottom's reluctance to recount his vision furnishes a rebuke to Montrose's facile reduction. For Bottom, dreams have no such explanatory bottom: they ask for further pondering, rather than quick translation into the easy language of waking reality. Even as he garbles scripture, the stunned Bottom, reflecting on the night he has just passed, remains both an oaf and a master of tact.

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!

Bottom gets his text, from 1 Corinthians 2.9-10, back-asswards, confusing the senses and body parts as he himself was confused when a bottom displaced his top. The ass's head is somehow fitting, as is Bottom's rhapsodic speech in its hints at a revealed and inexpressible truth: whether from above or below, at any rate beyond commonsense realism's power to conceive.

Alone among Shakespeare's comedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream restricts the sphere of sexual desire to focus, in its conclusion, on imagination instead. The wedding night that looms at the end of act 4 is deferred so that, in act 5, we may see a drama, Pyramus and Thisbe, which is really about the mechanics of representation rather than its mechanical lovers, and so that we may hear comments on the reception and significance of plays. Bottom, it seems, does not have sex with Titania. Rather, he remains sublimely and hilariously ignorant of her advances. In the other comedies agency centers on the issue of coming into one's own as a sexual being. Bottom's dream is not a rite of passage, not a maturation ritual. He remains, always, just what he is. This does not mean he is an infantile narcissist, as Montrose claims, but rather an admirably self-assured, and therefore somewhat oblivious, adult. As he remarks, “I am a man as other men are.” The fantastic coherence of Bottom's sensibility displays the coordinating power of imagination as much as does the tangled, yet organized, action of the play itself.

Peter Quince refers to the mechanicals' efforts to “disfigure, or to present the person of Moonshine.” A force as mystically influential as moonlight, which plays a great role in this play, cannot in fact be conveyed in such a cloddish manner. The mechanicals falter, in imaginative terms, because they disfigure instead of figuring forth. But this is a different kind of disfiguring from the kind that Theseus attributes to the father Egeus, since it is the opposite of threatening. By trying to fix meaning through theatrical overemphasis, Pyramus and Thisbe lets it loose. During the mechanicals' play the magic dissolves. Illusion has no room here, and therefore no power. The royal audience's noisy commentary makes up for the vast awkwardness of the mechanicals, who have failed to cast a spell over the house. Bottom's dream, the consummate illusion, at first seems the very opposite of such clumsiness—yet it is also akin to it, in its flagrant display of the mortal grossness that Hazlitt objected to in the Dream. The display is purgative or, as Leonard Barkan puts it, apotropaic. In the mechanicals' play, as in Titania's hilarious praises of asshead Bottom, desire has been deprived of its insidious, delusive powers: Pyramus's belief that the lion has killed Thisbe is a crude, silent comedy mistake. As a result of this reduction of desire's work to blunt, comic shenanigans, the lovers are freed, awakened to the prosy, solid footing that marriage promises.

Bottom's dream still remains magical and mysterious, as any attentive audience will realize, and not merely ludicrous. It is doubtful that Theseus could discern its peculiar mating of subtlety and overemphasis, just as he could not see the difference between the mechanicals' play and a play by Shakespeare. As he remarks, speaking of stage plays, even “the best in this kind are but shadows.” For Theseus, theater is less consequential than the flesh and blood strivings of war and governance. But Bottom proves him wrong. Bottom, the one truly magical participant among the play's mortals, the only one who actually gets to see fairies, knows that there are strong imaginations that worldly power cannot explain. In pointing out this rift between poetry and politics, A Midsummer Night's Dream generates the potential offense to a “gentle” audience that Puck invokes in his epilogue. Shakespeare has given us a disruptive coherence, rebellious in the claim it makes for poetry in the face of power. The play ends with a dance, one that “rocks the ground.”

Lou Agnes Reynolds and Paul Sawyer (essay date autumn 1959)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4711

SOURCE: Reynolds, Lou Agnes, and Paul Sawyer. “Folk Medicine and the Four Fairies of A Midsummer-Night's Dream.Shakespeare Quarterly 10, no. 4 (autumn 1959): 513-21.

[In the following essay, Reynolds and Sawyer examine Titania's four fairy servants in A Midsummer Night's Dream—Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth—and contend that their presence represents the healing properties of folk medicine as well as its role in establishing a connection between the natural and supernatural world.]

To the Elizabethans no subject, apart from love, was more appropriate to Midsummer's Night than folk medicine; or conversely, at no time could a reference to folk medicine be more opportunely introduced than on Midsummer's Night. It was believed that on this night of the summer solstice, plants were granted a magic power that they possessed at no other time of the year1 That Shakespeare was well acquainted with this mass of superstition is shown by his use of it in his plays—most extensively, as might be expected in A Midsummer-Night's Dream.2 In one scene of this play (III.ii.179-205)3 Bottom, wearing an ass's head that seems to fit uncommonly well upon his shoulders, meets the fairy queen and her four servants—Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth. Because each of these fairy servants represents an item used in household remedies and would thus be affected by the superstitions of Midsummer's Night, it seems possible that the four fairies find their origin in folk medicine.

Once the possibility of such a common source is recognized, several points can be established: (1) Because the superstitions regarding the magic power of plants were closely associated with Midsummer's Night, the scene is related both to the time of the play and the pervading atmosphere of moonlight and magic. (2) Because much of the action is centered around Oberon's use of a flower possessing magic properties, the scene is connected with the plot of the play. (3) Bottom's greetings to Peaseblossom and Mustardseed play upon the medicinal uses of the pea and mustard plants. (4) The fourth fairy Moth, or Mote, is linked to the other fairies through the use of the moth in household remedies; the method of preparation may offer a possible, or partial, explanation why this character was never developed and often excluded altogether.4

In the Elizabethan era, medical knowledge was much more widely diffused than it is today. Most of this knowledge consisted of Greek and Roman teachings, transmitted to England by the Renaissance. In the herbals and medical manuals of the day, Aristotle, Galen, Dioscorides, and Pliny were cited as sources and authorities.5 In 1543, an act of Parliament conferred the liberty to practice medicine on all subjects “… having knowledge and experience in the nature of herbs, roots, waters, or the operation of the same, by speculation or practise …”6 Under such conditions, it is to be expected that Shakespeare, like any intelligent layman, should have an acquaintance with the medical practices of the time.

Not only was medical lore so readily accessible that uneducated people, such as barbers, carpenters, and soapball sellers, considered themselves capable of treating patients (Moyes, p. 4) but also the materials utilized in the remedies were easily available and free for the taking.7 Although herbs and roots were for the greater part used in the plasters, purges, and potions, other natural products were included. Often parts of animal, reptile, and insect bodies were thought to have healing properties, as were certain natural secretions of insects and animals. Thus, the night moth and the cobweb, like the pea and mustard plants, were a part of the materia medica of Elizabethan England.

Easily obtained as these products were, their medical use demanded a minute knowledge of the herb or product's properties—whether it was hot or cold, moist or dry. The properties of the herb were then related to the symptoms of the disease. In the older art of simples each herb had one property or virtue, but the art grew to belie its name and become very complex indeed. Despite the vast number of products drawn from a myriad of sources, to each was ascribed not one virtue, but several. As Friar Lawrence fills his osier cage with herbs, he comments:

Many for many virtues excellent,
None yet for some, and yet all different.
O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities.

(Romeo II.ii.13-16)

Nor did the resulting medicament necessarily consist of only one herb, root, or substance. Under the Galenic system of poly-pharmacy, many products—herbs, minerals, parts of animal and insect bodies—might be compounded into one remedy.8 Sometimes the result was opposite to what was expected, for one ill-chosen ingredient might counteract the curative effect of many others.9 As Hamlet observes:

                                                            The dram of e'il
Doth all the noble substance often dout
To his own scandal.


These curious remedies were further complicated by the superstitions that surrounded the natural products and their medicinal use. Ancient and widespread, the folklore was of various origins. Those superstitions granting a magic power to plants come not from one source, but three—the astrology of the Greeks and the Romans, the sun worship of the Druids, and the Christian belief in healing by faith. Each of these sources is in some manner related to the date of June 23, then observed as Midsummer's Night. Because the moon is full on that night, the horoscopes arranged by the astrologers showed the aspects of the heavens to be favorable to the curing of disease.10 Because Midsummer's Night marks the summer solstice, at which time the sun reaches its full height, the Druids believed that the plants catch from the sun some radiance that invests them for that one night with marvelous and mystical powers. Because this date is set aside by the church calendar as St. John's Eve, the Christians believed that miraculous cures could be effected with herbs collected on that night.11

Astrological beliefs were inherent in the medical teachings of the Greeks and the Romans; when the English adopted that ancient pharmacopoeia, they accepted with it the zodiacal system by which was ascertained the influence of the sun, the moon, and the stars on all earthly things. If Chaucer's doctor was well grounded in astronomye, to the Elizabethan practitioner starcraft and wortcraft were inseparable.12 Although it was believed that the influence of the moon and planets varied with the time of the year and the particular herb, root, or plant affected, one basic principle ruled the collecting of medical products: those gathered in the light of the moon are beneficial and healing; those gathered in the dark are evil and death-dealing. In any reference to the gathering of herbs, Shakespeare is consistent on this point. The hemlock that the witches of Macbeth place in their hideous cauldron is not only poisonous in its own right but also “digged in the dark” (IV.i.25). In Cymbeline, the herbs considered most fitting for the murdered Cloten's grave are those that have on them “the cold dew o' the night” (IV.ii.283-284).

In the players' scene in Hamlet, the duke murders the king by pouring poison in the sleeping man's ear. As he commits his awful deed—“hands apt” and “drugs fit”—he repeats a rhyme imitative of the folk charms and spells chanted over herbal potions as they were mixed or administered:13

Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected,
With Hecate's ban thrice blasted, thrice infected,
Thy natural magic and dire property,
On wholesome life usurp immediately.


Concerned with the influence of darkness on all vegetation, Shakespeare is also aware of the salutary effect of moonlight. Of the poison-dipped sword that is to kill Hamlet, Laertes explains:

Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare
Collected from all the simples that have virtue
Under the moon, can save the thing from death.


Of the power of moonlight, Lorenzo says:

                                                  In such a night
Medea gathered the enchanted herbs
That did renew old Aeson.

(Merch. V.i.11-13)

It is such enchanted herbs and those that have virtue under the moon that appear in the moon-drenched scenes of A Midsummer-Night's Dream; here is no place for foul and midnight weeds. Although the benign influence of the moonlight will prevail, the danger from the baleful powers lying within these growing things is always imminent. Frightened by the ass's head, Bottom's crew flee the wood, fearing that even the senseless things would do them wrong, but they are unharmed (III.ii.25-30). Oberon's strange flower, coupled with Puck's mischief, causes confusions and complexities, but no irreparable damage will result from the flower juice squeezed on the lovers' eyelids. Nor will Titania be harmed by the flower's magic; from all danger she has been protected. The very sources of evil employed by the three sisters of Macbeth are banished from the bower as the fairies weave their spell. The spotted snake may leave its skin for her bed and the long-legged spider its web to serve her; but they themselves—like the newt, the blindworm, the beetle, and the snail—are charmed away by the fairy song (II.ii.8-26). The flowers that surround the fairy bower are summer flowers of fragrance and virtue—the oxslip, the violet, the muskrose, woodbine, thyme, and eglantine (II.ii.249-253).

If the astrologers destined this night to be favorable to all growing things, the Druids granted the plants wondrous and mysterious powers. Though these powers were many and varied, all were favorable to man and tended to endow him with some supernatural capacity or envied faculty that he could not otherwise gain. For example, there was “the receipt of fern seed”, which Shakespeare knew and used (1 Henry IV, II.i.96). The person who found and gathered fern seed on this night was awarded supernatural knowledge: he would know where all buried treasure lay, and he could make himself invisible at will by placing the fern seed in his shoe. In the withering of garlands gathered and woven on Midsummer's Night, a family might read prophecies of the year's love and joy, sorrow and death. In one part of England it was believed that a person would be free of illness for a year if he would go out on Midsummer's Night, gather a garland of those herbs thought to be most beneficial in treating his particular ailments, and, after observing the proper ritual, burn the garland. So many and varied are these superstitions relating to the mystic power of plants on Midsummer Night that Frazer in his detailed discussion in “Balder the Beautiful” (The Golden Bough, II, 75) makes no attempt to exhaust them. He can only conclude that these beliefs are deeply rooted, widely spread, and very ancient. Nor does he feel any explanation for their existence is needed beyond the fact that on the eve of the solstice or Midsummer's Night the growing season is at its height.

Midsummer Night was the time set apart by the church fathers to honor the nativity of John the Baptist. Since the night was sacred to the Druids, it was inevitable that many of the pagan rituals should be retained and the source of the miracles transferred from the power of the sun to the divine intervention of the saint. While the healing power of St. John is connected with many herbs, it was his own herb, St. John's Wort, that supposedly had special powers when plucked at midnight on St. John's Eve. Since the setting of A Midsummer-Night's Dream is in pre-Christian Athens, no direct reference to the saint or his herb could be expected. An indirect allusion is provided, however, in the similarity between the powers granted Oberon's magic flower and the properties attributed to the herb of St. John. Oberon's flower is set apart by the purple juice that can be squeezed from it. One streak of this juice on the eyelids, and the most magical changes can be brought about (II.i.169-172). St. John's Wort, though variously identified as mugwort, hawkweed, mountain arnica, or golden hypericum, is always marked by the red or purple juice that can be squeezed from its petals, stamens, or roots. From one drop of this juice, strange and unspoken wonders might be wrought.14 While no attempt should be made to identify Oberon's “flower of the purple dye”, which had gained its power from the pagan god Cupid (II.i.155-168), with St. John's Wort, sacred to the memory of the martyred saint, there is semblance enough to make Oberon's flower credible to all those who, on that same night, had sought to possess the mystical herb of St. John.

In A Midsummer-Night's Dream, Shakespeare seems to have taken this familiar folklore concerning the magic power of plants as a meeting point between the supernatural and the natural worlds. Neither Wordsworth nor Coleridge has suceeded better in finding the miraculous in the commonplace or in making the real appear supernatural than does Shakespeare in this scene where an oaf of a mortal glimpses the fairy world and recognizes in it a part of his own: those creatures of nature who do the fairy queen's bidding are man's servants as well.

Although the fairies are well aware of the mortals who have invaded the wood, the human characters move about insensible to the elfin creatures. Only Bottom, transformed by their magic, looks upon and speaks with those of the fairy world. But Bottom is neither Hamlet nor Horatio, and whatever things there may be on heaven and earth, he encompasses little. Unlike his comrades, Bottom, on coming in contact with the supernatural, is not afraid; for unlike them, Bottom has come under the fairy spell and been translated. But translated or transformed as Bottom may be, there is perhaps a more logical explanation for his lack of fear. Once given the names of the fairy servants, he is no more perturbed than a man of today would be by the sight of band-aid or aspirin on the druggist's shelf. From their names, Bottom recognizes the fairies as both friendly and familiar: he has met them before and expects to meet them again. Moreover, both the time and the place are propitious. It is Midsummer's Night, the time most favorable for gathering medicinal products. He is meeting them in the village wood, the place where the common people would most likely search for the raw materials from which their remedies were concocted.

After the four fairy servants, at Titania's command, have hailed their mortal guest and made him welcome, Bottom requests each fairy's name. Cobweb is the first of the four he addresses:

I cry your worships mercy heartily. I beseech your worship's name.
I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good Master Cobweb. If I cut my fingers, I shall make bold with you.


Bottom's greeting to Cobweb is not only a cordial exchange of courtesy but it is also a clear reference to a common practice in folk medicine: cobwebs were placed on a cut to staunch the flow of blood.15

Bottom's recognition of Peaseblossom, the second fairy servant, follows the same pattern:

I pray you, commend me to Mistress Squash, your mother, and to Master Peascod, your father. Good Master Peaseblossom, I shall desire you of more acquaintance too.


But this time, it would seem that the affable Bottom can no longer restrain his wit and has begun to banter. In asking to be commended to Peaseblossom's mother, Mistress Squash, and to his father, Master Peascod, Bottom has not only demonstrated his acquaintance with the family of peasen, as the common pease were called, but also has introduced a quibble on the plant cycle: Are the pod and the seed parent to the blossom, or is it the other way about with the blossom and the plant proving parent to the seed? While this problem of Peaseblossom's family position—something of a chicken-first, egg-first proposition—makes for a never-ending and delightful quibble in itself, it serves also to introduce the whole of the pea plant for Bottom's punning pleasure, and the peasecod in particular.

“Peasecod time is wooing time” goes the old saying. In discussing the part the common peascod played in rustic wooing, Halliwell cites Touchstone's speech in As You Like It (III.iv.52)16, but does not point out the similar use in A Midsummer-Night's Dream. To the rustic lover the pea and its pod were almost as powerful as Oberon's purple flower. The juice from the flower might augur a strange and wonderful love; from the first well-filled peascod the rustic lovers could read the future of their love. The juice of the flower could expunge the very love it engendered; and so the common pea: if either lover were jilted, the pain of the lost love was eased by rubbing the whole body with the hay of the pea plant (Halliwell).

But the love foretold by the peascod was a much more physical love than that induced by the fairy flower. The term, peasecod, was inverted to mean codpiece,17 the padded flap on the front of the trousers covering the genitals. Since cod means testicle as well as bag of seeds, the play upon the words codpiece and peascod is as effective in meaning as in sound. Bottom's concentration on the physical aspects of love forms an earthy contrast with the attitude of the chaste Titania, who sympathizes with the moon's “watery eye” (III.i.203-205). Wishing to show her strange lover the utmost hospitality, she leads him to her bower where she tempts him by offering him his choice of dainties. When she suggests “new nuts”, another term for the male genitals, the sleepy Bottom makes his last effort to gleek by suggesting in their place a “handful or two of dried pease” (IV.i.36-37).

If Bottom has demonstrated his humor in his greeting to Peaseblossom, in speaking to Mustardseed he outdoes his first attempt:

Good Master Mustardseed, I know your patience well. That same cowardly, giantlike oxbeef hath devour'd many a gentleman of your house. I promise you your kindred hath made my eyes water ere now. I desire you of more acquaintance, good Master Mustardseed.


Much of the humor in these lines depends upon the recognition of the two most common uses of mustardseed—its medicinal use in a plaster or poultice to ease a sore back or aching muscles and its table use as a condiment to be served on beef. Since the French method of making meat sauce by adding flour and spices was not introduced until later, the preparation for either the plaster or the sauce was the same: the raw mustardseed was ground or pounded and mixed to a paste with vinegar and water.18 The lines also play upon the minute size of the mustardseed in contrast to its strength—both its biting pungency and amazing fertility.19

It is to the persistence and vigor of the mustardseed that Bottom refers when he says, “I know your patience well. …” Here the word patience means endurance in time of suffering; and no doubt Bottom, like any person of that time, knew well that no matter how often the seed-head is destroyed or cut back, the mustard remains one of the most prolific of plants. It is with commendable forethought that Bottom mentions this admirable endurance before he reminds Master Mustardseed of his devoured kinsmen.

While the word is written patience and the meaning fits well into the context, when the lines are spoken the listener also hears the word patients. The homonym is an immediate reminder of the medical use of the mustardseed. Patients fits as well into the context as does patience; for Bottom, as his tears attest, has reason to know one patient of mustardseed very well indeed. If Bottom is one patient, the oxbeef he mentions in the next sentence would seem to be another. While there is undeniable humor in the resemblance between a portion of the human body plastered with a mustard poultice and a piece of beef spread with mustard sauce, Bottom is not content with so obvious an observation. He would go further than saying the two who devour the doughty mustard are alike; he would say they are the same: “That same cowardly giantlike ox-beef. …” Since both the ox-beef and Bottom are giantlike in proportion to the tiny mustardseed and since both commit the cowardly act of preying upon one so much smaller than themselves, there is left to prove the identity only in the term ox-beef.

Bottom offers no direct statement to prove the two are the same; rather he depends on the assumption that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other. Since Bottom is speaking as an ass, or at least through the mouth of an ass, and since he is playing the fool with mastery, the most immediate connection would be between ox and ass. Not only do the ox and the ass, as animals, crop and devour the defenseless mustard but, as words, both ox and ass have the meaning of fool, particularly in the sense, “to make a fool of”.20 While it would seem that Shakespeare had in mind this familiar pun, which he has used elsewhere,21 a double pun occurs through his using not merely ox, but ox-beef.

With the term ox-beef, the same reasoning can be followed with arse as the common equivalent. The “giantlike ox-beef”, as meat, would be the largest cuts of beef, the loins or haunches. On the living animal, the haunches were the buttocks or the arse. From the time of Chaucer, arse had been substituted for bottom in poetry and proverb until the two were almost synonymous.22 When the name Bottom is put in place of the word bottom, the pun is complete—are not bull-beef23 and bully Bottom (III.i.8) one and the same!

For all his confessed guilt, Bottom is no coward, for the tears brought to his eyes by the kinsmen of Master Mustardseed were brought not by his pity provoked by their weakness, but by his suffering occasioned by their strength. Whether the tears were caused by a mouthful of beef too hotly seasoned or by a blistering poultice, the burning is more than Bottom can easily endure. Now Bottom has brought his jest to full circle: If patience means endurance in time of suffering, he knows well the patience of the mustardseed, for in time of suffering its endurance is admittedly greater than that of its patients.

Bottom has no greeting for the fourth fairy, Moth. It would almost seem that having exhausted his wit on Peaseblossom and Mustardseed, he is left momentarily wordless. However, the real problem in regard to Moth is not Bottom's lack of greeting but rather the tentative and uncertain position of the fourth fairy. In the history of the play, the character was included, excluded, and then once again included in the action.24 When folk medicine is accepted as the source of the four fairies, Moth does belong to the group. Insect bodies, whole or in part, were frequently used in recipes and remedies—fried earthworms were dropped into an aching ear and dried bees were made into a purge for treating kidney stones.25 The common night moth had both an internal and external medical use: because of its caustic properties it was made into a plaster to treat old sores and was also used to prepare a diuretic for kidney and bladder ailments.26

The real difference between Moth and his fellow fairies is not the failure of the moth to be used in medicine but rather the method of preparation for that use. The difference in method results from the fact that the moth is not vegetable matter as are peaseblossom and mustardseed, nor inanimate matter as is cobweb, but is a living creature that must sacrifice its life before it can fulfill its purpose. Careful instructions for preparing and storing the moths are given by Pliny. During the summer months when the moths were flying, the creatures were caught alive, placed in jars and covered with a layer of rose petals, then the covered jars were steamed until the moths were dead.27

Toward the first three fairies, Bottom has expressed the utmost friendliness; in each case he has expressed the desire to see the servant again. To Cobweb, he is somewhat apologetic for making bold with him in event of a cut finger. Of Mustardseed, he asks pardon for the gentlemen that he has devoured from that multitudinous house. However, an apology for steaming a creature alive would strain even Bottom's graciousness and wit; courtesy directs that an executioner may beg his victim's pardon for stepping on his toe, but not for cutting off his head.

Thus, if the abiding friendliness of this wood and the benevolence of this night are to be preserved, no mention must be made of the medicinal use of the moth. While the compromise is no doubt a wise one, the possibility of some delightful lines was forever lost. From the punning in Love's Labour's Lost (IV.iii.161), it is easy to imagine what play upon words would have resulted from the pronunciation of moth as mote.28


  1. Sir James Frazer, “Balder the Beautiful”, The Golden Bough, 3rd ed. (New York, 1935), Vol. II. All material concerning the superstitions of Midsummer Night has been taken from this volume.

  2. It is not necessary to establish Shakespeare's knowledge of either medicine or folk lore. Such standard works as John Charles Bucknill, The Medical Knowledge of Shakespeare (1860), and F. G. Savage, The Flora and Folk Lore of Shakespeare (1923), prove Shakespeare's familiarity with these subjects, thus making possible more specialized studies, such as this one.

  3. Citations to Shakespeare in this paper are to The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. George Lyman Kittredge (New York, 1936).

  4. Sir A. T. Quiller-Couch and J. D. Wilson, eds. A Midsummer Night's Dream (New Cambridge Edition, 1924), p. 124, n. 166-169.

  5. Bucknill, pp. 10-34.

  6. Quoted in John Moyes, Medicine and Kindred Arts in the Plays of Shakespeare (London, 1896), p. 4.

  7. The mixture of science and superstition in the pharmacy and medicine of the Elizabethans can be best comprehended by reading such herbals as John Gerarde, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (London, 1597), and John Parkinson, The Theatre of Plants: or an universal and compleate herball (London, 1640), or such medical books as Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper's School of Physick: or the Experimental Practice of the Whole Art, ed. Alice Culpeper (London, 1678).

  8. Culpeper, School of Physick, pp. 5ff.

  9. Culpeper, Preface, n.p.

  10. The Compleat Book of Knowledge Treating of the Wisdom of the Antients, Compiled by the Learned Albubetes, Benesaphan, Erra Pater, and other of the Antients (London, 1698), pp. 17-18, 63.

  11. Frazer, p. 45.

  12. Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper's English Physician and Complete Herbal: Medicinal and occult properties (London, 1807), pp. 13-24.

  13. William George Black, Folk Medicine: a Chapter in the History of Culture (London, Published for the Folk Lore Society, 1883), pp. 90-91.

  14. Frazer, pp. 45-71.

  15. Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper's Last Legacy (London, 1668), p. 95.

  16. James Orchard Halliwell, A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, 5th ed. (London, 1901), II, 610.

  17. Alexander Schmidt, Shakespeare Lexicon (London, 1875) II, 848.

  18. Parkinson, p. 832. Note that in speaking of the medicinal uses of mustardseed, Parkinson considers it an effective plaster for the loins.

  19. Gerarde, pp. 189-190.

  20. All definitions in this paper are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary.

  21. Merry Wives V. v. 126 and Troi. V. v. 65.

  22. The Compleat Book of Knowledge, p. 116. Here is quoted the folk saying, “The Kettle calls the Pot Black-arse.” See also, OED, arse, meaning 2.

  23. C. T. Onions, A Shakespeare Glossary, 2nd ed. (Oxford University, 1929), p. 25. Mr. Onions notes that bull-beef not only has the meaning of beef as meat but also is an abusive term for a big blustering fellow.

  24. Quiller-Couch and Wilson, p. 124, n. 166-169.

  25. Culpeper, School of Physick, pp. 87, 135.

  26. Pierre Pomet, A Complete History of Drugs, added to by Mrs. Lemery and Tournefort (London, 1748), II, 41.

  27. The Natural History of Pliny, tr. with notes by John Bostock and H. T. Riley (London, 1845), V, 404. Similar directions for preparing and storing the moths are given in Pomet, II, 40.

  28. A Midsommer Nights Dreame, A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, ed. Horace Howard Furness, (Philadelphia, 1923), p. 127, n. 168.

Diana Akers Rhoads (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4158

SOURCE: Rhoads, Diana Akers. “A Midsummer Night's Dream: Shakespeare's Dramatic Solution to the Problems Poetry Poses for Politics.” In Shakespeare's Defense of Poetry: A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, pp. 49-60. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Inc., 1985.

[In the following essay, Rhoads contends that in A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare portrayed Theseus as both an ideal ruler and a ruler who lacks the ability to understand love in order to highlight the incompatibility of “desire and politics.”]

There are basically two critical attitudes towards Theseus. One sees him as a representative of reason and of rational love as opposed to the madness and irrational love of the other Athenian lovers. His love becomes the norm or the social ideal.1 Critics who espouse this attitude often refer to Theseus as the ideal ruler, and they give him the attitudes of the Theseus of Chaucer's Knight's Tale.2 Like Chaucer's Theseus, he is seen as the reasonable man imposing order on nature. In the Knight's Tale Palamon and Arcite are friends who fall in love with the same woman, Emelye. They are fighting for her like wild animals when Theseus arrives. He is on an organized hunt for wild animals. Theseus stops the fighting and orders an organized contest between Palamon and Arcite according to civil regulation. The story is taken to suggest reason's conquest of the violent and erotic. Shakespeare's Theseus is seen likewise restoring order to nature in his conquest of the Amazons, women who have rebelled against nature by fighting men. The cry of Theseus' hounds like bells in phase (IV.i.126-29) becomes symbolic of this imposition of human pattern on nature.

The second basic attitude towards Theseus focuses on the limitations of his understanding. Critics with this attitude agree that Theseus represents rational love, reason, and the model ruler, but they emphasize the limitations of reason and of the understanding of a representative of good government. They see reason as making man fit for guiding the affairs of men, but not for fully understanding other aspects of the world—romantic love or poetry or grace. G. K. Hunter, for example, argues that it is a mistake to see the whole world from the point of view of Theseus and Hippolyta. He points out that the young lovers need not be judged as substandard simply because they lack the virtues of a ruler who lives in rational daylight, and he goes on to suggest that Theseus' rejection of art in the form of the lovers' dream is not the only viable position that Shakespeare presents to us. The lovers can live in the result of their dream.3 Other critics suggest even greater limits to Theseus' view of the world. Sidney Homan, for example, argues that Theseus is unaware of the artist's ability to use reason in conjunction with imagination to give us “both a sense of a universal nature and a specific picture of things.”4 Critics such as Frank Kermode and Stephen Fender go even further to suggest that Theseus lacks an understanding of grace which is available to the poet.5

There is some truth in each of the two attitudes towards Theseus. As argued in Chapter II above, Theseus is the model politician who has subordinated his own desire to order in the city. As Chapter IV will argue, there are limitations to Theseus' ability to understand art and even perhaps the nature of grace. But both of the attitudes also require substantial modification. Although Theseus represents the best that politics has to offer, he has limitations even within his own sphere. He never fully understands the nature and strength of desire and therefore its danger to the city, and he is unable to control desire in his citizens. Rather the ability to understand desire and to control it rests with the poet.

The limitations of Theseus' understanding and his power are made clear in his actions towards the young Athenian lovers. When faced with the love of Hermia and Lysander, he upholds the law and gives Hermia the alternative of submitting to her father's will or of choosing between life in a nunnery and death. The play suggests that Theseus is inattentive to matters of the heart and their possible disruption of his domain. First, he admits that, having heard of Demetrius' inconstancy to Helena, he had forgotten to speak with him about it (I.i.111-14). Later Theseus indicates his misunderstanding of matters of love when he mistakes the lovers' reasons for being asleep on the edge of the wood. He explains that

No doubt they rose up early to observe
The rite of May; and, hearing our intent,
Came here in grace of our solemnity.


But Lysander and Demetrius have fallen asleep because they are exhausted from chasing one another in their attempted duel, and Helena has slept after running away from the other three with Hermia running after her. The lovers are not there to display respect for their ruler, Theseus. Rather against his wishes, to disobey the law, they have run off into the wood. Desire has been strong enough to threaten the law and to produce potential conflict among Athens' citizens. Initially at least Theseus does not recognize the power of desire. Only after Lysander explains his and Hermia's intention to escape Athenian law does Theseus realize that a harmonious solution to the lovers' conflicts now requires the overbearing of Egeus' will in direct opposition to the law. Even if one were to allow that the lines at IV.ii.135-38 could be read as a tongue-in-cheek explanation for finding the lovers asleep, there is no sign at that point that Theseus recognizes the lovers' attempt to defy the law, for the following two lines indicate that he expects Hermia to follow his decree that she choose between a nunnery and acquiescing in her father's wishes.

A careful examination of the play's action reveals that the fairies have more power than Theseus to produce order in Athens. In fact, during most of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the portion which takes place in the wood, Theseus functions as a spectator more than as a participant. His and Hippolyta's comments at V.i about the story of the Athenian lovers as a work of art give the reader a strong sense of the hand of the poet in creating the story of the young lovers' time in the wood and, by extension, in creating the whole of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This makes the fairies' power to produce order suggestive of the poet's ordering power.

The atmosphere of the wood has made critics forget that the fairies do produce order. The wood outside of Athens where the fairies preside is often associated by critics with the irrationality and inconstancy of love. Critics see the madness and darkness of the wood as a contrast to the rationality and daylight of Athens and its ruler. This view is accurate on the surface (see pp. 40-41 above), but there is also madness before the lovers get to the wood. Hermia and Lysander have loved. Demetrius has been inconstant. Helena has loved Demetrius although he has spurned her, and Demetrius has loved Hermia although she has spurned him. Even before she gets to the wood Helena recognizes the irrationality of love:

Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so;
He will not know what all but he do know.
And as he errs, doting on Hermia's eyes,
So I, admiring of his qualities.
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgment taste;
Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.


Further, the wood does not produce simply madness and inconstancy. There are two juices, love-in-idleness which will make “man or woman madly dote” (II.i.171) and another herb which takes away all error (III.ii.368). By applying love-in-idleness to Demetrius' eyes the fairies have returned him to his first love, and once Lysander's error is remedied with the second herb the fairies have ordered the desire of the Athenian lovers by making them into mutually affectionate couples. When this has been accomplished, the fairies produce constancy in the lovers. The young Athenians will continue to love their respective mates. Oberon promises that

                    back to Athens shall the lovers wend
With league whose date till death shall never end.


And later he repeats that

So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be.


The fairies, then, have done what Theseus could not do. They have sorted out the lovers so that they are paired harmoniously, and they have produced constancy in the three sets of lovers.

There are other indications that the fairies rather than Theseus control the action. The play suggests that order has already been restored before Theseus enters. Titania and Oberon have already joined each other in a dance at the end of which Oberon says, “Now thee and I are new in amity.” As Oberon has said earlier, once Oberon has the Indian boy and Titania's eye has been released from its love for Bottom, “all things shall be at peace” (III.ii.374-77). Earlier the control of Titania and Oberon over natural forces has been implied by their quarrel's effect on nature (II.i.81-117). It has generally destroyed the order of the seasons, and in so doing it has caused destruction in nature in the form of fogs and floods, rotted crops, and the death of cattle from murrain. It has also caused destruction in the human world in the form of epidemics, and its filling up the “nine men's morris” with mud and its ruining paths “for lack of tread” are symbolic of its destruction of the order which man attempts to impose on nature. Now Titania and Oberons' amity suggests a comparable concord in nature and in the human world. Oberon foreknows that Theseus will overrule Egeus and that the three pairs of lovers will marry tomorrow:

Now thou and I are new in amity,
And will tomorrow midnight solemnly
Dance in Duke Theseus' house triumphantly,
And bless it to all fair prosperity.
There shall the pairs of faithful lovers be
Wedded, with Theseus, all in jollity.


The fairies have been responsible for the production of order. Order has not resulted from Theseus' control or from any independent change in the young lovers' vision. Although the lovers have been altered in the harmony and constancy of their loves, there is no indication that their characters have been transformed. As Demetrius explains it,

                    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.


The lovers' reactions to the Pyramus and Thisbe play also imply a lack of alteration in their understanding. The play suggests to none of them the dangers caused by their own desire and by their trip to the wood. Rather they laugh and joke at the ineptitude of the mechanicals' production.

Shakespeare makes the fairies rather than Theseus responsible for ordering desire because he wants to point out that if it were not for the poet the story of the lovers could have been a tragedy like the Pyramus and Thisbe story. A tragedy would imply that there were forces in nature or in the city hostile to the happiness of the lovers. Shakespeare produces a comedy by making the forces of nature, as represented by Titania and Oberon, harmonize both with the happiness of the lovers and the laws of the city. Titania and Oberon have made desire conform to the laws of the city by sorting out the pairs of lovers and then by defending the virtues necessary to the city—constancy and marriage. On the cosmic level they have produced this harmony through their renewed amity.

The study of Katherine M. Briggs supports the view that Shakespeare is making a point in attributing to his fairies the production of order. Briggs argues that fairies are traditionally concerned with mischief but that Shakespeare's fairies are striking for their benevolence. Titania's followers drive away owls, snakes, spiders, newts, and bats—all creatures of witchcraft. Oberon distinguishes himself from night-wandering spirits.6 Puck mentions the “ghosts,” “damned spirits all,” who inhabit the night so that daylight will not shame them (III.ii.378-88), but Oberon suggests that his actions can take place in the light of day:

But we are spirits of another sort.
I with the Morning's love have oft made sport;
And, like a forester, the groves may tread,
Even till the eastern gate, all fiery-red
Opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams,
Turns into yellow gold his salt green streams.


Shakespeare has made his fairies acceptable to Athens by having them order desire and support the virtues necessary to the city.

The quarrel of Titania and Oberon helps to explain how one must deal with desire. It does not, as Paul Olson suggests in his influential article, symbolize the appropriate hierarchy of heavenly love, as represented by Oberon, over earthly love, as represented by Titania.7 The earthly is apparent in both Titania and Oberon. Both are jealous, and both accuse one another of infidelity. Titania says that Oberon has wooed the “amorous Phillida” and his “warrior love,” Hippolyta (II.i.64-73), while Oberon attacks Titania for her “love of Theseus” (II.i.76). There is no reason to find Titania lustful in her attachment to the Indian boy. She tells us that she keeps the boy for the sake of the love she felt for his mother, a votaress of Titania's order (II.i.122-37), and the boy is young, still a “child” (II.i.122). Further, the play as a whole does not denigrate earthly love as the love between men and women. It mocks it at times, but in the end the play celebrates the mutual affection of the three sets of lovers protected by a fourth set, Titania and Oberon.

A more fruitful line of criticism concerning Titania began with C. L. Barber's discussion of the play in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. He takes note of a side of Titania other than the erotic. In her description of the fun she shared with her votaress, Barber sees a “glimpse of women who gossip alone, apart from men and feeling now no need of them, rejoicing in their own special part of life's power. At such moments the child, not the lover, is their object.” Later Titania fulfills the play's association of love with growth by giving up the Indian boy to the man's world of Oberon and renewing their ritual marriage.8

There are three aspects of Titania which require explanation. She is associated with childbirth, with chastity and with the forces of erotic love. These three aspects derive in part from Titania's identification with Diana. It is generally thought that the source of Titania's name is Ovid's Metamorphoses (III, 173)9 where “Titania” is an epithet given Diana as a descendant of the Titans. Titania's mention of the pregnant votaress of her order (II.i.133-37) suggests that she is fulfilling Diana's function as goddess of childbirth. In her association with the moon Titania takes on other aspects of Diana as goddess of the moon. Critics have frequently pointed out that Titania and the other fairies preside over the night: Lysander and Hermia escape to the wood at midnight, and Hippolyta calls the story told by the four Athenian lovers about their time in the wood the “story of the night” (V.i.23). Oberon's first words to Titania are “Ill met by moonlight” (II.i.57). “Moonshine” recurs in the Pyramus and Thisbe parallel to the Athenian lovers' tale. The moon itself appears as Diana the huntress, “a silver bow / New-bent in heaven” (I.i.9-10), and as Diana goddess of chastity, “the cold and fruitless and moon” (I.i.73, also II.i.162) which laments “some enforced chastity” (III.i.200). The moon also appears as the heavenly body presiding over erotic love,10 the moonlight by which, according to Egeus, Lysander bewitches Hermia (I.i.30-35).

Titania is associated, then, with the goddess of childbirth, with the goddess of chastity, and also with the forces of erotic love. The quarrel of Titania and Oberon implies that these three aspects of humankind ought to be in a particular harmonious relation to one another. This quarrel and its effect on nature suggest that Titania and Oberon begin in an improper relationship to one another. The cause is the changeling whom Titania has kept, but she has also foresworn Oberon's bed and company. In doing so, she has made herself one of the play's three examples of women subsisting outside the company of men. The other two are Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, before her conquest by Theseus and the girlhood of Hermia and Helena.

Life without men has its appeal. The innocent childhood love before one is aware of the body and desire involves a kind of carefree and spiritual union which is impossible later in life—in hererosexual love. Helena and Hermia

Like to a double cherry, grew together seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition;
Two lovely berries molded on one stem;
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart;
Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,
Due but to one, and crownèd with one crest.


They are like The Winter's Tale's “twinned lambs,” the youthful Leontes and Polixenes, who

The doctrine of ill-doing, knew not nor dreamed
That any did; had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne'er been higher reared
With stronger blood, we should have answered heaven
Boldly, “not guilty”; the imposition cleared,
Hereditary ours.


Ultimately, however, one cannot deny the body. Men and women must recognize that they are of composite nature. A few may be meant for the “single blessedness” of the nunnery, but they will find their happiness after death. The married life, however, is “earthlier happy” (I.i.76). The foolishness of men who cannot understand their own mixed natures is epitomized in the “little academe” of the King of Navarre in Love's Labor's Lost. Navarre's court takes an oath to devote itself to the contemplative life and to deny the body by seeing no ladies, by fasting, and by sleeping only three hours a night. Berowne points out that most men are not capable of the philosophic life which is the ideal of Navarre:

Small have continual plodders ever won
Save base authority from others books.


The men of the little academe are so ignorant of themselves that they all fall in love and are foresworn soon after they take their oaths. The same representation of earthly love as a combination of body and soul appears in As You Like It, where Orlando complains to Ganymede that he “can live no longer by thinking” (V.ii.50) of his love without having her before him.

Once Hermia and Helena love men they must recognize two bodies. Each must choose a different lover. For most earthly lovers there is no Platonic ladder of love moving from love of a particular beauty to love of beauty in general. Rather there is the opposite impulse—to assume that the ideal beauty is available in one's own love. This is the charm Oberon offers as he anoints Demetrius' eyes with love in idleness:

When his love he doth espy,
Let her shine as gloriously
As the Venus of the sky.


It matches Helena's claim that

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


or Theseus' characterization of the lover as seeing “Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt” (V.i.11).

Erotic love is necessary to the city for the simple reason that a civil society must reproduce its citizens. As Benedick argues in Much Ado, the “world must be peopled” (II.iii.237). In A Midsummer Night's Dream Titania and Oberon preside over erotic love as well as over the limitations which constancy and the orderly pairing of men and women put on it. When Titania has foresworn Oberon's marriage bed, there is disorder both in nature and in the patterns which man attempts to impose upon it. One may assume that this disorder would extend to the city in its attempts to control human nature. Once Titania and Oberon renew their harmonious relationship, then they can perform their proper function by guaranteeing fertility to the city through blessing the marriage beds of its rulers, Theseus and Hippolyta, and of its citizens, the young Athenian couples. In making this blessing Titania retains her function as goddess of childbirth, but now she shares it with Oberon. Oberon's inclusion of constancy as part of the joint blessing allows Titania to retain her function as goddess of chastity, now applied to married love.

The escapades of the young Athenian lovers have revealed some of the ways that the erotic can get out of hand. Titania's love for Bottom reveals another.11 If love fastens on an improper object, then it can become mere “dotage,” as does Titania's love for Bottom: Once her error has been removed by “Diana's bud,” Titania's love is directed toward an appropriate object, Oberon.

If the poet's abilities are superior to the politican's in understanding and bringing a solution to the problem of desire, it is important to recognize that Shakespeare's solution is spurious to some degree. It is produced by magic herbs and by fairies whose reality the audience might doubt. Only Puck and Oberon have prevented the lovers from harming one another. The story of the wood appears to the young lovers as a dream and to Theseus as simply untrue, and Shakespeare playfully refuses to vouch for the seriousness of his drama by having Puck advise the audience to consider it a dream. All of this suggests that Shakespeare recognizes an intransigent incompatibility between desire and politics. He realizes that desire is disorderly and can produce conflict and upset the law. He also sees that law is sometimes of necessity incompatible with the fulfillment of desire.


  1. See, for example, Schanzer, pp. 233-38; Siegel, pp. 139-44; Olson, pp. 95-119; Calderwood, pp. 506-22.

  2. See, for example, Olson, pp. 101-02, 107; Bullough, I, 368-69; Young, pp. 117-18. D'Orsay Pearson takes exception to the idea that the Renaissance image of Theseus was entirely favorable (see p. 45 note 1 above).

  3. Hunter, pp. 18-20.

  4. Sidney R. Homan, “The Single World of A Midsummer Night's Dream,Bucknell Review, 17 (1969), 78-79.

  5. Frank Kermode, “The Mature Comedies,” in Early Shakespeare, eds. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (New York, 1961), pp. 218-20; Stephen Fender, Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream (London, 1968), pp. 48-58.

  6. Katherine M. Briggs, The Anatomy of Puck (London, 1959), pp. 45-46.

  7. Olson, pp. 107-11.

  8. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1959), pp. 135-38.

  9. Bullough, I, 371.

  10. Olson argues that Shakespeare develops Titania from a single one of the three aspects of Diana, from Hecate or Proserpina (pp. 109-11).

  11. John A. Allen argues that Titania's attentions to Bottom should be regarded “more as those of doting mother to child than those of lover to beloved” [“Bottom and Titania,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 18 (1967), 115], but compare this with Puck's report that his “mistress with a monster is in love” (III.ii.6).

Works Cited

Allen, John A. “Bottom and Titania.” SQ, 18 (1967), 107-17.

Barber, C. L. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959.

Briggs, Katherine M. The Anatomy of Puck. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959.

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Vol. I. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia University Press, 1957.

Calderwood, James L. “A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Illusion of Drama.” MLQ [Modern Language Quarterly], 26 (1965), 506-22.

Homan, Sidney R. “The Single World of A Midsummer Night's Dream.Bucknell Review, 17 (1969), 72-84.

Hunter, G. K. Shakespeare: The Late Comedies. London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1962.

Kermode, Frank. “The Mature Comedies.” In Early Shakespeare. Ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris. New York: St. Martin's, 1961, pp. 210-27.

Olson, Paul. “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage.” ELH, 24 (1957), 97-119.

Pearson, D'Orsay. “‘Unkind’ Theseus: A Study in Renaissance Mythography.” English Literary Renaissance, 4 (1974), 276-98.

Schanzer, Ernest. “The Central Theme of A Midsummer Night's Dream.UTQ [University of Toronto Quarterly], 20 (1951), 233-38.

Siegel, Paul N. “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Wedding Guests.” SQ, 4 (1953), 139-44.

Young, David P. Something of Great Constancy. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1966.

Jeffrey D. Frame (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5086

SOURCE: Frame, Jeffrey D. “‘Now will I to the chink, / To Spy …’: Scopophilia as Gender Sport in A Midsummer Night's Dream.The Upstart Crow 19 (1999): 50-61.

[In the following essay, Frame focuses on the voyeurism of the male and female characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream and suggests that the motif emphasizes the characters' maneuvers for power over one another.]

No other period in history seems to have given more attention to the socio-cultural concepts of “looking” and “listening” than the modern-postmodernist twentieth century, and for obvious reasons. From Freud and Lacan to Hitchcock and Foucault, one can observe an evolving and now flourishing preoccupation in books and journals with the “gender gaze,” voyeurism, spectatorship, and an informed “optometric psychology” all largely propelled by the scopophilic nature of a cinematic, media-saturated society. When it is applied to literary studies, the natural ramification of this infatuation with the camera obscura is a hypersensitivity to the presence and power of the gaze in classic texts as well as in texts from this century. Since Shakespeare's plays are no exception, they can hardly be exempt from general discussion concerning the countless recurrences of eavesdropping and clandestine confidant-forging found in great storytelling, particularly in Renaissance comedy. Spying serves a diversity of functions in Shakespeare's comedies—information acquisition, demonstrative evidence, cautionary supervision—functions that ultimately become means by which the “watcher” can wield power over the “watched.”

The terms “voyeurism” and “spectatorship” imply two versions of our preoccupation with the pleasurable gazing exercise known as scopophilia: the first involves watching as an unseen observer; however, the second represents a gaze in the presence of and perhaps even shared by others. Perhaps the most salient arguments for both voyeurism and spectatorship as legitimate focal points in the study of gender competition in Shakespeare are those suggested by character behavior in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Numerous acts of gazing are committed by the characters of Shakespeare's other plays: for instance, the paternally protective peeping of Prospero in The Tempest; the perception-bending, metadramatic devices of the Induction in The Taming of the Shrew and of the Epilogue in As You Like It; or Troilus's most unpleasant revelation of Cressida's unfaithfulness while he is camouflaged just outside the Greek enemy camp. However, in addition to serving as an instrument of plot in many other plays of Shakespeare, these scopophilic activities play yet another vital role unique to A Midsummer Night's Dream—one of unequivocally thematic significance. By identifying scopophilic symptoms and behavior in A Midsummer Night's Dream, one may examine how voyeurism and spectatorship—both predominantly masculine control tactics in the story—rival other generic “power play” behavior demonstrated by Shakespeare's characters and how they both are thereby manipulated subtly throughout the text, either consciously or instinctively, to shape not only the generic identity, submission, and expectations of other characters, but the very meaning of the text itself.

Parenthetically, some readers will properly see a connection between this study of scopophilia in A Midsummer Night's Dream and certain Oedipal, psychoanalytic, and homoerotic aspects of other Shakespeare plays. Many discussions concerning these aspects are well-known and profuse. Such theories are avoided in this brief discussion, however, for three reasons: ultimately, the theories are only indirectly relevant to the broader definition of scopophilia, especially when read in the somber light of Freud's “psychical consequences of the anatomical distinction between the sexes”1; furthermore, whereas voyeurism may have once “applied only to men with a serious disturbance,”2 today the term is no longer gender-specific, nor is it relegated any more to the singular observation of sexual activity; and finally, despite the highly recognized homoerotic cultural tensions imposed upon English Renaissance actors, men and boys alike, contemporary arguments dealing with those tensions tend to overinflate them, often at the expense of numerous other critical issues lying at the heart of authorial intent and cultural context.

To address properly then the distinctly scopophilia-related questions in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the reader may benefit from a brief review of character and event as each unfolds within the multiple plots of the play. In the midst of Oberon's and Titania's clash of interests over the changeling boy and their battle for dominion in the forest's fairy world, humans likewise clamor for identity and domination on a parallel plane of reality. Having defeated her in physical battle, Duke Theseus of Athens must now conquer his formidable, Amazon war-prize Hippolyta in the socio-political arena while juggling untimely, sensitive domestic disputes at the same time. Those points of conflict, ignited by Egeus' customary patriarchal stubbornness, include Lysander's and Hermia's passion for one another, Demetrius' declaration of love for Hermia, and Helena's unrequited devotion to Demetrius. In the meantime, Bottom and the other “mechanicals” attempt to find meaning and audience in their creation of Quince's rendition of Pyramus and Thisby. Considering the broad range of character and event in the play, which characters show symptoms that can be considered scopophilic, and why? How do their actions as either voyeurs or spectators (or as both) in the play empower them, elevating their status and control over other characters? If one character's identity depends upon the identity of another, how does voyeurism serve this need in the play? Is the watcher necessarily always in a position of power and the watched always in a position of weakness, or vice versa—in part, because of the watcher's voicelessness? Regina Schwartz, raising similar questions in her investigation of voyeurism in Milton's Paradise Lost, decides that “Such questions push psychoanalysis, willingly or not, into the realm of politics, where insights into the complexities of the gaze could enable objects of sight to begin to reclaim their gaze—or, at least, their subjectivity.”3 An abbreviated exploration of the traditional character groupings in A Midsummer Night's Dream—fairies, lovers, nobles, rustics—and their interactive scopophilic enterprises provides a source of diverse responses to these questions and their political implications suggested by Schwartz.

The most conspicuous scopophiles in A Midsummer Night's Dream are the fairies, notably Puck and Oberon. Through invisibility, they become (as do most of the supernatural creatures in Shakespeare's plays) the consummate voyeurs. No sooner has Puck, as early as his second line in the play, warned a fairy in Titania's train to “Take heed the Queen come not within his [Oberon's] sight” than Shakespeare has already begun to alert his audience to Oberon's primary modus operandi for maintaining sovereignty over the fairy kingdom: looking and listening.4 In act one, scene two after his initial confrontation with Titania, Oberon launches his plan of retaliation against his queen by instructing Puck to fetch the magic flower, “love-in-idleness” (II. i. 168). In so doing, Oberon eloquently discloses how he first witnessed the location of the rare herb: “Yet mark'd I where the bolt of Cupid fell” (II. i. 165). Revealing himself then as a creature uncommonly reliant on his sight as a source of knowledge and exclusive advantage, Oberon delivers one of his most illuminating speeches, conveying in it the power unleashed in the act of “beholding”:

                                        Having once this juice,
I'll watch Titania when she is asleep,
And drop the liquor of it in her eyes;
The next thing she waking looks upon
(Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape),
She shall pursue it with the soul of love.
And ere I take this charm from off her sight
(As I can take it with another herb),
I'll make her render up her page to me.
But who comes here? I am invisible,
And I will overhear their conference.

(II. i. 176-87)

Two types of voyeuristic power plays are set into motion in this soliloquy. First, Oberon is empowered by watching Titania as she sleeps. The act of watching someone sleep becomes, in fact, a recurrent motif and a celebrated signifier of the play's title as Puck scans the sleeping lovers on two separate occasions; Helena discovers the sleeping Lysander; Lysander spies the dreaming Hermia; Oberon peers at Demetrius resting; Theseus and his court inspect the sleeping lovers during the hunt in act four; and Oberon gazes a second time, now with Puck, upon the charmed Titania along with her Bottom while he dozes. Secondly, Oberon becomes transparent so that he may spy on the unsuspecting mortals. In both types of scopophilic activity, the watcher remains unseen, thereby taking on the role of the voyeur with all of its accompanying potency and pleasure. The terms “scopophile” and “voyeur” are therefore appropriate for Oberon and Puck, although the arousing, vicarious substitutions for sex inherently suggested by these terms in human quarters do not necessarily apply so neatly to Shakespeare's complex and unearthly fairy world.

As the small cabal of fairies advances, another symbolic anomaly emerges through Oberon's herbal prescription for passion. A drug ingested via the eyes rather than through the nose, mouth, ears, or touch is significant in its locus of effectiveness but is clearly not an arbitrary authorial choice. Oberon, creature of sight, ironically manipulates the sight of his female counterpart in such a way as to render her powerless to change her own perception and, consequently, reduces Titania to bestial worship. To accomplish this task, he applies the “juice” directly to her eyes. Puck uses the same application mistakenly on Lysander's eyelids, an error countered by Oberon when he applies the flower to Demetrius' eyes and when, at last, he threatens to administer the remedy upon Lysander's eyes late in act three. By reiterating the eyes as the central symbol in this business of mild hypnosis (and there are well over eighty references to eyes, sight, and vision throughout the play), Shakespeare ensures the audience's understanding that these perceptual shifts among characters show not only how the play comes about, but also what the play is about. Without resorting to pluralism or neoprimitivism, he reminds one of the inherent value in seeing the world from different angles—a vast variety of vantage points through which perception and interpretation remain in flux.

The only three characters to receive the juice of the flower in their eyes are Titania, Lysander, and Demetrius. Interestingly, the effect achieved depends largely upon gender. The joint response of the men to the charm is to ogle Helena throughout act three. While Helena is clearly the object of their subjective affection, Titania's enchantment causes the fairy queen not only to marvel at Bottom's appearance, but also compels her to forego her former fairy authority in order to convert from subject to object in the unaffected eyes of Bottom. Though she confesses to Bottom, “So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape” (III. i. 139), she instructs her attending fairies just a few lines later to “Hop in his walks and gambol in his eyes” (III. i. 165) and “To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes” (III. i. 173). The effect of the flower then is eventually masculine for it cultivates scopophilia in the men but makes a scopophilic victim of Titania against her will. Her only relief under Oberon's spell is her faint awareness of that spell: “The moon methinks looks with a wat'ry eye; / And when she weeps, weeps every little flower, / Lamenting some enforced chastity” (III. i. 198-200). Thus, the heavens are recognized by Titania, as they so often were by the Ancient Greeks, as the omnipotent voyeurs peeping into each person's very soul, helpless in its exposure to the gazing of the gods. Oberon's act of voyeurism and “ocular inoculation” against Titania causes her to react in such a way that woman remains object and man remains subject—a kind of exploitative crime that many feminists might still label the “rape” of Titania.5

Oberon and Puck spend most of their time onstage in act three in the guise of “voyeurs extraordinaire” while the lovers' confusion accelerates. As a result of Oberon's prominent position in the play's action, his voyeuristic involvement and his treatment of looking as sport at the expense of others contribute considerably to the masculine scopophilia in the play, despite the prescribed “other-worldliness” of his fairy status. Puck, who is widely accepted as androgynous in the fairy scheme, finds quite a different use for “his” voyeuristic penchant. Though the major development in Puck's character emerges through his struggle toward self-identity, watching others within shifting contexts enables him to succeed. Puck's regular duties require him to monitor mortals and fairies for Oberon while Oberon monitors him. Because Puck is precariously suspended between being the observer and the observed, his sense of identity goes unfulfilled around Oberon. Oberon's pet-like affection for Puck does not allow Puck to ascend the fairy chain of command or even to find satisfaction in his immortality. Voyeurism is true sport to Puck only when he watches the rustics prepare their play since any observer of such coarse nonsense and disorganization is plainly in a seat of superiority over Quince and his misguided troupe. At these times Puck exercises a freedom and a power to move beyond simply eavesdropping at Oberon's whimsical behest: the fairy has his own fun not only through participating, but also possibly creating intentional mischief as he proposes, whispering to himself, “I'll be an auditor, / An actor too perhaps, if I see cause” (III. i. 79-80). Although Puck's sense of unfulfillment, even in the play's closing apologia, may be partially attributed to his generic indeterminacy, it is conceivable that his voyeuristic struggle for identity in the hierarchy of mortals and immortals is the principal cause.

Like Puck, Helena observes others as the means by which to establish her own identity. However, her observations are voyeuristic only once—when she, unseen by the slumbering Lysander, chances upon him lying in the woods. At all other times, her scopophilic behavior is purely that of a spectator—rather than voyeuristic—as she, in full view of the other lovers, returns Lysander's and Demetrius' gazes with her own look of incredulity. As the only lover who does not fall asleep early in act three, Helena repeatedly demonstrates her confusion and—like Puck, but more overtly—her dilemma in determining self-identity among the lovers with their shifting loyalties. Helena's apparent mantra, expressed in her soliloquy of act one, “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind” (I. i. 234), is the relational compass that guides her search for self-identity in later scenes. Her earliest remarks in act three, “I see you all are bent / To set against me for your merriment” (III. ii. 145-46), with her, “Now I perceive, they have conjoin'd all three / To fashion this false sport, in spite of me” (III. ii. 193-94), reflect her inability to equate what she sees with what she knows was true earlier in her relationships with the three other young Athenians.

For the remainder of the mid-section of act three, Helena becomes chiefly spectator. Along with voyeurs Oberon and Puck she attempts to discern what is reality and her precise role in it. Eventually, the “audience Helena” must watch the chaos among Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius play itself out before she believes she can define herself through their final attitudes toward her and one another. The end of the third act never affords her that opportunity, unfortunately, since all four of the lovers are scattered and lulled back to sleep by Puck. Nevertheless, a critical feature of act three is its careful depiction of the watched—those in a somewhat greater position of power and influence than the voiceless watchers who usually must resort to silence or defensive postures to retain their status. Among all of the characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream who are detected watching others, it is ironically Puck and Helena, two non-male characters, who engage in scopophilic conduct for the express purpose of seeking self-identity, despite the fact that a great deal of their watching places them in weaker, voiceless situations.

One of the most subtle developments of scopophilia in the course of A Midsummer Night's Dream is Shakespeare's treatment of spectatorship among the nobles in three separate, but related occasions in the story. The first occurs in act one in the umistakably patriarchal court of Theseus. Certainly, at first glance, the pivotal figures in the scene seem to be men, as Egeus (and with lesser voices, Demetrius and Lysander) makes petition to Theseus. Even when Hermia builds her argument leading Theseus to devise a third alternative in response to her predicament, Theseus remains the key agent of action and control in the scene. Upon closer examination, however, one senses a peculiar female presence exerting a poised, coercive, almost imperceptible, “spectatorly” force throughout the first scene in the person of Hippolyta. After her opening tease with Theseus—her only line in the scene—she watches the rest of the scene silently, becoming audience for us, and by so doing influences and assists the actual theatrical audience in forming clear impressions and judgments concerning the initial conflicts.6 Perhaps this is the only example in the entire play of a female's appropriating what has been heretofore the masculine act of spectating as she proceeds silently to use scopophilic power to usurp the patriarchal order and to raise her status above that of Theseus. This inference is most plausible when one remembers that Hippolyta is the virile Queen of the Amazons and already brings with her a lusty unconventionality to Athenian femininity. Theseus' awkward words as he prepares to withdraw reflect his moderate recognition of Hippolyta's daunting, stalwart posture: “Come, my Hippolyta; what cheer, my love?” (I. i. 122).

The next time we see Hippolyta is in act four, by which time she has begun to show signs of acclimation to Athenian society and decorum but not necessarily a compromise of her own charm and Amazonian convention. Even so, it is again Theseus and Egeus who manipulate scopophilic command on behalf of the court as they hover above the four sleeping lovers, speculating on the cause of their presence in the woods. As in the majority of instances of people watching other people sleeping throughout the play, the watchers here again are in positions more advantageous than those of the watched.

Hippolyta's final appearance occurs in the wedding celebration of act five. Still discreetly clinging to her own sense of propriety, she submits even further to Athenian culture. However, Hippolyta challenges the traditionally passive spectator role of the feminine Athenian code when she adopts the masculine role of active spectator along with Theseus, Lysander and Demetrius during the performance of Pyramus and Thisby. As in act four, she at first verbally, brilliantly jousts with Theseus—a discourse on the imagination leading Theseus into some of the most well-known verses of the play, some of which depend specifically on scopophilic analogy:

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.

(V. i. 12-17)

At least one significant implication in these words is that Shakespeare, along with many other writers, is a scopophile in several respects. Writers may be simply experiential students or spectators—mere recorders of life—but always with the inherent potential to become voyeurs. Like Olympian gods, they may then choose to gaze down upon their inky creatures, pushing and prodding them along with their pens. Authors are, without a doubt, surveyors of the characters who populate their texts until, one day, the watchers discover their watched creation staring back at them, as Pirandello might remind us.7

Theseus' and Hippolyta's conversation is followed by his call for entertainment, in answer to which Philostrate provides a list of options. Philostrate cautions Theseus against Quince's company by explaining, “It is not for you. I have heard it over, / And it is nothing, nothing in the world; / Unless you can find sport in their intents …” (V. i. 77-79). Perking at the word “sport” and becoming leery of Theseus' intoxicated mood, Hippolyta protests the notion that the mechanicals' earnest performance should be made sport of by Theseus and his guests at the expense of Quince and his men. Theseus thus amends his approach in pseudo-sincerety by promising her, “Our sport shall be to take what they mistake” (V. i. 90). The play then proceeds with Theseus spearheading the gibes from the onstage audience. In reality, only three Athenian spectators mock the play-within-the-play, and they are all men. They are each taking part in what here may be termed the predominantly masculine sport of active spectatorship. Their activity takes the form of abrasive and unflattering vocal interruptions so numerous that Quince and his players find it difficult to maintain concentration and continuity in their storytelling. Hippolyta, therefore, must intervene as best she can by adopting their sloppy sport and by vocalizing her own distaste for the behavior of the audience “rowdies.” By taking on this role, Hippolyta's gaze becomes reflexive and interiorized as she, in essence, beholds in that moment two kinds of “performances” transpiring, in one of which she can view herself regretfully taking part.8

The culmination of the interiorized gaze in A Midsummer Night's Dream is the scopophilic mise-en-abyme represented in Pyramus and Thisby. Shakespeare not only finds a suitable microcosm for Elizabethan scopophilia in A Midsummer Night's Dream's immediate world of Athens, but he finds another crucial, microcosmic opportunity to depict the multiple reflexivity of scopophilia through metadramatic technique in the form of Quince's play within the larger play. At the core of this “house of mirrors” is the cranny or chink in Snout's Wall. This is the hole “right and sinister, / Through which the fearful lovers are to whisper” (V. i. 163-64). Shakespeare then equates this hole to the voyeur's camera with iconic deliberation:

Thou wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall,
Show me thy chink, to blink through with mine eyne!
[Wall holds up his fingers.]
Thanks, courteous wall; Jove shield thee well for this!
But what see I? No Thisby do I see.
O wicked wall, through whom I see no bliss!
Curs'd be thy stones for thus deceiving me!

(V. i. 176-80)

In just one short, satiric declaration, Shakespeare captures both scopophilic theme and device in the form of parody. He further intensifies the joke by allowing Bottom's Pyramus to confuse the visual with the aural: “I see a voice! Now will I to the chink, / To spy and I can hear my Thisby's face” (V. i. 192-93). By painting a comic picture of voyeurism as unpredictable, obscure and dangerously presumptive, Shakespeare adds a final healthy dose of sugar to help his medicine go down, inviting his audience once again to laugh generously at its own perilous folly whenever it develops scopophilic symptoms. Here again one observes Shakespeare's inimitable literary gift of shaking his audience soundly with the voice of caution, but delicately doing so through the mouthpiece of self-parody. Perhaps Quince's Prologue makes one's own scopophilic indiscretions more palpable, forgiving in the process, when he concludes, “And through Wall's chink, poor souls, they are content / To whisper. At the which let no man wonder” (V. i. 133-34).

Voyeurism and spectatorship then, as two distinct, but related types of scopophilic “power plays” in A Midsummer Night's Dream, may not only benefit an intentionally manipulative watcher like Oberon, but also contravene the weakness of voicelessness symptomatic among involuntary observers. By remaining a voiceless observer, one can occasionally be empowered with a new, advantageous knowledge and a subversive control over the voiced and the observed, as is true for Hippolyta. A mobile scopophilia further enables the watcher to negotiate a self-identity based contextually on the identity of the watched in A Midsummer Night's Dream, particularly in the cases of Helena and Puck. Shakespeare's clever keystone in the larger dramatic design, of course, is his reflexive grand finale in the mechanicals' performance of Pyramus and Thisby during which Theseus, Hippolyta, and the other nobles of Athens make their own theatre and define the visual field for the second tier of spectators: the actual theatre audience seated in the house. In his book, The Cinematic Society: The Voyeur's Gaze,9 Norman K. Denzin's involved discussion of multiple gazes and reflexivity in Alfred Hitchcock's film Rear Window would seem to hint that Shakespeare's final act in A Midsummer Night's Dream is a similar, self-referential invitation to the theatre audience to assume the role of voyeur and to draw their own interiorized meaning from that intricate adoption process.

The investment of trust in one's eyes and the images they record has permeated modern and postmodern attempts to define our conscious, socio-cultural self-worth as a civilization. In the “Epilogue” of his Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's narrator concludes that “… all life seen from the hole of invisibility is absurd”10—a hole not unlike Oberon's telescopic eye, Helena's self-conscious tunnel vision, or Bottom's empty chink—each one, perhaps, a kind of deformed aperture of Shakespeare's “human camera.”11 Following suit, Kobo Abe's The Box Man suggests that “The reason men somehow go on living, enduring the gaze of others, is that they bargain on the hallucinations and the inexactitude of human eyes.”12 Yet this popular, seemingly modern enigma that questions what it means to see and what it means to be seen—a socio-cultural paradox which can largely be attributed to Dostoevsky's seminal “underground man”—had already been meticulously, insightfully, and certainly no less artfully investigated hundreds of years earlier within the Elizabethan framework by Shakespeare when he challenged both scopophilic form and content by intertwining them into A Midsummer Night's Dream.

For this particular text in the Shakespearean canon, scopophilia moves beyond a localized, social phenomenon or mere plot-character device to become a more expansive, thematic motif—a paradigm for the politics of perception and interpretation in every culture and time period13—which may account partially for the play's heightened levels of accessibility to and popularity with modern audiences, most of whom have been seduced gradually by the visual culture in which they live to view the world through a camera's eye. Perhaps it is only contemporary American audiences who are predisposed to read the symptoms of scopophilia in A Midsummer Night's Dream—a predilection encouraged by the patriarchic reading formation imposed upon them by the ultra-visual, gazing, American culture of the twentieth century. However, the perceived presence of scopophilic symptoms and behavior in A Midsummer Night's Dream may represent more than just an immediate postmodernist or strictly American sensitivity by implying a larger, perennial phenomenon in history, one that would support Shakespeare's own recognition of the gender gaze as it existed in Elizabethan culture.


  1. A. C. Spearing, The Medieval Poet as Voyeur: Looking and Listening in Medieval Love-Narratives (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), p. 2.

  2. Joy Davidson, “The Secret Voyeur in All of Us,” Cosmopolitan, 221 (1996), p. 180.

  3. Regina Schwartz, “Through the Optic Glass: Voyeurism and Paradise Lost,Desire in the Renaissance: Psychoanalysis and Literature, ed. Valeria Finucci and Regina Schwartz (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994), p. 147.

  4. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 256-83, from II. i. 19; all subsequent quotations from the play will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  5. For an excellent discussion of the various roles both men and women have played in the evolution of feminist and gender studies over the past few decades, see Naomi Schor's “Feminist and Gender Studies,” Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures, ed. Joseph Gilbaldi, 2nd ed. (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992), 262-87.

  6. I am indebted to John Hirsch's production commentary on Hippolyta's world and his interpretation of her intentions in the Applause Shakespeare Library edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream edited by John Russell Brown (New York: Applause, 1996). His insightful contribution figured prominently into my own rehearsal work with the actors playing Theseus and Hippolyta when I recently produced and directed Dream at Trevecca Nazarene University.

  7. In Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello's play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, the mysterious “six characters” suddenly materialize on stage as fictional creations who have become self-actualized, interrupting a rehearsal by a company of “real actors” in the process. By awakening their theatrical selves, they are led to question their own identities and to seek out the elusive, yet ubiquitous author who wrote them into existence.

  8. My suggestion here concerning Hippolyta's unique perspective on the events that unfold in act five owes much to the notion of interiorized, reflexive gazing as it has been thoroughly treated by Norman K. Denzin in The Cinematic Society: The Voyeur's Gaze (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1995).

  9. Denzin's book is an invaluable resource containing comprehensive coverage of pertinent classical and contemporary social theory concerning scopophilia and its multiple forms, from Foucault to Mulvey. For another superb summary of contemporary social theory as it relates to the “cinematic gaze,” see also Denzin's Images of Postmodern Society: Social Theory and Contemporary Cinema (1991).

  10. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Random-Vintage International, 1995), p. 579.

  11. Although one typically attributes the advent of photography to the many nineteenth century developments in film and camera technology, the concept of the camera obscura was already well underway in Shakespeare's lifetime. Most current sources on the subject posit that Leonardo da Vinci's exploration with landscape painting and perspective in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries led to further experimentation with the notions of camera obscura and camera lucida, including the invention of the first true camera lens by Daniello Barbaro published in La Pratica della Prospectiva in 1568 (see Tony Patti's article in “Historically Speaking” of the May 1994 issue of PSA Journal [vol. 60, no. 5, p. 11]). During the next century or so, uses for the camera obscura continued to evolve rapidly in the work of Giambattista della Porta, Johannes Kepler, and Johann Heinrich Schulze, among others. Some sources, looking prior to the fifteenth century, even suggest Aristotle's keen awareness of the principle of a camera obscura evidenced in some of his earliest writings, to be followed shortly by Chinese experiments with the idea in the first century AD. Thus, the likelihood of Shakespeare's own awareness of the camera obscura along with his recurrent hinting at the notion in A Midsummer Night's Dream of the human (and fairy) as a living camera—a private “chamber” from which to view unseen a projected image of the world—not only makes the specific scopophilic connections to each character's “hole of invisibility” seem plausible, but deliberate as well.

  12. Kobo Abe, The Box Man, trans. E. Dale Saunders (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996), p. 86.

  13. Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991), p. 158.

Urban Morén (essay date September 2000)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9914

SOURCE: Morén, Urban. “‘Antique Fable’ Epitomized by Puck.” English Language Notes 38, no. 1 (September 2000): 16-40.

[In the following essay, Morén contends that Puck is a representative of sexuality in A Midsummer Night's Dream and examines the distinctive meanings of the word “Puck” in the text of the play in order to support this claim.]

The application of a “digressive” approach to A Midsummer Night's Dream1 has made it possible to unearth Shakespeare's standpoint in one of the play's central issues. Thus several cruces, notably, “‘Puck's name’ … bear no barm … ‘tailor’ cries … cough … loffe,” are given plausible solutions, and, as a consequence, one of Puck's enigmatic passages unravels as a comment on the “imagination vs. reason” theme. In this semantic examination a few outings in other parts of “Shakespeareshire,” as well as extra-disciplinary dittos, have been necessary. These side-tracks encompass areas as diverse as: magical milk-theft as portrayed in Swedish medieval church murals, grotesque popular humor, Rabelais's use of antique fables, insect identification, the linkage between fairies, witches and prostitution, modern medical-nutritional knowledge, and the civilizing process in the history of manners.

Puck's “safe” image has been questioned by many authors. Zern asks himself where Puck of popular tradition is: Has Shakespeare played down the obscenity, painted him without other phallic symbols than a broom?2 Puck may not stand up to popular expectations of sexual expressivity throughout the play but there is one scene where his capacity for the sexually grotesque lies hidden in word-play.

Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call'd Robin Goodfellow. Are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern,
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm,
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?
Thou speak'st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon, and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal;
And sometime lurk I in a gossip's bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob,
And on her wither'd dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And “tailor” cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and loffe
And waxen in their mirth, and neeze, and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there.

An indication of the insignificance generally assigned such opaque portions of the text as this is the elision in stage productions. In the 1981 BBC TV production, for instance, 11 out of the 26 lines under scrutiny in the present article were left out, viz. the dairy scene, and the last four lines. I suggest that Puck's introduction at II.i.32-57 include some important coarse punning that is now almost lost to oblivion. The synonymy and homonymy implied do not apply in today's English. The semantic pun, says Blake, “involves words which have two meanings, one of which is often obscene. The latter may not be familiar today, for each age develops its own bawdy vocabulary, and so the double entendre is easily overlooked.”3 For the homonymic pun I have, where possible, observed Kökeritz's instruction: “Once homonymity has been proved, the next important step will therefore be to ascertain its plausibility in a given context. Thus if we find that one of two homonymous words occurs in a Shakespearean passage whose coherence and effectiveness would be improved by a play on the other word, then strong probability favors the assumption that such punning was originally intended.”4 This article will attempt to reconstruct the necessary contexts. Blake adds, that the homophonic pun “involves words which sounded alike in at least one variant form in the London speech of the Elizabethan period, for the dramatists frequently drew upon less common pronunciations to achieve their wordplay.”5 These facts may account for the overlooking of a programmatic “prologue” delivered by Puck. In this instance of double entendre imagery there are references made to Æsop's fable about the cricket and the ant: The carefree cricket plays his violin all summer instead of gathering winter-stores. When autumn winds make his life a misery and he seeks refuge with the wise industrious ant, she maliciously shuts her door on him. In the present MND [A Midsummer Night's Dream] simile the outcome is reversed,6 which can be seen as an epitome of Shakespeare's carpe diem stance. We shall see how the cricket/Puck works wonders with his lecherous fiddlestick, as it were, whereas the present ant/aunt that represents the sex industry is made to bite the dust. This seems to be a reflection of one of the principal themes of A Midsummer Night's Dream: that of the contradiction7 between carefree sensuous imagination and cool rationality such as is represented by Hippolyta and Theseus respectively at MND V.i.1-6; 23-27,8

'Tis strange my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.
More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends …
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.


In later tradition Puck is usually brought out with a good heart but bent on mischief. Previous terminological research is summed up by Furness in the Variorum Edition9 and by Brooks in Arden. They point to Reginald Scot10 for possibly the first references to Robin Goodfellow as Puck: “In the same breath with Robin he mentions ‘the puckle,’ though he does not identify the two.”11 An examination of related creatures and phenomena in folklore was carried out by William Bell.12 In his extensive investigation into the sources of Puck Bell followed leads into ancient history, even prehistoric tradition, especially Nordic. Despite his pointing out as a possible predecessor a “carrier” with a vessel-shaped back,13 he did not disclose the connection with the milkstealing puke. Robin Goodfellow's involvement in any coarse joking, as suggested in a piece of writing detected by Collier,14 is staunchly questioned by Furness. The front page print of Robin Good-Fellow15 flaunting his attributes, a broom, a lit taper, a horn-like erection, cloven hoofs for feet, horns on his head, a bugle horn/horn for flying ointments (?), links him with fertility rites, or witches, or other fiends.

The fact that “Puck, or pouke, is an old word for devil”16 accounts for one element of Puck. That Shakespeare's Puck is more than a name is indicated in Puck's epilogue: “And as I am an honest Puck … Else the Puck a liar call.”17 Here, Puck transcends the category of proper nouns by taking both modifier and determiner. Furness accredits the first of the two instances to Puck's wish to “clear himself from any connexion with the ‘helle pouke.’”18 The present article argues to the contrary that the notion of a “magical milk-stealing creature” constituting Puck's conceptual background has not been sufficiently considered. Wall maps the field of magical milk-theft very thoroughly in his doctoral dissertation in Ethnology.19 The Swedish nouns puke and puk-hare, among others, were terms whose sense was restricted to “a magical milk-stealing creature,” in parts of Sweden, whereas in large parts of Northwest Europe puke denoted simply “ominous and unlucky shapes of evil provenance.” Milkstealing women in hares' guises have also been reported in Ireland, where some 150 instances are recorded,20 the first mention being by Giraldus Cambrensis c. 1180 also including Wales and Scotland.21 In Robert Manning of Brunne's Handlyng Synne c. 1300-1310, the first example of a milk-stealing object having been manufactured is mentioned, a sack brought to life. A similar sack is mentioned in a homiletic manual, Homo conditus, approximately 1330-1350, by a Swedish theologian, Magister Mathias.22 He had been a student in Paris for ten years and, being a member of the English students' “guild” there, may well have exchanged views on the matter of magical milk-theft with them. The Councils of Paris and Worms in 829 ad had dealt briefly with the belief that women could use magic to interfere with cows' milk-yield, which indicates that the concept is very old. Cases where imps have been said to steal milk from others' cattle are mentioned in witchcraft court proceedings.23 In one trial (although not involving milktheft) an imp was termed a puckrel.24

In Scandinavian popular imagination a milk-stealing creature could be assembled out of bits of broken whisks, ladles, brooms, burnt wood-chips from others' cowsheds, pieces of knitting-yarn, shavings of bells, drops of blood from the left little finger, with the addition of a magic charm, or rather by the making of a compact.25 The resulting “emissaries” were a very common-place concept and records date back to late medieval times, all the way through the witchcraft trials and onwards. First, the witch had to establish her milk-stealing territory, the boundaries being the hearing distance of her calling out for the fattest milk, from a hill in the dead of night. After this inaugural rite she could send her puke to suck the milk of the neighbors' cows, to be regurgitated on his return to his mistress. There are a number of church murals illustrating these beliefs, the oldest ones dating back to c. 1440.26 Out of 40 Swedish churches27 that have murals of this kind, eight show a cat/hare-like creature suckling cattle, eight show the creature throwing up milk into a pail/trough, and 36 show churning activities, most of which where the woman is joined by the devil at the staff.28 Theft of human milk was also reported. In a witchcraft trial in 1659 a ten-year-old girl testifies that 1 lb. of butter was the annual yield from a breastfeeding woman. The girl's mistress was accused of having milked a knife stuck in the wall29 thus drawing the milk from this local mother's mammae. Kittredge likewise reports of witches' magical milk-theft in Scotland about 1691 “by drawing a spickot fastened in a Post, which will bring Milk as farr as a Bull will be heard to roar.”30 In 1617-1630 the Swede L. P. Gothus in his Ethica Christiana explains that this kind of milk had been transported there by the dispatched milk-stealing creatures.31

The above-mentioned murals where a creature regurgitates milk offer strong support for the theory that the puke milk-theft was on Shakespeare's mind when he created Puck, for a very special reason: Shakespeare mentions a case of throwing up milk, viz. in Jaques's lines in As You Like It II. vii. 139:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.

(emphasis added)

This is the first recorded instance of the verb puke. OED says: “origin unknown” and their suggested etymology is expressly mere conjuncture.32 In OED I found that puck is also entered for “nightjar, goatsucker,” a dialectal word, it is true, and without entries before 1883 for the “bird,” and 1834 for “a disease in cattle attributed to the nightjar.”33 We do not know any terminological connection with Puck outside English. Scandinavian puke, however, is not recorded to have denoted a nightjar, although it was a creature of multifarious forms. The bird's legendary milk-stealing predilection, and capacity to cause disease in the cattle afflicted, has been well-known throughout southern and mid-Europe and has rendered it the German name Ziegenmelker and Danish gedemœlker. The Latin name, in Pliny, is Caprimulgus europœus ‘European goat-milker.’ Aristotle first wrote about it: “The so-called goat-sucker … flies to the she-goats and milks them, from which it has got its name; and they say that after it has milked it the udder dries up and the goat goes blind.”34

Simpson points out that Scandinavian puke is “cognate with English ‘Puck’ and Irish ‘poohka.’”35 Yeats enlarges on the Pooka's shapes: horse, ass, bull, goat, and eagle; and also presents a derivation of Pooka from poc ‘a he-goat.’36 The connection with Shakespeare's Puck is mentioned as speculation, without, however, any reference to the milk-stealing hags in hares' shapes that appear in some of the folk tales in the book. Allowing myself to take this etymological speculation a few steps further, I would include buck. OED traces buck back to OE buc ‘male deer’ and bucca ‘he-goat.’ They date back to a tentative Indo-European word *bhugo-‘male animal of various kinds; stag, ram, he-goat.’37Bacchus, denoting the orgiastic god Dionysys, resembles the *bhugo-derivatives. One of Bacchus's most common representations was the goat. Frazer states that, as “a goat he can hardly be separated from the minor divinities, the Pans, Satyrs, and Silenuses, all of whom are closely associated with him and are represented more or less in the form of goats.”38 Bacchus had a dual image, being at the same time a tree-god and a deity in goat-form. “At Athens and at Hermion he was worshipped under the title of ‘the one of the Black Goatskin.’”39 Etymological and conceptual links may well exist between, on the one had, wood-spirits, goats and nightjars in woodlands of ancient Greece, and a certain fairy in an Athenian wood in Shakespeareshire, on the other. In England a more general public became acquainted with this peculiar “milk-stealing bird” when William Turner published his book on birds, Avium praecipuarium, in 1544.


The public that Shakespeare turned to needed to be receptive to even less lofty phenomena than an ominous bird that nests on the ground. In Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin classifies and investigates the background of the different expressions of popular grotesque.40 Bakhtin claims that the “analysis we have applied to Rabelais would also help us discover the essential carnival element in the organization of Shakespeare's drama. This does not merely concern the secondary, clownish motives of his plays. The logic of crownings and uncrownings, in direct or indirect form, organizes the serious element also. … Shakespeare's drama has many outward carnivalesque aspects: images of the material bodily lower stratum, of ambivalent obscenities, and of popular banquet scenes.”41 The present difficulty in comprehending this imagery has applied ever since the classicists: “Rabelais's negative aspects as seen by La Bruyère consists first of all in his sexual and scatological obscenity, his curses and oaths, double entendres and vulgar quips—in other words, the tradition of folk culture in Rabelais's work, laughter and the material bodily lower stratum. The positive aspect is the purely literary, humanist element. The grotesque tradition peculiar to the marketplace42 and the academic literary tradition have parted ways and can no longer be brought together. … Obscenity has become narrowly sexual, isolated, individual, and has no place in the new official system of philosophy and imagery.”43

An important clue to these sexually charged ambiguities is the above investigation of the word Puck. For the lines: “Are not you he That … bootless make the breathless housewife churn” the scene is obviously similar to the dairy of the church-murals, but rather depicting the victim of the milk-theft. In this sentence, however, syntax seems to be somewhat jumbled: the modifier bootless can refer to you (i.e. Puck), housewife or churn and the last is the most likely for the surface meaning: “churn fruitlessly, the butter will not form since the magical milk-thief Puck has stolen the cream, skimmed the milk.” Bootless housewife, “unshod” housewife, adds nothing to the meaning, so that variant can be struck off. However, choosing Puck to be bootless, i.e. tentatively “barefoot,” yields a coarse meaning and this syntactic ambiguity marks the pun. The typical description of the pouke that is mentioned by Furness: “an old word for devil” is also compatible with a barefoot Puck. Some of the witch-craft trials record that “the Devil came to her in the likenesse of a man in blackish cloathing, but had cloven feet”; “feit lyk the griffon”; “he had ugly feet uncovered”; “he had Hogers on his Legs without Shoes.”44OED has hoger ‘a coarse stocking without the foot.’

The bootless innuendo can also be seen to herald the punning below on three-foot in “for three-foot stool mistaketh me.” The foot that is naked may be interpreted as “a penis,” the same meaning as in LLL [Love's Labour's Lost] V.ii.659: “[Adriano De] Arm[ado]. I do adore thy sweet grace's slipper. / Boyet. Loves her by the foot. / Dum[ain]. He may not be by the yard.” Here the implication is the phallic inadequacy of a mere foot as compared with a yard, the most common Elizabethan word for “penis.”45 In plain the double entendre would read: “Are not you he that with uncovered penis makes the hussy masturbate you?”

A look into Rabelais may clarify the picture here: The Rabelaisian tradition included the portrayal of grotesque differences in genital size which was to become part of the cuckoldry/emasculation jesting imagery crowding the entries of Williams's dictionary. The resulting laughter in Rabelais, however, has a special quality:

It is also directed at those who laugh. The people do not exclude themselves from the wholeness of the world. … This is one of the essential differences of the people's festive laughter from the pure satire of modern times. The satirist whose laughter is negative places himself above the object of his mockery, he is opposed to it. … Let us here stress the special philosophical and utopian character of festive laughter and its orientation toward the highest spheres.46

In Rabelais II.i, I have found an example, the eating of medlar fruits which resulted in swellings:

Others did swell at the shoulders, who in that place were so crump and knobbie, that they were therefore called Montifers, (which is as much to say as Hill-carriers,) of whom you see some yet in the world of divers sexes and degrees: of this race came Æsop, some of whose excellent words and deeds you have in writing: some other puffes did swell in length by the member, which they call the Labourer of nature,47 in such sort that it grew marvellous long, fat, great, lustie, stirring and Crest-risen, in the Antick fashion,48 so that they made use of it as of a girdle, winding it five or six times about their waste: but if it happened the foresaid member to be in good case, spooming with a full saile bunt faire before the winde, then to have seen those strouting Champions, you would have taken them for men that had their lances settled on their Rest, to run at the ring or tilting whintam:49 of these beleeve me the race is utterly lost and quite extinct, as the women say; for they lament continually, that there are none extant now of those great, etc. you know the rest of the song.50

The whole antagonism dissolves in a hearty joke. Rabelais's railing here with the industrious Hill-carriers, as opposed to the lusty Labourers of nature, could possibly have inspired Shakespeare to compose those Puckish pranks as addressed in the present article. There is strong textual evidence that Shakespeare used the very same imagery. Rabelais's Hill-carrying [ant-hill!] Æsop51 represents the ant in his own fable and the Labourer of nature represents the cricket, who succumbs in Winter, alas!


My proposition that there is an interpretational level where Puck is endowed similarly to Rabelais's second medlar-eater leads to a description where to skim “milk, and sometimes labour in the quern” would include a transformation: laboring inside the butter-churn/quern extending his erect penis through the lid as a churning-staff for the hussy to manipulate.52 Rabelais calls the penis the laborer, le laboureur de nature53 in the version that could possibly have been available to Shakespeare. In addition, labor can have sexual overtones.54

There may be a synsemantic pun-marker in MND on the line below bootless: [You Puck, who] “sometime make the drink to bear no barm.” For the surface meaning, the infinitive marker to is optional, hence redundant: “sometime make the drink bear no barm.”55 When, as here, it is present, it infuses the clause to bear no barm with the sense “in order to.” Through the homonymy bear:bare it opens the sentence to a coarse interpretation: “sometime make the drink in order to lay bare no udder/bosom.”56 The innuendoes on bear, wear, and carry were well-known to an Elizabethan audience.57 A Shakespearean gem of a quibble was unveiled by Kökeritz at 2H4 [Henry IV, Part 2] II.i.35, where Mrs. Quickly reflects that there is “no honesty in such dealing unles a woman should be made an Asse and a Beast, to beare every Knaves wrong,”58 including bear:bare, knave:nave, wrong:rung.

On the surface, the image is, of course, Puck interfering with the froth on the beer, or cream on the milk. On the coarse pun level, one component could be a reference to the capacity of some witches, male or female, to secrete milk through a witch-pap.59 They were one kind of “the Devil's Mark,” in witch-craft trials “sufficient for the judge to proceed to give sentence of death.” Murray cites 32 cases between 1597 and 1704 where a bodily examination had revealed, as with Margaret Moone: “teates or bigges in her secret parts, which seemed to have been lately sucked.”60 This practice was one from which the witches could obviously derive both pleasure and pain. Alice Duke of Somerset, in 1664,

confesseth that her Familiar doth commonly suck her right Breast about seven at night, in the shape of a little Cat of a dunnish colour, which is as smooth as a Want, and when she is suckt she is in a kind of a Trance.—Christian Green saith, The Devil doth usually suck her left Brest about five of the Clock in the Morning in the likeness of an Hedghog, bending, and did so on Wednesday Morning last. She saith that it is painful to her, and that she is usually in a trance when she is being suckt.61

The most common position for the supernumerary nipples first mentioned above is cited to have been the pudendum. The medical term is polythelia and they appear familially with both sexes as rudiments from the mammary ridge of the human embryo and can become functional during pregnancy, producing milk.62 Murray gives normal population frequencies of 9.1 percent for men and 4.8 percent for women.63 In recent breast-feeding research, relactation64 and “induced primary lactation” are well-known phenomena denoting a capability to take up breast-feeding out of turn. When a mother dies in childbirth, it is a matter of course in certain African cultures that the baby's grandmother takes over this capacity too, albeit many years after the birth of her last child. In a recent U.S. survey some women who had never been pregnant would still start breastfeeding, by allowing their adoptive baby to suckle, which triggers milk production.65 The high incidence of puerperal deaths66 and the wetnurse practice in Shakespeare's day67 may indicate that this old knowledge was indeed available to the Elizabethans.

The climax that the hussy's “churning” could lead to presents another drink interpretation. In the Rabelaisian vein Puck's drink goes through a transformation from beer, or milk, to semen. Both Rubinstein and Williams give several examples of such milk-semen similes, and it has also been addressed by Colman 203, and Hulme 140, neither of whom, however, suspicious of Puck. His whereabouts in the churn can be seen as a harbinger to his appearance later in the gossip's bowl. This kind of witches' brew desecration was witnessed in other fiends: In 1614, at Orléans, Siluain Neuillon was convicted of witchcraft. He said that “on baptise des enfans au Sabbat auec du Cresme, que des femmes apportent, & frottent la verge de quelque homme, & en font sortir de la semence qu'elles amassent, & la meslent auec le Cresme, puis mettent cela sur la teste de l'enfant en prononçant quelques paroles en latin … l'eau beniste est iaune comme du pissat d'asne.”68

Puck's processing of the drink starts at an upper stratum but is dragged down to being extracted at the lower bodily stratum in a real regeneration. Furthermore, the metamorphoses here are of the same nature as when Bottom wears the ass's head and is loved for it: human, bovine, asinine coalesce. Holland, ed., 69ff. points out the most probable source of Bottom's metamorphosis, Apuleius's ass. A human female's due appreciation of its massive phallus is also addressed, and, like Bakhtin, Holland also mentions the medieval “Feast of the Ass”—mockery of the Holy Mass. The boundaries between man and beast are extinguished and our common instinct desire is foregrounded.69 With Puck any dugs will do and any kind of drink be produced. It is all for a laugh and Puck's travesty of the seriousness70 of milk-production yields only playful interpretations.


In the “popular banquet scene”71 at MND II.i.44-57 Puck is the jester at Oberon's carousal with some friends of dubitable character. He performs his transformations at incredible speed: now a foal, now a crab-apple, now a stool. The images flicker past and, as we shall see, the other participants at this lascivious party also have several identities. Puck's only aim is the merry laugh and he achieves it through metamorphoses in the Rabelaisian-Bakhtinian vein. In the pranks suggested under the surface, Puck lets the aspect of the cool, rational, and industrious be characterised by the assiduous procuress/prostitute, above euphemistically termed: housewife, horse, gossip, aunt, and hour.72 For the purposes of the present article the Q2 and the F reading silly foal is more apt than Q1 semi-tautology filly foal which would also necessitate a sex change for Puck in addition to his other transmogrifications. As opposed to Rubinstein's (at neigh) “seduction of a stallion,” I suggest that it is the prostitute horse that is seduced, especially after a bean diet: the innuendo is probably that the fresh-cut green fodder would render her “mettlesome and sexually eager,” a piece of information applicable here but originally relating to KL [King Lear] Out of the above collection the aunt is the key to Æsop's fable: the laborious entrepreneur of Shakespeare's day,74 the procuress, or possibly prostitute, hidden in the homophony aunt:ant in MND II.i.51, the “wisest aunt.” For the other aspect Puck uses himself, the merry prankster, the carefree cricket. However, in order to establish this counterpart, a laid-back musical insect, we have to investigate the origin of cricket, the game: part of it is actually “a stool.”75OED's first evidence is 1643, but the sexual innuendoes appurtenant to stool-ball, make a very good case for an earlier, unrecorded dating.76 The three-foot modifier further underlines the connection between Puck and the puke.77 In reports dating back to 1750 it is frequently mentioned that the milk-stealing creature in southwestern Scandinavia was three-legged. Some informants give an explantion for this, viz. “that the devil created it, or helped create it and he is not capable of shaping a perfect hare.”78 The three-leggedness also applied to the werewolf, a man transformed into a wolf.79 In Kittredge 164 there is mention of how, in “1780 Ann Allan, a Yorkshire witch, milked one of the legs of a three-legged stool.” Another belief connecting stools with witches, and phallic symbols (Zern's broom above), is its use to take the place of the witch in her absence. Isobel Gowdie, 1662, used these words to shape an object to beguile anyone looking into her bed when she was out consorting with the Devil: “I lay down this besom [or stool] in the Devil's name, Let it not stir till I come again.”80 For tailor, however, we have to look elsewhere. Hilda Hulme is close to solving the tailor crux81 when she discusses its probable readings. She suggests three possible coarse interpretations for tailor. 1. the posterior, 2. the female pudendum, 3. the penis, (yard with quibble on “tailor's measuring-stick,” not deduced from the three-foot clue.)82The posterior is her choice which is rightly justified, but there is more to it. The connection has to be made between the three-foot stool and tailor: Hulme only argues that tailors can be regarded as obscene because they use a tool which happens to be synonymous with the male member. However, three-foot stool is an image which embraces the penis with its jocular size “a yard” = a three-foot extension, and its “intra-rectal placement” = stool. Thus, it makes perfect sense for the aunt to cry out for the tailor when he “finishes courting her rear” = slip I from her bum, as a tailor would certainly be the partner to suspect to have used a yard.

It may not be common knowledge now, but in Shakespeare's day the cricket you could hear in the winter would be a specimen of one of the “best-known species … the common house-cricket, Acheta domestica, ‘an insect that squeaks or chirps about ovens and fireplaces’” (OED). This is probably the background for the other Puck-cricket venue in “Shakespeareshire.” In MWW [The Merry Wives of Windsor] V.v.43ff it is Puck (only in the Quarto edition) who orders, “Cricket, to Windsor chimneys shalt thou leap: Where fires thou find'st unraked and hearths unswept, There pinch the maids as blue as bilberry: Our radiant queen hates sluts and sluttery.” I suggest that this image is a forerunner of the scene 50 lines below where Falstaff's burning fires of lust are to be jestingly punished by pinching.83 Williams has examples of chimney ‘vagina,’ sweep ‘coit with,’ and puns on chimney-sweep. Kökeritz gives many examples of -th:-t homophony.84 Applied here it would render hearth: heart homonymous. As there is an anal connection with heart ‘arse’ that Rubinstein enlarges on we can once again see how Puck is involved in rear treatment of prostitutes via a cricket. Oliver admits the possibility of a quibble in Evans's instruction to the other fairy at V.v.52: “Raise up the organs of her fantasy” thus giving credence to my assumption that indecency lurks under the surface here.85 Falstaff as an “Aunt: Ant”86 is another composite character: “A witch, a quean, an old cozening quean!” Quean ‘harlot’ comments Oliver. In his Arden Introduction, lxii, he also notices that it “is the Quarto that has Mistress Page twice identify the old woman as ‘my maids Aunt Gillian of Brainford’ (though the second time it is ‘my maidens Ant’) but makes no comment about the insect ant. Colman has also addressed Aunt Gillian extensively.

Murray claims, without ever mentioning Shakespeare at all in her book, that the “name Robin is almost a generic name for the Devil, either as a man or as his substitute the familiar. The other name for the fairy Robin Goodfellow is Puck.”87 Further, that there is a strong correlation between fairies and witches. This extra dimension sheds light on several images discussed in the present article.88 The gossip/sponsor for instance is hardly expected company for Puck and Oberon unless viewed as a sponsor at a witches' Sabbath baptism, such as the above-mentioned in the Orléans trial. According to Brooks, Huon of Burdeux is one of the main sources of the Oberon character.89 I suggest that the surface meaning of the gossip's bowl may well have been derived from Huon of Burdeux: Shakespeare has probably added to the intertextual rapport by blending in snippets, from Huon, such as the baptism of Oberon, where a bad-tempered fairy “sponsored” him with growth-arrest at three. Another component is the drinking-cup owned by Oberon in his adulthood, constantly brimming after the sign of the cross had been made over it. Only the righteous could drink out of it, however. When Puck in MND is instrumental in carrying out such magical punishment by causing the gossip to spill the ale, the fairy-witch connection is further amplified. Murray's claim is appurtenant for the present article, what with the numerous descriptions of the devil's genital endowments and his capacity for zooerastic shape-switching that she presets from the witchcraft trials: Lorraine, 1598: “-hätte einen [Glied] so starcken etc allezeit gehabt, wenn ihm gestanden, und so gross als ein Ofengabel-Stiel”; a Hamburg account 1693: “qu'elle auoit empoigné plusieurs fois auec la main le membre du Demon, qui la coignoissoit”; Jeannette d'Abadie in the Basses-Pyrénées, 1609: “le Diable luy faisoit baiser son visage, puis le nombril, puis le membre viril, puis son derrière”; Isobel Gowdie and Janet Breadheid of Auldearne, 1662: “I fand his nature als cold within me as spring-well-water … He wold haw carnall dealling with ws in the shap of a deir, or in any other shap, now and then. Somtym he vold be lyk a stirk, a bull, a deir, a rae, or a dowg, etc., and haw dealling with ws.”90 Indeed, the Fairy did not at all mistake his “shape and making quite.” Another source of inspiration for Shakespeare may have been Revelation XVII:1-5 where Babylon, the mother of harlots, has a golden cup “full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication.”91 This image enhances the connection between prostitutes and the Devil, and adds another link to the blasphemous witches' Sabbath baptisms above. Rubinstein's interpretation of the gossip's bowl has much the same genital ring about it also, as she reads, for instance, crab ‘testicle.’92 In his attempt to attribute the flaring-up of witch-hunts in the 16th century to the near-concurrent epidemic spread of the Great Pox,93 Andreski stresses the link between witches and prostitutes, especially syphilitic ones.94

The coughing problem that Puck's aunt/procuress ended up with can be explained as her deliberate attempt to mask an inconvenience in agreement with prevailing etiquette. When Puck, i.e. the yard i.e. the three-foot stool, suddenly withdrew from her anus she had an acute attack of wind. In situations of being cut short for flatulence, Erasmus suggested, in his widely read etiquette book for boys, that rather than letting withheld wind hazard one's health “a cough hide the explosive sound. … Follow the law of Chiliades: Replace farts with coughs.”95 A jocular comment on this practice is the cough in the breech from “A New Merry Ballad I Have Here [1692]” where “the ribald sense = both fart and diarrhea, based on the analogy of a chronic cough which expels phlegm.”96 Rubinstein, at dewlap, disambiguates the aunt-imagery solely as a scatological pun with no sex involved, seeing Puck as “dung” = slip (derived from OE cúslyppe ‘cow-dung’), but not in relation to any code of etiquette. At laugh she has loffe ‘fart’ for JC [Julius Caesar] I.ii.251 without, however, citing MND. Florio also has loffe ‘farts.’97

Puck's treatment of the aunt was really in the true Rabelaisian vein: the entire company broke out in hearty laughter, witnessing that a merrier hour was never wasted there = “a more sexually wanton whore was never seduced there.”98 The wise industrious ant leaning on a cricket, telling the sad tale/fable about the cricket succumbing to the elements is reborn through a metamorphosis. From being anally penetrated by the lusty cricket she is brought to experience enjoyment and rejuvenating laughter via the “lower bodily stratum.” Shakespeare well illustrates Bakhtin's words about the contradictory unity of the “private and the universal” in Renaissance literature: “Two types of imagery reflecting the conception of the world here meet at crossroads; one of them ascends to the folk culture of humor; while the other is the bourgeois conception of the completed atomized being. The conflict of these two contradictory trends in the interpretation of the bodily principle is typical of Renaissance realism.”99


Another ant-cricket dichotomy is hinted at in The Taming of the Shrew IV.iii.107 [Arden] where the tailor who receives an unprecedented string of maledictions from the rational gentleman Petruchio, is also called a cricket:

O monstrous arrogance! Thou liest, thou thread, thou thimble,
Thou yard, three-quarters, half-yard, quarter, nail,
Thou flea, thou nit, thou winter-cricket thou!
Brav'd in mine own house with a skein of thread?
Away, thou rag, thou quantity, thou remnant;
Or I shall so bemete thee with thy yard
As thou shalt think on prating whilst thou liv'st!
I tell thee, I, that thou hast mar'd her gown.

Petruchio's looming measures can appear fairly civil on the surface. What with knowledge of Renaissance manners and the cover-up of bodily functions, the inherent threat seems more “impressive.” In the future the tailor's silly prating would come from his “rear” = prat.100 His garrulitas alvi would be a result of Petruchio bemeting: bemating101 him with his own sexual tool, causing gas incontinence: “I shall so bemete thee with thy yard As thou shalt think on prating whilst thou liv'st!” But, why would he stoop to such thorough measures? Amongst his mock-abuse, could monstrous be an indication of the tailor having made a monster of Petruchio, put horns on his head? Is he a cuckold-maker? Hamlet makes the same well known accusation against womankind at III.i.140 [Arden]: “for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them.” Spencer comments: “monsters (probably) cuckolds (who traditionally wear horns and look like monstrous animals. The actor can make the gesture of horns with his fingers on his head).”102

Shakespeare's wordplay around tailor is sparkling exuberantly. Rubinstein, at size, has added to Hulme's tail etymology103 by complementing its sizing component via Fr. taille ‘size.’ Hulme mentions the effeminate connotations of tailor obtaining to Oswald in KL II.ii.60, and even interprets same-sex encounters, and discloses an anal penetration innuendo at 2H4 III.ii.150 [Arden]: “Shal[low]. Shall I prick him, sir? Fal[staff]. You may; but if he had been a man's tailor he'd ha' pricked you.” Another probable link to effeminacy is the waterfly connection: In TrC [Troilus and Cressida] V.i, Patroclus has been accused of being a male whore and has had curses heaped upon him by Thersites. The climax is: “Ah, how the poor world is pestered with such waterflies, diminutives of nature!” I suggest that the connection is the tailor insect. Its first entry in OED is: “A tipula or daddy-long-legs. 1682 LISTER Gœdart Of Insects 131 A creature furnished with 2 wings and 6 long Feet called by us when boyes, the Tayler.” In Hamlet (V.ii.82) the waterfly epithet is given to foppish Osric. Curiously enough, the Swedish language also has a lakeside insect termed after the clothing maker: Gerris Fabr., the water-strider, is recorded since 1862 in the Swedish Academy Dictionary at skräddare ‘tailor,’ with no known etymology.

“Thou yard, three-quarters, half-yard, quarter, nail!” is part of Petruchio's retaliative scaling-down of the tailor's penile endowments.104 By lashing out against the tailor, already generically effeminate, he is pretending to have realised that he himself has been emasculated, cuckolded, “braved in mine own house.” I suggest that Petruchio uses musical imagery to say that his prick, note, has been shortened, braved, become a breve note by the discovery that the tailor has marred Kate's gown ‘pudendum.’105 To this effect I suggest that marred can read married ‘to enter into intimate union’ (OED).106 A similar well-known107mar:marry pun appears 19 lines above in the play. The pretended vehemence of Petruchio's reaction supports this interpretation.

Yet another reminder of the strength of the anti-Æsop imagery is when Lear's Fool derides Kent, sitting in the stocks for having attacked Oswald, the tailor-cricket type. Kent has to learn his lesson from the ant: there is no laboring in the winter.108

In consequence with the characterisation of the ant:aunt, Theseus can be said to be a promoter of the rational arranged marriages, i.e., a father's investment based on financial considerations, and legitimate. The sexual matches that the procuress offers are also arranged, orderly and primarily economic transactions, however with a slight difference of legitimacy, and so Shakespeare seems to say that Theseus is no better than a bawd. Through lusty mismatchings on several levels he drives home this point to a happy synthesis in a typically Rabelaisian-Bakhtinian way.


  1. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ed. H. E. Brooks, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1979) II.i.32-57. See below for text excerpt. Unless otherwise stated, all Shakespeare quotations follow the Arden edition.

  2. Leif Zern, Älskaren och mördaren (Stockholm: Alba, 1984) 75-115. The broom is mentioned at MND V.i.375.

  3. Norman Francis Blake, Shakespeare's Language (London: Macmillan, 1983) 25.

  4. Helge Kökeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation, (New Haven: Yale UP, 1953) 64.

  5. Blake 25.

  6. Æsop's outrage against artists has troubled many writers throughout the centuries. In a grotesque version (see below), Rabelais merely shifts the angle of observation, whereas a more synthetical modern replica by Ingemar Unge, “Gräshoppan som spelade och sjöng [The Grasshopper That Played and Sang],” was published in a collection of children's fairy tales, Min Nya Skattkammare, Fyran [My New Treasury, Number Four] (Stockholm: Natur och Kultur, 1979). In it, the cricket was actually invited to share the ants' stores, and was lauded for all his lovely music that had helped them finish building their ant-hill well in time for the cold season. He stayed all winter, playing and singing to the ants: “For how else would they be able to while away the time, the little dears, food already collected and the hill already finished?” [My translations, UM].

  7. This above-board contradiction is pointed out by Zern 106ff. It has long been a matter of dispute whether the play celebrates imagination or not. In Shakespeare's Early Comedies. Myth, Metamorphosis, Mannerism (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1993) 187, Gunnar Sorelius illustrates this vacillation when he states that “this play recommends the rule of reason. At the same time it illustrates better than the other comedies the limitations of reason.”

  8. At MND V.i.3, note, Brooks makes the observation that antique here means “‘ancient’; but also ‘grotesque’ (antic),” however without pinpointing specific fables, let alone grotesque. Another word-play that can be read into antique is ant-ique “pertaining to ants.”

  9. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, ed. H. H. Furness, A New Variorum Edition (New York: Dover, 1963).

  10. Reginald Scot, The Discouerie of witchcraft (London: W. Brome, 1584).

  11. Arden 1979:lx f.

  12. William Bell, Shakespeare's Puck, and his folkslore illustrated from the superstitions of all nations, but more specifically from the earliest religion and rites of Northern Europe and the Wends, 3 vols. (1852-1864; New York: AMS Press Inc., 1971).

  13. Bell II:14, 16.

  14. Collier, ed., Robin Good-Fellow, His Mad Prankes, and merry Iests, Full of honest Mirth, and is a fit Medicine for Melancholy (London: for F. Groue, 1628).

  15. The print is reproduced in The Oxford Shakespeare edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream, (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1998) 37, whose editor Peter Holland, like Zern above, acknowledges Robin's phallic image but adds no further evidence of obscenities in Shakespeare's text.

  16. Furness, ed., 3, Dramatis Personae, note for line 18. The form puke is also recorded for 13th-14th century at puck, pook in OED = Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989).

  17. MND V.i.417, 421.

  18. Furness, ed., 3, Dramatis Personae, note for line 18, about Puck as an appellative, and 243 note for V.i.425, about his denial of any connection with the Devil.

  19. Jan Wall, Tjuvmjölkande väsen I, II [Magical Milk-stealing Creatures I, II.] (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1977, 1978).

  20. Wall I:6.

  21. For a more recent account, from the United States, “The Witch Hare,” see Buying The Wind. Regional Folklore in the United States, Richard M. Dorson (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1964) 316. Motifs cited are D655.2, “Witch transforms self to animal so as to suck cows,” and G211.2.7, “Witch in form of hare.”

  22. Wall I for the various sack references: 73f and 85f.

  23. Witchcraft, ed. B. Rosen, Stratford upon Avon Library 6 (London, 1969) 88, 184. Cited in Wall I:120.

  24. Margaret Alice Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. A Study in Anthropology (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1921). Cited in Wall I:120.

  25. Wall I:128 from 1597 court proceedings and, for an 18th century charm: Wall I:101-2 “Du skall för mig på jorden springa, jag skall för dig i helvetet brinna [You run for me on Earth right well, and I shall burn for you in Hell].” Wall I:108, also relates an Icelandic alternative manufacturing method from 1670, quoting a manuscript on witchcraft, D. Jónson, Landbókasafn Íslands (JS 606). In it, the woman would take a dead man's rib, wrap it up in a piece of grey yarn, and, placing it between her bare breasts, go to Holy Communion. She would spit out the consecration-wafer and wine into this “Devil's tool.” The secrecy of the actions must have been accidentally left out here. In similar accounts that have been translated and edited by Jacqueline Simpson in Scandinavian Folktales (London: Penguin, 1988) 150ff, stealthiness was of the utmost importance since the creature would eventually be “so strong and lively that it tries to leap out of her bosom.”

  26. Wall I:31.

  27. Wall I:56f. Three German, sixteen Danish and four Finnish churches also have similar murals.

  28. Murals from the porch vaults of the parish church at Söderby Karl. The murals are dated at 1490-1500. Captions: “1. Panoramic photograph which shows that these murals are part of a sequence showing magical milk-theft and butter-production. 2. The milk-stealing creature is seen throwing up milk.”

  29. Wall I:100, 200 and 142.

  30. Dorson 314-15, illustrates, in a relatively modern Illinois legend, one of the more familiar motifs, D2083.3.1, “Milk transferred from another's cow by squeezing an ax-handle (and the like).” According to Wall 1975:5, this motif has been derived from the publication in 1490 of the notorious Malleus Maleficarum [The Hammer of Witches] by Heinrich Institoris and Jakob Sprenger (Berlin: H. Barsdorf, 1906) 148. A pictorial illustration of the motif is seen in Johannes Geiler von Kaiserberg's Die Emeis (Strassburg: Johannes Grienniger, 1517).

  31. George Lyman Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1928) 164. Cited in Wall I:98.

  32. An obvious derivation, pukishness, is dated at 1581, but that does not take away from the fact that Shakespeare's ejecta are milk both here and with Puck in the dairy.

  33. Hilda Hulme in Explorations in Shakespeare's Language (London: Longmans, 1962) 244ff, reasons along similar lines: “I shall argue that a number of hitherto unexplained words in Shakespeare's text can be seen to have full meaning within linguistic and dramatic context if we are prepared to accept what ‘fits the sense’ and is exactly confirmed by earlier or later Dictionary evidence.” “Dictionary” here implies NED, the forerunner of OED.

  34. From Aristotle, History of Animals (book VIII: XXX), ed. DM Balme (London: Harvard UP, 1991) 295.

  35. Simpson 153.

  36. Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland, ed. W. B. Yeats (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe Ltd., 1973) 87.

  37. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, ed. Calvert Watkins (Boston: Houghton, 1985) 10.

  38. James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (London: Papermas, 1987) 464f.

  39. Frazer 390.

  40. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (London: The MIT P, 1968).

  41. Bakhtin 275.

  42. The “cris de Paris”—street vendors' slogans—of The Winter's Tale and Jonson's Volpone will be addressed in a forthcoming article, “Autoclycus and the Great Pox.”

  43. Bakhtin 109.

  44. Murray 33f, 38.

  45. William Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost, ed. Richard David, The Arden Edition (London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1994). David V.ii.661 notes that yard is the “organ of generation.” For foot ‘penis,’ see Gordon Williams, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature (London: Athlone, 1994) and Frankie Ruda Rubinstein, A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and Their Significance (London: Macmillan, 1989). Another risqué interpretation of bootless has been uncovered by Rubinstein, at bank entry, for 1H4 III.i.67, where the coarse innuendo follows another trail indicative of emasculation. This is an illustration of the versatility of a number of Elizabethan taboo words as suggested also by Hulme 99ff., at tailor below. According to EAM Colman, The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare (London: Longman, 1974) 224, yard was the normal English word for “penis” previous to 1693. Also in OED: yard ‘penis.’

  46. Bakhtin 12.

  47. Here nature undoubtedly has the sense “copulation” with records from 1604 onwards in Williams 936.

  48. Note in François Rabelais, Œuvres Complètes, ed. G. Demerson, Éditions du Seuil, from the 1532-1542 editions of Pantagruel, (Paris, 1973) 218: “Dressé comme sur les statues ou les stèles priapiques de l'antiquité. [Erect, as on the Priapic statues or stelæ of Antquity].”

  49. I.e. quintain [UM]

  50. Francis Rabelais, The Lives, Heroic Deeds & Sayings of Gargantua and his Son Pantagruel, trs. Sir Thomas Urquhart and Peter Le Motteux, 1653-1694, English edition (London: Chatto and Windus, 1928) book II, chapter 1:189.

  51. Vibeke Stybe, in Från Snövit till Snobben. Barnbokens ursprung och utveckling [From Snow White to Snoopy. Origin and Development of Children's Books], revised and enlarged by Lars Furuland and Stefan Mählqvist (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1970) 18, ascribes the Byzantine monk Maximos Planudes of the late 13th century an account of the life of Æsop where he is described as a witty, wise, hunchback slave in Asia Minor. Cf “crump and knobbie” shoulders above.

  52. OED: quern ‘a variant of churn.’ Furthermore, a Finnish milkstealing creature mentioned in a witchcraft trial in 1663 was for its manufacture to be churned inside the butter-churn on Easter Sunday morning. Paul Heurgren, Husdjuren i nordisk folktro [Domestic Animals in Nordic Folklore] (Örebro: Örebro Dagblads Tryckeri, 1925) 222-3, citing Valter. W. Forsblom, “Bjäran,” Hembygden [Helsinki periodical] 7.1.(1916): 37.

  53. Rabelais 218.

  54. At labour Williams has “sexual exertion,” with a first instance 1557, and Rubinstein “copulate” but unrelated to Puck's whereabouts in the quern.

  55. The redundancy does not, of course, apply with regard to prosody.

  56. OED barm ‘bosom.’ The related Swedish word, barm, has only this sense, hence its prominence to the author of the present article.

  57. Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy. A Literary and Psychological Essay and a Comprehensive Glossary (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969). Colman has also addressed these puns.

  58. Kökeritz 94.

  59. For learned Renaissance accounts of male lactation see Thomas Laqueur, Making sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990). Among others, he cites Laurent Joubert, one of the great medical popularizers of the sixteenth century; Dr. Joubert gives the example of “a Syrian count who nourished his child for more than six months.” An English doctor held it that men “‘of a cold, moist and feminine complexion’ were quite likely to have milk in their breasts,” (Laqueur 106).

  60. Murray 90-96.

  61. Murray 221.

  62. Keith L. Moore, Before We Are Born. Basic Embryology and Birth Defects (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company, 1977) 231.

  63. Murray 90.

  64. Valerie Fildes, Wet Nursing. A History from Antiquity to the Present (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988) 46, 266.

  65. Personal communication, 1997, from Elisabeth Kylberg, nutritionist, doctoral student at the Unit for International Child Health of the Uppsala University Hospital.

  66. Valerie A. Fildes, Breasts, Bottles and Babies. A History of Infant Feeding (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1986) 406: Maternal mortality rate in a group of 13 English parishes for 1600-44 was 14.6 per mille, i.e., one mother out of every 69 died in childbirth in Shakespeare's day. Oxford Handbook of Clinical Specialties by J. A. B. Collier, J. M. Longmore and T. J. Duncan Brown (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999) 164 shows that for the entire U.K. the 1994-1996 figures are 12.2 deaths within 42 days post partum (6.1 direct deaths) per 100,000 maternities, i.e., one mother out of every 8,000 to 16,000.

  67. See “Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms” above. Fildes 1986, 157, claims that the “system of sending children to nurses many miles outside large towns was clearly a highly developed and important social institution in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

  68. Murray 247-8: [“one baptizes children on the Sabbath with Ointment, that the women take with them, & rub the member of one of the men, & bring him to pass semen that they collect, & mix it with the Ointment, then put it on the child's head while pronouncing a few words in Latin … the holy water is yellow like an ass's piss.”] [My translation, UM].

  69. Zern 91, cites History of Learning scholar Ronny Ambjörnsson who describes how, in Shakespeare, [“the new and contradictory hopes that desire attaches to the ego”] had caused Dante's and Petrarch's myth of love as [“a personality moulding principle”]—a means to self-realization and self-creation, as it were—to crumble. [Quotations translated by UM]. Ronny Ambjörnsson, Familjeporträtt [Family Portraits] (Avesta: Jannersten, 1978). See chapter: “Den utopiska kärleken [Utopian Love].”

  70. Milk, and, especially, butter production was an important economic factor in the medieval farmers' housekeeping (Wall I:2-4). Consequently, magical milk-theft was looked upon seriously in the agrarian society. (Wall II:70).

  71. Cf. Bakhtin above.

  72. 1. For the hussy entry OED has a “light, worthless, or pert woman or girl. Obs. Usually huswife, now HUSSY.” The Variorum spelling is in fact huswife, not housewife. 2. Horse ‘prostitute’ is part of a hoarse:horse:whores homonymy with Kökeritz 115. Rubinstein also has extensive examples. 3. The surface level gossip is the OED sense (see below): “woman invited to be present at a birth.” The double entendre sense is more likely another OED sense: “A woman of light and trifling character. …” where a couple of Elizabethan examples point to prostitution. 4. Aunt ‘bawd’ is found in Rubinstein at dewlap. Also in Williams beside “prostitute,” as in OED, which latter two, however, only point to later instances. Rubinstein has some support from Furness, who writes, in way of discussing that instance: “Unquestionably ‘aunt’ was at times applied to a woman of low character.” He further establishes that, what with her wisdom, here “it means merely ‘the most sedate old woman.’” (Furness, ed., MND II.i.51 note.) Moreover, at aunts in The Winter's Tale IV.iii.13 Furness admits that, dependent “on the connection, this may mean a woman of a character rather more free than a mere hoyden.” At dewlap (and furthering references) Rubinstein has extensive coarse explications for the gossip activities in MND, implying fellatio or genital liaison, which perfectly allow for my prostitution interpretations. 5. For hour ‘whore’ see Kökeritz 58f, 117, quoting AYL [As You Like It] II.vii.27: “And so from houre to houre, we ripe, and ripe, And then from houre to houre, we rot, and rot, And thereby hangs a tale.” Kökeritz senses syphilis here.

  73. Pointed out by Colman 214, at soiled horse.

  74. For an account of this trade, see Johannes Fabricius's Dr. Med dissertation Syphilis in Shakespeare's England (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1994) 104-146.

  75. OED: “It has been surmised that it is the same as CRICKET Sb.3, and the game a development of that known as STOOL-BALL, to which there are many references from 1567 to 1725, as a game at which especially girls and women played; but this is very doubtful: cricket, a stool, is itself not in evidence till a later date … sb.3 … A low wooden stool; a foot stool.” A late time reflection of the aunt:ant pun may be the “nickname for a wicket-keeper” recorded from 1898 in OED as Aunt Sally.

  76. Williams has found “stoolball associated with sexual activity as a ball game.” His first instance is 1621. An instance from 1703 states that “he that can Jerk furthest at another sort of Stool-Ball, will be accounted, by the Maids, the best Bedfellow.”

  77. Wall II: 19, 123-4. (Murray 166).

  78. My translation. UM.

  79. E. Odstedt, “Varulven i svensk folktradition [The Werewolf in Swedish Folk Tradition],” Skr utg genom Landsmåls—och folkminnesarkivet i Uppsala [Publications of the Uppsala Archives of Provincial Dialects and Folklore] Ser. B:1 (1943): 116, 119f.

  80. Murray 166.

  81. Hulme 99ff.

  82. Items 2 and 3 are disputed by Colman 217f, who proposes women's tailors' lack of manliness and exceptional opportunities for adultery as sufficient explanations. The effeminacy of tailors has been addressed by several authors. Simon Shepard in “What's so funny about ladies' tailors? A survey of some male (homo)sexual types in the Renaissance,” Textual Practice 6 (1992): 17-30, suggests there exist a code for the Renaissance stage, such as e.g. apparel, to single out the type.

  83. Rubinstein: pinch ‘bugger.’

  84. Kökeritz 320.

  85. William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, ed. H. J. Oliver, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen & Co LTD, 1971).

  86. MWW IV:ii.157.

  87. Murray 238ff.

  88. In Europe's Inner Demons (London: Heinemann International Literature and Textbooks, 1975) 114, Norman Cohn disputes Murray's Dianic cult hypothesis for witches' fairy kinship, and suggests a variant explanation: Isobel Gowdy's inclusion of fairy folklore in her confessions would have been the result of her desperate efforts to tap her memory “to find enough material to satisfy the interrogators and torturers …”

  89. MND Arden 1979:lix.

  90. Murray 176ff, 129f: “had allegedly had one [member] that was so strong etc all the time, when it was standing, and as big as the shaft of an oven-rake”; “that she had several times, with her hand, seized the member of the Demon who knew her”; “the Devil made her kiss his face, then his navel, then his virile member, then his behind” [My translation, UM]. Against this background of popular belief and that of the Orléans trial above, Puck's carnal dealings, and the gossip's bowl ‘godmother's christening cup’ (Holland, ed. II.i.47 note), and the abducted Indian changeling boy, and his mother the “votaress” of the “order” of the Fairy Queen seem to make complete sense for a witches' coven.

  91. The Holy Bible (Cambridge UP, n. d.).

  92. Rubinstein 75, at dewlap entry.

  93. For an account of its repercussions in Elizabethan England, see Fabricius 1994.

  94. Stanislav Andreski, Syphilis, Puritanism and Witch Hunts (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989) 82.

  95. Desiderius Erasmus, De civilitate morum puerilium Recognized by the author, and elucidated with new scholia by Gisbertus Longolius Ultratraiectinus (Cologne, 1530) 33, cited in Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (New York: Urizen Books, 1978) 129f.

  96. Cited in James T. Henke's Gutter Life and Language in the Early “Street” Literature of England (West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 1988) 66. The ballad is found in The Pepys Ballads, 8 vols., Hyder E. Rollins, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1929-32). Also, by analogy, neeze would be part of the same explosive discourse.

  97. Giovanni Florio, A Worlde of Words, or Dictionarie in Italian and English (1598: Ann Arbor, Mich.: U of Michigan, U Microfilms, n.d.).

  98. Merry ‘sexually wanton’ in John Stephen Farmer & William Ernest Henley Slang and Its Analogues (1890-1914; New York: Arno Press, 1970). Hour ‘whore’ in Kökeritz 58f, 117, see note above. Waste ‘seduce’ in analogy with Colman 222, waste ‘a metaphor for seduction’ with a reference to MWW IV.ii.198 where Mrs. Page assures that Falstaff “will never, I think, in the way of a waste attempt us again.”

  99. Bakhtin 24.

  100. In Partridge, as well as in Farmer & Henley.

  101. Mate ‘to pair … for the purpose of breeding’ in OED that cites Shakespeare AW [All's Well That Ends Well] I.i.102: “The hind that would be mated by the Lion Must die for loue.”

  102. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. T. J. B. Spencer (London: Penguin, 1980) 27, The New Penguin Edition. Colman, Rubinstein and Williams also have monster ‘cuckold.’

  103. Hulme 99-102.

  104. In Shakespeare, the terms for different penile sizes are instanced, inter alia, in AW II.ii.26: “As fit … as the nail to his hole.” Rubinstein, Williams: nail = “penis” and “2[frac12] inches.” R&J II.iv.75 cheveril, ‘glove leather,’ that stretches from an inch narrow to an ell broad” is instanced by Rubinstein; at cheveril also ell = “penis” and “45 inches.”

  105. At note, nothing Rubinstein disambiguates another few instances of coarse musical punning: note, stave, and clef. She also has house = “codpiece,” or “penis” via homonymic hose. Kökeritz 75, explains gown = “pudendum,” for another Shakespearean instance: H5 [Henry V] III.iv.54.

  106. The mar:marry homonymy is understood in Blake 26: “When Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice threatens that he will ‘mar the young Clarks pen’ (V i. 237) if Narissa marries him, many modern listeners and readers may not recognise that pen has the second meaning ‘penis.’”

  107. William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, ed. A. Thompson, the New Cambridge Edition (Cambridge, 1990) IV.iii.96f.

  108. KL II.ii, II.iv.

Douglas McQueen-Thomson (review date August 2000)

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SOURCE: McQueen-Thomson, Douglas. “A Disturbing Dream.” Arena Magazine (August 2000): 53.

[McQueen-Thomson reviews the Bell Shakespeare Company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Elke Neidhardt, arguing that the play's “unrelieved austerity and frostiness” produced a “tired disjointedness rather than original coherence.”]

What kind of grim pessimism drives designers these days into drab colour schemes of grey and silver? Whatever the answer, the Bell Shakespeare Company's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was cold, sterile and very grey. Often imagined as a play about enchantment and wondrous fantasy, this production instead presented a bleak, unsettling dream. Too monotone and inconsistent, this interpretation failed to captivate.

The burden of Peter Brook's famous 1970 nightmare-inspired production of A Midsummer Night's Dream obviously weighed heavily on director Elke Neidhardt. The program notes refer often to Brook, and Neidhardt mentions having seen his production herself. And like Brook, Neidhardt opted for unrelieved austerity and frostiness. Her set consisted of metal mesh panels joined together in a cage-like form and several perspex boxes. Blue and white lighting, with regular doses of dry ice, created an unvarying, chill atmosphere more suited to winter than midsummer. This is a long way from the overblown exoticism of Michael Hoffman's 1999 star-studded (but awful) film of the play, and from the colourful energy and vitality of the Royal Shakespeare Company's excellent production which toured Australia in 1997.

This set was effective in the play's opening scenes, with Athens portrayed as a severe, almost totalitarian state run by rule of force. However, the austere atmosphere did not vary as the play moved into the forest, and became completely inappropriate during the raucous antics of the ‘hempen homespuns’; the base humour of Bottom and his band of craftsmen was dulled by this cool, abstract dreamscape. Neidhardt takes the play's Athenian setting literally, adding distracting gimmicks such as Greek flags, ‘Zorba the Greek’ music, and sporadic Greek accents. In Neidhardt's Greece, order is maintained via a patriarchal regime of sexual violence: Theseus, clad in leather codpiece and suit, sadistically keeps his fiance Hippolyta restrained with a dog-collar and leash; Demetrius threatens the infatuated Helena with rape and worse; Oberon takes perverse pleasure in his wife Titania's bestial relations with Bottom. This produces a provocative, though disjointed, examination of sexual abuse and misogyny. Despite this emphasis on sexual subjection, the production marketed itself as ‘the most erotic of Shakespeare's plays’. Combined with a publicity poster image of a naked female curled into a ball, this makes for a disturbing view of eroticism. Marketing really should match the message of the play, and not just titillate.

Unfortunately, the impact of this production's examination of gender politics was lessened by its use of modern Greek machismo. This framing device provided an obvious rationale for Theseus and Oberon's patriarchal desires. However, as an explanation it is too simple, and reduces characters to their cultural contexts. These sexual violations became less unsettling than they should have been, with audience members likely to have felt distanced from them.

The strongest feature of this dark interpretation was Frank Whitten's performance as Puck. In stained overcoat and dark eyeshadow, Whitten's lanky Puck was the malevolent force behind the play's unnatural transformations—a vindictive controller of dreams akin to Freddy Kreuger. With Gothic style, Puck skulked about the stage as he announced gleefully that he would ‘mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm’. In his epilogue, Puck claims that either he is honest and harmony will be restored, or else he should be called a liar. Neidhardt leaves no doubt that Puck is as untrustworthy as he is pernicious, and that the play's final happiness will not endure.

Strong performances were also produced by the four young lovers, with Wadih Dona's proud Demetrius and Marta Dusseldorp's madly besotted Helena both standing out. Jeanette Cronin was a striking silver presence as Titania. However, characterisation was never allowed to bloom sufficiently within the confines of frigid set design.

Now celebrating its tenth year, the Bell Shakespeare Company's achievement has been to establish a distinctive contemporary Australian approach to Shakespeare which is perhaps best described as bold eclecticism. Without the hindrance of old world performance traditions, they characteristically engage directly with messy cultural collisions and mixtures. Unfortunately, this production's boldness produced tired disjointedness rather than original coherence, and the final result was a variable, disturbing dream.

Kenneth S. Rothwell (review date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Rothwell, Kenneth S. “Shakespeare Goes Digital.” Cineaste 25, no. 3 (summer 2000): 150.

[In the following review of Michael Hoffman's 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Rothwell praises the film as a visual masterpiece and lauds Kevin Kline's ability to turn the cartoonish character of Bottom into “a living, breathing, and very vulnerable, human being.”]

The opening credits of Michael Hoffman's A Midsummer Night's Dream (“Based on the play by William Shakespeare”) situate the action around the year 1900 in Monte Athena in Tuscany, Italy, one of those fabulous Italian hilltop towns but not exactly the Athens of Shakespeare's play. Then again his film is “based” on Shakespeare's play, not the thing itself, a salient point that Shakespeare on film critics sometimes egregiously overlook. In spectacular color on crystalline DVD, wherein it is divided into twenty-five ‘chapters’ for random access, Hoffman's movie is stunningly designed, costumed, and photographed. In a lush, opulent setting, quivering with bright fruits and great wines, servants set up for an alfresco wedding feast on the open porch and steps of the Duke Theseus's (David Strathairn) Villa Athena. The heroic strains of Felix Mendelssohn's “Incidental Music,” which Max Reinhardt in his many expressionistic European productions virtually grafted onto Shakespeare's play, fill the soundtrack. When the scene shifts, however, to the piazza of Athena, Mendelssohn yields to stirring chorales from Traviata to echo the lightheartedness of the citizens as they stroll during the exhibitionistic hour of the promenade. It becomes hard to tell if Hoffman is more interested in Italian opera or in Shakespeare. Is all this anachronistic? Yes. But anyone reading Shakespeare's play will detect a similar indifference to literal mindedness about place and time.

Visually the film is a masterpiece, so exquisitely conceived by Hoffman and designer Luciana Arrighi that it goes far beyond the Masterpiece Theatre English Heritage look. Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) wears gowns inspired by the pre-Raphaelites, while Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau), a woman of ineffable dignity, with her parasol and flowing dress, and Hermia (Anna Friel) with her epic millinery could both pose for John Singer Sargent portraits. Feistier is Calista Flockhart as the forlorn Helena who appears astride a bicycle in a sign of the growing independence in the Victorian era of the fair sex. In contrast, during the prologue a gnarled little boy and a dwarfish woman (who looks like Kathy Burke but who is not listed in the credits) cart off a purloined gramophone and a set of Victor Red Seal records of Italian operas from the duke's bustling kitchen. They surface again later in the bizarre fairy world, where, in an ironic postmodernist twist, the gramophone records seem as magical to the fairies as the magic of fairies is to human beings. Hoffman's fairy world, inspired by Etruscan tombs and caves, dancing and feasting, filmed indoors at Rome's Cinecitta, with its satyrs, griffins, Janus figures, and dwarves, is the antithesis to Max Reinhardt's gauzy and fuzzy forests. The bower of Titania looks disturbingly like a House of Ill Repute, while her fairy king, Rupert Everett, manages to look both raffish and heroic simultaneously.

In the ‘real’ world of Athens, Hoffman dutifully squeezes in politically correct allusions to Hippolyta's incipient feminism, telegraphed by her obvious resentment of Duke Theseus's complicity in the old-boy network. Vital to the fairy realm is the voyeuristic Puck (Stanley Tucci), the antithesis of Mickey Rooney's cuddly Puck of years ago, whose great sound bite (“What fools these mortals be!”) is validated by the love-game antics of the four beautiful young lovers roaming the forest, Demetrius (Christian Bale), Lysander (Dominic West), Hermia, and Helena, and the efforts of the rude mechanicals,” to put on the play of Pyramus and Thisby at the Duke's wedding feast.

Ultimately, though, this film turns Shakespeare's play into Nick Bottom's play. It seems that Hoffman drained all the menace out of the carnivalesque fairy world and instead made Bottom's psyche the site of Lenten melancholy. Kevin Kline turns this cartoon figure into a living, breathing, and very vulnerable, human being. He is a ridiculous dandy flirting in the market place, a would-be actor whose beautiful (and only) white suit is doused in red wine by twelve-year-old hoodlums, and the butt of jokes for being henpecked by a nagging Xanthippe of a wife (who of course doesn't exist in Shakespeare's play). At the end of the film, though, Bottom transcends his own follies and his detractors. Alone, gazing at the fairy lights and contemplating the dream of a life he never had, he evolves into the type of a ‘holy fool,’ an unlikely saint who is foolish in the eyes of men but wise in the eyes of God. Kline's Nick Bottom, and his “bottomless dreams” are Hoffman's foray into the kind of ‘character criticism’ that offends purists but delights most of us.

Heather Neill (review date 21 June 2002)

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SOURCE: Neill, Heather. “Tales from the Bathroom.” Times Educational Supplement 4486 (21 June 2002): 14.

[In the following review of Mike Alfreds's 2002 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, Neill notes the director's highlighting of the “dream” aspect of the play by dressing the cast in pyjamas and negligees.]

Mike Alfreds, the director of this production, has chosen to concentrate on the word “dream” in the title and has his entire cast dressed in pyjamas and negligees.

The props have a whiff of the bathroom—a loo roll for Peter Quince's scroll of names when the Mechanicals turn up for rehearsal, and toothbrushes instead of daggers in the Pyramus and Thisbe play in which Snug plays Lion with a bathmat mane. Even Bottom's “translation” into an ass (in John Ramm's successfully slapstick interpretation) is signified by a pair of ears consisting of fluffy slipper mules.

During a Talking Theatre session (a free post-performance discussion on Wednesdays and Saturdays) Mike Alfreds said that he thought A Midsummer Night's Dream a difficult play, which really ends in Act IV when the couples are correctly brought together.

He didn't want to make the action fit artificially into a particular period; bedroom imagery gave it a suitably separate world. All the cast play fairies, their costumes bursting into patterns of sparkling light (with the help of complicated computer programmes and battery packs) when they become magical.

The substantial numbers of fairies thus created fulfils Mike Alfreds' purpose in making the theatricality of the piece clear. Not only do the actors have to play “out” to the Globe audience, but all the characters, except Oberon, are observed by others. There is a play within this play, but there are audiences too.

The lovers, says Mike Alfreds, are undergoing a rite of passage, growing up, so the actors must not over-indulge in emotion. Their characters are adolescent, self-indulgent, in love with love. There can rarely have been a Hermia and Helena so obviously answering the descriptions in the text: dark and tiny, blonde and tall respectively.

Mike Alfreds has allowed his cast to come up with their own malapropisms to replace ones which may have little meaning for a modern audience. Students will enjoy spotting the occasional unfamiliar word.

Bruce Weber (review date 28 June 2002)

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SOURCE: Weber, Bruce. “The Once Dreamy Woods Now Have Big, Bad Wolves.” The New York Times (28 June 2002): B3; E3.

[In the following review of the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2002 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Richard Jones, Weber notes that Jones's unique and nightmarish take on the play created a kind of “anti-Midsummer Night's Dream” that confounded expectations.]

School's out, which is a good thing as far as the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is concerned. We wouldn't want any unsuspecting English teachers shepherding their sophomores into the Shubert Theater here in anticipation of the gentle, giddy introduction to Shakespeare that has seduced generations. They'd all be perplexed by a production that seems to be willfully unattractive, drained of color and demonic in spirit, as opposed to magical. Of course, 10th graders might very well get a charge out of the director Richard Jones's sense of the perverse.

Still, they'd have to be pretty sophisticated. For what Mr. Jones has concocted here is a kind of anti-Midsummer Night's Dream, one in which the darkness of the forest, for all its fantastical goings-on, never seems to twinkle with the promise of a happy ending. Instead, there's a kind of squalor about.

The production—its set and modern costumes—is entirely in black and white. Enormous flies, fixed to the walls of the primary set—a large black box with white cutouts that makes no pretense to slickness or sharp design—multiply as the play proceeds. The forest is denoted by a single tree, played by a man with a grotesquely twisted set of branches emerging from his collar where his head ought to be. The sounds of the night are batwings, tittering insect hordes and the moans of distant animals. The sprinkling of love potions is performed by disembodied arms: Grade B horror flick stuff.

It is, in other words, a Midsummer Night's Dream to confound expectations, a show that will sit best with theatergoers who have seen this most popular of comedies many times, whose experience will be acknowledged and rewarded by surprise. Even the set seems puckishly referential: a winking variation on the famous white box of Peter Brooke's Royal Shakespeare production of 1970.

If not for fledgling Shakespeare audiences, the production, which continues through Sunday as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, is certainly one for fledgling Shakespearean actors.

Mr. Jones's cast is uniform in its confident diction and deftness with the play's poetics. And even if there are no notably idiosyncratic performances here, the actors all seem well informed of the director's tongue-in-cheek darkness, and comfortable with it.

There's nothing egregious in any performance, not even in that of Bottom, played by Darrell D'Silva with the appropriately unbearable bravado, a very odd haircut and some facial expressions reminiscent of Monty Python's Michael Palin. In fact, the mechanicals as a group, who are goofily dressed up in styleless gray ensembles and whom we first encounter, for some reason, riding a train, constitute their own flying circus.

They do a credible job with the “tedious, brief” tale of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” though anyone who has seen A Midsummer Night's Dream even once before will be impatient with Shakespeare's most overindulgent bit of slapstick.

The Athenians are all very appealing. Peter Lindford is an authoritative Theseus, particularly in the opening scene, and Priyanga Elan is his sexy, steely-gazed Hippolyta. In a brief turn as Egeus, Steven Beard makes his frustration with Hermia's disobedience into a kind of hysteria that testifies to a genuine fear of powerlessness. The four young lovers are slim, fresh-looking and hot to trot.

As Lysander, Michael Colgan, with his shaggy hair, untucked button-down shirt and eager, baffled expression, comes across as the president of the chess club unnerved by an onset of randiness. Paul Chequer's Demetrius is the presumptuous jock; at one point in the forest, he simply seizes the resistant Hermia (Gabrielle Jourdan) and tries to have his way with her.

Ms. Jourdan has a queenly profile and a manner to go with it, and Nikki Amuka-Bird is an unusually but pleasingly reserved Helena, a young woman with the will but not the instinct for the swoon and pout of self-dramatization.

Still, it isn't the real world of Athens that occupies Mr. Jones's subversive attention here; it's the forest, which is a sour place. Oberon (Tim McMullan) is a grumpy monarch, lank-haired and shirtless but in a dark suit; he looks like the unpleasant lead singer of a heavy metal band. And Titania (Yolanda Vazquez), in a dark, seemingly shredded gown and Goth makeup, might well be the guitarist.

Her loyal fairies, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, et al., are dressed all in black, speak in blurts and move with the spastic compulsions that the movies tend to attribute to the terrifyingly insane. And speaking of movies, the donkey mask worn by the bewitched Bottom makes him look a little like Freddy Krueger with mule ears.

All of this turns the forest into the stage equivalent of a bad neighborhood. The set may be abstract, but it still seems creepy and unclean, suggesting the kind of place where miscreants roam. And indeed, such is this production's Puck (Dominic Cooper), whose torso and arms are half-covered in soot and whose mischievous swagger has no pixie in it. He's the kind of sprite who would just as soon rob a gas station as twiddle with the affections of Titania, not to mention mere mortals.

The implication is that the play is not a comic dream so much as a nightmare; the forest scenes have more than a touch of creepy reality. For the lovers, particularly the innocent young women, sex looms not as a reward but as a threat. The anthropomorphic tree takes Hermia in the lascivious embrace of its branches; Demetrius has a bit of the rapist in him, at least until he has his ardor pointed toward Helena, who has already confessed a willingness to be his slave, if that is what it takes to attract him.

And in the monumental confusion before the misdirected affections are straightened out, all four end up breathless and nearly naked.

This is Mr. Jones's triumphant scene. The chaos is complete; comedy is tinged with danger; innocence is threatened; and what has seemed, until now, a careless squalor, has congealed into a cogent and rather beautiful bit of passionate and expressionistic hurly-burly. And though it makes the post-intermission untangling of confusion and the lovers' return to Athens seem anti-climactic, it is, for those who may have already lived through many midsummer night's dreams, a satisfying surprise.

Paul A. Olson (essay date June 1957)

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SOURCE: Olson, Paul A. “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage.” ELH 24, no. 2 (June 1957): 95-119.

[In the following essay, Olson suggests that A Midsummer Night's Dream was intended to serve as a guidebook for married aristocratic couples and, by extension, for a moral society.]

The opinion that A Midsummer Night's Dream is largely a shimmering fabric of “moonlight, with a touch of moonshine”1 has become stock among students of Shakespeare. One rephrases habitual insights concerning gossamer and magic whenever one treats of the work. But there is more to the play than a dream. The efforts of historical scholars to place this comedy in the setting of its dramatic tradition, to see it as “sui generis, a ‘symbolical’ or masque-like play”2 suggest that we ought to revise our romantic preconceptions of its structure and theme. Elizabethan masques usually afforded pleasures more serious than those of moonshine, and A Midsummer Night's Dream is not unlike them in this respect. It was created for the solemn nuptials of a noble house,3 perhaps for those of the Earl of Derby or the Earl of Essex. For our purposes, the specific families involved matter little. Rather it is important that the significance of the play's symbolism and the raison d'être of its pageantry can come clear through an examination of the occasion of its presentation.

Commensurate with its origins in a court marriage, this drama speaks throughout for a sophisticated Renaissance philosophy of the nature of love in both its rational and irrational forms. Even Bottom the fool observes that “reason and loue keepe little company together, now a daies (MND [A Midsummer Night's Dream], (III, i. 147-48).”4 His sententious surmise—and it has been taken as the drama's theme—is best understood in terms of 16th century marriage doctrines. When these and the symbols used to convey them are properly understood, the disparity between Reason and Love will appear figured in the distance from Athens to the woods; it is emblemized in the play's shift from light to darkness. The formal contrasts and similarities between the Duke and Queen of Athens and their fairy counterparts depict like distinctions. However, since such structural effects are organically linked to the philosophy which informs them, the purpose of this essay must be twofold. It must first make a cursory survey of Renaissance thought concerning the function of festival drama and the significance of wedlock. Then it must indicate the methods by which symbol and masque pattern, structure and theme, work together to make luminous a traditional understanding of marriage.

There is reason for such an iconological approach to A Midsummer Night's Dream. The ceremony for which it was written probably took place about 1595. Its audience would have included, from the intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals of the court, men who knew the recently published enigmatic works: The Faerie Queene (1590), The Countesse of Pembrokes Yuychurch (1592), Sidney's Arcadia (1590). Furthermore, the play's style and conception relate it to Lyly's court comedies of a decade earlier and Ben Jonson's court masques of ten years later.5 Both these demanded the sophistication of minds swift in catching emblematic meanings, a point convincingly sustained by the studies of D. J. Gordon and B. F. Huppé in the ceremonial dramas of Jonson and Lyly.6 For both the scholar and playwright, the drama's patrons give the drama laws. The laws for Lyly and Jonson were fixed by a court consistently interested in that art which builds its meaning from the materials of traditional emblems and allegories. Such a group Shakespeare also addressed in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The guests at the wedding may have been reminded of the intellectual function of the new playwright's poetry—if they needed such reminding—through the definitions of Duke Theseus' speech:7

The Poets eye, in a fine frenzy, rolling, doth glance
From heauen to earth, from earth to heauen. And as
Imagination bodies forth the formes of things
Vnknowne: the Poets penne turnes them to shapes,
And giues to ayery nothing, a locall habitation,
And a name.

(MND, V, i, 12-17)

Theseus' lines have been interpreted in their context as a jocular degradation of the poet to the level of lover and madman. Poets do not often sell their craft so short, and Shakespeare is not, I think, doing so here. First of all, one must note that Theseus makes some implicit distinctions between the poet and his mad colleagues. It is only lovers and madmen who are said to exhibit fantasies which descend beyond the comprehension of reason (MND, V, 4-6). Implicitly, poets, however much they are possessed by a furor poesis, may deal in imaginings apprehensible in more rational terms. The speech quoted above perhaps makes clear how this happens. Its syntax suggests that what the poet sees, in glancing to heaven, is the “ayery nothing” or “forme” which his imagination is then empowered to body forth.8 In looking back to earth, he bequeaths to this Form a “locall habitation, and a name.” In a similar vein, Neoplatonic criticism in the time spoke of the artist's duty to incarnate the universal (or “form”) in the concrete visual emblem. Professor E. H. Gombrich recently used much the same language as Duke Theseus to summarize the rationale of such Renaissance visual symbols:

They are the forms which the invisible entities can assume to make themselves understood to the limited human mind. In other words, the idea of Justice—be it conceived as a member of the celestial hierarchy or as an abstract entity—is inaccessible to the senses. At best we can hope to grasp it in a moment of ecstasy and intellectual intuition. But God has decreed in His mercy that these invisible and abstract entities whose divine radiance no human eye could support may accommodate themselves to our understanding and assume visible shape.9

Professor Gombrich treats of the figure of justice; the theory could as well be used to explain the “Cupid painted blinde (MND, I, 1, 235)” placed in A Midsummer Night's Dream to embody earthly as opposed to heavenly love. In fact the entire play may be seen as a skillfully composed fabric of iconological referents giving local habitation to the “invisible and abstract entities” which would be likely to claim the attention of a marriage audience. Thus, while the aesthetic of the work implies a surrender to modes of looking at the world which do not derive their sustenance from phenomenal fact, it also demands a return to this kind of fact for their expression.

Perhaps to strengthen Theseus' general critical position, Bottom remarks in a more comic vein that his dream “hath no bottome (MND, IV, 1, 220).” Earlier the same speech echoes confusedly St. Paul's account of the ineffable nature of the heavenly vision (MND, IV, i, 208 ff; compare I Corinthians 2:7-14). If Bottom's misquotation means anything, it probably indicates that the dream is what Macrobius would have called a somnium, a veiled truth from between the gates of horn.10 All in all, Shakespeare might well have assented to Ben Jonson's belief that the inventions of court drama “should alwayes lay hold on more remou'd mysteries.11

The Elizabethan poet who wished to bring before an aristocratic group the “formes of things Vnknowne” in describing the function of marriage, could refer to an old and dignified philosophy of its purposes. This thought had come down to him from the middle ages, but he could have found it in 16th century sermons, scriptural commentaries, marriage manuals, or encyclopedias of general knowledge. According to its doctrines, the love found in well-ordered marriage was regarded—in the words of Chaucer's Theseus—as part of the “faire cheyne of love” which “bond / The fyr, the eyr, the water, and the lond / In certeyn boundes (KT [The Knight's Tale], 2988-2992).”12 This divine love, this “perfect harmonie, like as in musicke …”13 also maintained the patterned hierarchy of society and kept the stars in their paths. Wedlock fulfilled its part in the concord of things when the male ruled his mate in the same way that reason was ordained to control both will and passions.14 It was argued that, before the Fall, men propagated their kind according to the promptings of charity. But with the first temptation, Eve's sensuality overcame Adam, and Adam's reason.15 The fall transformed all divine, rational love in man into unreasonable and selfish lust. In Bottom's words, “Reason and Love kept little company together.” Afterward, man's desire sought more to please itself than to follow God's plan for the world in general, especially for the procreation of the race. Since a link in the “faire cheyne” had been broken, the marriage of the first garden was kept as an institution, a fragment shored against the complete ruin of rationality in man.16 It could in a poetic sense allow Adam's intellect again to rule Eve's willfullness. The Comedy of Errors makes Luciana speak no more than the commonplace wisdom of the 16th century when she advises Adriana concerning woman's liberty:

Why, headstrong liberty is lasht with woe:
There's nothing situate vnder heauens eye,
But hath his bound in earth, in sea, in skie.
The beasts, the fishes, and the winged fowles
Are their males subiects, and at their controules:
Man more diuine, the Master of all these,
Lord of the wide world, and wilde watry seas,
Indued with intellectual sence and soules,
Of more preheminence then fish and fowles,
Are masters to their females, and their Lords:
Then let your will attend on their accords.

(C of E [The Comedy of Errors], II, 1, 15-25)

Marriage was assigned not only a positive social value, but various spiritual symbolisms were found in it. The meeting of God and the soul, the relationship of Christ and the Church, these also involved bonds of love which were described in marital terms.17 The view of wedlock outlined here was expressed in Chaucer by the Knight and the Parson (KT, 2986-3108; PT, 260-270, 321-348, and 836-957), repeated in La Primaudaye's The French Academie,18 dramatized in Ben Jonson's Hymenaei.19 It was in part further popularized by the manuals which followed Bullinger's The Christen State of Matrimony. The popular manuals added some practical strictures conducive to order which are relevant to A Midsummer Night's Dream. Parents were advised not to force unpleasant matches upon their offspring but to “haue respect to gods ordinance, & to the right ordinate consent of the parties. …”20 Children on the other hand were counselled that marriage must be undertaken only with the permission of their parents.21 The modern interpreter needs to be aware of these ideals throughout the play, for they, I think, control the pattern of its action and modify the meanings of individual words and images.

In terms of such concepts, A Midsummer Night's Dream discloses a three movement pattern similar in outline to that which Nevill Coghill finds implicit in the mediaeval foundations of Shakespearean comedy.22 The work begins with order (Act I), then passes through the cycle of a Fall which brings the domination of unbridled passion (Acts II-III). Finally, it returns to a realization of the charity and cohesive community morality in which it began (Acts IV-V). Since this essay will trace the manner in which symbol and emblem reinforce this development throughout the play, it will be useful to follow the text as we move through it.

The first movement, the movement toward an orderly subordination of the female and her passions to the more reasonable male, is epitomized at the beginning of the first scene with the announcement of the prospective marriage of Theseus and Hippolita. Long before Shakespeare wrote, Theseus had come to embody the reasonable man and the ideal ruler of both his lower nature and his subjects. Chaucer's Theseus, to whom the ruler of A Midsummer Night's Dream is indebted,23 had conquered “all the regne of Femenye” with his wisdom (KT, 865-66). Shakespeare and Fletcher, in forming The Two Noble Kinsmen out of The Knight's Tale, pointed up the same conception; there the women of Thebes name the duke as one whose “first thought is more, / Then others laboured meditance,” whose “premeditating / More then their actions (TNK [The Two Noble Kinsmen], I, i, 135-37).” He gives substance to their observations with his own remarks that the conquest of the lower affections is a manlike task: “Being sensually subdude / We loose our humane tytle (TNK, I, i, 232-33).” During the same period, other writers such as Natalis Conté, Arthur Golding, Sir John Davies, and Alexander Ross confirmed the belief that Theseus should be respected as a mirror of the model ruler and wise man.24

Hippolita was not so fortunate. She was remembered as an Amazon, the ruler of a nation which overturned the fixed hierarchy of wedlock. Celeste Turner Wright, in her exhaustive study, shows that the female warriors had the same reputation in the Renaissance as in the Middle Ages for holding up “a dangerous example of unwomanly conduct, a violation of that traditional order under which ‘Women are born to thraldom and penance / And to been under mannes governance.’”25 Specifically, they had come to signify a false usurpation of the duties of the male reason by the lower, female passions. The Pyrocles of Sidney's Arcadia, who is costumed as an Amazon, offends Musidorus mainly because he sees in him the overthrow of “the reasonable parte of our soule” by “sensuall weaknes.”26 Spenser pictures a similar inversion of the faculties in his Amazonian Radigund (FQ [Faerie Queene], V, v, 25).27 And John Knox explains the woman:flesh; man:spirit analogy while at the same time attacking the Amazon ruler as transforming men to Circe's brutes, to the “follishe fondnes ãd cowardise of women.”28 That Shakespeare and Fletcher had learned to work these correlations we know from the manner in which Hippolita and her marriage to Theseus are described in The Two Noble Kinsmen:

Most dreaded Amazonian, that ha'st slaine
The Sith-tuskd-Bore; that with thy Arme as strong
As it is white, wast neere to make the male
To thy Sex captive; but that this thy Lord
Borne to uphold Creation, in that honour
First nature stilde it in, shrunke thee into
The bownd thou wast ore-flowing; at once subduing
Thy force, and thy affection. …

(TNK, I, i, 78-85)

The meaning of the rulers' marriage is here explicit; it is even directly related to the prelapsarian relationship in which man and woman, or the analogous inner faculties, were rightly oriented (TNK, I, i, 83).

It is, I think, with some such associations in mind that the more literate members of the initial audience of A Midsummer Night's Dream would have viewed its opening action. Theseus, King of Order, has come to rule an all-too-passionate queen. The duke appears to announce the date of the coming marriage; presumably his undisciplined desires will end when the new moon, Chaste Cynthia, replaces the old stepdame whom Renaissance classicists would have recognized as distraught Hecate. There is to be a season of ceremony and pageantry, a pageantry announced by the formal movement of the verse:

I woo'd thee with my sword,
And wonne thy loue, doing thee iniuries:
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pompe, with triumph, and with reueling.

(MND, I, i, 16-19)

Such stable conditions could not long remain. If they did, there would be no play. But the set presentation of Hippolita and Theseus and their marriage plan states the ethic which is to govern the rest of the work. The action then begins to tumble toward the chaos of the second movement. Egeus interrupts to announce that Lysander has won the young Hermia against his wishes. Egeus' problem is essentially one for the marriage manuals, a question of the “right ordinate consent of the parties. …” Theseus is quick to affirm the principle of order; the child must obey the father or “liue a barraine sister … / Chaunting faint hymnes, to the colde fruitlesse Moone (MND, I, i, 72-73).” Athenian law (MND, I, i, 119) is possibly here the law of hierarchy which Plutarch's Theseus introduced.29 However, Shakespeare's ruler forgets that divine order is maintained by Divine Love and not by law in any mechanical sense. And so there is a failure on both sides, a failure of charity in Theseus, a lack of reason in the lovers. This in turn prepares the way for the break to the woods and the heightening of the drama's psychological tensions.

The duke's exit leaves Lysander and Hermia without an effective guide, and for a time the positive values of the play must necessarily be stated primarily through the imagery. Immediately, the development of disorder shows in images of tempests and of fading roses, and this is intensified by a series of inverted religious allusions which follow. The irony of Lysander's lines, “The course of true loue neuer did runne smoothe (MND, I, i, 134)” lies, of course, in the recognition that if one takes charity and its functions for true love, the reverse is obviously true.30 The comparison of class difference, as the hindrance of lovers, to a cross turns upside down the conception of the first cross where One above class was “inthrald to loue (MND, I, i, 136).” Later, the cross as an emblem for patience in suffering becomes a customary thing “As dewe to loue, as thoughts, and dreames, and sighes … (MND, I, i, 154).” That the Christian cross has some association with heavenly love is evident, as is also the paradox of its connection with Hermia's amorous resignation. Essentially, the argument of the tête-à-tête between Hermia and Lysander proceeds along fatalistic lines; the love of which they speak, being temporal and unreasonable, is correctly described as bound for confusion (MND, I, i, 141-49). But the references to the crucifixion undercut the argument and appeal to the audience's awareness that there is another kind of love which may move through higher faculties and is not so bound or so temporal.

Lysander, to escape from Athenian restraint, suggests that Hermia go with him to the woods outside the city and attempt a clandestine marriage. Generally such unions were described as illicit in the sixteenth century, and they would hardly be looked on with any favor by parents at an aristocratic wedding. Hermia is not abashed, however. She accedes to the proposition with a fine series of oaths culled carefully from the classics (MND, I, i, 169-178). First, she calls on Cupid, a symbol for the power which preserves form in the universe. But this same Cupid, as Natalis Conté shows us, becomes a furor and insanity when transferred to the human mind.31 Then she swears by the simplicity of Venus' doves, another emblem for unrestrained desire.32 Finally her oath includes the fire which burned Dido in her final act of self-assertion and self-destruction, a fire which did not, in any known account, either knit souls or prosper loves.

After Helena's entrance, the metaphor returns to a religious area of reference, now overtly used for ironic purposes; Hermia makes use of the concept of grace to explain the process by which her Athenian Paradise was transformed to a more unhappy place as she learned to worship Lysander:

O then, what graces in my loue dooe dwell,
That hee hath turnd a heauen vnto a hell!

(MND, I, i, 206-07)

As we shall see, Athens did not always carry such evil connotations. Finally, Helena ties together the whole tenor of the early action with her long closing speech dissecting the effects of Cupid and Cupid's love; this, of course, also directs our attention back to the world of the classics. An early part of her description of the boy's power foreshadows Titania's relation to Bottom: “Things base and vile … / Loue can transpose to forme and dignitie (MND, I, i, 232-33).” At one level, these lines express the will of such infatuates as the queen of fairy to delude themselves. At another, they represent a perversion by Helena of the belief that Love moves always to impress its form upon the base material of Chaos. The central antithesis between love and reason is first stated explicitly and with a touch of comic incongruity in the same speech: “Loue lookes not with the eyes, but with the minde (MND, I, i, 234).” However, the girl makes clear two lines later that love's mind is a little eccentric as minds go, for, she observes, it is altogether lacking in rational judgment. Moreover, Helena bothers to point out that the Cupid who figures the emotions which have been evident on the stage is painted blind (MND, I, i, 235). Now in the Renaissance, there had come to be two Cupids.33 One was pictured without the bandage over his eyes and waited upon Venus Coelestis, the mother of supernal love. The other was a blind boy associated with Venus Vulgaris who shot the hot darts of irrational, earthly desire. By having Helena here speak of the blind member of the pair, Shakespeare explicitly adopts an icon from a sister art to clarify the significance of the lover's emotions and unify the scene.

Since the first section of the play is a crucial one, I have analyzed its language in some detail. Here the dramatist sets up his major themes. Here bright things begin to come to their confusion through a psychological decay, through a dissociation of man's rational, ordering social capacities from his desires. The poet indicates this through the inverted metaphor—predominately a counterpoint of religious and classical allusion—which, though it is used seriously by the lovers, is probably intended to turn back upon them and mock them in the eyes of the audience.

The irony relaxes to farce in the next scene where the mechanicals, with all their crudity, offer a fine dramatization of the proper respect for hierarchy. All through the play these common life characters, unlike those in Love's Labours Lost, furnish a rule of ignorant common sense against which the vagaries of their superiors may be measured. So the first act closes by showing the persistence of order in the lower segments of society.

The shift at the beginning of the second section (Acts II-III) leads from Athens to the woods, from light to darkness. The Athens which Theseus ruled dedicated itself to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. It became a city of philosophers.34 In this play, its antithesis is represented by the near-by woods. They belong in a tradition with Dante's “selva oscura,” Spenser's Wood of Error, or the forested, craggy place which Ariosto created for the necromancer, Atlanta. Harington explains Ariosto's allegory as follows: Atlanta is “that fond fancie we call loue,” and this kind of folly is like the “darkesome wood” in which Dante found himself or the “wandring wood of which the dolefull Petrarke complaines so often in those his sweet mourning sonets, in which he seemes to haue comprehended all the passions that all men of that humour haue felt (Compare MND, II, ii, 35).”35 Shakespeare plays upon this convention in one of Demetrius' speeches (“And here am I, and wodde, within this wood … [MND, II, i, 192]”) through a pun which establishes the association between the woods and unreason. In a more generalized sense, the dark wood could signify the confusions which beset the earthly life.36 Thus, the contrast between the play's two settings is a stage projection of the thematic center of the entire work, the contrast between reasonable and unreasonable love. To move from the city to the forest is to choose madness. Shakespeare reinforces the symbolic implications of the wood by having the scenes which take place in them occur at night. Hence, he can draw on the traditional associations between darkness, evil and disorder (MND, III, ii, 378-87). The briars of this wood (MND, III, ii, 29; III, ii, 442-45) have possibly bothered wanderers ever since the earth first brought forth thorns.

Consistent with its dissimilar setting, act two begins by reversing the situation which opened act one. There Theseus had mastered Hippolita; here Oberon, king of fairies, has lost his sovereignty over Titania, and things are topsy-turvy. The fairyland which Shakespeare presents is no more the Celtic underworld than that in the Faerie Queene. Like Spenser, Shakespeare uses the shadow country to represent the “Otherworld of allegory—that is, of Platonic Ideas, which constitute a higher reality of which earthly things are only imperfect copies.”37 Consequently, the dramatist is able to work the fairy rulers for fairly complex artistic purposes. First of all, they are cosmic or mythological projections of the same qualities which Theseus and Hippolita embody in the world of the state. At the same time, the action of their plot forms a commentary upon the foibles of the lovers. They are the higher reality and the lovers their imperfect copies. This technique Shakespeare may have learned from Chaucer's use of Pluto and Proserpina as analogues to January and May in the Merchant's Tale. To understand the artifice of the device, however, we must identify the literary traditions back of the King and Queen of this otherworld.

In Bernier's Huon of Burdeux, Oberon is a kind of grace figure who protects Huon, when he is sinless or penitent, on his way to the conquest of Babylon. This Oberon was born some forty years before Christ's nativity and is never to age; his place has been appointed for him in Paradise when he leaves the mortal world.38 To Huon he gives the cup from which only the guiltless can drink,39 a vessel which is almost certainly a Eucharistic symbol. Again, the Oberon of Greene's The Scottish History of James the Fourth, proclaims himself ruler “Of quiet, pleasure, profit, and content, / Of wealth, of honor and of all the world.”40 His function is to state the play's Boethian moral: content is virtue and the love of worldly things vanity. In the first scene, he raises Bohan back to life and gently informs him, “I visit thee for loue,”41 though the angry Scot objects that true love long since took her flight to heaven.42 Ben Jonson's masque of Oberon shows the same fairy as king in a celestial palace of those knights who have been “Quick'ned by a second birth (l. 147).”

In this tradition, Shakespeare's king of Shadows is also a delicate figure for grace. He is the play's Prospero. Like Theseus, he may have wandered in the mazes of love and war, but, again like Theseus, he has overcome these. When properly sovereign, Oberon furthers the celestial love which preserves chaste marriages and keeps the cosmos in order. His relation to the higher love is clarified in a late scene. There Puck points to the damned spirits who deliberately exiled themselves “from light, / And must for aye consort with black browed night (MND, III, ii, 386-87).” Oberon immediately objects that he is not the same sort of spirit. By reminding Puck that he has often sported with the morning's love, he introduces an image which has behind it an accumulated tradition of reference to the sun of God's charity.43

Since Oberon's mate symbolizes the opposite, earthly love, she is of quite a different mold. Her name comes from Ovid, who used Titania most conspicuously as an epithet for Diana (Met. [Metamorphosis], III, 173). Donald Miller has observed that Shakespeare's fairy queen does not seem to be the chaste goddess of the hunt, however. “Oberon is nearer the truth when he calls her ‘a wanton.’”44 The paradox of a licentious goddess of chastity may be solved if we look at the Diana in Shakespeare's main source, The Knight's Tale. There Emelye's prayer addresses her as goddess of heaven and earth, and “Queene of the regne of Pluto derk and lowe (KT, 2299).” In the Renaissance as in the 14th century, Diana presented three aspects: “… in heauen she is called Luna, in the woods Diana, vnder the earth Hecate, or Proserpina.”45 Emelye's prayer emphasizes the Proserpina aspects of the goddess, and in Shakespeare's time Thynne described her sacrifice as addressed to Diana Hecate.46 It is my thesis that Shakespeare, using his Chaucerian sources freely, developed his woodland goddess from such a figure. Like Proserpina in the Merchant's Tale, Titania is the “queene of Fayerye (MT [The Merchant's Tale], 2316),” and like her earlier counterpart she knows something of the ways of lechery. The moon appears in its last phase through most of the play, and so it is appropriate that Diana Hecate should rule. Considering the definition quoted above, she should not be a woodland goddess, yet this mythology could be manipulated in several ways. Lyly creates a Luna in The Woman in the Moone who is both queen of the woods and wife of Pluto (V, i, 281-84).47 Some corroborative evidence indicates that writers in the period so regarded Shakespeare's ruler of summer (MND, III, i, 158). Campion has an air, “Harke, al you ladies that do sleep,” which is sometimes cited as a source or analogue of A Midsummer Night's Dream but which may be derived from it. It sings of a “fayry queen Proserpina”48 who following Titania's example, dwells in an arbor, leads rounds of dancing by moonlight, and sends abroad her servants to satisfy her capricious desires. Similarly, Drayton's Nimphidia tells us that Oberon's wife is a Queen Mab, that she is aided by her classical counterpart, her ally and ancient friend (l. 574), Proserpina.49

These suggestions would hardly have been in the minds of the first group to see the play. Yet, a Renaissance audience which knew its classics might have perceived the same thing when it saw Titania appearing with the flowers which her ancestor picked on the fields of Enna or altering the seasonal cycle as Proserpina did when Pluto took her down to Hades. Puck's assertion that the fairies run “By the triple Hecates teame (MND, V, i, 391),” the fact that the snake leaves his “enammeld skinne (MND, II, i, 255)” near the proud queen's bower,50 these may have further signalled Titania's relationship with the Roman goddess.

Since Proserpina had power over the coming and going of the seasons, she was allegorized from ancient times as a naturalistic representation of the potency of seeds, as a kind of fertility goddess.51 This traditional interpretation could in turn be easily extended to make her stand for the forces of the lower passions in man. An Ovidian moralization once attributed to Thomas of Wales emphasizes that aspect of the goddess, and Campion's song notes with some wit that “The Fairie Queene Proserpina / Bids you encrease that louing humour more (ll. 30-31).”52 Similarly, Titania is queen of summer and a goddess of the earth. Its products, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Cobweb, wait upon her court. Following the fashion set by Lyly's Tellus, she is laden with flowers; like Proserpina and Tellus, she becomes in this play a symbol for the earth and its earthly love. Her function in human psychology and her title in the fairy world are both taken over in Romeo and Juliet by Mercutio's Mab.

All the objects which surround Oberon's queen befit her station. Her bower is a sensual paradise.53 Near it, Philomel, the bird of lascivious loves, sings its melody while the wise owl hoots at the “quaint” spirits which appear (MND, II, ii, 1-26).54 Her erotic games with Bottom and the changeling fit the symbolic frame which Shakespeare has placed about her, since she is princess of sensual passion. In the total conceptual scheme of the play, the king and queen of the woods dramatize the two poles of the scale of values which gave meaning to marriage. They are types of the forces of Reason and Passion which in a more complex and human manner move through Theseus and Hippolita respectively.

As we observed earlier, the world of the woods, unlike Athens, is upside down. Oberon, prince of grace, is no longer sovereign over the fertile earth and its characteristic lusts. It is one of the clichés of the Elizabethan period that macrocosm and microcosm mirror one another. Since the rulers of fairyland and Platonic archetypes, their struggle has fairly broad effects. It reflects itself in the chaos of nature, the reversal of the seasons, and so forth (MND, II, i, 81-117). A parallel to this appears in Jonson's Masque of Queenes. There the witches attempt to raise a spell which will “strike the World, and Nature dead (l. 314)” and restore shrunk-up Chaos to his ancient dominions. During their rites of disorder, the hags describe the earth as it appears when triformed Hecate is powerful. As in Shakespeare, the seasons alter, floods come, the corn is removed, and storms trouble the land (ll. 221-242). Jonson specifically attributes this collapse of the natural order to Hecate, and we err if we fail to see the parallel passage in Shakespeare as something similar, as more than a mere versified account of the inclement weather of 1595. The disorders described in both passages are caused by the same figure, and both likewise fit into the conscious intellectual purpose of the larger works in which they are placed.

The battle which makes all the trouble concerns a very elusive changeling boy who was carried into the otherworld by the fairies. In like manner, Ganymede was taken by Jove, and Ganymede's tale was commonly thought to be a parable of the capture of man's rational soul by the love of God.55 Again, Spenser's Red Cross Knight, who is obviously at one level a symbol for the soul, was as a child a changeling kidnapped into the world of Platonic ideas (FQ, I, x, 65-66).

Now to regain this changeling and recover control over Titania, Oberon sends for the obscure flower, love-in-idleness. He informs Puck that it has power to make the fairy queen dote on any creature, “Be it on Lyon, Beare, or Wolfe, or Bull … (MND, II, i, 180).” The herb has been suspected by modern critics of containing some superstitious magical potion, perhaps some aphrodisiac. However, the association of love and idleness goes back as far as Ovid's Remedia Amoris: “Otia si tollas, periere Cupidinis arcus … (l. 139; cf. ll. 135-150).” Idleness is porter of the Narcissian garden of self-love in Le Roman de la Rose; Spenser calls the same personification the “nourse of sin,” and makes him lead the parade of the seven deadly vices (FQ, I, iv, 18-20). Euphues observes that “idlenes is the onely nourse and nourisher of sensual appetite, the sole maintenance of youthfull affection, the first shaft that Cupide shooteth into the hot liuer of a heedlesse louer.”56 Shakespeare's love-in-idleness takes its color from the same Cupid (MND, II, i, 165-68), the Cupid whom Helena and Hermia found so attractive. The herb is rather obviously a source of “sensual appetite,” and no one should be surprised when it makes Titania dote on the first beast she sees, Bottom in the role of an ass.

There is an allegory in this doting. As Arthur Golding observes, only those who live under reason's law are to be accounted truly human; those who succumb to their bestial nature must be considered no more than beasts.57 Bottom's ass head may be the development of several traditions, but a fairly accessible interpretation sees it as the symbol for stupidity and sensuality, for the carnal man as opposed to the spiritual.58 Bottom, of course, does not stand for such qualities throughout the play, but the Bottom who appears in the dream, the ass who is the object of Titania's seduction is probably such a symbol. He is—in Titania's phrase—as wise as he is beautiful (MND, III, i, 151). Rather striking support for this is to be found in the passage in St. Paul mentioned earlier. Bottom says that it is “past the wit of man, to say; what dreame it was. Man is but an Asse, if hee goes about [to] expound this dreame … it shall be call'd Bottoms Dreame; because it hath no bottome (MND, IV, i, 208-220).” St. Paul puts it a little differently in Tyndale's translation: “For the sprete searcheth all thinges, ye the bottome of Goddes secretes. For what man knoweth the thinges of a man: save the sprete of a man which is with in him? … For the naturall man perceaveth not the thinges of the sprete of god. For they are but folysshnes vnto him.”59 It is the bestial or natural man who is unable to see to the bottom of things; he is the fool or ass who cannot expound the dream. This does not mean that Shakespeare denies to the more perceptive spirit of his audience the privilege of perceiving “these invisible and abstract entities which no human eye could support.”

What then are the invisible and abstract entities which may be seen in the comic fairy plot? Paraphrase is always bad for a stage piece; it tends to impoverish and rationalize the richness of a dramatic symbol. Yet, if one were to apply this malpractice to the Oberon-Titania-Bottom triangle, one might say that celestial love in the form of Oberon attempts to capture the young man (the “sprete” or the changeling) into his train and bring earthly love under his control in order that the rational and animal in man may form a proper marriage. To accomplish this, Divine Love “providentially works through imperfect human love”60 as in the Knight's Tale. That is, Oberon uses love-in-idleness to force Titania to release her hold upon the changeling and to seek only the carnal or physical man, Bottom. Bottom recognizes the earthy character of Titania's love when he speaks of her having little reason for loving him, and then tosses off the jest which sets the theme of the play (MND, III, i, 145-50). The service which Titania's coterie, especially Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Cobweb, pay to Bottom is obviously a miniature picture of the satisfaction which the products of the earth can give to the grosser senses. There is a plot analogous to this one in Lyly's Endimion; there Cynthia, the higher love, forces Tellus or earthly passion to release her hold upon Endimion (the rational soul) but allows her to retain her love for Corsites (the body). Shakespeare was possibly as aware as Lyly that the body quite naturally will have its sexual appetites. He may also have recognized, as more recent dramatists sometimes do not, that these appetites need not undermine man's reason, his social responsibility, or his spiritual seeking.

Thus, having reduced physical love to her proper sphere, Oberon can use “Dians budde” to release her from the unchaste power of “Cupids flower.” At that point the third movement of the play begins in the fairy plot. Oberon regains his sovereignty over the fairy queen; the two loves are matched as they should be in any true marriage. The pair beats the ground in a circular dance, and Oberon calls for music which strikes “more dead / Then common sleepe: of all these, fi[v]e the sense (MND, IV, i, 84-85).” This harmony may be the mundana musica which preserves chaste loves and keeps the stars from wrong. The dance was given the same universal significance as a symbol for the concord of divine love in Sir John Davies Orchestra (1595).61 Finally, all this is knit together when the fairies hear the song of the lark, a bird which sings at heaven's gate and which well into the seventeenth century was a symbol for the ascent of the reasonable soul toward God.62 Thus the king and queen of the otherworld arrive at the ordered condition which Theseus and Hippolita had reached at the play's beginning. Such an interpretation of the fairy plot may be incomplete, but it seems to me somewhat more consonant with what we know of the literary use of fairies in the 1590's from the Faerie Queene than the view we sometimes get that Shakespeare was here a slightly amateurish Warwickshire folklorist.

To see the mythical plot in this way is to see it as an integral part of the total dramatic meaning of the play. It amounts to a stage projection of the inner condition of the lovers, of the pattern of fall and redemption which they experience. Shakespeare is craftsman enough to establish carefully stage links between the two plots. Thus, when Demetrius and Helena first appear in the woods, Helena comes running after Demetrius (MND, II, i, 188); ten lines earlier Oberon has predicted that Titania will pursue the first beast she sees with the soul of love. Later Titania sleeps and receives the juice of love-in-idleness upon her eyelids; then Lysander and Hermia sleep, and Lysander is treated with the same philtre. Under its influence, Lysander worships Helena (MND, II, ii, 83-156)); the next scene gives us a Titania enamoured of Bottom's shape. Throughout, Shakespeare uses formal parallelism between scenes from the two plots to stress their inner relationship and to heighten the humor of both.

Though the flight to the woods is obviously the beginning of the lovers' fall, their subjection is not such a serious one. Shakespeare is not writing a serious play in that sense. Hermia preserves her humane modesty though Helena is less worried about the worth of her virginity. In any case, Oberon again providentially works through imperfect human love, using the philtre to transform the initial foolishness into behavior which is more obviously irrational. The ridicule which is the most potent enemy of the wrong kind of love, is intended to act both upon the lovers and, it is hoped, upon their audience. Puck makes a mistake with Lysander, but this only serves to heighten the comedy. The boy sinks to sleep protesting everlasting love for Hermia; he awakens from the herb eager to run through fire for Helena. He has arrived at that unsound condition where he can adduce scholastic arguments for his sanity, and so give the theme of the play another ironic twist:

The will of man is by his reason swai'd:
And reason saies you are the worthier maide.
Things growing are not ripe, vntill their season:
So I, being young, till now ripe not to reason.
And touching now, the [point] of humaine skill,
Reason becomes the Marshall to my will.
And leads mee to your eyes. …

(MND, II, ii, 115-121)

Incidentally, Reason in Le Roman de la Rose does not attempt to marshall the will to the eyes of a beautiful woman, but to a different kind of jewel.

However, the climax of the dramatization of the troubles of irrational love is reached in Act III, scene ii. The exaggerated praise and worship of the mistress common in Ovidian satiric love poetry, the suspicions of friends are all there. Hermia even endeavors to tear out Helena's eyes (MND, III, ii, 298). A moralist might say that the concupiscible passions have led on to the irascible. This is also what happens to Palamon and Arcite in the Knight's Tale. Yet, the troubles of heroic love do not lead the lovers in Shakespeare's work to the same violent end which Chaucer's Arcite suffers. It is part of Shakespeare's art that while the plight of the lovers seems more and more desperate to them, it appears increasingly comic to their audience, possibly because in this play the benevolent Oberon can send in his Robin to rescue the squabbling pairs and apply the Remedia Amoris:

On the ground, sleepe sound:
Ile aply your eye, gentle louer, remedy. …
Iacke shall haue Iill: nought shall goe ill:
The man shall haue his mare again, & all shall be well.

(MND, III, ii, 448-63)

Thus Oberon, with his servants, returns the lovers to reason; by allowing them to see for themselves the humor of their situation, he makes it possible for them to extricate themselves permanently from the fond fancy which misdirects the will and leaves one enamoured of an ass.

The lovers are ready for the type of “bond of love” speech which Theseus gives in the third section of the Knight's Tale. Here again Shakespeare chooses the appropriate dramatic symbols. The song of the lark, the music, and dance symbolize the “faire cheyne” in the fairy plot; in the other plot Theseus appears at dawn to remark the same effects:

How comes this gentle concord in the worlde,
That hatred is so farre from iealousie,
To sleepe by hate, and feare no enmitie. …

(MND, IV, i, 146-48)

This concord is a reflection of the concord between Oberon and Titania, between their loves. It suggests a return of the world of nature from seasonal disorder to a similar harmony. And the state comes to its own order; Theseus now preserves hierarchy by overruling Egeus. His success results from a more profound understanding of the principle of consent as the basis of marriage than he exhibited in the first scene. Finally, he proposes the ritual which will confirm a union not “Briefe, as the lightning in the collied night … (MND, I, i, 145)” but rather more lasting:

… in the Temple, by and by, with vs,
These couples shall eternally be knit.

(MND, IV, i, 183-84)

The last act is lighter in tone. The contract complete, the lovers see enacted the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. But even this fits into the total pattern. For this story is, as Arthur Golding knew, a tragedy of the “headie force of frentick love.”63 At one level, it is the potential tragedy of the lovers in the woods. It becomes, of course, a comedy because of the crudity in its poetry and in the stagecraft of the mechanicals; even this crudity gives Shakespeare an opportunity to show Theseus manifesting that kind of charity toward his subjects which holds societies together. It is also a comedy because the Renaissance view of marriage did not hold that fallen man must always be torn by the briars of the wild woods. Oberon's final benediction upon the wedded couples is not so specifically concerned with Christian theological redemption as that which the Knight gives to Palamon and Emelye:

And God, that al this wyde world hath wroght,
Sende hym his love that hath it deere aboght. …

(KT, 3099-3100)

Yet the “true loue” which Oberon promises to the newly married ones may be related to Divine Love, and the blots which are not to appear in their offspring were blots first made when Nature's hand was scarred in the fall.

Since the play operates according to no normal Aristotelian laws of psychological causality, critics have expected to find in it arcane fertility myth and ritual. But the ritual with which the work is concerned is after all the marriage rite. And the symbols come not from the Celtic twilight but from more conscious and intellectual literary traditions. Shakespeare was able to celebrate the marriage occasion at the noble mansion with archetypes more alive to the noblemen of his time than the superstitions of their Druidic ancestors. The major symbols used in A Midsummer Night's Dream had been made the property of the court by the works of Lyly and Spenser, authors who also exercised an influence on Shakespeare at the time he wrote the play. Shakespeare's purpose is to bring to life certain truths about wedlock which may have seemed at best abstractions, at worst clichés, to his audience. He widens their significance by mirroring them in an elaborate series of parallelisms between Athens and the woods, between the world of the fairies and the world of the lovers, between the orders of the individual family, of society, and of nature in general. The values which the drama supports are not trivial. That society in which sexual mores are governed well, in which marriage is relatively unselfish, may exhibit a deeper unity in other matters. It is in terms of such values that the dream becomes more than a fanciful illusion and grows, in Hippolita's phrase, “to something of great constancy (MND, V, i, 26).”


  1. Marchette Chute, An Introduction to Shakespeare (New York, 1951), p. 49.

  2. John Russell Brown, “The Interpretation of Shakespeare's Comedies: 1900-1953,” Shakespeare Survey, VIII (1955), 7; cf. E. K. Chambers, ed., A Midsummer Night's Dream (New York, 1907), p. 13, pp. 18-19; Enid Welsford, The Court Masque (Cambridge, 1927), pp. 324-336; C. J. Sisson, ed., William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (London, 1953), p. 207.

  3. E. K. Chambers, “The Occasion of ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream,’” A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, ed. Israel Gollancz (Oxford, 1916), pp. 154-160; Welsford, p. 324; Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and J. Dover Wilson, ed., A Midsummer-Night's Dream (Cambridge, 1924), p. xv; Paul N. Siegel, “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Wedding Guests,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], IV (1953), 139-144. These references might be multiplied. My essay does not propose to deal with the problem of topical allusions in MND.

  4. Quotations from Shakespeare are taken from the first quartos of TNK and MND and from the first folio for the remaining plays. Line numbers follow the Globe text. This essay is indebted throughout to the assistance of Professors G. E. Bentley and D. W. Robertson, Jr.

  5. Welsford, p. 283; cf. Robert Adger Law, “The ‘Pre-Conceived Pattern’ of A Midsummer Night's Dream,” Texas U. Studies in English (1943), 8-14.

  6. D. J. Gordon, “Poet and Architect: The Intellectual Setting of the Quarrel between Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones,” JW& CI, XII (1949), 152-178; “The Imagery of Ben Jonson's The Masque of Blacknesse and The Masque of Beautie,JW& CI, VI (1943), 122-141; “Hymenæi: Ben Jonson's Masque of Union,” JW& CI [Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes], VIII (1945), 107-145; Bernard F. Huppé, “Allegory of Love in Lyly's Court Comedies,” ELH, XIV (1947), 92-113. Cf. Alice S. Venezky, Pageantry on the Shakespearean Stage (New York, 1951), pp. 134-145.

  7. J. Dover Wilson suggests that these lines were added to a 1592 version of the play, but he regards the revisions as inserted for later private performances at weddings; cf. Wilson, pp. 80-100.

  8. Pico similarly regards the imagination as the faculty which embodies celestial realities; its purpose is to move the uninitiated to a contemplation of higher things, and this functions particularly in Scriptural allegory:

    Remoto namque sacorum eliquiorum cortice, sequestratoque imaginationis velo, quod cortici litterae juxta proportionem quadrat, sicuti spiritus ipse sub cortice delitescens depurato phantasmatibus intellectui respondet, sese in animam infert spiritus, eamque ad divinum gustum perducit, quae incohatio est quaedam futurae gloriae quae revelabitur in nobis.

    Pico della Mirandola, On the Imagination, ed. Harry Caplan (New Haven, 1930), p. 92; cf. 86-92. La Primaudaye treats the imagination, properly used, as the vehicle through which such heavenly visions as Nebuchadnezzar's are communicated; Peter de la Primaudaye, The Second Part of the French Academie (London, 1594), sig. [K6]. These ideas may be a development from Boethius (“De Consolatione Philosophiæ,” Liber V, Prosa IV), where the imagination is assigned a position between the wit which looks on sensate things and the intelligence which contemplates the simple forms.

  9. E. H. Gombrich, “Icones Symbolicæ: The Visual Image in Neo-Platonic Thought,” JW& CI, XI (1948), 180; cf. passim, pp. 163-192.

  10. Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, trans. William H. Stahl (New York, 1952), pp. 87-92; cf. Huppé, p. 99.

  11. The Works of Ben Jonson (introduction to Hymenæi), edited by C. H. Herford, Percy and Evelyn Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford, 1925-1952), VII, 209.

  12. The Poetical Works of Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson (Cambridge, Mass., 1933). All quotations and citations from this edition.

  13. Peter de la Primaudaye, The French Academie (London, 1618), Sig. Ooo2v; cf. Sig. Ooo2-Ooo2v.

  14. Roland Mushat Frye, “Macbeth's Usurping Wife,” Renaissance News, VIII (1955), 102; cf. [Ercole Tasso], Of Mariage and Wiuing, trans. R[obert] T[ofte] (London, 1599), sig. J[1]v; [John Knox], The First Blast of the Trvmpet Against the Montrvous Regiment of Women ([Geneva], 1558), sig. C4 ff.

  15. This interpretation of the fall, originating as early as St. Augustine (De Trinitate, Lib. XII, Cap. 12), was popularized in the 12th and 13th centuries by Sententiae of Peter Lombard (Lib. II, Dist. XXIV, Cap. VI ff.). Cf. Lombard, “Collectanea in Epist. D. Pauli; In Ep. I ad Tim.,” PL, CXCII, 342; Richard of St. Victor, “Adnotatio in Psalmum CXXI,” PL, CXCVI, 363, and Chaucer, Works, p. 282. Arnold Williams in The Common Expositor (Chapel Hill, 1948), p. 128, has indicated the persistence of this interpretation as a subsidiary moralization into the Renaissance. For a literary usage, cf. The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, 6 vols. (London, 1928-31), II, 16-19, esp. pp. 18-19.

  16. Peter de la Primaudaye, The French Academie (Newbery, 1586), sig. [Hh8]v; John Donne, Works (London, 1839), IV, 34.

  17. Donne, Works, IV, 40 ff.; La Primaudaye (1586 ed.), sig. [Ii6]v.

  18. Primaudaye (1586 ed.), sig. [Hh7]v-Nn3.

  19. Gordon, Hymenaei, pp. 107-145.

  20. [Heinrich Bullinger], The Christen State of Matrimony, trans. Myles Coverdale (n. p., 1546), sig. E3.

  21. Bullinger, sig. D4.

  22. Nevill Coghill, “The Basis of Shakespearian Comedy,” Essays and Studies (London, 1950), pp. 12-13 and passim, pp. 1-28.

  23. Dorothy Bethurum, “Shakespeare's Comment on Mediaeval Romance in Midsummer-Night's Dream,MLN [Modern Language Notes], LX (1945). 86.

  24. Conté remarks Theseus' “diuinitate … & praestantia ingenii.” Natalis Conté, Mythologiae (Lyons, 1602), sig. Z[7]v. Cf. Arthur Golding, trans., The XV. Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso, entytuled Metamorphosis, ed. W. H. D. Rouse (London, 1904), p. 4; The Poems of Sir John Davies, facsimile ed. Clare Howard (New York, 1941), p. 91; Alexander Ross, Mystagogvs Poeticvs (London, 1648), p. 401.

  25. Celeste Turner Wright, “The Amazons in Elizabethan Literature,” SP [Studies in Philology], XXXVII (1940), 456 and passim, pp. 433-456.

  26. Sir Philip Sidney, The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge, 1912), p. 77; cf. pp. 76-79.

  27. The Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. Greenlaw, Osgood et al, 9 vols. (Baltimore, 1932-1945). All citations from this edition.

  28. John Knox, sig. B3.

  29. Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. Sir Thomas North, 5 vols. (London, 1895), I, 153-54.

  30. La Primaudaye, The Second Part of the French Academie, sig. [S6]-[S6]v; cf. sig. T2-T4v.

  31. Conté, sig. C4v; cf. A Midsommer Nights Dreame, variorum ed. H. H. Furness (Philadelphia, 1895), pp. 23-24, note.

  32. “[Venus'] Doues are wanton … being meanes to procure loue and lust.” Abraham Fraunce, The Third Part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Yuychurch (London, 1592), sig. M3.

  33. Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (New York, 1939), pp. 95-128; one should not ignore the ironies which Shakespeare places in the speech, ironies which link it more closely to the “old” moralizations than Panofsky admits (cf. Panofsky, pp. 123-24).

  34. “Athenes whilom, whan it was in his floures / Was callid norice of philisophres wise, … (ll. 4243-44).” John Lydgate, “The Story of Theseus,” The Fall of Princes, ed. Henry Bergen, 4 vols. (London, 1924-27).

  35. [Ludovico Ariosto], Orlando Fvrioso in English Heroical Verse, trans. Sir John Harington (London, 1591), sig. C4v.

  36. Torquato Tasso, Godfrey of Bulloigne; The Recovery of Ierusalem, trans. Edward Fairfax (London, 1600), sig. A3v; cf. George Sandys, Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologiz'd, and Represented in Figures (London, 1640), sig. Nn[1]v; Margaret Galway, “The Wilton Diptych: A Postscript,” Archaeological Journal, CVII (1950), 9, notes that the “selva oscura” is frequently a meeting place for earthly and celestial beings in later literature.

  37. Josephine Waters Bennett, “Britain Among the Fortunate Isles,” Studies in Philology, LIII (1956), 136.

  38. The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeaux, trans. Sir John Bourchier (London, 1882-87), pp. 71, 74.

  39. Huon of Bordeaux, pp. 76-77.

  40. Robert Greene, The Scottish Historie of Iames the Fourth (London, 1598), sig. C4v.

  41. Greene, sig. A3.

  42. Greene, sig. A3. Another instance of the use of “true love” for heavenly love, cf. supra note 34.

  43. The image of Aurora, if it controls the passage, would carry the same connotations; cf. Conté, sig. M4.

  44. Donald C. Miller, “Titania and the Changeling,” ES, XXII (1940), 67.

  45. Fraunce, sig. [L4]v-M.

  46. Francis Thynne, Animaduersions, ed. F. J. Furnivall (London, 1876), pp. 48-49.

  47. The Complete Works of John Lyly, ed. R. Warwick Bond, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1902).

  48. Campion's Works, ed. Percival Vivian (Oxford, 1909), p. 16.

  49. The Works of Michael Drayton, ed. J. William Hebel, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1931-41), III, pp. 125-46. Shakespeare may have received the hint for making Oberon's wife a Proserpina type from the Elvetham entertainments, where Aureola, Auberon's wife, is said to abide in places underground.

  50. See Jonson's note on viper's skin, Works, VII, 294; the dragons in Ovid slough off their skin in connection with Medrea's rites to Hecate (Met., VII, 236-37).

  51. Conté, sig. q4v. The idea is commonplace and may also be found in Cartari, Giraldi, and Fraunce.

  52. [Pierre Bersuire] attributed to Thomas of Wales, Metamorphosis Ouidiana (n. p., 1515), sig. [B8]; cf. sig. G1v-G2.

  53. It may be related to the Bower of Bliss; cf. Don Cameron Allen, “On Spenser's Muiopotmos,SP, LIII (1956), p. 152, note.

  54. “Quaint” is a bawdy pun which comes down from Middle English; cf. Paull F. Baum, “Chaucer's Puns,” PMLA, LXXI (1956), p. 243. For the tradition of the nightingale, see D. W. Robertson, Jr., “Historical Criticism,” English Institute Essays (1950), pp. 23-24. According to the anonymous author of The Raigne of King Edward the Third (London, 1596), sig. C[1], “The nightingale singes of adulterate wrong … ;” cf. D. Filippo Picinelli, Mondo Simbolico (Venice, 1678), sig. O1. The nightingale generally sings, in Shakespeare, in scenes in which desire is getting somewhat out of control (TGV [The Two Gentlemen of Verona], V, iv; R&J [Romeo and Juliet], III, v).

  55. Andrea Alciati, Omnia Emblemata (Antwerp, 1581), sig. C3v. Cf. Conté, sig. Rrlv, and Sandys, sig. [Dd4]-[Dd4]v.

  56. Lyly, Works, I, 250; cf. La Primaudaye (1586 ed.), sig. Bb1.

  57. Golding, p. 17; cf. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. A. R. Shilleto, 3 vols. (London, 1893), III, 177.

  58. Helen Adolf, “The Ass and the Harp,” Speculum, XXV (1950), 49-57. The tradition was current in the Renaissance; Petrus Valerianus says that the ass symbolizes those who live a “brutalem & stolidem vitam,” who are “ab omni rationis vsu semotos.” [Petrus Valerianus, Hieroglyphica (Lyon, 1610), sig. K4v; cf. sig. K5v for an explanation of the ass among flowers, a motif relevant to Bottom.] Cf. Caesario Ripa, Iconologia (Rome, 1603), sig. [O5]v under ignoranza di tutte le cose and sig. Aa[1] under Ostinatione. Cf. Harington, sig. [T2]. Lyly's Midas, because he prefers the sensual music of Pan to Apollo's (or wisdom's) harmony, receives the ears of the ass, “of all beasts … the dullest,” which are symbolic of the “beastly life.” (Lyly, Works, III, 144). Apuleius' metamorphosis has been compared to Bottom's, and Aldington asserts that “under the wrap of this transformation, is taxed the life of mortall men, whe as we suffer our minds so to be drowned in the sensuall lusts of the flesh, & the beastly pleasure thereof.” Apuleius, The XI Bookes of the Golden Asse, trans. William Aldington (London, 1582), sig. A5v.

  59. The New Testament, trans. William Tyndale (Cambridge, 1938), p. 349.

  60. H. S. Wilson, “The Knight's Tale and the Teseida Again,” U. of Toronto Quarterly, XVIII (1949), 145.

  61. Davies, p. 74 (stanza 28).

  62. John Woolton, A Treatise of the Immortalitie of the Soule (1576), pp. 29v-30r, cited T. W. Baldwin, On the Literary Genetics of Shakspeare's Poem & Sonnets (Urbana, 1950), p. 40; cf. Phineas Fletcher, “The Purple Island (LX, ii, 1-4),” The Poetical Works of Giles and Phineas Fletcher, ed. F. S. Boas, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1909), II, 119, and Picinelli, sig. L2v.

  63. Golding, p. 3.

Anne Barton (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2504

SOURCE: Barton, Anne. “The Synthesizing Impulse of A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 7-13. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1974, Barton comments on A Midsummer Night's Dream's “preoccupation with the idea of imagination” and contends that the products of imagination, including “dreams, the illusions of love, poetry and plays,” are central to the play.]

A Midsummer Night's Dream was first printed in a quarto edition in 1600. The comedy was first mentioned by Meres in 1598, but 1595-96 is usually accepted as the date of composition. It has certain stylistic affinities with Richard II and Romeo and Juliet, plays which must have been written at about the same time. More importantly, it seems to consolidate and conclude Shakespeare's first period of experiment with comic form. The synthesizing impulse characteristic of A Midsummer Night's Dream not only knits together a number of different historical times and places, literary traditions, character types, and modes of thought. It manifests itself in the play's unusual variety of metres and verse forms, as well as in the tendency, remarked on by several critics, for characters to stress the richness of their encompassing dramatic world by listing its components. Egeus is not content simply to state that Lysander has exchanged love-tokens with Hermia. He names them all: “bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits, / Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats” (1.1.33-34). Almost all the characters are given to list-making. Oberon painstakingly itemizes every kind of wild beast that might conceivably wake Titania; Hermia and Lysander count all the obstacles that have ever threatened true love, while the fairies almost bury Bottom alive under a deluge of honey and butterflies, glow-worms, apricots and figs.

Shakespeare's friend Ben Jonson was, in many of his plays, a compulsive maker of dramatic inventories of a superficially similar kind. Volpone, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair are filled with tallies, a sea of objects which continually threaten to engulf the characters. Nothing, however, could be more different in effect from the list-making of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Jonson's world of things is stifling and corrupt, inanimate, man-made and man-soiled, the dusty contents of some Gothic lumber-room of the imagination: “his copper rings, / His saffron jewel, with the toad-stone in't, / Or his embroidered suit, with the cope-stitch, / Made of a hearse-cloth, or his old tilt-feather” (Volpone, 2.5.11-14). Almost invariably, Jonson's enumerations evoke an incoherent urban world, so overcrowded that it has become impossible for human beings to walk about naturally among the detritus of a civilization out of control. By contrast, the lists in Shakespeare's comedy create the sense of a country world that is inexhaustibly rich and various, occasionally grotesque, but basically fresh, creative, and young. Moreover, where Jonson's lists are deliberately disjunctive, images of chaos, Shakespeare's relate and interact without sacrificing the individuality of the separate components. In the remarkably generous and inclusive order of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Bottom can converse amiably with the fairy queen without losing a jot of his own identity, there seems to be nothing which the shaping spirit of imagination cannot use and, in some way, make relevant to the whole.

Not surprisingly, a preoccupation with the idea of imagination, and with some of its products—dreams, the illusions of love, poetry and plays—is central to this comedy. Theseus may speak somewhat slightingly of “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet,” beings “of imagination all compact” whose fantasies are literally incredible: “more strange than true” (5.1.2). The play as a whole takes a far more complicated view of the matter. Theseus himself, for Shakespeare as for Chaucer and Sophocles, is preeminently the hero of a daylight world of practicalities, of the active as opposed to the contemplative life. His relationship with Hippolyta in the comedy presents an image of passion steadied by the relative maturity of the people involved. There are ages of love as well as of human life and Theseus and Hippolyta represent summer as opposed to the giddy spring fancies of the couples lost in the wood. Theseus is a wise ruler and a good man, but Shakespeare makes it plain that there are other, important areas of human experience with which he is incompetent to deal. When Theseus leads the bridal couples to bed at the end of act 5 with the mocking reminder that “'tis almost fairy time” (5.1.364), he intends the remark as a last jibe at Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius: people who, in his estimation, have been led all too easily by darkness and their own fear to suppose a bush a bear (5.1.22). The joke, however, is on Theseus. It is indeed almost fairy time. In fact, Puck, Oberon, and Titania have been waiting for this moment in order to take over the palace. For a few nocturnal hours the wood infiltrates the urban world. Even so, years before, a Titania in whom Theseus apparently does not believe led him “through the glimmering night / From Perigenia, whom he ravished,” and made him “with fair Aegles break his faith, / With Ariadne, and Antiopa” (2.1.77-80). The life of the self-appointed critic of imagination and the irrational is permeated by exactly those qualities he is concerned to minimize or reject. Gently, the comedy suggests that while it is certainly possible to mistake a bush for a bear, one may also err as Theseus does by confounding a genuine bear with a bush. The second mistake is, on the whole, the more dangerous.

The last act of A Midsummer Night's Dream is concerned principally, and even somewhat self-consciously, with the relationship between art and life, dreams and the waking world. In terms of plot, this fifth act is superfluous. Almost all the business of the comedy has been concluded at the end of act 4: the error of Titania's vision put right and she herself reconciled with Oberon, Hermia paired off happily with Lysander and Helena with Demetrius. Theseus has not only overruled the objections of old Egeus, but insisted upon associating these marriages with his own: “Away with us to Athens. Three and three / We'll hold a feast in great solemnity” (4.1.184-85). This couplet has the authentic ring of a comedy conclusion. Only one expectation generated by the action remains unfulfilled: the presentation of the Pyramus and Thisby play before the Duke and his bride. Out of this single remaining bit of material, Shakespeare constructs a fifth act which seems, in effect, to take place beyond the normal, plot-defined boundaries of comedy.

The new social order which has emerged from the ordeal of the wood makes its first public appearance at the performance of the mechanicals' play. It is sensitive and hopeful. Theseus, characteristically, is condescending about the actor's art: “The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them” (5.1.211-12). Richard Burbage would scarcely have thanked him. Such a view of the theatre overstresses the audience's lordly willingness-to-be-fooled at the expense of the power of illusion. Certainly a quite extraordinary effort of imagination would be required to extract Aristotelian pity and fear from the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisby as enacted by Bottom and Flute. The courtly audience, like the theatre audience, laughs at the ineptitudes and absurdities of the play within the play. Unlike Berowne and his friends in the equivalent scene of Love's Labor's Lost, however, the on-stage spectators in A Midsummer Night's Dream remain courteous. Most of the remarks made by Theseus, Hippolyta, and the four lovers are not heard by the preoccupied actors. Those that do penetrate, suggestions as to the proper disposition of Moonshine's lantern, dog, and bush, cries of “Well roar'd, Lion” and “Well run, Thisby,” are entirely in the spirit of the performance. It was Bottom, after all, back in the rehearsal stage, who fondly imagined a success for Lion so great that the audience would intervene to request an encore: “Let him roar again.” Gratifyingly, this wish-dream just about comes true. As the play proceeds, tolerance ripens into geniality, into an unforced accord between actors and spectators based upon considerations far more complex than anything articulated by Theseus. Although the artistic merit of the Pyramus and Thisby play is virtually non-existent, the performance itself is a resounding success. No feelings have been hurt, and everyone has had a thoroughly good time. Even Theseus finds that “this palpable-gross play hath well beguil'd / The heavy gait of night” (5.1.367-68).

For the theatre audience, granted a perspective wider than the one enjoyed by Theseus and the members of his court, the Pyramus and Thisby story of love thwarted by parents and the enmity of the stars consolidates and in a sense defines the happy ending of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It reminds us of the initial dilemma of Hermia and Lysander, and also of how their story might well have ended: with blood and deprivation. The heavy rhetoric of the interlude fairly bristles with fate and disaster, introducing into act 5 a massing of images of death. The entire action of the play within the play is tragic in intention, although not in execution. Without meaning to do so, Bottom and his associates transform tragedy into farce before our eyes, converting that litany of true love crossed which was rehearsed in the very first scene by Hermia and Lysander to laughter. In doing so, they recapitulate the development of A Midsummer Night's Dream as a whole, reenacting its movement from potential calamity to an ending in which quick bright things come not to confusion, as once seemed inevitable, but to joy. An intelligent director can and should ensure that the on-stage audience demonstrates some awareness of the ground-bass of mortality sounding underneath the hilarity generated by Bottom's performance, that a line like Lysander's “he is dead, he is nothing” (5.1.308-9) is not lost in the merriment. Only the theatre audience, however, can capture the full resonance of the Pyramus and Thisby play.

When Theseus dismisses the actors after the Bergomask, and the members of the stage audience depart to their chambers, A Midsummer Night's Dream seems once again to have arrived at its ending. For the second time Theseus is given a couplet which sounds like the last lines of a play (5.1.369-70). When something like this happened at the end of act 4 it was Bottom, starting up out of his sleep, who set the comedy going again. This time it is the entrance of the fairies, but again the prolongation has nothing to do with plot. The appearance of Puck, Oberon, Titania and their train in the heart of Athens lends a symmetry to the action which would otherwise have been lacking and also gives the lie to Theseus's scepticism. Most important of all, however, is the way Puck's speech picks up and transforms precisely those ideas of death and destruction distanced through laughter in the Pyramus and Thisby play.

Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon;
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,
All with weary task foredone.
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
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.

All the images here are of sickness, toil, and death. Even the wasted brands, in context, suggest the inevitable running down of human life as it approaches the grave.

Once again, Shakespeare has adjusted the balance between art and life, reality and illusion. Puck's hungry lion is something genuinely savage, not at all the “very gentle beast, and of a good conscience” (5.1.227-28) impersonated by Snug. Even so, his talk of graves and shrouds, drudgery and exhaustion, brings the sense of mortality kept at bay in the Pyramus and Thisby interlude closer, preparing us for the true end of the comedy after so many feints and false conclusions. Puck's speech begins a modulation which will terminate, some fifty lines later, in direct address to the audience and in a player's request for applause. Actors and spectators alike will be turned out of Athens to face the workaday world. Yet Shakespeare refuses to concede that Theseus was right. In the first place, Puck's account of the terrors of the night is not final. It serves to introduce Oberon and Titania, the most fantastic characters in the play, and in their hands Puck's night fears turn into benediction and blessing. About the facts of mortality themselves the fairy king and queen can do nothing, even as Titania could do nothing to prevent the death, years before, of the votaress of her order. All they can do is to strengthen the fidelity and trust of the three pairs of lovers, to bless these marriages, and to stress the positive side of the night as a time for love and procreation as well as for death and fear. Certainly the emphasis on the fair, unblemished children to be born is not accidental, something to be explained purely in terms of the possible occasion of the play's first performance. These children summoned up by Oberon extend the comedy into the future, counteracting the artificial finality which always threatens to diminish happy endings. A beginning is made implicit in the final moments of the play, a further and wider circle.

Unlike characters in fairy-tale, Theseus and Hippolyta, Demetrius and Helena, Lysander and Hermia cannot live happily ever after. Only the qualified immortality to be obtained through offspring is available to them. It was an idea of survival in time which the Shakespeare of the sonnets came to distrust. Nevertheless, in the general atmosphere of celebration and blessing at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, it seems for the moment enough. It is only after this final coming together in Theseus's palace of the two poles of the comedy, a world of fantasy and one of fact, of immortality and of death, that Puck turns to speak to the theatre audience. Like Theseus, he describes the actors as “shadows” and sums up the play now concluded as a “weak and idle theme, / No more yielding than a dream.” When John Lyly ended his court comedies with superficially similar words of deprecation and apology, he seems to have meant them literally. Shakespeare is far more devious. Images of sleep and dreams, shadows and illusions, have been used so constantly in the course of the comedy, examined and invested with such body and significance that they cannot be regarded now as simple terms of denigration and dismissal. As with that mock-apology for the author's “rough and all-unable pen” which concludes Henry V, Shakespeare seems to have felt able to trust his audience to take the point: to recognize the simplification, and to understand that the play has created its own reality, a reality touching our own at every point which

More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable.


Deborah Baker Wyrick (essay date winter 1982)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8448

SOURCE: Wyrick, Deborah Baker. “The Ass Motif in The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream.Shakespeare Quarterly 33, no. 4 (winter 1982): 432-48.

[In the following essay, Wyrick explores the symbolism associated with the ass motif in A Midsummer Night's Dream and examines how the word “ass” is used to create a complex code that is the key to many of the play's themes.]

One of the most ubiquitous epithets in Shakespearean drama is “ass.” Since it carries the primary significance of an ignorant fellow, a perverse fool, or a conceited dolt, the word can be counted upon to stimulate audience laughter.1 The frequency of its appearance in Shakespeare's plays, however, makes one suspect that it is a word rich in thematic associations and in dramatic applications.2 Far from functioning merely as a simple synonym for a stupid blunderer, the word “ass”—whether used as a simile, as a metaphor, or as a pun—has a protean ability to convey economically a number of connotations. These connotations arise causally from the speaker, from the situation, and from the larger verbal context in which the word operates. In similar fashion, the effects of the word radiate outward, sometimes revealing aspects of the speaker or of the person spoken to, sometimes focusing a parodic subplot, sometimes amplifying a theme. Although “ass” is sprinkled throughout the Shakespearean canon, it is most prevalent in the early comedies, especially in The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream. An examination of the ass motif's appearance in these plays can illuminate Shakespeare's inventive transformation of this seemingly unassuming word into a complex verbal cipher.


Before turning to the specific Shakespearean texts, it is necessary to explore background material pertaining to the symbolic associations of the ass. For example, Biblical asses are generally benign, even exemplary; they are the progenitors of the “admirable ass” tradition. The most memorable ass in the Old Testament is Balaam's articulate animal (Numbers xxii). This ass was not only granted a sight of the angel of the Lord; she was also designated a communicatory channel for God. Her vision prevented her from following Balaam's commands, aroused her master's anger, which translated itself into unjustified blows, and precipitated divine reproach and Balaam's ultimate redemption from sin. Thus, Balaam's ass represents wisdom rather than stupidity. The story also conveys the idea of the ass as a victim of physical abuse, as a symbol of suffering—an interpretation darkened in the account of the ass's ignominious end in Jeremiah xxii.19.

The picture of an ass patiently bearing savage mistreatment as well as its occupational burdens leads to the image of the animal as a type of Christ, one reinforced by Christ's choice of the lowly ass as a vehicle for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (see Matthew xxi.5; prefigured in Zechariah ix.9). Christ, then, is the cosmic ass, patiently and humbly bearing the world's burden of sin. A more tenuous identification between Christ and the ass is found in reports by Plutarch and Tacitus asserting that the Jews adored the ass because it discovered springs of water in the desert during the exodus; the ass, therefore, is also a type of Christ as the wellspring of life. Perhaps this tradition provoked the underground convention, mentioned by Tertullian and Cecilius Felix, of portraying Christ with an ass's head.3

In contrast to the implied identification of the ass with Christ, the Bible also sets forth the equivalence of the ass with the fool. The third verse of Proverbs xxvi, the chapter about fools and folly, states: “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool's back.” Not only are fools and asses juxtaposed in a manner which leads one to infer a metaphorical connection between them, but they are linked with references to instruments of restraint and of chastisement. Thus, the ass's connotations are broadened to include folly and punishment appropriate to folly, as well as Christological patience and punishment unduly received. The ass as a type of fool was destined to overpower the ass as a type of Christ—a tradition that re-emerged only sporadically in Western thought, often in strange forms such as the eccentric homologic catechism which compared the anatomy of an ass with the architecture of a cathedral—or the ridiculously parodic Asses' Feast, a medieval institution connected with the Feast of Fools in which an ass was led through the church, an Asses' Liturgy was sung by the clergy in a harsh bray, and a merry alcoholic eucharist was celebrated by all concerned.4

In the Renaissance, the ass as a symbol of stupidity and as a religious allegory combined in an alternative tradition, the asinus portans mysteria. Whitney's emblem, Non tibi, sed religioni, shows worshipers venerating a statue of Isis borne on the back of an ass, the animal being an image of vanity because it thinks the crowd is lauding it rather than the goddess.5 Nevertheless, the ass as an admirably patient, long-suffering beast—even if not specifically presented as an analogue of Christ—remained a continuing iconological undercurrent during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.6

One reason for the strength of the “foolish ass” tradition was the influx of classical elements. Aesop's fables demonstrate the stupidity of asses; but more important to Shakespeare is the ass-lore in Ovid. The eleventh book of the Metamorphoses recounts Apollo's “gift” of ass's ears to the tone-deaf Midas, who had the temerity to prefer Pan's rude pipings to Apollo's sweet strains. In Golding's translation of Ovid, “Apollo could not suffer well his [Midas'] foolish eares too keepe / Theyr humaine shape, but drew them wyde, and made them long and deepe”.7 Midas' asinine musical judgment—one shared by his Shakespearean counterpart, Bottom—evoked an emblematic transformation. This confluence of stupidity, bad taste in music, and asininity parallels the Greek proverbial question used by Boethius, as translated by Chaucer: “Artow like an asse to the harpe?”8 Boethius subsequently expands his identification of asshood to include general laziness, and he glosses this type of metamorphosis as an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual vice: “Yf he be slow, and astonyd, and lache, he lyveth as an ass. … ‘O feble and light is the hand of Circes the enchauntresse, that chaungeth the bodyes of folk into beestes, to regard and to comparysoun of mutacioun that is makid by vices!’”9 In the Renaissance, this theme is echoed in Whitney's emblem, Homines voluptatibus transformantur, which reads in part: “Some had the shape of … Asses … Which showes those foolishe sorte, whome wicked love doth thrall … and have no sense at all … Oh stoppe your eares, and shutte your eies, of Circes cuppe beware”.10 The idea of an ass as the embodiment of foolishness is given more direct expression by Cesare Ripa and Piero Valeriano; their emblems of Obstinacy and Ignorance show figures holding or porting asses' heads.11

In the sixteenth century, the ass was not merely an allegory of stupidity, but was also connected specifically with the fool proper. Asses' ears wagged as a conventionalized feature of the fool's hood.12 Similarly, Erasmus' Folie distributes asses' ears to fools and dissemblers. For example, Chaloner's 1549 translation of Moriae Encomium states:

So that not so muche as they can dissemble me [Dame Folie], who take vpon their most semblant of wysedome, and walke lyke Asses in Lyons skynne. That althoughe they counterfeite what they can, yet on some syde their longe eares pearyng foorth, dooe discouer them to come to Midas progenie. … Suche men therfore, that in deede are archdoltes, and woulde be taken yet for sages and philosophers, maie I not aptelie calle theim foolelosophers?13

Nevertheless, Erasmus conflates fools and asses in ways not solely derogatory. He also praises the humility and holiness of the Natural Fool, who is “nearest to the bluntness of brute beastes, and attempts nothyng beyonde mans degree” (p. 48). This variety of fool is loved by Christ, who “delited much in theyr simplicitee, euin lyke as those kindes of dumme beastes were most acceptable vnto hym, that were fardest remoued from all Foxelike wylinesse. And therefore chose he rathest to ryde on an asse …” (p. 117). By the end of the book, Christ himself is identified as this sort of holy fool.

It is, however, the “foolelosophers” rather than the sanctified asses who dominate the iconography of the period. Woodcuts spotlighting fools in ass-eared hoods decorate Barclay's 1509 translation of Brant's Das Narrenschiff; furthermore, these illustrations frequently show the fool in close proximity with the ass. The textual connections between fools and asses range from the emblematic (“assys erys for our folys a lyuray is,” to moral commentaries (“To infernall Fenn doth this pore Asse oppresse / And to an asse moste lyke he is doutless”) and obscene narratives:14

Under the Asse tayle thoughe it be no thynge pure
Yet many seke and grope for the vyle fatnes
Gatherynge togyther the fowle dunge and ordure
Such as they that for treasour and ryches
Whyle they ar yonge in theyre chefe lustynes
An agyd woman taketh to theyr wyfe
Lesynge theyr young, and shortynge so theyr lyfe.

This coarse congregation of asses, women, and the posterior parts leads to the last set of connotations associated with the word. Renaissance pronunciation allowed “ass” to serve as a paronomasia with “arse,” a pun frequently coupled with a similar play upon the word “tail.” Then as now, moreover, these words could refer directly to the genitals as well as generally to the rump.15 Thus, in another broadly bawdy sense, the word “ass” could stand for women as bearers of sexual burdens. These associations manifested themselves memorably in medieval punishments for prostitutes; in France, for example, whores were sentenced to ride naked upon asses, head to tail.16 Perhaps one reason for the appropriateness of the sinner's mount is the tradition of the ass as a particularly priapic animal.17

It is this strain of ass-lore which dictated the transformation of the erotically adventurous “hero” of Apuleius' The Golden Ass, a transformation which added the salacious spice of bestiality to Lucius' sexual encounters. Nevertheless, even Apuleius' “licentious ass” finally transcends his fleshly incarceration through the transforming power of love, one beautifully allegorized in the interpolated “Cupid and Psyche” episode. In the main narrative, after accepting Divine Wisdom in the guise of Isis, Lucius shifts his role to that of an actor in a different ass tradition—the asinus portans mysteria. In Adlington's 1566 edition of Apuleius, the high-minded interpretation of the tale is in the ascendant; the translator explains that the book is to be treated in the Ovide moralisé manner:

Verily under the wrap of this transformation is taxed the life of moral men, when as we suffer our minds so as to be drowned in the sensual lusts of the flesh and the beastly pleasure thereof … that we lose wholly the use of reason and virtue, which properly should be in a man, and play the parts of brute and savage beasts.18

Thus, even as a sexual cipher the ass is unstable; under his shaggy skin lurks a remarkable ability to shift symbolic significance. The “licentious ass,” the “foolish ass,” and the “admirable ass” inhabit one hide.

The ass is a braying oxymoron. It is self-evident that Shakespeare did not consult Proverbs, Boethius, Brant, or Adlington every time he decided to permit one of his characters to call someone an ass. It should be equally clear that Shakespeare had at his disposal a tantalizingly slippery word, the connotations of which ranged from the sacred to the scurrilous. It would have been uncharacteristic of the playwright's inventiveness had he not exploited the linguistic, thematic, and structural possibilities inherent in the word “ass.”


Although The Comedy of Errors generally is considered Shakespeare's first comedy, it demonstrates one of the author's most adroit manipulations of the ass motif. Both dialectical poles of the play, one of which arises from the potentially serious framing device and the other from the knock-about central plot of mistaken identity, are contained within the ass image. The concept unites them into a comic synthesis which keeps the spectator firmly aware of the prevailing comic vision. The play's first explicit mention of the word “ass” occurs in Act II, scene i, when Adriana is railing against Antipholus of Ephesus' tardiness and infidelity. Luciana, invoking traditional marital roles, attempts to restrain her sister's precipitous jealousy: “O know that he is the bridle of your will” (l. 13). Adriana, in a permutation of Proverbs xxvi.3, retorts: “[T]here's none but asses will be bridled so” (l. 14).19 To an audience used to interpreting the epithet “ass” as an indication of foolishness, Adriana's remark immediately cues a stock response of laughter, which heightens the sense of comic distance reinforced by the artificially patterned rhyming couplets of the dialogue.

But Adriana's implied ass simile is not limited to equating wives with fools. Whereas Luciana's subsequent speech refers to physical abuse (“Why, headstrong liberty is lashed with woe,” l. 15), a reward of the disobedient ass, Adriana twists the idea of master and beast of burden into a complaint about wives' sexual slavery to husbands (ll. 26, 34-36). Luciana keeps counseling patience, also playing on the word “bear” (“Till he come home again, I could forbear,” l. 31). The interchange is interrupted by Dromio of Ephesus' news of the strange behavior of the man he supposes to be his master and his account of the beatings received at his hands—beatings which Adriana threatens to continue (II.i.78).20 The audience has just witnessed the encounter between Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus in the previous scene; now the physical abuse and the pregnant wording (e.g., Dromio of Ephesus: “Perchance you will not bear them patiently,” I.ii.86) present in the earlier scene take on added significance after having been filtered through the specific mention of “ass.” On one level, Shakespeare's use of “ass” in Act II, scene i urges the audience to maintain its emotional distance; on another, it distinguishes the rash and sexually troubled character of Adriana from the patient and sexually innocent character of Luciana; on a third, it helps establish the theme of patience, the virtue which will finally permit the comic resolution; on a fourth, it retroactively identifies Dromio of Ephesus with the long-suffering ass tradition and prepares for the comic metamorphosis of both Dromios into asses—a change which underscores the entire situational and imagistic core of the play, the illusion-producing qualities of mistaken identity.

The second scene of the first act, the first scene of the second act, and the second scene of the second act form a triptych picturing the initial mistaking of Antipholus of Syracuse. Its central panel, the one containing the play's first mention of the word “ass,” casts a symbolic shadow back upon the preceding panel, the one in which Dromio of Ephesus is treated like an ass. Correspondingly, the third panel presents Dromio of Syracuse beaten like a foolish beast of burden (II.ii.22-52). When the Syracusan Dromio and Antipholus encounter Adriana and Luciana in the first great comic crisis of mistaken identity, all four characters express their wonder about the effects of the metamorphic atmosphere which seems to be pervading their lives (Adriana: “I am not Adriana, nor thy wife,” l. 111; Antipholus of Syracuse: “In Ephesus I am but two hours old, / As strange unto your town as to your talk,” ll. 147-48; Luciana: “how the world is changed with you,” l. 151; Dromio of Syracuse: “This is the fairy land,” l. 188).21 At the end of the scene, these confused musings reach a crescendo centered around the familiar image of the ass:

I am transformed, master, am I not?
I think thou art, in mind, and so am I.
Nay master, both in mind and in my shape.
Thou hast thine own form.
                    No, I am an ape.
If thou art changed to aught, 'tis to an ass.
'Tis true; she rides me, and I long for grass.
'Tis so, I am an ass; else it could never be
But I should know her as well as she knows me.
Come, come, no longer will I be a fool.,


The immediate effect of this passage is to mitigate the mood of malignant metamorphosis. The stichomythia, the jingling couplets, and the bawdy suggestiveness inherent in Dromio of Syracuse's definition of his own asininity reestablish the comic spirit and reassure the audience that these transformations are risible and reversible. Furthermore, since the “she” refers to Luciana, Dromio's remark may prefigure Antipholus of Syracuse's infatuation; certainly, the tone of the slave's discourse provides a perfect anticipatory burlesque of his master's Petrarchan hyberbole—a rhapsody which does, however, contain similar sorts of sexual double entendres (III.i.29-51; see particularly the last four lines).

Dromio of Syracuse's flippant self-assessment also serves to differentiate him from his twin brother. The Syracusan slave presents himself as a Lylyan servant, saucy and ribald. His asininity springs from both the “foolish ass” and the “licentious ass” traditions. In contrast, Dromio of Ephesus is an “admirable ass”—a patient sufferer bearing unwarranted punishment. Shakespeare emphasizes the comparison by scene juxtaposition. Act III, scene i—the first panel of the second triptych, one which presents the initial mistaking of Antipholus of Ephesus—immediately takes up the ass motif:

I think thou art an ass.
                    Marry, so it doth appear
By the wrongs I suffer and the blows I bear.
I should kick, being kicked; and, being at that pass,
You could keep it from my heels and beware of an ass.


Although both the stock response of laughter conjured up by the word “ass” and the odd four-beat but syllabically jammed couplets in which Dromio of Ephesus speaks brush a comic veneer over this interchange, the slave is not presented solely as a figure of mirth. Instead, like Balaam's animal, he is abused for trying to act in his irascible master's best interests. Shakespeare's intent to make comparable metamorphic but contrastable emblematic asses of the Dromios is further underscored when the Ephesian servant yells through the door to his brother: “If thou hadst been Dromio to-day in my place, / Thou wouldst have changed thy face for a name, or thy name for an ass” (ll. 46-47). Concurrently, the Ephesian Dromio's forbearing patience plays against his master's headstrong nature, setting the stage for Antipholus of Ephesus' rage when he later is barred from his own house.

“Ass” as a mediating metaphor bridges the two wooing scenes in Act III, scene ii. After Dromio of Syracuse asks whether his master knows him, Antipholus of Syracuse replies, “Thou art Dromio, thou art my man, thou art thyself” (III.ii.76-77), only to be answered, “I am an ass, I am a woman's man, and besides myself” (ll. 78-79). This structurally parallel interchange brings Antipholus of Syracuse from the ethereal cosmology with which he praises his love for Luciana (“My sole earth's heaven, and my heaven's claim,” l. 64) to a bantering participation in the mundane geography which depicts Dromio of Syracuse's run-in with Luce (“she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her,” ll. 114-15). It also reaffirms the farcical bawdiness which marks the Dromios and re-establishes the metamorphic theme and its attendant Circean animal imagery (e.g., Dromio of Syracuse: “She had transformed me to a curtal dog, and made me turn i' the wheel,” ll. 144-45; Antipholus of Syracuse: “There's none but witches do inhabit here,” ll. 154).22 The scene ends as Angelo enters bearing the chain which brings about the comic catastrophe of Antipholus of Ephesus, who is hauled off to prison for nonpayment of debts in Act IV, scene i, the last panel of the triptych figuring the destruction of his public reputation.

The final triptych finds all participants wandering deeper and deeper in illusions. The seeming metamorphoses are complete. Adriana's impatience has reached its zenith and has allowed her mentally to transform her husband into a hideous apparition (IV.iii.17-22); Antipholus of Syracuse's fear that he is lost in a maze of sanity-annihilating sorcery has become conviction (IV.iii.37-39). Therefore, the slapstick buffeting of Dromio of Ephesus in the last panel of the triptych highlights the comic tone of the play at a point when the audience may have been tempted to forget it. Here, too, Shakespeare uses fast-paced, punning dialogue to lead up to his repetition of the word “ass,” buttressing the humor in a scene replete with grim potential. Nevertheless, Dromio of Ephesus' remarkable speech about his own asininity offers a glimpse into the serious underside of comedy—the real world in which suffering is not always relieved by time's revolution, by love's reconciliation, or by order's restoration.23 After the incensed Antipholus of Ephesus says, “Thou art sensible in nothing but blows, / And so is an ass” (IV.iv.25-26), Dromio of Ephesus replies:

I am an ass indeed; you may prove it by my long ears. I have served him from the hour of my nativity to this instant, and have nothing at his hands for my service but blows. When I am cold, he heats me with beating; when I am warm, he cools me with beating. I am waked with it when I sleep, raised with it when I sit, driven out of doors with it when I go from home, welcomed home with it when I return; nay, I bear it on my shoulders, as a beggar wont her brat; and, I think, when he hath lamed me, I shall beg with it from door to door.


The Ecclesiastical cadence of the speech, as well as its sententious message, momentarily bestows upon Dromio of Ephesus a mantle of Christological humility and suffering. To be sure, this passage is neither long nor strong enough to permit one to view The Comedy of Errors as a religious allegory acted out by a troupe of Elizabethan vaudevillians; but it does invest the action with some of the tonal texture that characterizes the finest Shakespearean comedy and helps make this play more than a cleverly constructed set-piece.

Before an audience can really begin to interpret the action as a sort of Divina Commedia, the ridiculous Dr. Pinch exorcises the metamorphic demons and engages other characters in silly swashbuckling. The comic perspective is firm once again; the stage is set for the happy resolution.

This resolution not only clears up the mistaken identities of the Antipholi and the Dromios; it also brings to a close the frame story of Egeon and Aemilia. Shakespeare does not make explicit use of the ass motif in V.i, just as he had not in I.i. Nevertheless, the web of associations he has woven around the word “ass” in the play's tripartite central portion extends to the flanking scenes. The idea of long-suffering patience, symbolized by the burden-bearing ass “marked” by blows, is applied to Egeon by the Duke in I.i.140-41: “Hapless Egeon, whom the fates have marked / To bear the extremity of dire mishap!” Since this language resembles that used by Dromio of Ephesus in I.ii.82-86, one can assume that Egeon and the Ephesian Dromio are connected thematically and act as antitheses to rash and abusive characters like Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus. In the last scene of the comedy, the virtue of patience has prevailed, as Egeon is reabsorbed into his family and as Dromio of Ephesus is allowed the play's final harmonious words.

In addition, Adriana and Dromio of Syracuse's idea of women as metaphoric asses bearing sexual burdens is corrected in the play's first and last scenes. In I.i.46 Egeon explains that the female role in the cycle of sex and procreation is “pleasing punishment.” In V.i.344 Aemilia uses a gentle pun on the word “burden” to describe the birth of her sons; in V.i.404 she maintains that the real burden is the loss of loved ones, not the bearing of a husband's sexual and social will or the begetting of children. Finally, the theme of metamorphosis which has crystalized around the servants' figurative transformations into asses is explicitly stated by the Duke. In words which recall Whitney's emblem, he says: “I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup” (V.i.271). This declaration paves the way for the playworld's release from the bonds and burdens of confused identity. The spell of Circe is replaced by the loving knowledge of Aemilia, which restores the social ties rent asunder by asinine actions and foolish mistakes.

In The Comedy of Errors, the ass motif has performed a variety of services. By its sheer iteration, it unifies the play; by its primary appeal to laughter, it helps establish the comic perspective at crucial points in the action; by its varying connotations, it aids in character delineation; by its metaphorical operation, it acts as a paradigm of metamorphosis. In a broad sense, all characters are asses; in their unrelenting unawareness of each other's presence in Ephesus, they form an iconographic parade of ignorance assembled from the pages of Ripa and Valeriano. Ultimately, however, the same complex of associations that informs the asinus portans mysteria emblem is at work in The Comedy of Errors. The ass may be foolish and licentious, his mis-takings making him a target of laughter, but he has been chosen to carry the reconciling promise of wisdom.


The ass motif is not employed in such a complex manner in the next three comedies in the canon. It is primarily used as a verbal projectile in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (II.iii.33; V.ii.28) and Love's Labor's Lost (II.i.44; V.ii.617-20). In The Taming of the Shrew, it functions as an extended bawdy pun (II.i.200-220). It is A Midsummer Night's Dream, the enchanting culmination of Shakespeare's first phase of comic development, which displays the image in its most brilliant and comic form. Bully Bottom, foolishly resplendent in a real ass's head, reigns supreme—a walking, talking, ruminating visual metaphor.24 He represents the apotheosis of asininity. His palpably translated presence synthesizes the “admirable ass,” the “foolish ass,” and the “licentious ass” traditions; his unselfconsciously ludicrous appearance forms an essential component of the play's comic machinery, emblematizes his own character and talents, and comments upon the play's interconnected themes of metamorphosis, imagination, and love.

The most obvious classical analogue for Bottom's metamorphosis is Lucius' transformation in Apuleius' The Golden Ass. Both “heroes” are given asinine characteristics by supernatural agencies. Furthermore, Apuleius' “Cupid and Psyche” story—in which Venus uses Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a vile thing—is paralleled by one plot strand in A Midsummer Night's Dream—in which Oberon uses Puck to make Titania fall in love with a vile thing.25 Neither plan works out as expected. Psyche becomes enamored with Cupid, and Titania's ethereal advances appear to be lost on the down-to-earth Bottom.26 Nevertheless, an undercurrent of sexuality pulsates throughout the midsummer night “affair.” Even if one does not accept the Fairy Queen's loving transport as a debasing education in the subject of phallic dimensions and procreative fantasies or as a cruel descent into the “dark sphere of animal love-making,”27 the Titania-Bottom episode seems to partake of the “Beauty and the Beast” archetype—a mythic pattern which subconsciously serves as a means of mastering sexual fear.28 This interpretation adds to the sense of sexual uneasiness which does surface occasionally throughout the play in forms including Theseus' threats to Hermia of involuntary celibacy (I.i.65-78), Oberon and Titania's extra-marital liaisons (II.i.64-80), Hermia's refusal to lie near her love (II.ii.53-61), and Helena's lack of feminine self-confidence (II.ii.94-95). In addition, Bottom acts as a punishment for Titania's transgression against natural sexual cycles—her unwillingness to allow the changeling boy to leave the childhood zone of female influence and enter the adolescent zone of masculine influence. Bottom, for all his rustic practicality in the face of supernatural events, represents—at least in part—the “licentious ass” tradition.

Subliminal erotic perversity notwithstanding, the audience's predominant response to the dalliance between the ass and the Fairy Queen is one of amusement. In a general sense, it is comedy of the grotesque—a theatrical translation of the essentially dramatic and humorous tension found in medieval cathedrals where gargoyles crouch near saints and angels.29 Since this order of comedy is built on strong antitheses, the overall juxtaposition of the dainty sprite and the “palpable gross” monster creates a comically incongruous spectacle embellished with equally incongruous flourishes—the homely song, the orders to the fairy attendants, the flowery garland decking the ass's nose. Shakespeare produces a double antithesis, however, by switching the expected attributes of the characters: Titania exhibits the amorous aggressiveness one would anticipate from a lusty beast; Bottom reacts with the reserve one would anticipate from a virtuous lady. In this manner, Shakespeare captures the audience's emotions by staging a comic tableau which carries with it set expectations, and he immediately releases these emotions by reversing the roles of the tableau's central figures—thereby allowing the audience to enjoy the ridiculous scenes from a safe distance. Thus, the episode—carefully placed in the middle of the play, divided in order to flank the central love confusion of the noble youths—functions as a comic filter through which the nocturnal adventures of the Athenian quartet should be viewed. In this playworld, love's metamorphoses are comic, not malevolent; Titania and Bottom's release from the spell of Cupid's flower prefigures the awakening of the four lovers into the daylight world of festive comic resolution.

In a more specific sense, the humor of the Titania-Bottom interlude arises from the ass's head proper. The word “ass” provoked a stock response of laughter and a host of connotations such as ignorance, folly, and doltishness. And if the word itself could elicit a chuckle, the apparition would produce guffaws. On an Elizabethan stage, Bottom would appear as an emblem incarnate, an actualized epithet. If Shakespeare had merely wanted to display a hybrid monster, he could have followed the Theseus legend by creating a Minotaurian Bottom complete with bull's head;30 if he had merely wanted to present a picture of licentiousness, he could have given Bottom the attributes of a goat or an ape. The playwright must have had the “foolish ass” tradition in mind when he chose the animal with which to conflate Bottom.

Like Erasmus and Brant, Shakespeare uses the ass emblem to exemplify mankind's folly.31 Bottom's metamorphosis, which begins with a rustic carol and ends with a reference to tongs and bones, would also remind a playgoer of Ovid and Lyly's accounts of the musically unfortunate Midas, “first a golden foole, now a leaden ass.”32 More important, perhaps, is the appropriateness of the transformation to Bottom's personality. Throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream, he is a fool. His unhesitatingly literal approach to dramatic art and magical illusion demolishes the fragile fabrics of both.33 His malapropisms mark a verbal consanguinity with Dogberry, another famous Shakespearean ass; both characters join the brotherhood of those unable to interpret the facts of their situations and oblivious to truths about themselves. Therefore, Bottom's ass's head—in a comic rendition of the more frightening Circean pattern—is a physical translation of a spirtual reality.

Yet Bottom does not come across as a simple foolish bumpkin. He is never a figure of derision—except, perhaps, to the playworld's Athenian audience, whose supercilious and punning jeers at his dramatic performance (V.i.151-52, 300-304) engender from the real world's audience a response sympathetic to the weaver. Bottom's enthusiasm, good humor, and indefatigable theatrical esprit not only command affection but also inspire a sort of respect.34 Particularly when he utters his “Bottom's Dream” soliloquy, he becomes an “admirable ass.” His scrambled scripture and inarticulate wonder link him with Erasmus' sacred natural fool. Like Balaam's ass, Bottom appears as a divinely inspired oracle, “the anointed innocent singled out for a kind of grace not despite but because of his doltishness.”35 When Bottom falteringly exclaims that “[t]he 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.208-11), he erects a comically impenetrable synaesthetic barrier against asinine exegesis. In the process, he is able to partake in “the bottome of Goddes secretes” referred to at the end of the Pauline passage which he so wisely and foolishly garbles.36 In a spontaneously humble act of negative mysticism, he removes the “I” from the “I-Thou” equation by stating that “[i]t shall be called ‘Bottom's Dream,’ because it hath no bottom” (IV.i.212-13) and by recognizing his rightful role as a mouthpiece for—not as a focus of—mystery. Like Dromio of Ephesus' resonant speech on patient suffering, Bottom's account of his “most rare vision” (IV.i.203) briefly irradiates a comically human ass with an aureole of sanctity. He becomes an asinus portans mysteria.

This comically profound moment remains but a moment—a metaphysical flash that flares and expires before it can be apprehended. The references to play-acting framing Bottom's recounting of his dream keep the vision from seeping through the seams of the comic structure and flooding the play with theological significance. As was the case in The Comedy of Errors, religious associations contribute to the texture of A Midsummer Night's Dream without determining the play's formative pattern. The major themes of the play—love, metamorphosis, and art—do not have to be explained in theological terms. They do, however, intersect in the figure of the translated Bottom.

Bottom's connection with the themes of A Midsummer Night's Dream is not particularly subtle. But, of course, neither is the figure of Bottom in the ass's head. In general, his amatory interlude with Titania acts as the comic axis around which spin the love affairs of the other societal orders represented in the play—the giddy infatuations of the Athenian youths, the quarrel and reconciliation of the Fairy King and Queen, the order-establishing marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, and the burlesque coda of “Pyramus and Thisbe” which Bottom himself helps present. Bottom's parts in the play-within-the-play and in the set piece with Titania form a ridiculous extreme of humorous literal-mindedness to balance the extreme of enraptured illusion which motivates the intoxicated lovers.37 The fact that as Titania's amoroso he is actually an ass and that as Pyramus he is called an ass reinforces the Shakespearean warning that love sees “not with the eyes, but with the mind, / And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind” (I.i.234-35). Titania's discovery of beauty in Bottom's hirsute head thus comically echoes the chameleon affections of Lysander and Demetrius as they perceive first Hermia, then Helena, as paragons of pulchritude. Love-madness turns men and women into Cupid's fools. It is left to the play's most patently “foolish ass” to draw the moral from the situation, that “reason and love keep little company together nowadays” (III.i.130-31).

Among other things, Bottom's ass's head is a blatantly literal rendition of the theme of metamorphosis which permeates the play. A Midsummer Night's Dream is in essence Ovidian, set in a moon-drenched metamorphic woodland inhabited by shape-shifting, illusion-knitting agents and subjects.38 Bottom is the tangible symbol of this metamorphic mist. As he tries to act all parts, to speak in all voices, Bottom casts himself as a seeker after metamorphosis.39 Like the gold-hungry Midas, the transformation-hungry weaver gets his wish. Unlike Midas', however, Bottom's fulfillment of desire carries no dangerous consequences—he seems quite content to munch hay and to receive fairyland affection.

As an animated metaphor and as a malapropian character, Bottom represents verbal metamorphosis, the transposition of one word into another. This is part of the power of dramatic art, and imagination is the metamorphic practicer. As the Ovidian co-star of an Ovidian play-within-a-play following an Ovidian dream experience, Bottom creates his own dramatic tension by attacking his role in accordance with a consistently mimetic theory of theatrical realism.40 Dream and drama meet but do not mix in Bottom; his imagination is asininely anti-poetic. Shakespeare playfully criticizes Bottom's literalization of art by using his own art to literalize the metaphoric and metamorphic dimensions of his central comic character.

The significance of Bottom qua ass to the totality of A Midsummer Night's Dream, however, cannot be separated into thematic equivalents or character-delineating functions. Perhaps one must return to the beginning and re-examine Bottom's actual appearance. He is half-man, half-ass, the visual embodiment of Puck's dictum, “what fools these mortals be” (III.ii.115). Accordingly, Bottom serves as a clear comic everyman—a mirror in which the playgoer can see the human condition. As a “licentious ass,” he parodies man's half-hidden fascination with the sexual substratum of love. As a “foolish ass,” he reflects man's ignorant folly—and its ability to metamorphose into occasional bursts of natural wisdom. As an “admirable ass,” he incorporates man's flights into the vatic mysteries of divine revelation and poetic inspiration. Yet his hybrid nature, one radically different from the fluid one exhibited by the other characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream who flow from one form or illusion to another, is of signal importance in itself. It suggests the idea of dichotomy per se. In this connection, it symbolizes the primal pattern of the play—the dramatic recreation of the Apollonian-Dionysian dialectic. Theseus' diurnal world represents Apollonian order, whereas Oberon and Puck's nocturnal realm represents Dionysian license.41 The fact that the ass is sacred to Dionysus and is anathema to Apollo further clarifies Bottom's place in this archetypal scheme.42 In sum, it was only through the bold and, on the surface, bald-faced use of the ass motif that Shakespeare could economically pack an associational and connotational macrocosm into a humorous microcosm while preserving the structure and the tone of such a comedy as A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In the later comedies, Shakespeare discovered other ways in which to present the complex of ideas which the ass motif conveyed in the early 1590s. Chief among these are the emergence of the wise fool, of well-motivated character change, of actualized physical and sexual evil, of a wider range of comic perspective devices, and of the possibility of spiritual transformation. But the early Shakespearean ass, with its ability to contain multitudes without losing its humorous appeal, remains a splendid comic construction.


  1. This is the OED's first listing under “ass” as a term of reproach; the second listing involves “ass” as a vulgarization of the etymologically unrelated word “arse”—a variation of which, as will be shown below, Shakespeare was well aware.

  2. According to Martin Spevack's computerized concordance, the word “ass” occurs eighty-eight times in Shakespeare's writings; see A Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare, IV (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuch-handlung, 1969), p. 357.

  3. The information about Plutarch, Tacitus, Tertullian, and Cecilius Felix is found in E. P. Evans, Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture (London: 1896; rpt. Detroit: Gale Research, 1969), p. 270.

  4. Evans, pp. 267-77. This macaronic liturgy refers to asses as burden-bearers, as chastised sufferers, and as types of Christ; yet one line reads “Asinus egregius.” One wonders, in reference to the Shakespearean ass, if Iago recalls this wording when he plans to make Othello “egregiously an ass” (II.i.303). The text cited throughout is William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1975).

  5. Geffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes and Other Devises, The English Experience, No. 161 (Leyden, 1586; rpt. Amsterdam: Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvm; New York: Da Capo, 1969), p. 8. A modern critic connects this tradition with Apuleius' The Golden Ass and notes its conflation with Christ's ass into an image of Christian piety and humility. David Ormerod, “A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Monster in the Labyrinth,” Shakespeare Studies, 11 (1978), 45. See also J. J. M. Tobin, “Apuleius and Antony and Cleopatra Once More,” Studia Neophilologica, 51 (1979), 225-28. For Isis as Diana (and Titania and Bottom as Diana and Actaeon), see Leonard Barkan, “Diana and Actaeon: The Myth as Synthesis,” English Literary Renaissance, 10 (1980), 317-59. Barkan's study appeared after my article was completed.

  6. For instance, Trevisa's translation of Bartholomew's De proprietatibus rerum explains that the poor villain, oppressed by the yoke of servitude, can draw consolation from the wretched condition of the ass; it is fair of disposition and shape while it is young, yet becomes “a melancholy beast, that is cold and dry, and therefore kindly, heavy, and slow and unlusty, dull and witless and forgetful. …” After being beaten with staves, the poor animal dies, his body flayed and his carcass left for carrion. This exemplum is cited in Francis Klingender, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages, ed. Evelyn Antal and John Harthan (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), pp. 354-58.

  7. Publius Ovidius Naso, Shakespeare's Ovid, Being Arthur Golding's Translation of the Metamorphoses, ed. W. H. D. Rouse (n.p., 1904; rpt. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1961), p. 222. See also Whitney's emblem Peruersa iudicia, p. 218 (Fig. 2), which equates Midas' choice with bad judgment in general.

  8. Geoffrey Chaucer, Boece, in The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson (1933; rpt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 323. Chaucer explained his conception of the proverb's significance when he used it in Troilus and Criseyde (quoted from Robinson edition). Pandarus asks Troilus:

    “What! slombrest ow as in a litargie?
    Or artow lik an asse to the harpe,
    That hereth sown whan men the strynges plye,
    But in his mynde of that no melodie
    May sinken hym to gladen, for that he
    So dul ys of his bestialite?”


  9. Chaucer, Boece, p. 363.

  10. Whitney, p. 82.

  11. Ormerod, p. 46, reports that Ripa explained: “La testa dell Asino mostra la medesima l'ignoranza”; similarly, he cites Valeriano's gloss (p. 52, note 28): “ces bons gens de prestres par la test d'Ane mise sur un tronc de corps humain, signifioyent l'homme ignorant … l'Asne est l'hieroglyphique d'ignorance.”

  12. This tradition evidently dates to antiquity; there exists a terra cotta figure of a Roman mime wearing a close-fitting eared hood. Robert Hillis Goldsmith, Wise Fools in Shakespeare (Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1958), p. 2.

  13. Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folie, trans. Sir Thomas Chaloner, ed. Clarence H. Miller, Early English Text Society Publications, Orig. Ser., No. 257 (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), p. 10. The two subsequent references to this work will appear in the text.

  14. Sebastian Brant, The Ship of Fools, trans. Alexander Barclay (Edinburgh, 1874; rpt. New York: AMS, 1966), I, 181, 156-57, 248.

  15. See E. A. M. Colman, The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare (London: Longman, 1974), pp. 41, 217; Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (New York: Dutton, 1955), pp. 67, 200. The simple pun occurs in King Lear (I.iv.152-54), where “ass/arse” is paired with the concept of fool. A similar constellation occurs in Act I, scene i of Cymbeline. Note the pictorial emphasis upon the ass's posteriors in Figure 5.

  16. Beryl Rowland, Animals with Human Faces: A Guide to Animal Symbolism (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1973), p. 21. Also, note the position of the woman's head in relation to the ass's rump in Figure 4.

  17. See Ezekiel xxiii.19; for the ass as an Egyptian, Greek, and Hindu symbol of lust, see Rowland, pp. 23-24.

  18. William Adlington, trans., The Golden Ass, by Apuleius, ed. S. Gaselee (1915; rpt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1947), p. xvi.

  19. T. W. Baldwin (On the Compositional Genetics of The Comedy of Errors [Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1965], pp. 166-67) also notes the Biblical wording of this passage and connects it with homiletic literature concerning the state of matrimony. In addition, see Richard Henze, “The Comedy of Errors: A Freely Binding Chain,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 22 (1971), 37.

  20. The physical abuse stems in part from Plautus. The Menaechmi presents episodes in which the actors are beaten like beasts; the Amphitruo brims with thrashings, kicks, and blows. The only actual use of the word “ass,” however, occurs in the fourth act of the Menaechmi as the furious Citizen Menechmus calls the parasite an “Asse.” Here the word merely signifies an ignorant fool. See Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, I (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957), 12-39, 40-49. Perhaps as he was working with classical sources Shakespeare recalled the title of another Plautine play, Asinaria, which is concerned with the ridicule of a foolish master by an outrageous slave. A more likely inspiration for the equation of servants with asses is Lyly's Mother Bombie, in which the impudent servant Dromio is called an ass by his master and by his fellow slaves. See John Lyly, Mother Bombie, in The Complete Writings of John Lyly, ed. R. Warwick Bond, III (1902; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), 173, 185.

  21. It seems that Shakespeare changed the Menaechmi's Epidamnum to Ephesus in order to allude to the supernatural aura that pervaded the city in Acts xix. See Baldwin, pp. 51, 65-66; Harold Brooks, “Theme and Structure in The Comedy of Errors,” in Early Shakespeare, ed. J. R. Brown and B. Harris (London: Edward Arnold, 1961); rpt. in Shakespeare, The Comedies: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Kenneth Muir (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965), p. 20. Furthermore, the change points to the passage in Ephesians which describes the duty one owes to proper societal relationships between master and servant, husband and wife. Bullough, p. 9.

  22. The editor of the New Arden edition of the play also distinguishes the metamorphic theme and sees it operating as an indicator of psychological disturbance: “Each Dromio applies the term ‘ass’ to the beatings he is made to suffer, and to the way he is made to seem a fool; but the idea of being made a beast operates more generally in the play, reflecting the process of passion overcoming reason, as an animal rage, fear, or spite seizes on each of the main characters.” R. A. Foakes, ed., The Comedy of Errors: The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1962), p. xlv. Northrop Frye (A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965], pp. 106-7) believes that “[t]he structure of The Comedy of Errors is a metamorphic structure, a descent into illusion and an emergence into recognition.”

  23. Frye, p. 106, calls the speech a view of “what the human world would look like to a conscious ass: an inferno of malignant and purposeless beating.” Ralph Berry (Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972], p. 34) agrees; he writes that this existential cri de coeur “is the sharply caught apprehension of what it must be like to be a servant in a world of mad masters, to be sane and yet in an impotent minority.”

  24. Ifor Evans (The Language of Shakespeare's Plays [London: Methuen, 1966], p. 10), calling metaphor “the applied metaphysic of poetry,” states that its magnetic action “asserts the unity of human life.” Correspondingly, Bottom, a metaphoric character par excellence, is the focus of the unity of the play. Similarly, David Young (Something of Great Constancy: The Art of A Midsummer Night's Dream [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1966], p. 92) finds Bottom at the center of the play's concentric circles of action. Bottom may even be a visual pun, if Partridge, p. 78, is correct in thinking that “bottom” could signify the human posteriors to an Elizabethan audience. Colman, p. 28, disagrees, however, and the OED gives 1794 as the date of its first example of this particular usage.

  25. Sister M. Generosa, “Apuleius and A Midsummer Night's Dream: Analogue or Source, Which?” Studies in Philology, 42 (1945), 200.

  26. See John A. Allen, “Bottom and Titania,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 18 (1967), 107.

  27. Melvin Goldstein, “Identity Crisis in A Midsummer Nightmare: Comedy as Terror in Disguise,” The Psychoanalytic Review, 60 (1973), 175; Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964), p. 218.

  28. Bruno Bettelheim (The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales [New York: Knopf, 1976], pp. 306-9), stresses the positive aspects of the archetype. In contrast, C. L. Barber (Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959], p. 155) states that Bottom and Titania portray “fancy against fact, not beauty and the beast.”

  29. See Willard Farnham, The Shakespearean Grotesque: Its Genesis and Transformation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), pp. 12, 32, for a discussion of the comedy of the grotesque; Farnham does not analyze Bottom in these terms.

  30. Ormerod, p. 40, presents the idea that Shakespeare deliberately transformed the Theseus and the Minotaur myth, substituting a symbol of funny foolishness for one of bestial passion and a maze-like woods for the Cretan Labyrinth.

  31. Thelma N. Greenfield, “A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Praise Of Folly,Comparative Literature, 20 (1968), 239.

  32. Lyly, Midas (IV.i), in The Complete Works of John Lyly, p. 144.

  33. Many critics have made this point. See Barber, p. 148; Young, p. 103. Also applicable is Reginald Scot's marginal note to his account in The Discoverie of Witchcraft of the young man changed into an ass by a witch (quoted in Bullough, pp. 401-3): “A strange metamorphosis of body, but not of mind.”

  34. Greenfield, p. 240, states rather broadly that men feel a sympathetic camaraderie with asses and, therefore, with Bottom.

  35. James L. Calderwood, Shakespearean Metadrama (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1971), p. 56.

  36. Ronald F. Miller (“A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Fairies, Bottom, and the Mystery of Things,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 26 [1975], 265-66) draws this parallel between the name and function of the weaver and the Tyndale translation of I Cor. ii.6-10. See also Andrew D. Weiner (“‘Multiformitie Uniforme’: A Midsummer Night's Dream,ELH, 38 [1971], 347), and J. Dennis Huston (“Bottom Waking: Shakespeare's ‘Most Rare Vision,’” Studies in English Literature, 13 [1973], 212-14). Thomas B. Stroup (“Bottom's Name and His Epiphany,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 29 [1978], 79-82) agrees that this speech is a short but profound epiphany experienced by a wise fool; however, Robert F. Willson, Jr. (“God's Secrets and Bottom's Name: A Reply,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 30 [1979], 407-8) warns against transforming Bottom's vision into a morality play.

  37. John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and his Comedies (London: Methuen, 1957), p. 84.

  38. See Barber, p. 133; Walter F. Staton, Jr. (“Ovidian Elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream,Huntington Library Quarterly, 26 [1962-63], 166-68); and Madeleine Doran (Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama [Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1954], p. 293).

  39. See Young, p. 157.

  40. Jackson I. Cope, The Theater and the Dream (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1973), p. 222. Cope explores dream, imagination, and theatre in A Midsummer Night's Dream, as does James L. Calderwood (“A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Illusion of Drama,” Modern Language Quarterly, 26 [1965], 507), who writes that the play is “part of Shakespeare's continuing exploration of the nature, function, and value of art.”

  41. See Neil D. Isaacs and Jack E. Reese, “Dithyramb and Paean in A Midsummer Night's Dream,English Studies, 55 (1974), 351-57. The authors' thesis seems to be based largely on Barber.

  42. Helen Adolf (“The Ass and the Harp,” Speculum, 25 [1950], 50-54) gives the classical ass analogues and briefly places Bottom in the tradition, but stresses that he becomes part of a vast “naturally cosmic” order as well.

Theodore B. Leinwand (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7739

SOURCE: Leinwand, Theodore B. “‘I Believe We Must Leave the Killing out’: Deference and Accommodation in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In A Midsummer Night's Dream: Critical Essays, edited by Dorothea Kehler, pp. 145-64. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1986, Leinwand examines the conflict between social classes in A Midsummer Night's Dream and discusses its influence on the actions of the characters.]

No sooner has the artisan weaver Bottom begun to speak with the fairy queen Titania than he takes the occasion to “gleek.”1 Observing that “reason and love keep little company together nowadays,” Bottom thinks it a “pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends” (III.i.140-141). It is at once an hilarious and a potentially subversive moment: an artisan finds himself spectacularly close to a queen. Of course, it has been noted that for all Bottom's and Titania's propinquity, “there is no communication between them: their kinds of understanding are totally different.”2 But the conception of community relations that is at the heart of Bottom's gleeking suggests that the play's artisanate and its nobility may well share certain “kinds of understanding.” It is part of my purpose to show not only that the artisan-weaver is concerned with strategies of accommodation amenable to the play's nobility, but that the artisan-playwright, William Shakespeare, also accommodates himself to the aristocracy with whom he finds himself in such close proximity. The power of spectators like Theseus and Elizabeth to give meaning to command performances weighed heavily on playwrights and actors.3 But the quality of the latter's art afforded some room for negotiation: royal interpretations of dramatic texts did not necessarily exhaust all of their meaning. Bottom envisions reason and love as two townsfolk, perhaps acquaintances, perhaps husband and wife, who are at odds. It is noteworthy that in an age now deemed notorious for litigiousness and for hate-filled interpersonal relations, Bottom looks to neighbors to adjudicate a difference.4 His predominant conception of settlement is that of an accommodationist, not a litigant. “Honest neighbours” ought to be able to patch things up between love and reason. So too, when two seventeenth-century Yorkshire women, Emotte Belton and Katherine Hodgekinson, found themselves involved in a dispute, a fellow parishioner said that she “would to God you two were frend[es], for this is not the beste meanes for neighbours one to sue another.” The two women settled their differences and then “Katherine tooke the cupp and dranke the said Emotte who thanked her. …”5 J. A. Sharpe documents that this settlement was only one of many indicating “a widespread attitude which regarded litigation as a breach of proper neighbourly relations, and which saw arbitration or less formal methods of reconciling those at law as an attractive method of healing such a breach.”6 To maintain harmony in their communities, villagers persuaded neighbors and “frendes att home w[i]thout chardges or trouble in Lawe” to submit to arbitration. It was not uncommon for a man like Thomas Postgate, brother to the wives of both John Buttarie and Thomas Stor, to attempt as he did in 1594 to reconcile his brothers-in-law when they were at odds.7 Thus Bottom, always a gentle craftsman, gently reveals his layman's notion of local justice. Needless to say, his predilection for arbitration is not shared by all. Immediately after he has told Titania how “neighbours … make … friends,” she commands him to remain in the woods: “Out of this wood do not desire to go: / Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no” (III.i.145-146). And in the dispute that initiates the play, Egeus turns straightaway to “trouble in Lawe.” He comes “with complaint / Against my child” to Theseus (I.i.22-23); and “in this case,” Theseus renders his harsh judgment as spokesman for “the law of Athens” (I.i.63 and 119). Not until IV.i, when Egeus is still begging “the law, the law upon his [Lysander's] head” (l.154), does Theseus, who earlier would by no means “extenuate” the law, arbitrate in favor of “gentle concord” (IV.i.142).

Negotiation, arbitration, and accommodation characterize Bottom's and his fellow artisans' relations with their social superiors. It is often remarked that the artisans betray a most naive understanding of the theater. Their discussions in I.ii and in III.i revolve around technical problems, obstacles that may prevent them from convincing their audience.8 But their specific fears are resonant because they have to do with more than theatrical decorum. In particular, the players are anxious not to “fright the Duchess and the ladies” (I.ii.70-71) with their lion, or to seem to do harm with their swords (III.i.17). The artisans do not want to strike fear into the hearts of their social betters; indeed, such a reaction “were enough to hang us all.” “That would hang us, every mother's son” (I.ii.73), they chorus together. To “draw a sword” is to cause “a parlous fear” (III.i.10,11), and such a fear can only cost the crew their lives. They fear for their lives because they assume that indecorous actions on their part will cause their spectators to fear for their lives. Bottom knows that “If you think I come hither as a lion, it were pity of my life” (III.i.40-41). And Bottom's fear is not his alone. “Lion” takes Bottom's advice and announces that he is but Snug the joiner. He then reveals his anxiety, borrowing Bottom's very words: “For if I should as lion come in strife / Into this place, 'twere pity on my life” V.i.220-221).

The relationship that the artisans think they have with their superiors and the attitude that they assume their superiors have toward them betray considerable anxiety. Swords, fear of hanging, and strife are a part of this interaction from first to last act. Given the players' fear of potential retribution, there is something uncannily appropriate to Theseus' response to their play: “Never excuse; for when the players are all dead, there need none to be blamed. Marry, if he that writ it had played Pyramus, and hanged himself in Thisbe's garter, it would have been a fine tragedy …” (V.i.342-346). The players fear for their lives, and their audience jests them into oblivion. Bottom tells Snug to announce, “I am a man, as other men are” (III.i.42-43); but during the performance, Demetrius jests that Bottom is “Less than an ace, man; for he is dead, he is nothing” (V.i.297). Performance, especially strife- and sword-filled performance, is potentially life threatening in the world of A Midsummer Night's Dream. No wonder Starveling opines, “I believe we must leave the killing out, when all is done” (III.i.13-14).

At least two responses to conflict or threat emerge from what I have described thus far. One might respond to drawn swords with one's own drawn sword or with the executioner's blade. Stephen Greenblatt has written brilliantly of Sidney's and Spenser's representations of such a response. Those in power crush those in revolt but manage to salvage their own honor (as well as their commitment to rhetoric over violence) in the face of engagements that threaten to darken their fame or to render persuasion ineffective.9 When Greenblatt turns to Shakespeare's representation of a thwarted rebellion in 2 Henry VI, he argues that property, not honor, is at stake, and that the sword used by the aristocrat (now the property-owner, Alexander Iden) can in no way be tainted by the blood of a “rude companion” (ll. 24-25). But the displacement of honor by property at the center of relations between unequal status groups also makes room for the displacement of violence by negotiation. Thus one may also respond to drawn swords and so counter provocation with arbitration and accommodation. It may be true, as Greenblatt writes, that Elizabethan “representations rarely depict the actual method most often used to punish those whom the magistrates deemed serious threats: the thousands of hangings carried out locally throughout Tudor and Stuart England” (p. 15). But it is also true (and here I take issue with Greenblatt) that Elizabethan artists might depict “the ordinary operation of the law”—instances of negotiation and accommodation through and beyond the courts that often replaced violence, and moments when it was clear that “feudal fantasies … of mass rebellion and knightly victories” were clearly inappropriate (p. 15). Artisans might be executed; they might also be accommodated.

Before returning to the relations between the carpenter, the weaver, the bellows-maker, the tinker, joiner, and tailor, and their betters in A Midsummer Night's Dream, I want to consider several occasions when actual artisans and their superiors came into conflict in Shakespeare's day. My point is not that Shakespeare was particularly alert to artisanal dissent in the counties, or that he carefully refracted such protest, or tamed it, or parodied it in his plays. Nor do I imagine that Shakespeare's response to laborers and artisans was univocal. But the demands of genre and of received history are not able to suppress entirely the tension that characterizes such apparently amicable interactions as those between, say, Bottom and Theseus, or Francis and Hal. Often distinct, but as often overlapping issues are at stake in the case of Jack Cade, in 2 Henry VI, or in the case of Sly and the Lord in The Taming of the Shrew (where threats to sanity and life are also mediated by performance). For the moment, I turn to one historical context for A Midsummer Night's Dream to begin the sort of rewriting that Fredric Jameson calls for in The Political Unconscious. Jameson urges us to rewrite “the literary text in such a way that the latter may itself be seen as a rewriting or restructuration of a prior historical or ideological subtext, it being understood that the ‘subtext’ is not immediately present as such. …”10 The Elizabethan subtext in this instance has been uncovered by the work of numerous historians.

Bottom's primary craft, weaving, flickers to light mainly in puns. But in 1566, a Colchester weaver declared that the “Weavers' occupation is a dead science nowadays.” “We can get no work,” said another, “nor we have no money; and if we should steal we should be hanged, and if we should ask no man would give us. …”11 The fear of hanging expressed here was at once legitimate and exaggerated. Felonies, which included the theft of goods valued at more than one shilling, were punishable by death.12 For Sir Edmund Coke, it was “a lamentable case … to see so many … men and women strangled on that cursed tree of the gallows.”13 But it was also true that, between 1550 and 1800, the “number of convicted actually condemned to death … was between 10 and 20 per cent; while the proportion of those condemned who were actually executed probably averaged about one half.” Allowing for an acquittal rate of roughly one quarter to one half of all who were indicted, it would seem that “between 2.5 per cent and 7.5 per cent of those indicted for felony were actually executed.”14

That Bottom and his crew should nonetheless have hanging on their minds may have to do with the fact that in Elizabethan Essex, for instance, tradesmen and craftsmen accounted for one quarter of all the criminals on record.15 Coincident with the composition of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in the early and mid-1590s, prices soared while real wages fell markedly. Bad harvests in the period from 1592 to 1599 resulted in sustained and cruel scarcity throughout England.16 Such economic pressures had much to do with the unusually high incidence of crime in the 1590s. The smith Thomas Bynder complained in 1595 that food was too expensive. He then threatened that “if victuals did not grow better cheap … twenty victuallers would be hanged at their gates.”17 Clearly the threat of hanging might alarm the “haves” as well as the “have nots.” But those lowest in the social hierarchy had most to fear. Late in the Elizabethan period, gentlemen were able to avoid trial at a rate of seventy-nine percent, whereas tradesmen and craftsmen escaped only seventeen percent of the time.18 And even when the number of felonies was not increasing in response to deprivation, local magistrates, fearing disorder, showed themselves more willing to prosecute felons who might, in better circumstances, have been left alone. The 1590s were a decade of food shortage, and there was considerable fear on the part of those who took it upon themselves to maintain order. In the entire Elizabethan and Jacobean period, this decade saw the highest number of indictments in Essex, in Herfordshire, and in Sussex.19

The historian William Hunt stresses the critical nature of the 1590s: “Rhetorical promiscuity may have rendered the word crisis all but useless. Nevertheless, it is hard to describe English society in the 1590s without it. There was more to this crisis than inflation, bad harvests, war with Spain, and apprehensive impatience for the Queen's demise. … The crisis that culminated in the 1590s was brought to a peak by the conjuncture of climatic disorder [‘The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain, / The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn / Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard’ (II.i.93-95)] and military expenditure,” which together “left social perceptions and public policy decisively altered.”20 The felonies (mostly thefts) that were so common a feature of this crisis are only one index to its severity. Riots also had to be dealt with. Following the collapse of the export trade in East Kent clothmaking towns in 1587, severe unemployment, bad harvests, and high food prices made for social unrest. A Sandwich weaver, Thomas Bird, talked of insurrection with Thomas Bensted, a woolcomber, and two or three other textile workers. Bird was said to have declared that they “intended to hang up the rich farmers which had corn at their own doors.” On the fifth of June, the conspirators were arrested. Four were “shipped to fight in the Netherlands; Bird was also condemned to a flogging and the pillory.”21 In 1594 and 1595, artisans in the broadcloth industry in the Weald of Kent, protesting a shortage of wood due to enclosures and increased iron production, and reacting to decreasing corn supplies and wages, incited popular agitation. Several mill-working conspiracies were later discovered.22

One further example of artisanal dissent illustrates what might happen when conflict was not accommodated or negotiated, when it terminated in the courts or hanging. The artisans in A Midsummer Night's Dream agree to meet “a mile without the town, by moonlight” (I.ii.94-95) to plot their performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe.” When ten men turned up at Enslowe Hill, in Oxfordshire, on the night of 21 November 1596, a different sort of plot was to be hatched. From the middle of October, 1596, until late November, the Hampton Gay carpenter Bartholomew Stere and a miller, Richard Bradshawe, planned an uprising of poor artisans. They were enduring the familiar hardships of the mid-1590s, and like many of their contemporaries, they attributed their distress to enclosures and to hoarding. Expecting to enlist some three hundred followers, Stere and Bradshawe were said to have plans to “cast down enclosures, seize goods and arms, and then cut off the enclosers' heads.”23 According to a report prepared for Sir Robert Cecil, Stere's “owtward pretense was to … helpe the poore cominaltie that were readie to famish for want of corne.”24 Stere's band would then march to London, join with city apprentices, and foment a general insurrection.25 When only ten men turned up at Enslowe Hill, the artisans dispersed and abandoned further plans. But Roger Symondes, a carpenter and father of six, who initially showed interest in the plan, had already revealed the plot to a local magistrate. As a result, five men were named as “principal offenders,” six were said to be “definitely involved,” and nine more were implicated. The “rebels” included carpenters, weavers, millers, a mason, a bricklayer, a carter, and a baker. The principals were brought to London “under guard, with their hands pinioned and their legs bound under their horses' bellies.” In 1597, a grand jury indicted three of the men for “levying war against the Queen.” Only two verdicts survive: the men were to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. No indictment against Stere survives, but his brother John (a weaver from nearby Witney) is recorded as having testified that “happ what would … [Bartholomew] could die but once … he would not allwaies live like a slave.”26

Keith Wrightson, in a judicious chapter on “Order” in Elizabethan society between 1580 and 1680, suggests one reason for juxtaposing this Oxfordshire plot with the plotting of Shakespeare's Athenian artisans: theatricality is common to both stories. Wrightson describes a Somerset crowd (also in 1596) which seized a load of cheese. They were said to be motivated by the belief that “rich men had gotten all into their hands and will starve the poor.” But Wrightson doubts the seriousness of such sentiments; he thinks that “much of the drama of the government's statements and the crowd's menaces was indeed theatre. The government needed to present a stark portrait … to rally support … while the threatening postures of the poor were but a means to an end and very often no more sincere than their more accustomed postures of deference.”27 In A Midsummer Night's Dream, we see both the drama and the deference, but not the riot—it turns out that lawlessness has been displaced to the disobedient and violent lovers. Off the stage and in a manner akin to “honest neighbours” who would help antagonists patch up their differences, potential rioters worked to stimulate official action. Elizabethan riots were rather orderly affairs. Rioters threatened in the name of such traditional and legitimate rights as the right to eat, to buy victuals at fair prices, and to be free of hoarders and speculators. And these were rights endorsed by the authorities, particularly at the national level. As a result, argues Wrightson, “there was a strong element of negotiation in the tradition of riot which both rioters and the governing class understood.”28

Deference and accommodation might free up the courts and slow down traffic at the gallows. In 1596, in Canterbury, rioters consulted an attorney's clerk as to the law before preventing grain from leaving the city. From below, as well as from above, there was a desire to maintain order. The central government, in the form of Parliament, the Privy Council, and Assize judges, joined with the local poor and hard-pressed artificers to respond to dearth in the 1590s. Those highest and lowest in the social hierarchy turned their attention to those in the middle. “Such marginal elements as the morally ambivalent middlemen”—badgers and enclosers—were blamed for the hardships felt by potential rioters.29 Time after time, the poor found that the state's explanation for dearth coincided with their own. Ignoring the bad weather and consequent bad harvests, which no one could alter, magistrates and artisans agreed that villainous men, those who profited from scarcity, were the appropriate target. At the very moment when customary views of the marketplace (founded on just price and neighborly harmony) were being undermined by harsh economic realities, the state sought to reinforce such views. Dearth was blamed on the covetous and the uncharitable.30 Therefore rather than riot, the typically depressed artisan or tradesman petitioned a government which shared what Walter and Wrightson have called his “moralistic, even medieval” economic theory. And when he did riot, the artificer contemplated not anarchy or revolution, but remedial action on the part of the state.

The structure and logic of the relations between the artisanate and those in power were based on dependence. Those with authority were able to enhance their legitimacy to the extent that they could convince poor people that they shared their concerns and could respond to them. Moralistic and paternalistic strategies permitted the poor to hold on to their sense of the legitimacy of their complaints and at the same time reduced the threat of riot. Conversely, infantilized artisans might “manipulate the fears of their betters through formal petitions and indirect threats in order to galvanize them into action, to persuade them to fulfill those moral and legal obligations in defense of the weak which legitimized their authority.”31 A comparable dynamic is diffused throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream. The text offers accommodation and deference, but on its margins we note raised swords and threatening gallows. Starveling would have his fellows “leave the killing out.” Bottom would leave the killing in, but would devise a “prologue [a petition which would] seem to say we will do no harm with our swords” (III.i.13-17; emphasis added).

The paternalism inherent in Elizabethan social policy is writ large across the relationships in A Midsummer Night's Dream. So are deference and accommodation and the never-wholly-absent threats which follow when deference is exhausted. Theseus will patronize the artisans' play—not their labor. They are “Hard-handed men that work in Athens here / Which never labour'd in their minds till now; / And now have toil'd their unbreath'd memories …” (V.i.72-74, emphasis added). The skills which the artisans have practiced are effaced just as surely as the “battle with the Centaurs” and the “riot of the tipsy Bacchanals, / … in their rage” (V.i.44, 48-49). Louis Adrian Montrose notes that “these brief scenarios encompass extremes of reciprocal violence between the sexes” and so they are rejected.32 In the context I am developing, the threat of “battle,” “riot,” and “rage” is equally sufficient grounds for rejection. Theseus “will hear that play” which is tendered in “simpleness and duty,” for in such cases, “never anything can be amiss” (V.i.81-83). In fact, the labor to be performed here will be that of Theseus. He will have to exert himself to “take what they [the players] mistake” (l. 90). What “poor duty cannot do” (l. 91), Theseus will make up for, since he is familiar enough with the childlike inarticulateness of his inferiors. He is used to clerks who “shiver and look pale, / Make periods in the midst of sentences, / Throttle their practis'd accents in their fears” (V.i.95-97). Perhaps he is already familiar with Quince. Momentarily, the carpenter will be shivering through his mispunctuated Prologue. It is the “modesty of fearful duty” (l. 101) not “audacious eloquence” (l. 103), that Theseus looks for, arranges for, but cannot guarantee. The child-like artisan, in “tongue-tied simplicity” (l. 104) will, like Elizabethan artisans in the 1590s, perform for rulers who may defend and reward him. And Theseus, like those in power in the 1590s, will go on at length, convincing himself of the commonality between the “least,” not “great clerks,” and his “capacity” (I.i.93 and 105).

The performance begins with deference: “If we offend. …” However, the meaning of the prologue is rendered ambivalent by its mispunctuation in delivery. Like Elizabethan artisans who rioted not to offend, but with good will, the prologue teeters back and forth between deference and offensiveness. “If we offend, it is with our good will” (V.i.108), declares Quince. Harold Brooks' note in the Arden edition reminds us that malpunctuation had been used for “Machiavellian ambiguity” in Edward II. There is nothing Machiavellian here, but ambiguity enough for those in the actual theater audience who must make sense of this show of deference. Quince means to say that the artisans have come to content and to delight their audience; but he voices an altogether different sentiment. “We do not come, as minding to content you,” he proclaims; “All for your delight, / We are not here” (ll. 114-115). It then slips out that “the actors are at hand” that the audience may take this opportunity to “repent” (ll. 115-116). While the theater audience may hear a provocation in this, Hippolyta chooses to reassert the equation between artisan and child (“Indeed he hath played on his prologue like a child on a recorder” (ll. 122-123). Theseus, taking his cue from his betrothed's concern that the playing is “not in government,” but perhaps hearing something of the prologue's challenge, adds impatiently that the “speech was … disordered” (ll. 123, 124-125). Offense, intended or not by Prologue, evokes a response that conjoins (dis)orderly children and government. The artisans, however, have conceived their performance in another way. They envision a performance that will enrich them: “sixpence a day during … life,” says Snug (IV.ii.19-20). Moreover if the performance goes forward, they will all be “made men” (IV.ii.18).

Though deferring, the artisans would be “men.” Bottom wants Lion to “entreat” the ladies “not to fear, not to tremble” (III.i.39-40). But Snug the joiner ought also to declare, “I am a man, as other men are” (III.i.42-43). The artisans seem implicitly to recognize the degree to which they are normally infantilized (or feminized), and so throughout the play and the play-within-the-play they work to assert their manhood. Flute would rather not “play a woman” just at the moment he is becoming a man: “I have a beard coming” (I.ii.43-44). As children, they are vulnerable and betray a common fear: “That [frighting the Duchess] would hang us, every mother's son” (I.ii.73, emphasis added). As men, they can play the role of “a tyrant” or “play Ercles rarely … to make all split” (I.ii.24-26). “Every man's name which is thought fit through all Athens to play in our interlude” is read out by Quince in response to Bottom's request that each ought to be called, “man by man” (I.ii.2-6, emphasis added). And as each name is called, each player is identified as a worker with a particular skill: “Nick Bottom, the weaver,” “Francis Flute, the bellowsmender,” “Robin Starveling, the tailor.” The company members assert themselves first as men, then as artificers. Their pride in their manhood, as well as their anxiety, is merely patronized by Theseus when he confidently tells Hippolyta, “If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men” (V.i.211-212). For Theseus, their manhood, like their childishness, is contingent upon him.

Shakespeare's Theseus conceptualizes Bottom and his crew in much the same way North's Plutarch's Theseus thought of his Athenian workers. Plutarch's Theseus “suffered not the great multitude that came thither tagge and ragge, to be without distinction of degrees and orders. For he first divided the noble men, from husbandmen and artificers, appointing the noble men as judges and magistrates. …”33 Thus Theseus promised “a common wealth … not subject to the power of any sole prince, but rather a popular state.” But it was to be a state, like Elizabeth's, with degrees and order. Circa 1600, John Vowell, alias Hooker, enunciated a similar vision: “albeit these laborers be of the most inferior in degree yet they be liberi homines and of a free condicion.”34 Men like Quince and Bottom were seen first through their degree, as artificers, and then, perhaps, as men. Their degree insured their dependence, their impotence, and their childishness. All artificers were, for Sir Thomas Smith, among the “rascall sort” (for Puck, they are “that barren sort”—III.ii.13); and they were among the politically impotent as well.35 But men like Smith and Hooker and William Harrison were categorizing Englishmen because they were unsure of their own power. The very business of categorization, defining degrees and roles, was a way to insure and then to ratify dependence. Imagining no worse of artificers than artificers did of themselves expressed the hope that they would not take it into their heads to imagine too well of themselves. The accommodation envisaged by both Theseuses assumes an agreement of interests: artisans or artificers will defer to judges, magistrates, and dukes who understand their values and essential needs. But in A Midsummer Night's Dream, it is not on the basis of their handicrafts that artisans negotiate with their superiors. Instead, they are suffered to perform a children's book version of an Ovidian tale.

Not only is this the child's version—it is a story about adolescents. The artisans who would be men dramatize “the two yong folke,” not yet “man and wife,” who are trying to escape their “Parents['] … let.”36 Whatever tragic point may attach to Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe story is rendered ludicrous in Shakespeare's. The desolation that accompanies thwarted desire in Ovid is somewhat mitigated by Pyramus's and Thisbe's youth, if not their deaths. This desolation is mitigated precisely by their farcical deaths in the translation of the story performed in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Erotic confrontations involving the artisans in A Midsummer Night's Dream are undermined by the assertion of typically infantile artisanal impotence. There is no love story in this performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, only the “silliest stuff that ever I heard” (V.i.207). What passion there is, “and the death of a dear friend, would go near to make a man look sad” (V.i.277-278). Neither is there much of a love story in Titania's bower, where once again we are presented with an artisan not as an artisan (rather, as an ass). Bottom is treated like a child; the “tongue-tied simplicity / In the least” that so pleases Theseus is translated into Titania's command, “Tie up my love's tongue, bring him silently” (III.i.194). Perhaps it is performance and make-up which ultimately determine just how infantile or mature we find the conjunction of fairy queen and ass-headed artisan.37 Titania issues commands, but Bottom is to share her bed (III.i.164). Whether the sexual dynamic between Bottom and Titania is pre-Oedipal, Oedipal, bestial, or adult and heterosexual, the problem of the social status of these lovers is taken up without delay. Titania sees a “gentle mortal” (III.i.132, emphasis added). And the attending fairies are expected to act courteously “to this gentleman” (III.i.157). It does not escape Bottom's notice that he has been translated into, among other things, a gentleman. He even expresses his concern that “cowardly giant-like ox-beef hath devoured many a gentleman of [Mustardseed's] … house” (III.i.185-186). Consider the translations at work here: while it was being asserted that enclosures were devouring the laboring and farming poor, an artisan weaver, now partially a beast himself, is translated into a gentleman who is concerned for the well-being of other gentlemen. On top of this, Titania has it in mind still further to translate Bottom, “to purge … [his] mortal grossness” (III.i.153). This does not seem to have to do with his ass-head; rather, it may have to do with elevating the “gentle mortal” weaver beyond the gentry to fairy immortality. For the moment she will treat him like a child, feeding him, doting on him, and watching over him as he sleeps.

Certainly Oberon conceives of Bottom in a more instrumental fashion than does Titania. His use of the weaver is part of the play's dramatization of statecraft, a dramatization most clearly centered on Oberon's mortal surrogate, Theseus. Duke Theseus' theory of governance might be summed up by the motto, “Our sport shall be to take what they mistake” (V.i.90). All of the mistaking, looking with “another's eyes,” looking “not with the eyes,” “misprision,” and seeing with “parted eye” that motivates the lovers' plot, Theseus transforms and forgives magnanimously.38 At the same time, Theseus' fairy alterego, Oberon, gives a literal twist to Theseus' motto, finding sport in taking the changeling boy that he accuses Titania of mistaking, and finding still more sport in the knowledge that Titania has mistaken an ass for a gentle lover. Theseus has already established his lordship over Hippolyta; but Oberon must reestablish his lordship over Titania (“Tarry, rash wanton; am not I thy lord?” [II.i.63]). For the moment, the “mazed world” endures a “progeny of evils”: bad harvests, floods, frosts, and disease. Oberon must implement a policy that will restore order, and his instrument turns out to be Bottom. But it is unnecessary to translate the weaver-ass into a “scapegoat” whose sacrifice works “only to facilitate the reconciliation of those with superior social status.”39 Just as he will profit—to the tune of “sixpence a day during his life”—from his role in “Pyramus and Thisbe,” so Bottom profits from his role in the reconciliation of Oberon and Titania. Newly awakened Bottom can “discourse wonders” (IV.i.28) based on his “most rare vision” (IV.i.203). Temporarily an ass, Bottom is not only made a man, but has been permitted a vision that may after all somewhat “purge … [his] mortal grossness.”

Bottom's company takes flight at the sight of their “monstrous” fellow (III.i.99-100). But Oberon and Puck make use of this literally many-headed Elizabethan monster. Half a century later, it was said that the “many-headed monster,” made up of “some turbulent spirits, backed by rude and tumultous mechanic persons would have the total subversion of the government of the state.”40 And just as Puck manipulates one of the “rude mechanicals” (III.ii.9) in A Midsummer Night's Dream to restore harmony in the fairy kingdom, Parliamentary leaders were not afraid “to take advantage of popular initiative” to restore justice and harmony in Caroline England.41 But this is to allegorize and to suggest far-fetched foreshadowings in Shakespeare. It is more to the point to note that the designers of Elizabethan social policy were trying to determine the place of the poor and of artificers and husbandmen in an orderly realm. Confronted like Oberon with bad harvests and want of cheer, the Crown and Parliament tried to counter disorder with the 1563 Statute of Artificers, the Poor Laws of 1598 and 1601, the Book of Orders, issued in 1587 and 1594, and the Enclosure Act of 1598. Such statutes were meant to “take what they mistake”—to construe economic and social harmony where many poor laborers knew only cruel subsistence and chronic unemployment.

The Statute of Artificers was an attempt to control the conditions of employment for many workers, to restrict the mobility of labor, and to establish procedures to determine local wage rates.42 Conceived of as a way to remedy the “imperfection & contrarietie” in the many existing laws, the Statute appears to protect artificers in the face of “wages and allowances … [that] are in divers places to[o] small, and not aunswerable to this time, respecting the advauncement of pryces.”43 But the statute goes on to fix maximum, not minimum, wages. The state sought to keep wages low, making a popular connection between large numbers of potential workers and low wages.44 Not until 1603 did a statute order that the “assessment of minimum wages for clothmakers … [should] reflect the state of the economy.”45 The long apprenticeships stipulated by crafts and by law further reflect the desire for cheap labor, not the difficulty of mastering a particular skill.46 Elizabethan labor laws, like Elizabethan poor laws, were legislated to preserve order. It was assumed that the laborers as well as the elite of England would profit from stability. The “fit” Athenian artisans in A Midsummer Night's Dream are rewarded for their industry and good will with the opportunity to perform for their Duke. The proximity of artisanate and nobility, the mutual celebration of aristocratic nuptials, and the expected pension for the performers make for a community of shared interests. Order is restored in Athens when all levels of society celebrate together.

Of course, those in power retain their power. They countenance the “modesty of fearful duty” (V.i.101) by bringing the artisans into their celebration. The pension in store for Bottom, “He would have deserved” (IV.ii.23). Nobles and artisans accommodate themselves to one another with ease because the latter are so obviously deserving. The English Poor Law, codified in 1598 and 1601, was the response of a ruling elite that had just made it through the difficult 1590s.47 Those who were deemed lazy or insubordinate among the lower orders were to be punished, and the idle poor were set to work. The deserving poor were to be relieved.48 For the most part it seems that relief measures (as well as the procedures outlined in the Statute of Artificers) were ineffective: there were few welfare or policing agencies, and few people received help. But it is important to remember that the old and orphans—the most deserving poor—never would have been a threat to social order. Artisans, freemen, and apprentices took the lead in disturbances, and they, not the poor widows and the elderly, had to be placated. Bottom is used by Oberon to counter the sort of disorder in nature that was threatening so many Elizabethan wage earners, who were worse off in the 1590s than they had been for a century.50 Then Bottom and his company are brought into the harmonious community of the play's final act even though, as Puck knows, the “hungry lion” still roars, the “wolf behowls,” and the ploughman, “All with weary task fordone,” is dead tired after a day's labor (V.i.357-360).51

It remains to determine the extent to which Shakespeare accommodates himself, and is accommodated to, those in power. It would seem that his company was asked to perform their play at an aristocratic wedding.52 And it has been argued by Walter Cohen that Shakespeare's theater took a “fundamentally artisanal historical form.”53 Thus an admittedly oversimplified analogy suggests itself: the Athenian artisans' play is to the dominant Athenian culture (represented by the wedding couples) as the London artisans' play is to the culture represented by the Stanleys, the Veres, Burghley, and Elizabeth. Bottom's bid to play the roles of both lover and tyrant comments upon love and tyranny in Athens. Pyramus's and Thisbe's filial rebellion and subsequent farcical-tragic fate comments upon Hermia's and Lysander's rebellion and eventual comic fate. The Athenian artisans' bid for favor and profit by means of what they take to be decorous performance comments upon the relations between high and low status groups in Athenian society. Corresponding dynamics which would correlate Shakespeare's company and play with the Elizabethan aristocracy may be sketched out. The four lovers' marriage plans in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the attention these plans receive in the Athenian court, glance at marriage brokering in Elizabeth's court and her much-publicized readiness to intervene when it suited her policy or fancy. Then too, artisan players, like those in Shakespeare's troupe in the 1590s and after, were regularly forced to accommodate themselves to numerous restrictions on playing. No doubt actors and playwrights and perhaps even the likes of Philip Henslowe met to discuss proper decorum in the face of statutes forbidding comment on religious controversy, personal satire at the expense of influential persons, criticism of court policies and foreign powers, and much more. Nonetheless, play after play that survived Edmund Tilney's and then Sir George Buc's scrutiny managed to comment on the powerful, the court, and religious controversy. Playwrights deferred and yet criticized, and both City and Court responded with tolerance at one moment, imprisonment at another.

A Midsummer Night's Dream describes relations of power in its play world that have, as we have seen, much to do with such relations in Elizabethan society. Stephen Greenblatt has argued that “Shakespeare relentlessly explores the relations of power in a given culture. That more than exploration is involved is much harder to demonstrate convincingly.”54 I would modify this cautious assessment, and so propose that Shakespeare criticizes the relations of power in his culture, but does so with remarkable sensitivity to the nuances of threat and accommodation which animate these relations. Walter Cohen notes that “However aristocratic the explicit message of a play might be, the conditions of its production introduced alternative effects.”55 Precisely these conditions of production are dramatized in A Midsummer Night's Dream, by means of the players within the play. The company that performs “Pyramus and Thisbe” reveals the company that performs A Midsummer Night's Dream perhaps more than the latter would care to admit. The desire to be made men but to receive a pension for life, to leave the killing out but to “gleek upon occasion”—these express the reasonable longings of artisans throughout the Elizabethan age.


  1. A Midsummer Night's Dream, III.i.141. All MND [A Midsummer Night's Dream] quotations are from Harold F. Brooks, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1979), and will be cited in the text in parentheses.

  2. Brooks, p. cxv.

  3. Cf. Stephen Orgel's argument in The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), “that private theaters are the creation of their audiences” (p. 6).

  4. See Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage, 1500-1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 98: see also Stone's “Interpersonal Violence in English Society 1300-1980,” Past & Present 101 (1983), 22-33.

  5. J. A. Sharpe, “Enforcing the Law in the Seventeenth-Century English Village,” in Crime and the Law: The Social History of Crime in Western Europe Since 1500, ed. V. A. C. Gatrell, Bruce Lenman, and Geoffrey Parker (London: Europe Publications, 1980), p. 112.

  6. J. A. Sharpe, “‘Such Disagreement betwyx Neighbours’: Litigation and Human Relations in Early Modern England,” in Disputes and Settlements: Law and Human Relations in the West, ed. John Bossy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 175. Lawrence Stone, in his article in Past & Present (see above, n. 4), questions Sharpe's thesis but concludes that “The evidence seems ambiguous on this point” (p. 31). Stone seems to support the traditional view—that increasing litigation, even over slander, indicates “a breakdown of consensual community methods of dealing with conflict” (p. 32).

  7. J. A. Sharpe, “‘Such Disagreement betwyx Neighbours’ …,” p. 174.

  8. Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974), p. 99.

  9. Stephen Greenblatt, “Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre and the Representation of Rebellion,” Representations 1 (1983), 16-23. Further citations from this article are noted in the text.

  10. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious, p. 81, cited in Louis Adrian Montrose, “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations 1 (1983), 87n.

  11. J. S. Cockburn, “The Nature and Incidence of Crime in England 1559-1625: A Preliminary Survey,” in Crime in England 1550-1800, ed. J. S. Cockburn (London: Methuen, 1978), p. 61.

  12. Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1982), p. 156.

  13. Cited in Joel Samaha, Law and Order in Historical Perspective: The Case of Elizabethan Essex (New York: Academic Press, 1974), p. 44.

  14. J. H. Baker, “Criminal Courts and Procedure at Common Law 1550-1800,” in Crime in England 1550-1880, p. 43.

  15. Samaha, p. 27.

  16. Samaha, p. 168; see also Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution: A Social and Economic History of Britain 1530-1780 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967), p. 73, and D. M. Palliser, The Age of Elizabeth: England under the Late Tudors 1547-1603 (London: Longman, 1983), pp. 50 and 387.

  17. Samaha, p. 64.

  18. Samaha, p. 55.

  19. Cockburn, p. 55.

  20. William Hunt, The Puritan Moment: The Coming of Revolution in an English County (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 64.

  21. Peter Clark, “Popular Protest and Disturbance in Kent, 1558-1640,” Economic History Review 29 (1976), 367.

  22. Clark, pp. 371-373.

  23. Buchanan Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority: Rural Artisans and Riot in the West of England, 1586-1660 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 20. A comprehensive account and interpretation of this failed uprising has appeared recently; see John Walter, “‘A Rising of the People?’ The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596,” Past & Present 107 (1985), 90-143.

  24. Edwin F. Gay, “The Midland Revolt and the Inquisition of Depopulation of 1607,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 18 (1904), 238.

  25. In 1595, five London apprentices were executed. They had joined in riots at Tower Hill to protest the whipping and imprisonment of a few young men who had protested the price of butter. See Walter, pp. 92 and 108.

  26. Sharp, pp. 21 and 40-41.

  27. Wrightson, p. 174.

  28. Wrightson, pp. 174-175; see also Clark, pp. 378-380.

  29. John Walter and Keith Wrightson, “Dearth and Social Order in Early Modern England,” Past & Present 71 (1976), 41.

  30. Walter and Wrightson, p. 31; see also E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present 50 (1971), 78-79 and 132.

  31. Walter and Wrightson, p. 32.

  32. Montrose, p. 75.

  33. The relevant passage from Sir Thomas North's Plutarch is cited in the Arden edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream, p. 135.

  34. John Hooker, Synopsis Chorographical of Devonshire, cited in William J. Blake, “Hooker's Synopsis Chorographical of Devonshire,” Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association 47 (1915), 334-348.

  35. Sir Thomas Smith, De Republica Anglorum (London, 1583), p. 31: see also Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution, p. 41.

  36. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Arthur Golding (London, 1567), Bk. 4, II. 69 and 77-78.

  37. See Montrose, p. 65.

  38. On “misprision” in A Midsummer Night's Dream, see René Girard, “Myth and Ritual in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Textual Strategies, ed. Josué V. Harari (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 189-212; and David Marshall, “Exchanging Visions: Reading A Midsummer Night's Dream,” ELH 49 (1982), 543-575. Brooks notes that “Chaucer's Theseus, too, was magnanimous, forgiving …” (Arden edition, p. 97).

  39. I have conflated and given emphasis to words written by Jeanne Addison Roberts (“Animals as Agents of Revelation: the Horizontalizing of the Chain of Being in Shakespeare's Comedies,” in Shakespearean Comedy, ed. Maurice Charney [New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980], p. 85) and Elliot Krieger (A Marxist Study of Shakespeare's Comedies [New York: Harper and Row, 1979], p. 60). Krieger's argument is, however, akin to my own. He writes that A Midsummer Night's Dream “dramatizes the aristocratic fantasy of, and strategy for, creating complete social poise” (p. 67).

  40. Christopher Hill, “The Many-Headed Monster in Late Tudor and Early Stuart Political Thinking,” in From the Renaissance to the Counter-Revolution, ed. Charles H. Carter (New York: Random House, 1965), pp. 310-311 (emphasis added).

  41. Hill, “The Many-Headed Monster …,” p. 316 and passim.

  42. Donald Woodward, “The Background to the Statute of Artificers: The Genesis of Labour Policy, 1558-63,” Economic History Review 33 (1980), 32.

  43. “An Acte Touching Divers Orders of Artificers, Laborers, Servauntes of Husbandry, and Apprentices,” 5 Eliz.c.4, Anno Quinto Reginae Elizabeth … (London, 1563), C4v.

  44. See D. C. Coleman, “Labour in the English Economy of the Seventeenth Century,” Economic History Review 8 (1956), 281; and see Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution, p. 41.

  45. Sharp, p. 54; a 1598 statute clarified the 1563 statute, making no mention of minimum wages, but tying wages to “times of plenty or scarcity.”

  46. L. A. Clarkson, The Pre-Industrial Economy of England 1500-1750 (London: B. T. Batsford, 1971), p. 17.

  47. See Paul Slack, “Social Problems and Social Policies,” The Traditional Community under Stress (Milton Keynes, Bucks.: Open University Press, 1977), p. 98.

  48. See Hunt, pp. 66-79.

  49. See Slack, p. 100. [Editor's note: reference number missing in the original text.]

  50. See L. A. Clarkson, p. 212; but compare D. M. Palliser, p. 159.

  51. Compare Krieger, p. 68.

  52. James P. Bednarz makes a strong case for the Stanley-Vere wedding. See his “Imitations of Spenser in A Midsummer Night's Dream,Renaissance Drama 14 (1983), 79-102. See also Brooks, p. lvii.

  53. Walter Cohen, “The Artisan Theatres of Renaissance England and Spain,” Theatre Journal 35 (1983), 516. See also Cohen's Drama of a Nation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 179-185.

  54. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 254.

  55. Cohen, p. 517.

Originally published in Renaissance Papers 1986, ed. Dale B. J. Randall and Joseph Porter (Durham, NC: Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1986), 11-30. Reprinted with the kind permission of the Southeastern Renaissance Conference.

David Wiles (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8211

SOURCE: Wiles, David. “The Carnivalesque in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In Shakespeare and Carnival after Bakhtin, edited by Ronald Knowles, pp. 61-82. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1998.

[In the following essay, Wiles examines the festive and carnivalesque elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream. According to the critic, the play was historically part of an “aristocratic carnival” used to celebrate weddings in upper-class society.]

Carnival theory did not begin with Bakhtin, and we shall understand Bakhtin's position more clearly if we set it against classical theories of carnival.1 From the Greek world the most important theoretical statement is to be found in Plato:

The gods took pity on the human race, born to suffer as it was, and gave it relief in the form of religious festivals to serve as periods of rest from its labours. They gave us as fellow revellers the Muses, with Apollo their leader, and Dionysus, so that men might restore their way of life by sharing feasts with gods.2

This is first a utopian theory, maintaining that carnival restores human beings to an earlier state of being when humans were closer to the divine. And second, it associates carnival with communal order. Plato argues that festive dancing creates bodily order, and thus bodily and spiritual well-being. He clarifies his orderly view of carnival by dissenting from an alternative view, relating specifically to the worship of Dionysus, which maintains that Hera caused Dionysus to lose his reason, and Dionysus inflicts his revenge upon mortals, making them drunk and wild in their dancing.3 Plato thus dissents from an anarchic view comparable to the later Christian idea that carnival is an expression of the Devil.

Aristotle's most relevant discussion concerns the music of the pipes, which troubles him because of its effect upon the emotions of player and listener. He cites the myth that Athena invented the pipes, but being rational threw them away. Orgiastic music, and implicitly the festivals associated with such music, placed Aristotle in a dilemma. He refused to let upper-class youth meddle with the pipes, but allowed the lower classes with their disordered minds and bodies to indulge; nevertheless he accepted some usage by the elite on the grounds of ‘catharsis’, observing that ‘enthusiasm’ (i.e. possession by the god)

affects some people very strongly … They are, as it were, set on their feet, as if they had undergone a curative and purifying treatment … Cathartic music brings men an elation which is not at all harmful.4

Aristotle introduces two important notions to the debate about festive practice. One is popular culture, a debilitating or demoralizing form of recreation which the upper class must avoid. The other is catharsis, normally termed in discussions of carnival as ‘safety-valve theory’.5 It is an important aspect of Aristotelian ‘safety-valve’ theory that it analyses the individual rather than the social process. Where Plato was concerned with the way choral dance binds the community together, Aristotle's analytic approach is concerned with the breeding of individual leaders.

In the Roman republic the Dionysia was suppressed and in the course of the imperial period the Saturnalia emerged as the major festival. The festive focus shifted from the spring equinox to the winter solstice. Macrobius cites two major theories of the Saturnalia.6 The dominant theory is utopian, locating Saturn as the god who brought fertility to Italy in the golden age, teaching Janus the art of agriculture. There was no war in the age of Saturn, and most importantly no class distinction. The inversion of master and slave at the Saturnalia is seen as a means of honouring the god who symbolizes this uncorrupted, egalitarian past. The theme of class inversion becomes dominant in Roman rather than Greek carnival because Roman society at all levels was rigidly stratified. We should also take note in Macrobius of the explicit calendrical symbolism, for Saturn suddenly vanishes leaving two-faced Janus (January) to face forwards towards the new year. Saturn is associated with the Greek C[h]ronos, who symbolizes time and the orderly progress of the seasons. The main competing theory, which Macrobius attributed to Varro at the end of the Republican period, is propitiatory, and relates to the Greek settlement of Sicily. Masks and lights are a symbolic substitute for human sacrifice, and Saturn is linked to the god of Death. Varro's theory is rationalistic and historicizing, and presumes that the human condition is advancing rather than declining. But it points up a negative aspect of Saturn, whose sickle is used to castrate the father as well as to reap the harvest.

In the medieval period the Saturnalia, in its new guise as the 12 days of Christmas, remained important, but the focus of communal celebration in continental Europe shifted to Mardi gras, ‘carnival’ in the strict sense of ‘farewell to flesh’, flesh in the dual form of sexual intercourse and eating meat. Medieval education was steeped in Aristotle, and Aristotelian ‘safety-valve’ theory provided an obvious means of theorizing carnival. Udall in the preface to Ralph Roister Doister speaks of how ‘mirth prolongeth life, and causeth health; mirth recreates our spirits and voideth pensiveness.’7 The explanation turns on the Aristotelian and Hippocratic theory of the four humours. Celebration evacuates melancholy and thus restores the body to equilibrium. Similar thinking underlies the famous Parisian apologia of 1444:

We do these things in jest and not in earnest, as the ancient custom is, so that once a year the foolishness innate in us can come out and evaporate. Don't wine skins and barrels burst very often if the air-hole is not opened from time to time?8

The humoral conception is here linked to a Christian conception, for the jest/earnest dichotomy relates to the Manichaean division of Devil and God within the human individual. If the Devil is innate, then by definition it cannot be overcome and must be rendered harmless in other ways.

For scholars of the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, carnivalesque phenomena were either distasteful, or symbols of an idealized past. Whereupon, enter Bakhtin, with the impetus of Marxism behind him. In his study of Rabelais, Bakhtin identified ‘carnival’ as the basis of an autonomous and historically progressive popular culture. The ‘carnivalesque’ is for Bakhtin a genre synonymous with ‘grotesque realism’, but becomes also a sociological category. In the ancient world Bakhtin seems to have envisaged a homogeneous community with no distinctive ‘popular’ culture. The satyr play is cited as an example of how each genre has ‘its own parodying and travestying double, its own comic-ironic contre-partie’.9 In the ancient world, Bakhtin declares, ‘there could be no sharp distinction between official and folk culture, as later appeared in the Middle Ages.’10 In the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries feudalism had yet to take root, and the homogeneous classical tradition was still strong,11 and Bakhtin's folk culture seems to have appeared somewhere in the early Middle Ages. Rabelais is interpreted as a historically progressive figure, whose use of a residual popular culture supported monarchy against feudalism.12 Bakhtin sees this historically-specific popular culture as the means whereby people overcame their fears and freely expressed their views about authority. Bakhtin's theory of carnival is not a ‘safety-valve’ theory, and he extrapolates from the 1444 text cited above the alternative principle that human beings have two separate natures.13 Bakhtin's theory is, in the tradition of Plato and Macrobius, a utopian theory, positing a primal wholeness to which fallen humanity, ruined in this case by the devil of class, is temporarily restored.

Bakhtin's most influential contribution to subsequent discussion of carnival is his semiotics of the body. The carnivalesque body with its orifices, protuberances and excretions is related to the flux of the self-renewing cosmos, whilst the hermetic classical body is individualized and sterile.14 One of the difficulties in using this theory is Bakhtin's tendency to lump all festivals together, slipping from carnival in the narrow sense of carnevale or mardi gras to the wide sense of popular celebration. ‘Carnival’ in the narrow sense is specifically concerned with the body, which has to be mortified during Lent, and its most potent symbol is the fat man who bloats his body to the point of expiry. The symbol of the classical Dionysia was the erect phallus, appropriate to the spring season and the renewal of life. The ithyphallic satyr of the Dionysia was sexually rampant, but not bloated, and his grotesqueness was specifically goat-like. The Saturnalia focused on structures of authority, and the ugliness of an inversionary Christmas king was in the first instance a symbol of class, not eating. Midsummer giants were grotesque in a very specific way, being occasions for setting a fire high above the ground on the night of the solstice.15 Bakhtin's generalizing tendency encourages us to see popular culture and the carnival grotesque as a more uniform entity than it is.

The assumption that we can usefully separate out popular culture from official culture in the Middle Ages cannot pass unchallenged. Peter Burke, drawing his terminology from Redfield, allows a binary model of society, but argues that:

There were two cultural traditions in early modern Europe, but they did not correspond symmetrically to the two main social groups, the elite and the common people. The elite participated in the little tradition, but the common people did not participate in the great tradition.16

The educated elite had access to a language and tradition from which the many were excluded, but the many had no autonomous cultural tradition of their own. Ladurie's analysis of carnival practices in Romans in the Shakespearean period demonstrates that all the different social factions in the town had their independent carnival traditions which served to emblematize local solidarities. It was members of the elite who constituted the jocular ‘Abbey of Misrule’, erected the annual maypole, and policed marriage within the community.17 Bercé's wide-ranging analysis of French festival and rebellion in the period concludes that festival only thrives in a town where there is social solidarity. When solidarity breaks down, festive symbolism can be used temporarily to express dissidence, but the framework for such symbolism rapidly evaporates.18 Bercé emphasizes the discontinuities in festive traditions, which are for ever being renewed and reinvented, and he sees timeless ritual practice as a utopian myth.19 The work of Burke, Ladurie and Bercé obliges us to view with scepticism Bakhtin's overarching notion of an on-going autonomous popular culture.

The situation in England in the Shakespearean period is in many specific respects hard to accommodate with the Bakhtinian paradigm. In Marxist terms one cannot see festivals as historically ‘progressive’, for the land-owning aristocracy began to use rites associated with the land to lay claim to authentic Englishness in opposition to the urban and bourgeois Puritan movement.20 King James' Book of Sports (1618) is the most blatant example of such ideological manipulation of carnival, but Elizabeth engaged in the same strategy. At court Shakespeare's plays were performed according to the rhythm of the festive calendar, whilst in the city his plays were performed according to the sabbatarian rhythm of the Reformation. When we look at the plays in their performance context, the festive or carnivalesque dimension relates to the experience of the aristocratic audience much more closely than it does to the experience of the ‘popular’ audience.

‘Carnival’ is a troublesome term because in its narrow sense the English festival bears the penitential term ‘Shrovetide’. The festival was not the occasion for public processions as on the continent,21 and the ‘King of Christmas’ is the dominant celebratory figure, not the continental ‘Carnival’ who engages in mortal combat with Lent. Bakhtin's generalized view of carnival renders him blind to the highly specific way in which festivals organize and give meaning to the passage of time. He does not explore, for example, how the pattern of early modern festivals relates both to the narrative of Christ's life-cycle and to the major points of transition in the life-cycle of Everyman and Everywoman. Bakhtin's concern is with epochs, not with chronological minutiae, and he is content to identify a general festive merging of death with birth apparent in images of the harvest or the marriage bed. His concern as a critic is with genre rather than performance, and so for example the life/death nexus that he discerns in Aristophanes finds a ‘significant kinship’ in the Shakespearean clown.22 He is also preoccupied with the novel rather than drama, which, perhaps because of the dominance of naturalism at the time when he wrote, seemed to him a relatively monologic medium.23 The carnivalesque is experienced as a textual artefact belonging to a given historical moment rather than as a performance belonging to a specific calendrical moment.

Michael Bristol, a critic sympathetic to Bakhtin, offers a reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream along broadly Bakhtinian lines. He criticizes C. L. Barber's ‘saturnalian’ approach to Shakespearean comedy as a version of ‘safety-valve’ theory. For Barber, ‘release’ is followed by a ‘clarification’ that Bristol rightly interprets as a reaffirmation of the status quo.24 For Barber, the maying in which Theseus engages is the dominant festive motif, the single critical key that unlocks the whole. Bristol attempts to effect a dialogic reading, contrasting the official discourse of the aristocracy with the heteroglossia of the mechanicals, so that the latter provides a critique of the former and the text becomes an open one. In the mechanicals he sees an emphasis on the body, and a denial of individual subjectivity.25 Bristol's reading offers us a more radical and progressive Shakespeare than before, but seems in some ways to force the play to fit the theory. Bristol emphasizes the aristocratic/popular binary in a play that is more obviously trinary, with its three layers of commoners, aristocracy and fairies. The activities of the fairies provide a more obvious critique of marriage than the activities of the mechanicals. It seems to be the unspoken assumption of a materialist modern age that the fairy couple are the superegos of Theseus and Hippolyta, and thus no more than psychoanalytic projections. The binaries of youth/age and male/female remain subordinate in Bristol's reading to the overarching Bakhtinian paradigm of them-and-us, officialdom and the folk. Another critic who has attempted a Bakhtinian reading of Shakespeare is Manfred Pfister, who adopts a position much closer to Barber, finding that the multiple inversions of the early comedies are safely contained ‘within an over-ruling framework of a benign and flexible order’. Pfister dismisses these inversionary plot structures as ‘instances of saturnalian revelling rather than subversive carnivalesque revelling’.26 A Bakhtinian reading leads Bristol and Pfister to focus on an apparently straightforward question: Are the texts univocal or dialogic? Are they ordered classical structures or open-ended carnivalesque structures?

Posed in these terms, the question, I would suggest, is an unsatisfactory one because it implies that the text has immanent properties. The text under investigation has been extracted from its historical context of performance, and defined as a self-contained and complete entity. To bind the text between the covers of a book is already to impose an over-ruling framework, and to define its level of discourse. The alternative, however, is not easy, for in addition to the literal heteroglossia provided by the multiple voices of the actors, and the more subtle heteroglossia provided by the different linguistic registers in the dialogue, we also have the language of gesture which may speak against the words. The twentieth-century director will often seek to create dialogism by playing against the text, and we may wonder whether Elizabethan performers did not also have critical attitudes to the texts they were given. More important still we have the voice of the audience. Through laughing, clapping, hissing and by their visible socially structured presence, the Elizabethan audience were necessarily an integral part of the performance event, interacting with the players far more than a modern audience would do.

The starting point for my own analysis will be the proposition that although we encounter A Midsummer Night's Dream as a text, it was historically part of an aristocratic carnival. It was written for a wedding, and part of the festive structure of the wedding night. The audience who saw the play in the public theatre in the months that followed became vicarious participants in an aristocratic festival from which they were physically excluded. My purpose will be to demonstrate how closely the play is integrated with a historically specific upper-class celebration.

I have argued at length elsewhere27 that the play was written for the marriage of Elizabeth Carey, daughter of George Carey, who became patron of Shakespeare's company of actors and later commissioned The Merry Wives of Windsor. The argument, in brief, is that aristocratic weddings customarily took place on significant calendrical dates. The Careys eschewed Saint Valentine's Day in favour of 19 February 1596, because that day saw the planetary conjunction of the new moon and Venus, the most favourable conditions an astrologer could imagine, and both parties to the wedding took astrology very seriously. The parents of the bride and groom must have consulted an almanac, just as Bottom tells Quince to do. The moon changed (whilst remaining occluded) on 18 February and thus the fictitious setting of the action announced in the first lines of the play when ‘four happy days bring in another moon’ became Saint Valentine's Day, 1596. Lest the audience miss the point, Hippolyta repeats that

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night:
Four nights will quickly dream away the time:
And then [on the fifth night] the Moon, like to a silver bow,
Now bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.


The central action of the play inhabits a liminal, dream-like space characterized by the inversion of real conditions, being set out-of-doors, in the country, in summer and under a full moon.

Saint Valentine's Day is only mentioned once, at the moment when the lovers return from the liminal world of their dream to the courtly world of Theseus. Within the closed system of the text, Theseus' jest on May Day seems inconsequential: ‘Saint Valentine is past: Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?’ (4.1.138-9). The importance of Saint Valentine's Day rites in structuring the narrative of the play has long been overlooked, because critics viewing the play as a purely textual entity have been fixated by the overt verbal references to May. Let us spend a while investigating those forgotten rites.

If we step back to the world of John Paston, we can see how the Saint Valentine tradition shaped medieval courtship. Financial negotiations were under way, the girl was getting impatient, and the romantic interview had yet to take place when John Paston's prospective mother-in-law wrote inviting him to visit on Saint Valentine's eve:

Cousin, upon Friday is Saint Valentine's Day, and every bird chooseth him a mate. And if it like you to come on Thursday at night, and so purvey you that ye may abide there till Monday, ye shall so speak to my husband.

Soon afterwards, the prospective bride wrote a love-letter to Paston, her ‘right well-beloved Valentine’, lamenting that her father would not increase her portion. Her next letter, written in mounting distress, urged her ‘good, true and loving Valentine’ not to pursue the matter of marriage if he could not accept her father's terms. She signed herself ‘your Valentine’.29 We discern from these letters the important part which Saint Valentine rituals played in shaping the emotional aspect of relationships within a system of arranged marriages.

Like Paston's mother-in-law, Theseus alludes to the proverbial notion that birds choose their mates on this day when he asks: ‘Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?’ The major medieval poets—Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate—all made play with this tradition, and it continued to flourish in Surrey and Herrick.30 The tradition is strictly literary, for birds do not pair off at this time of year in the English climate.31 The poet normally seeks to develop a contrast between the natural behaviour of birds and unnatural behaviour amongst human beings. George Wither, in his epithalamium written for the marriage of James I's daughter on Saint Valentine's Day, reverses the motif, and suggests that the blackbird and thrush have learned from the human couple.32 Lydgate lists numerous wood-birds, while Chaucer and Gower both use the image of a ‘parliament’ of birds. John Donne, in his epithalamium for James' daughter, produces a similar listing of birds, both common birds like the robin and blackbird, and aristocrats like the goldfinch and kingfisher; at the head of this unparliamentary hierarchy, the marrying couple are likened to phoenixes.33

The tradition of a parliament of courting birds establishes a generic context for Bottom's musical catalogue of wood-birds: the ousel cock, the thrush, the wren, the finch, the sparrow, the lark and the cuckoo (3.1.120ff.). Bottom's song evokes the different musical qualities of the different birds. The birds in the first stanza are explicitly masculine, and implicitly phallic:

The ousel cock, so black of hue,
With orange-tawny bill,
The throstle, with his note so true,
The wren with little quill—

While Donne's poem ends gloriously with the phoenix, Bottom ends with bathos. No man can deny that he is a cuckoo/cuckold:

The finch, the sparrow, and the lark,
The plain-song cuckoo grey,
Whose note fully many a man doth mark,
And dares not answer nay.

Bottom's mating-song, which identifies the singer as the sexually inadequate cuckoo, culminates in the emergence of Titania the dominant female from her flowery bed, enraptured by what she hears. Perhaps the bed resembled a nest as in Brook's production, we do not know. Certainly, Bottom's bird-song contrasts grotesquely with the lullaby which laid Titania to rest in her bed, where the sounds are supposedly uttered by Philomel the nightingale (2.2.13). The bird motif ties the love of Bottom and Titania to the important Saint Valentine tradition, which likes to contrast the natural coupling found in the greenwood with the constraints which society imposes on human beings.

Two other aspects of Saint Valentine's day relate closely to the plot structure of A Midsummer Night's Dream. First is the tradition of drawing lots on the night before Saint Valentine's day. This custom derives from the Roman Lupercalia on February 15th, when men drew lots with the names of women. One medieval poet describes how

Of custom year by year
Men have an usaunce in this region
To look and search Cupid's calendar
And choose their choice by great affection—
Such as been moved with Cupid's motion
Taking their choice as their sort doth fall …(34)

‘Sort’ is of course the French word for ‘lot’. The drawing of lots on Saint Valentine's eve is documented at Jesus College, Cambridge in 1608: a man was expected to give a pair of gloves to the girl whose name he drew.35 The custom is described in some detail by the Frenchman, Henri Misson, at the end of the seventeenth century:

An equal number of maids and bachelors get together, each writes their true or some feigned name upon separate billets, which they roll up, and draw by way of lots, the maids taking the men's billets, and the men the maids'; so that each of the young men lights upon a girl that he calls his Valentine, and each of the girls upon a young man which she calls hers. By this means each has two Valentines; but the man sticks faster to the Valentine that is fallen to him, than to the Valentine to whom he is fallen. Fortune having thus divided the company into so many couples, the Valentines give balls and treats to their mistresses, wear their billets several days upon their bosoms or sleeves, and this little sport often ends in love.36

From an anthropological perspective, the drawing of lots is functional in relation to village life. Couples are not formed on the basis of individual inclinations (though force of personality must play a part in determining whether the boy finishes up with the girl who chases him or the girl whom he chases), nor are pairings going to reflect economic and political power blocs, as they must do in any system where marriages are arranged according to parental choice. The Saint Valentine's lottery was profoundly egalitarian.

Ben Jonson's nostalgic Caroline reconstruction of Elizabethan life, A Tale of a Tub, was written soon after the reissue of James I's Book of Sports,37 and the play has a Saint Valentine's Day setting. The main plot centres on the attempt by the constable to marry his daughter, Audrey Turf, to a bridegroom called Clay. Squire Tub (i.e. a tub of fertilizer) is a rival, as is young Justice Bramble. The constable has chosen Clay because

                                                                                                    Mistress Audrey Turf
Last night did draw him for her Valentine:
Which chance it hath so taken her father and mother,
Because themselves drew so on Valentine's Eve
Was thirty year, as they will have her married
Today by any means.


Another character reminisces in similar vein that ‘Sin’ Valentine

                    had a place, in last King Harry's time,
Of sorting all the young couples, joining 'em,
And putting 'em together; which is yet
P'rformed as on his day …


Jonson goes on to give his plot the structure of a Saint Valentine's lottery. The audience have no idea whom the heroine will marry, and it is pure chance that leads her at the last into the arms of a stranger, ‘Pol Marten’. Apparently a bird (and thus an appropriate hero for Saint Valentine's Day), it transpires that the groom is really ‘Martin Polecat’, and knows how to burrow into the ‘turf’.

The game played on Saint Valentine's day whereby boy A chases girl B who chases boy C who chases girl D is startlingly analogous to the plot structure of A Midsummer Night's Dream. A random principle seems to govern the pairing of the young couples, and Shakespeare provides no clues to character which might suggest that the choices made by Hermia and Helena are anything other than arbitrary. Despite all odds, the two women pursue the men whom fate seems to have allotted them. Puck views the proceedings as a ‘fond pageant’ and a ‘sport’, and functions as a master of ceremonies by manipulating his magic potion (3.2.114, 119). Initially, Helena r Demetrius r Hermia r Lysander. The circle is complete when, thanks to the potion, Lysander r Helena. Oberon begins to move the game to a conclusion when Demetrius r Helena, and the final resolution is achieved when Lysander's eyes are re-anointed.

The second custom which characterizes Saint Valentine's Day is the custom whereby one's ‘Valentine’ is the first person whom one sees when one wakes in the morning. For a full picture of this ritual, we can turn to Pepys' entries for 14 February. In 1666, the early morning ritual is associated with the lot-drawing of the night before. Pepys records that he was

called up by Mr Hill, who my wife thought had come to be her Valentine, she it seems having drawn him last night, but it proved not; however, calling him up to our bedside, my wife challenged him.

Mrs Pepys subsequently went off with her Valentine to an all-night party. The next day a lady who had drawn Pepys' name in a lottery appeared ‘with my name in her bosom, which will cost me money’. Young people frequently present themselves at the Pepys' bedside, motivated by the fact that the wealthy older person will have to provide a present of money or gloves. There is a colourful entry for 1665, when Pepys was visited by the young wife of a ship's carpenter. Three weeks previously, his wife being incapacitated with period pains, Pepys had dined and had his pleasure with this lady, who wanted him to find work for her husband, and he subsequently swore an oath to let women go, in order to concentrate on business. He now complains on 14 February that this woman

had the confidence to say she came in time enough to be my Valentine, and so indeed she did—but my oath preserved me from losing any time with her.

There was always the risk that one might clap eyes upon a wholly inappropriate Valentine. When he went visiting in 1661, Pepys had to ask whether the servant about to open the door was male or female, and the servant, a negro male, teased him by answering ‘a woman’. The next year, his wife had to cover her eyes with her hands all morning in order not to see the painters who were gilding the plasterwork.38

These early morning visitations, resurrected at the Restoration, were common practice in the Elizabethan period. In Hamlet, Ophelia's ballad describes the tragic plight of a girl who goes out early in the morning to seek her Valentine:

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,
And dupped the chamber door—
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.


Nashe, in a rather different vein, also drains Saint Valentine's day of all idealism. His poem ‘The Choice of Valentines’ describes how young men rise before day-break in order to seek Valentines whom they will accompany dancing, eating cream and cakes, or watching a play. The girl whom the poet is seeking turns out to be a prostitute, who has been driven from her home and now works in a brothel.39

The sub-plot of Tale of a Tub centres on the middle-aged mother of Squire Tub, who decides to set off across the frosty fields to find a Valentine for herself. She wants her son for company, but he is said to be asleep, so she takes her serving-woman, Wispe. Since both are women, this causes complications. When they knock at the constable's house, the servant Hannibal Puppy comes to the door, and both women claim him:

Come hither, I must kiss thee, Valentine Puppy.
Wispe, ha' you got you a Valentine?
None, Madam.
He's the first stranger that I saw.
To me
He is so, and such. Let's share him equally.


Puppy calls for help as the two women set upon him in order to claim him with a kiss. The women resolve that they will divide him in half: the right-hand side will belong to one, the left-hand side to the other. Lady Tub passes money to her servant in order that both can complete the ritual by giving a gift to the Valentine whom both have claimed. At the end of the play, courtship leads to marriage, and Wispe and Puppy marry.

Lots were drawn on the eve of Saint Valentine's Day, and the game was thus a nocturnal one. We saw in Pepys that if one drew a name in the lottery, one might well choose to accost that person the next morning—or attempt to do so. Oberon's love juice, derived from Cupid's arrow, ‘Will make or man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature that it sees’ (2.1.171-2), in a way that is precisely analogous to the rules which ritual prescribed for the morning of Saint Valentine's Day. When Theseus greets the lovers with the words: ‘Good-morrow friends. Saint Valentine is past: Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?’ the stage direction which immediately precedes his words in the Quarto text reads: ‘Shout within: they all start up. Wind horns.’40 To the sound of horns, the ritual of 14 February is accomplished. The lovers transmit the kisses which secure their Valentines and bring the game to an end. Hermia confirms her choice via a socially prescribed ritual designed precisely to override parental efforts at match-making.

The custom that one could claim as one's Valentine the first stranger of the opposite sex whom one saw could result in embarrassment for the gentry. We have seen Mrs Pepys' fear of being accosted by a workman, and Samuel Pepys' anxiety on account of a negro, and in a fictional context we have seen how a young male servant benefited from the largesse of Lady Tub. Titania's awakening to the sight of an ass represents an extreme version of a common occurrence, a temporary liaison between people of divergent status. When Titania plies Bottom with gifts and goes about the wood ‘Seeking sweet favours for this hateful fool’ (4.1.48) she behaves precisely as a Valentine ought towards a social inferior. As permitted by the ritual, the liaison ends as abruptly as it begins.

The rituals of Saint Valentine's Day imply a considerable degree of sexual equality. While in ordinary life the male always initiated courtship, on Saint Valentine's Day women seem to have been free to approach men. A writer at the start of the eighteenth century commented that according to the rules of the lottery system ‘the obligations are equal, and therefore it was formerly the custom mutually to present [gifts], but now it is customary only for gentlemen.’41 Helena and Hermia are forced in the play to pursue their respective men, and Helena complains that Daphne now has to chase Apollo:

Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex.
We cannot fight for love, as men may do;
We should be woo'd, and were not made to woo.


The difference between the women's role in the greenwood, governed by festive laws, and the women's role at court, governed by social norms, becomes striking when the young women sit in respectful silence through ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’.

The rites of May, though more overt in the play, are no less pertinent to the narrative structure of A Midsummer Night's Dream than the rites of February. Although the journey into the greenwood before dawn is normally associated with May Day, we should remember that on Saint Valentine's Day likewise the young rose very early—though the weather did not encourage expeditions into the greenwood. It was not difficult for Shakespeare to draw the two festive contexts together. The literary tradition, whereby the poet on Saint Valentine's Day goes out into the greenwood into a surprisingly summery landscape to look at the pairing of the birds, helped to make the link an easy one. We find this linkage in one of Shakespeare's source texts, Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, where the poet goes out into the meadows on the morning of May Day and hears the birds singing of Saint Valentine's Day.

I shall not dwell on the rites of May because Barber, Young and others have sufficiently signalled their importance.42 The expedition into the greenwood, the gathering of dew and the importance of the hawthorn bush all complement the scene in which Theseus and Hippolyta enter wearing (as we must assume) the garlands of hawthorn which were the main visual emblem of the ceremony. Perhaps less obvious is the relationship between the play and a ‘midsummer night’, for there is no trace of the corporate processions and bonfires that marked the solstitial ceremony.

Shakespeare's title is in the first instance a homage to Spenser, whose ‘Epithalamion’ was published in 1595, and has been identified as a Shakespearean source.43 The poem celebrates Spenser's own wedding on the day of the summer solstice in 1594, and develops tight parallels between the internal structure of the poem, the hours of the day, the days of the year, and the bride's rite of passage.44 The transition of the year from its waxing to its waning correlates with the bride's transition from virgin to woman. It is relevant that maidens on midsummer night were supposed to dream of the man they were to love.45 Young women who had missed out on the annual cycle of renewal in one year positioned themselves for the next. Shakespeare creates an important image of midsummer night through the medium of stage iconography. While Hermia is short and dark—a ‘minimus’, an ‘Ethiope’—Helena is tall and fair like a ‘painted maypole’. As a pair, Hermia and Helena constitute an emblem of midsummer when the bright day is very long and the dark night is very short. The conflict between them reflects the battle of day and night, a battle which reaches its turning point at midsummer.

The three festivals of Saint Valentine's day, May Day and Midsummer are interwoven in the central, liminal portion of A Midsummer Night's Dream, framed by the scenes at court. They are not selected at random for they reflect symbolically three phases in the life cycle of a young person: mate selection, courtship and marriage. And this is the process through which the young aristocrats pass in the liminal, greenwood section of the play. Calendar festivals provided Shakespeare and his audience(s) with a symbolic vocabulary which allowed them to relate the phases of an individual life to laws of nature inscribed in the cosmos. The three festivals thrived in the relatively stable social structure of rural early modern England, and were cherished by an Elizabethan aristocracy that wanted to preserve social stability.

And so we return to the question of theorizing the carnivalesque. One of my favourite images of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a fresco at Buscot House in Oxfordshire, evidently of the 1930s. The image is part of a diptych, located under an arch that leads aristocratic bathers from their swimming pool to a view of the estate. One half of the diptych shows the local Faringdon Communist Party marching in the background, whilst in the foreground Lord Faringdon, the lord of the house, stands on a hay cart as if at the hustings, and is evidently warning his employees (who were doubtless fortunate to be employed during the depression) not to follow the red flag. On the other side Titania in her bower embraces the ass. The bower is constituted by a white valance at head height supported by four spears and embroidered with Tudor roses. The fairies who look on are evidently young women of the family. Oberon's green costume and position link him as a nature spirit to the estate that lies behind. The vista in the painting leads down a long avenue to an artificial lake, and precisely replicates the real landscape that belongs to Lord Faringdon and confronts him as he passes through the arch. The play is thus conceived as an idyll justifying in symbolic terms the appropriation of nature as property. Its political message is overt.

On what grounds can we claim that the artist of the 1930s subverted Shakespeare's play? Or was he rather in a position that allowed him to share the viewpoint of the aristocrats who commissioned? It may be that the fairies were played by choristers in a wedding performance, and that those roles were taken over by adults in the public playhouse,46 introducing a new element of the grotesque to the public performance. It is, however, not upon the fairies but upon the slim and melancholy ass that we must focus if we are to mount a serious challenge to Lord Faringdon's painting and salvage some elements of the Bakhtinian carnival grotesque for a wedding performance in 1596. The ass-head has always pushed productions of the play towards sentimentality, and Peter Brook substituted a simple black rubber nose in his production which sought to emphasize the rampant sexuality of Bottom, following Jan Kott's vision of the play. The time-honoured ass-mask has long helped to obscure in performance the symbolism of the bird song which is so important to the Saint Valentine motif. It seems to me far more likely that a fool's cap with ass ears was used to create Bottom's ‘transformed scalp’ (4.1.63). The ears could have been held up as a cuckold's horns when Bottom at the end of the song becomes the ‘cuckoo’. The figure of Bottom/clown/Kemp seems to refer back to this fool's attire when he recalls

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 wooing of the fool seems more appropriate to the recurrent festive motif than the wooing of the ass.47 It is in the figure of Bottom the clown, the lower-class male locked in the arms of a queen, that we must seek the elusive Bakhtinian grotesque, the dimension of ugliness not proffered to the elegant bathers at Buscot.

Bottom is part of a company of players. These players are a metaphor for Shakespeare's own company who, by performing A Midsummer Night's Dream at a wedding, intruded upon an elite gathering to which they would not normally have been admitted. Their ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ is, as has long been recognized, a parody of the company's recent Romeo and Juliet. To present the players of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ as grotesques may thus be construed, in the context of a wedding performance, as a sign of deference, a humorous apology for the fact that the entertainment on such an important night is provided not by illustrious aristocratic masquers but by common players.48 The case becomes rather more complex in the public playhouse, where the audience are simultaneously positioned (a) as fellow spectators with Theseus, laughing at the folly of the players, and (b) as fellow commoners alongside the players, granted through their visit to the playhouse vicarious access to an elite private gathering.

In the context of a wedding performance we may see Bottom's copulation with Titania as a kind of preparation for the real bedding ceremony. The ‘grotesque realism’ of Bottom would be a means of preparing the bride and groom for the intimidating and embarrassing rite of passage that social custom required of them. There is a clear correlation between Bottom's low social station and a low carnal aspect of human identity. Within the frame of an aristocratic wedding night, however, there is no cause to see the scene as a critique of marriage, or as a celebration that belongs in any way to the folk. There is nothing inherently subversive in the proposition that aristocrats have bodies just as estates have workers, and that these indispensable bodies/workers need to be controlled. In the context of a public performance the scene works rather differently, of course. The clown, representative of the commons, gains temporary access to the forbidden body of the aristocratic lady.

To summarize: I have located Bakhtin's theory of carnival within a classical tradition which locates festival as the return to a lost Utopia. While ‘safety-valve’ theories stress how individuals adapt to the status quo, ‘utopian’ theories show how carnival envisages a better way for society to be organized—and they thus offer a more dynamic and positive view of popular culture. Bakhtin's theory is a blunt critical instrument, however, because the concept of ‘carnival’ is effectively monologic, postulating a single model and obscuring the differences which allowed festivals to function as a complex semiotic system—as we see in the interplay of festivals in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Dionysia, Saturnalia, Mardi Gras and English summer festivals are molten by Bakhtin into a single entity. The assumption that this entity dubbed ‘carnival’ is the property of the folk as distinct from the elite seriously obscures the mechanisms by which power was validated and maintained in the early modern period. Bakhtin's logocentric methodology is not easily adapted to the phenomenon of performance. In the analysis of theatre, the time and place of the performance, the placing and status of the audience all have to be considered before we can effect a satisfactory analysis of festive or carnivalesque elements.


  1. By permission of the publisher, this essay reproduces some passages from chapter 6 of my Shakespeare's Almanac: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Marriage and the Elizabethan Calendar (Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993).

  2. Plato, Laws, 654: translation adapted from that of T. J. Saunders in The Laws (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 86. The untranslatable phrase epanorthontai tas ge trophas could be literally rendered ‘set straight again their upbringings’.

  3. Laws, 672, Penguin edn., pp. 113-14.

  4. Politics, viii.5-7, The Politics trans. T. A. Sinclair (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), pp. 307-14.

  5. Important discussions include Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London: Temple Smith, 1978), pp. 202-5; and Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York & London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 27-32.

  6. A. T. Macrobius, The Saturnalia, i.7-8, trans. P. V. Davies (New York & London: Columbia University Press, 1969), pp. 55-65.

  7. Dramatic Writings of Nicholas Udall, ed. J. S. Farmer (London: Early English Text Society, 1906), prologue.

  8. Cited in Burke, p. 202.

  9. ‘From the prehistory of novelistic discourse’ in The Dialogic Imagination, pp. 53-4. Contrast Tony Harrison's vision of the satyr play as popular culture in his play Trackers.

  10. Rabelais and His World, trans. by Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 121.

  11. Ibid., p. 76.

  12. Ibid., pp. 97, 452.

  13. Ibid., p. 75.

  14. Ibid., p. 312ff.

  15. For examples, see François Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World, trans. J. Lloyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 141, with note p. 242.

  16. Burke, p. 28.

  17. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Carnival in Romans: A People's Uprising at Romans 1579-1580, trans. M. Feeney (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), pp. 274-6.

  18. Yves-Marie Bercé, Fête et révolte (Paris: Hachette, 1976), p. 88.

  19. Ibid., pp. 9ff., p. 189.

  20. See especially Leah S. Marcus, The Politics of Mirth. Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell and the Defense of Old Holiday Customs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); Peter Stallybrass, ‘“We feaste in our Defense”: Patrician carnival in early modern England and Robert Herrick's “Hesperides”’, English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986), pp. 234-252; also Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World, p. 70.

  21. Laroque, pp. 96-7. Bristol makes the most he can of the festival in Carnival and Theater, pp. 72-87. I have examined the festival in London in ‘“That day are you free”: The Shoemaker's Holiday’, Cahiers Élisabéthains 38 (1990), pp. 49-60.

  22. ‘Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel’, in The Dialogic Imagination, pp. 216-19.

  23. See Marvin Carlson, ‘Theater and Dialogism’, in Critical Theory and Performance, ed. J. G. Reinelt and J. R. Roach (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), pp. 313-23.

  24. Bristol, pp. 30-2; C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959), p. 9.

  25. Ibid., pp. 172-8, following the discussion of Bakhtin on pp. 19-25.

  26. Manfred Pfister, ‘Comic Subversion: a Bakhtinian view of the comic in Shakespeare’, Deutsche Shakespeare Gesellschaft West Jahrbuch (1987), pp. 27-43: p. 39.

  27. Wiles, Shakespeare's Almanac, chapter 10.

  28. Whilst ‘Now bent’ is the Quarto and Folio reading, modern editors prefer ‘New bent’. All quotations are from Harold F. Brooks' Arden edition.

  29. The Paston Letters, ed. J. Gairdner (London: Chatto & Windus, 1904), v.266-9.

  30. See Chaucer, Parliament of Fowls, The Complaint of Mars, Complaint d'amours; Gower, Balades, xxxiiii, xxxv; Lydgate, ‘The Flower of Courtesy’ in Minor Poems Vol. II (London: Early English Text Society, 1934); Clanvowe, The Cuckoo and the Nightingale; Herrick, ‘To his Valentine, on S. Valentine's day’, in Poetical Works, ed. L. C. Martin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), p. 149; Surrey, Poems, ed. E. Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), no. 15.

  31. Note that 14 February in the Julian calendar is equivalent to 4 February on the modern calendar.

  32. Juvenilia (Manchester: Spenser Society, 1871), ii.474.

  33. Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, ed. J. Hayward (London: Nonesuch Press, 1946), pp. 103-6.

  34. First printed by Joseph Strutt in Horda Angel-Cynna (London, 1776), iii.179, and attributed to Lydgate. R. T. Hampson, in Medii Aevi Kalendarium (London, 1841), i.162, cites the manuscript reference as Harl. MSS Cod.v.2251 fo.268b. The origins of St Valentine's Day were explored by Francis Douce, in Illustrations of Shakespeare (London, 1807).

  35. William Boswell, cited in John Brand and W. C. Hazlitt, Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (London: J. R. Smith, 1870), i.32.

  36. Misson's Memoirs and Observations in his travels over England, trans. J. Ozell (London, 1719), pp. 330-1.

  37. For the ideological context, see Marcus, The Politics of Mirth, pp. 133-5.

  38. Pepys' Diary, ed. R. C. Latham and W. Matthews (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1970-83), vii.42-4, vi.35, 20, ii.36, iii.29, etc.

  39. Nashe, Works, ed. R. B. McKerrow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), iii.403.

  40. The stage direction in the Folio reads: ‘Horns and they wake. Shout within, they all start up.’ With the separation of music and ritual action, the festive context seems to have become lost. Perhaps Jacobean performers no longer associated the play with Saint Valentine's Day.

  41. British Apollo (1709), cited in Brand and Hazlitt, Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, i.33.

  42. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy; David P. Young, Something of Great Constancy (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966).

  43. See the Arden edition, ed. Harold F. Brooks (London: Methuen, 1979), pp. xxxv-xxxvi.

  44. See A. Kent Hieatt, Short Time's Endless Monument (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960); also Wiles, Shakespeare's Almanac, pp. 67-9.

  45. Young explores some of these links in Something of Great Constancy.

  46. William A. Ringler ‘The Number of Actors in Shakespeare's Early Plays’, in G. E. Bentley (ed.), The Seventeenth-Century Stage (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1968), pp. 110-34. For the suggestion that choir boys were used, see E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931), ii.86. T. J. King, in Casting Shakespeare's Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), opposes Ringler's view of the doubling.

  47. See Laroque's documentation of the morris dance, in Shakespeare's Festive World, pp. 121-36. On Kemp as Bottom, see David Wiles, Shakespeare's Clown (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 74-5 and passim.

  48. It is sometimes falsely asserted that plays were not performed at Elizabethan weddings, only masques. Players did perform at the marriage of the Earl of Northumberland in 1594 for a fee of ten pounds: Wiles, Shakespeare's Almanac, p. 44.

Marie A. Plasse (essay date February 1992)

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SOURCE: Plasse, Marie A. “The Human Body as Performance Medium in Shakespeare: Some Theoretical Suggestions from A Midsummer Night's Dream.College Literature 19, no. 1 (February 1992): 28-47.

[In the following essay, Plasse discusses the human body as a performance medium that conveys the various themes expressed in A Midsummer Night's Dream.]

It seemed to embody and realize conceptions which had hitherto assumed no distinct shape. But dearly do we pay all our life afterwards for this juvenile pleasure, this sense of distinctness. When the novelty is past, we find to our cost that, instead of realizing an idea, we have only materialized and brought down a fine vision to the standard of flesh and blood. We have to let go a dream, in quest of an unattainable substance.

Lamb (23-24)

Like much of the anti-theatrical criticism of Shakespearean productions in the nineteenth century, these remarks by Charles Lamb offer, under the guise of a complaint against the “straitlacing actuality” (Lamb 24) of the theater, an acute formulation of a crucial issue in Shakespearean dramaturgy. Although it was the performance of a tragedy which prompted Lamb's comments, the pertinence of his observations to the problems of theatrical representation in A Midsummer Night's Dream is striking. As it “embodies” and “realizes” such “conceptions” as the loving-hating lunacy of erotic desire, the tricks of the imagination, and the power of dreams and of art, A Midsummer Night's Dream shares Lamb's concern with the problem of representing “fine visions” in the theater, a medium which demands adherence to “the standard of flesh and blood.” The play's preoccupation with the mechanicals' hilariously homespun dramaturgy masks a more serious meditation upon the playwright's need to find theatrically effective ways to mediate between what Lamb's fellow-critic William Hazlitt would call “the regions of fancy” and the “boards of a theater” (Hazlitt 136). Through its depiction of the mechanicals' efforts to solve various problems of dramatic representation as they prepare their playlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream suggests that the most viable intermediary between these two regions is to be found at the level of “flesh and blood” constituted by the actors' bodies. But while A Midsummer Night's Dream acknowledges the importance of the actor's body in this essential mediation, the play does more than merely proclaim the privileged status of the actor's body in the theater. The mechanicals' playlet not only dramatizes the fact of the body's crucial role in theatrical representation, it also explores some of the consequences of putting such representational pressure on the actor's body. The theatrical efforts of Peter Quince and company can be read not only as a comic satire of inept, naive theater craft, but also as an allegory of the performing body in Shakespearean dramaturgy.1


Since the human body has been and continues to be an important object of study in areas of Renaissance and drama scholarship which intersect with my concerns here, before I pursue my analysis of A Midsummer Night's Dream, I want to place this essay in relation to some recent approaches to the body in these areas. Investigations of the body in Shakespeare's plays have originated from a wide range of disciplines, including literary criticism, the history of ideas, theater arts, drama theory, semiotics, and cultural studies. We have had readings of the body as theme, image, master metaphor, and theatrical semiosis, considerations of Elizabethan acting techniques, and, most recently, analyses of the body as culturally determined locus of various social discourses and practices in the early modern period.2 In view of the high level of ongoing interest in the topic, it is surprising that relatively little has been said about one of the most fascinating and potentially problematic aspects of the body in Shakespearean drama—namely that one of the chief materials in which the plays are constituted onstage is not only an artistic medium for the dramatist, but also a human being. In Shakespeare's plays, the medium is the man.

Various theater-oriented studies of the plays have, of course, acknowledged the highly charged corporeality of Shakespeare's art.3 But the large scope of such studies means that their treatments of the body are necessarily brief and their analyses of individual plays limited. More recent work by Michael Goldman, David Bevington, and Bert O. States has given more sustained attention to the performing body in Shakespeare and offered useful insights into the presence of the actor in relation to the text, the audience, and the expressive tools at his disposal, such as gestures, costumes, and props. Again, however, the broad conceptual bases of these important works preclude sustained focus on the fact of the body as Shakespearean performance medium as well as detailed readings of what a single play might suggest about that fact.

But this simple fact, which so clearly distinguishes the playwright's medium from the paints, pencils, clay, or marble employed in nondramatic, nonperformative arts, could not possibly go without expression and comment by one of the most self-reflexive dramatists working during a period of strikingly self-reflexive dramaturgy. As the metadramatic Shakespearean criticism of the 1960s and 70s has taught us, the plays consistently reveal things about their own art.4 They are not only “about various moral, social, political, and other thematic issues …” but also about “… dramatic art itself—its materials, its media of language and theater, its generic forms and conventions, its relationship to truth and the social order …” (Calderwood, Metadrama 5). We can reasonably expect, therefore, that Shakespeare's plays—especially one as full of direct references to dramatic art as the Dream—must have much to tell us about the performing body, a crucial but relatively unexplored component of Shakespeare's dramaturgy.

In a judicious review article published nearly ten years ago, Michael Shapiro argued that the particular value of the metadramatic approach is that it “addresses those facts of dramatic art which have too often been excluded from critical discourse, those facts arising from our awareness of the physical conditions of playing.” He called for more metadramatic analyses of Shakespeare in order to determine “which [metadramatic] concerns were paramount in which plays” and “more metadramatic readings of other Elizabethan plays in order to set Shakespearean drama in its historical context” (161). It is, in part, as an effort to address a fact of Shakespeare's dramatic art which has largely been “excluded from critical discourse” that I offer this reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream as a play which ponders the situation of the performing body. Before I proceed, however, one further clarification is necessary.

It will be apparent to anyone involved in Renaissance and Shakespeare studies that the elaboration of metadramatic analysis which Shapiro called for in 1981 was never fully carried out.5 Rather, the need, which Shapiro recognizes, to “set Shakespearean drama in its historical context” became a paramount scholarly concern in the 1980s and fostered the development of new historicist and materialist approaches that appear to have deflected, or at least slowed, the metadramatic project that was then under way.6 While the main concern of metadramatic critics such as Lionel Abel, Anne Righter, Sigurd Burckhardt, and James Calderwood was to investigate various aspects of self-reflexivity in Renaissance drama, new historicists such as Stephen Greenblatt (Renaissance Self-Fashioning), Jonathan Goldberg, Stephen Orgel, and Steven Mullaney focused on representations of power within Renaissance literature. More specifically, this work sought to illuminate the interaction between state power and literary genres such as the pastoral, the masque, and the drama, which represent, legitimate, and sometimes contest that power. At the same time, the work of cultural materialists, operating at the intersections of history, sociology, and English studies, examined Renaissance literary texts in relation to a broad range of early modern social discourses and institutions such as gender, sexuality, class, subversion, state authority, patronage, education, the church, and the theater. Cultural materialists also produced analyses of the appropriation of Shakespeare's texts and authority by succeeding historical periods. A partial list of scholarship in this extensive field includes, among many others, Jonathan Dollimore (Radical Tragedy), Alan Sinfield, and Lisa Jardine, as well as the essays collected by Dollimore and Sinfield and Graham Holderness.7

The swerve away from metadramatic criticism effected by these new approaches has been, as I take it, a positive development, for Renaissance and Shakespeare studies in general, as well as for metadramatic criticism in particular. In addition to reenergizing the way many of us teach and write about Shakespeare, new historicist and materialist scholarship has also opened the way for a metadramatic analysis enriched by the various theoretical and interpretive strategies which inform this new work. Of such strategies, Michel Foucault's analyses of the human body as a locus of power relations (in Discipline and Punish, especially) have been suggestive for my readings of the performing body as a site at which relations of power are played out between performers and spectators. In addition, new historicist and materialist scholarship on the various discourses of the body in early modern culture has helped me to clarify my own readings of the body within the more circumscribed context of Shakespeare's theatrical practice.8 My approach in this essay is chiefly metadramatic, however, and my concern here is to explore some of the specifically theatrical dynamics in which the Shakespearean performing body participates.


The mechanicals' deliberations in Act 3, Scene 1 about how to “bring in” the moonlight and the wall required by their play rudimentarily articulate the representational range of the body as Shakespearean performance medium. These “two hard things” (3.1.45) which remain to be planned as Quince and his company meet to rehearse seem to mark out the most distant extremes on the wide spectrum of things that a dramatist might wish to represent onstage, and to reflect the conceptual polarities implicit in Lamb's response to the staging of a Shakespearean tragedy. Put in theoretical terms, the problem of representing moonlight is the problem of representing the intangible in drama, of bringing to the stage that which may be charged with significance and influence, but which has no palpable form; such things are representable and perceivable, like moonlight itself, only with the aid of a mediator that is as substantial as the heavenly body of the moon. The theoretical problem that “bringing in a wall” invokes, on the other hand, is the problem of bringing to the theatrical world that which is nothing but palpable substance and which may be found everywhere outside the world of the theater.

The mechanicals overcome both of these problems fairly quickly. During the discussion about how to stage moonlight, for instance, both Snout and Bottom come forward as proponents of a mode of representation that is hardly representational at all: they suggest leaving a window open and letting real moonlight shine in on the stage. With a terse “Ay,” Quince acknowledges the possibility that their plan might work, but he quickly dismisses it and offers the following alternative: “… or else one must come in with a bush of thorns and a lantern, and say he comes to disfigure, or to present, the person of Moonshine” (3.1.55-57).9 Imitating Quince's directorial pronouncements about moonlight, Bottom, when confronted with the problem of “bringing in” a Wall, declares, “Some man or other must present Wall: and let him have some loam, or some roughcast about him, to signify Wall: and let him hold his fingers thus, and through that cranny shall Pyramus and Thisbe whisper” (3.1.63-67). These solutions to the problems of staging moonlight and a wall, as many readers have noted, signal the mechanicals' affinity for an excessively literal method of dramatic representation as well as their misunderstanding of the imaginative powers of their audience. But at the same time, the fact that the mechanicals solve their dramaturgical problems by deciding that the moonlight and the wall should be impersonated by actors rather than represented by inanimate property devices suggests a Shakespearean acknowledgment of the human body as a primary mediator between the world of the theater and the world outside the theater, between the substantial world of the stage and the insubstantial world of conceptions.

Bottom's solution for the staging of the wall not only places the actor's body in the middle of the representational gap between the everyday and the theatrical, it also begins to describe some of the problematic ramifications of that position. Bottom's conception of a man-in-the-wall is even more ludicrous than Quince's man-in-the-moon, partly because it does not emerge from an established body of legendary lore, as does Moonshine (see Emerson), and partly because it ignores the fact that this company of artisans could easily build a suitable property wall, with no need to include a man inside a coat of loam and roughcast to “signify Wall.” Shakespeare is undoubtedly interested in the comic possibilities of Bottom's idea, as Pyramus' and Thisbe's comic dialogues with Wall later on show. But this comical personification also calls attention to the theatrical circumstances under which the body signifies “Wall,” and anything else, on Shakespeare's stage.

Snout-as-Wall, an actor literally stuck in his role, part flesh and blood, part loam and roughcast, seemingly caught at a liminal stage of some fantastical metamorphosis from person to theatrical signifier, is a perfect emblem of the complex situation of the actor's body in Shakespeare's theater. Among the complexities inherent in this situation is the constant pressure exerted upon the actor's body to signify something other than itself alone. The narratives that Shakespeare stages, like most dramatic plots, constantly encourage the audience to think of the actor as something other than a human presence alone by encoding his body, through the words and actions of his character, as a sign of certain meanings connected to the larger thematic and generic concerns of the play. Snout's role as wall clearly illustrates this dual signifying function. The role involves Snout's body in the representation not only of “Snout in the role of Wall,” that is, of a sentient human subject conscious of his own physical and mental activities as a performer, but also in the symbolic representation of the family enmity that separates Pyramus and Thisbe in the tragic narrative which is the source of the mechanicals' play (“that vile wall which did these lovers sunder” [5.1.131]). This relatively stable duality in Snout's significatory role is complicated considerably by the specific theatrical circumstances within which he plays this role—that is, as a member of the inept dramatic troupe of his fellow mechanicals onstage before Theseus's court. These circumstances involve Snout's body in the mechanicals' unintentional transformation of the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe into a comic parody of the tragic original. Within this context, Snout signifies not only “Snout in the role of Wall” and the symbolic obstacle to young love, but also an actor who is, unwittingly, the target of the audience's derisive laughter and wisecracks. The audience laughs at Snout in his role as a result of what they read as a lack of theatrical sophistication in his personification of Wall and as a result of the physical awkwardness and embarrassment which this personification engenders when the inept actors of Pyramus's and Thisbe's parts apostrophize the wall that divides them and attempt to kiss through the “chink.” Snout's experience suggests that the potential for this sort of awkwardness and embarrassment is constitutive of the process of theatrical signification. This process not only highlights the basic duality that inheres in the actor's appearance onstage as both himself and his character, but also, and more problematically, it subjects the actor's body to whatever significatory pressure may be conjured up by the less predictable situation of his performance within specific theatrical circumstances.

A Midsummer Night's Dream dramatizes an anxious actorly response to the corporeal pressures of theatrical signifying in the mechanicals' painstaking efforts to diffuse what they believe will be the frightening theatrical presence of Snug-as-Lion by giving him an innocuous costume and a calming prologue. These efforts are most often, and rightly, interpreted as evidence of the mechanicals' misapprehension of their audience's ability to distinguish dramatic fiction from reality. But the prologue planned for Snug also telegraphs an actorly resistance to the constant allegorizing impulses of dramatic representation and to the corporeal self-occlusion which theatrical signifying requires. Declaring that “there is not a more fearful wild-fowl than your lion living,” Bottom insists that the Lion's prologue must “name his [Snug's] name” (3.1.35) and that “half his face must be seen through the lion's neck” (36). In addition, Snug “must speak through” the costume to the ladies in the audience, politely and humbly entreating them “not to fear, not to tremble” (40), for indeed, he is “no such thing” (42) as a lion, but “a man as other men are” (43).

The details of Snug's physical exposure and concealment in this costume give the effect, as does Wall's costume, of a human figure transformed and partially obscured by his theatrical role.10 At the same time, however, the prologue that Bottom has imagined for Snug works against the grotesque doubleness that Snug's role confers upon him, allowing the actor to assert his true identity (“Snug the joiner” [44]) and to proclaim his true human shape “through” the corporeal distortions of the role: “If you think I come hither as a lion, it were pity of my life. No, I am no such thing; I am a man, as other men are” (3.1.40-43). These words resemble those that Bottom himself plans to recite as Pyramus, in which he, too, will reveal his true identity from within his role and declare that the fatal blow he suffers in the play is only an illusion (3.1.15-20). The disclaimers that Bottom suggests are motivated at one level by the mechanicals' earnest desires to please their audience and by their fundamental misunderstanding of the imaginative capacities of that audience. But at another level, these interpolations imply a certain uneasiness on the part of the amateur actors about the corporeal transformations and distortions they must undertake in the course of playing their roles. Bottom's seemingly foolish desire to break theatrical decorum in these supplemental speeches seeks to counteract the deliberate misrepresentation of bodily identity and physical state which acting requires.

The excessive politeness Bottom imagines in Snug's address to the ladies (“… ‘Ladies,’ or ‘Fair ladies, I would wish you,’ or ‘I would request you,’ or ‘I would entreat you’ …” [3.1.38-40]), laced with actorly humility and culminating in the offer to render “my life for yours,” also brings into focus a second source of the mechanicals' corporeal anxiety. This uneasiness has more to do with the power the actors attribute to their audience than with the disfigurements that their roles demand. As Bottom offers to “play the lion, too,” and with vigorous roaring to boot, his cohorts repeatedly voice their fear of being hanged for frightening the ladies in their audience:

And you should do it too terribly, you would fright the Duchess and the ladies, that they would shriek: and that were enough to hang us all.
That would hang us, every mother's son.
I grant you, friends, if you should fright the ladies out of their wits, they would have no more discretion but to hang us.


That the mechanicals should mention three times in five lines the possibility of being hanged as a result of their performance suggests that their own corporeal vulnerability before an audience which has the power to express such a fatal sort of disapproval is just as much on their minds as the possibility that they might “fright the ladies.” The mechanicals' urgent desire to please their royal audience and their fear of punishment, moreover, reflect the marginal, suspect, and legally precarious position occupied by Elizabethan actors.11 Thus, while the repeated references to hanging undoubtedly partake of the hysteria and hyperbole that are characteristic of the mechanicals throughout the play, they also register an undercurrent of ambivalence about the theatrical situation which pervades all of the scenes in which Quince and company appear.12

Several moments during the mechanicals' rehearsals elaborate this ambivalence, registering the contrasting feelings of empowerment and vulnerability which Quince's assignment of roles catalyzes among his players. Bottom's brief remarks in response to being cast as Pyramus, for example, suggest a theatrical economy based on a sustained tension between bodily aggression and vulnerability. When Bottom learns that he is to play Pyramus, a lover “that kills himself most gallant for love,” he declares: “That will ask some tears in the true performing of it. If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes: I will condole in some measure” (1.2.21-23). Here Bottom's sense of his histrionic powers and their effects on the audience is strictly corporeal.13 He thinks that the key to a successful rendition of Pyramus' tragic suicide depends upon the tears he will produce in “the true performing” of the role. These tears will, in turn, “move storms” of tears in the audience. Moreover, Bottom understands the actorly prowess to which both his tears and the tears of the audience attest exclusively in terms of a vague corporeal threat to the audience. When he boasts about the impressive rendition of Pyramus he will give, he feels compelled to warn, “let the audience look to their eyes,” implying that the power of his performance will surely overwhelm the audience's eyes with tears of grief for Pyramus.

True to his large actor's ego, Bottom's formulation of the theatrical economy I have described locates the aggression in the actor and the vulnerability in the audience. Francis Flute's reaction to Quince's assignment of his part, however, reverses these terms and posits a theatrical situation in which the potential for aggression is attributed to the spectators, while the greatest sense of corporeal and psychological vulnerability rests with the actor:

Flute, you must take Thisbe on you.
What is Thisbe? A wandering knight?
It is the lady that Pyramus must love.
Nay, faith, let me not play a woman: I have a beard coming.
That's all one: you shall play it in a mask; and you may speak as small as you will.


Flute hopes that Thisbe is a “wandering knight,” a character which would allow him to pretend to possess much more power and virility than he enjoys in his life as Francis Flute, smooth-faced bellows mender. But when he learns that Thisbe is “the lady that Pyramus must love,” Flute begs off, complaining that he can't play a woman because he has “a beard coming.” Quince thinks that Flute is worried that his beard will mar the female figure he is to play, so he assures Flute that he may use a mask to hide his bearded face from the audience. Flute's concern is not verisimilitude, however, but rather the ridicule to which he may be subjected when he appears before the audience in the role of Pyramus' female lover. Playing the woman's part apparently threatens Flute's masculinity.14 He invokes his supposedly incipient beard as if to fend off an onslaught of jibes accusing him of effeminacy, taunts which his smooth face might invite even when he is not playing a woman.

Flute's anxiety about his role is clearly evident at the moment in performance when the part requires him to kiss Pyramus-as-Bottom through the chink in the wall. After Bottom-as-Pyramus speaks the cue for the kiss, “O kiss me through the hole of this vile wall” (5.1.198), Flute-as-Thisbe responds with a telling, and seemingly ad-libbed, disclaimer: “I kiss the wall's hole and not your lips at all” (199). Thisbe's response to her lover's request for a kiss seems to emanate directly from Flute's uneasiness with the gesture he must perform rather than from the character. The line sounds like a direct appeal to the audience, not a reply to Pyramus, to whom this description of the logistics of the obstructed kiss would be old news. Apparently squeamish about how others will perceive him in his role as Pyramus' lover, Flute feels compelled to assure the audience that he is not a woman and that he is not kissing Bottom. But this attempt to distance himself from the suggestion that he is Bottom/Pyramus' chaste female lover by explaining that he is kissing the “wall's hole” and not Pyramus' lips only leads to a second joke at the hapless Flute's expense. Given the presence of a human actor as the personification of Wall in the scene, Flute's disclaimer puts him in yet another uncomfortable position, suggesting that instead of kissing Bottom, he is kissing the bottom of the actor playing Wall.15 Ironically, what is perhaps Flute's most embarrassing moment onstage derives not from the female part he was so afraid to play, but from his need to assert, indirectly, through his disclaimer about the kiss, the true gender identity of his body. But Flute can't win. His words in the scene position him as the female lover of Bottom and the male lover of Wall, roles which make his physical presence onstage at this moment inevitably the object of ridicule from the audience.16

As Flute's experience onstage indicates, the mechanicals' performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in Act 5 dramatizes far more explicitly than the earlier rehearsal scenes the anxieties and tensions that reverberate among these actors, their roles, and the audience before whom they play. Quince's preposterously mispunctuated prologue, for example, betrays the actor's apprehensiveness before his audience as well as the potentially “offensive” effects his performance might have upon the spectators. But while Quince's “tangled chain” of verse signals his stagefright, the subversion of language by his tortured syntax also suggests a subverted notion of the humble position actors traditionally occupy in relation to their audience:

If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think, we come not to offend,
But with good will. To show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then, we come but in despite.
We do not come, as minding to content you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight,
We are not here.


These lines sabotage the obsequious, submissive stance traditionally assumed by theatrical prologues and epilogues, taking the player's conventional promise to “content” and “delight” the audience and standing it on its head. Such phrases as “If we offend, it is with our good will” and “All for your delight, / We are not here” admit into Quince's solicitation of the patience and good will of his audience a suggestion of willfulness and aggression on the part of a group of players who are subject (in more ways than one) to the power of their courtly audience. The different experiences of Quince-Prologue, Flute-Thisbe, and Bottom-Pyramus during the performance not only mark these characters as individualized personalities in their own right, they also point to the volatility of the theatrical experience and to the instability of the paradoxical impulses towards goodwill and hostility which performers and spectators alike display within its context.


The theatrical context of the mechanicals' plot, however, is not the only level at which A Midsummer Night's Dream addresses the body's role as a representational medium. As the mechanicals' plot unfolds and becomes entangled with the plots of the young lovers and the fairies, the play's focus on the body as representational medium broadens to encompass the pressures exerted on the body in the highly charged arena of erotic desire, which, like theater, constantly involves the body in various acts of signification and mediation. During the course of this enlargement of its focus on the body, the play suffuses the corporeal interactions of the lovers' erotic chase with some of the theatrical dynamics explored in the mechanicals' plot, thereby suggesting an affinity between the theatricalized bodies of the mechanicals and the erotically charged bodies of the lovers. Bottom is central to the suggestion of this affinity in the play. His experience in the woods not only encapsulates the Dream's portrayal of the situation of the body in theatrical performance, but also begins to forge a link between the theatrical experiences of the mechanicals and the erotic experiences of the lovers in the play.

As Titania's ass-eared, hairy-faced lover, Bottom finally lands the multi-character role he has coveted all along (“Let me play Thisbe … Let me play the lion too”). Bottom's huge histrionic appetite is fed by the profusion of roles into which his privileged position in Titania's world casts him. As a temporary stand-in for Oberon, the true king of fairyland, Bottom gets to play the monarch, attended by Cobweb, Moth, Peaseblossom, and Mustardseed, who hail him as their lord (3.1.168-71). He also gets to play a lover, an ass, and the good-natured fool he has always been as Nick Bottom.17 Bottom's transformation into an ass at the hands of Puck is the comic apotheosis of his overbearing desire to play all the parts in “Pyramus and Thisbe.” Moreover, like Snout-as-Wall, Bottom-as-Ass epitomizes the bodily transformation (or “hybridization,” to use Stallybrass's term) which so appalled 16th-century anti-theatricalists but which the Dream presents as constitutive of theatrical roleplaying.

But Bottom's benign sojourn in fairyland is more than just a fantastical vision of the theatrical situation of the actor's body articulated elsewhere in the Dream. Bottom's idyllic interlude with Titania, like the more frightening experiences of the four lovers in the woods, reconfigures in erotic terms the corporeal dynamics of theatrical roleplaying and spectatorship suggested in the mechanicals' rehearsals. When, for example, Titania awakens to the sound of Bottom's singing, she describes its effects on her in words which would serve equally well to characterize a spectator's enthrallment by the performance of an actor and a lover's enthrallment by the beloved:

I pray thee gentle mortal, sing again:
Mine ear is much enamoured of thy note;
So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape;
And thy fair virtue's face perforce doth move me
On first view to say, to swear, I love thee.


Bottom is literally performing when Titania awakens, though not exactly for her: he is singing and walking “up and down” (3.1.117) on the “green plot” of woodland that Peter Quince has designated as his company's “stage” (3.1.3) in order to show his compatriots, who have fled at the sight of his transformation, that he is “not afraid” (3.1.118). Titania's words upon awakening obliquely attribute her instant erotic enthrallment with Bottom to elements of his specifically theatrical self-presentation and to her own position as a spectator susceptible (thanks to Oberon's love juice) “on first view” to this presentation. The enthrallment of Titania's “eye” to Bottom's “shape” here is the erotic counterpart to the theatrical power that Bottom imagines he possesses as he boasts in Act 1, Scene 2 that his performance of the role of Pyramus will be so moving that the audience will have to “look to their eyes,” which will betray their theatrical enthrallment to him through tears.

This specular and essentially theatrical dynamic of erotic enthrallment characterizes the lovers' interactions throughout their confusing night in the woods as Lysander and Demetrius enact the potent effects of Oberon's love juice by falling in love “on first view” with the first person they see immediately after their eyes receive the juice. Even before the love juice is involved, however, this theatrical model of erotic desire characterizes the lovers' conflicts. Helena, for example, miserably jealous of Hermia's attractiveness to Demetrius, conceives of Hermia's erotic effect on Demetrius as an essentially theatrical visual and aural operation, similar to Bottom's effect on Titania. Helena describes this effect in theatrical terms that position Demetrius as a spectator to the “art” with which Hermia supposedly seduces him, in much the same way that Bottom seduces Titania with his melodious “note[s]” (3.1.133) and “shape” (134). Given their amorous power over Demetrius, Helena longs to achieve a perfect replication in her own person of Hermia's attractive “eye” and “voice”:

Sickness is catching; O were favour so,
Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go:
My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye,
My tongue should catch your tongue's sweet melody.
Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I'd give to be to you translated.
O, teach me how you look, and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius' heart.


The metaphors of sickness and self-eradication in Helena's speech are typical of the self-deprecating imagery with which she responds throughout the first two acts to her situation as Demetrius' spurned lover. But Helena's desire to learn the “art” by which Hermia is able to “sway the motion of Demetrius' heart” also figures her unrequited desire for Demetrius as a theatrical fantasy in which Helena, seeking to win the heart of Demetrius, her audience of one, imagines Hermia as a kind of acting coach who could teach her to use her body and voice successfully to such a purpose. Helena's eagerness to exchange her own body for Hermia's positions her, within the play's metadramatic economy, as the temperamental opposite of Francis Flute, who so strongly resists taking on the role of Thisby, “the lady that Pyramus must love.” Whereas Flute bolsters his resistance to the role by protesting that one of his own physical characteristics—his (imminent) beard—makes him wrong for the role, Helena eagerly dedicates her “ear,” “eye,” and “tongue” to the role she desperately wishes to play. Thus, Flute and Helena mark out opposite extremes along the continuum of possible actorly responses to the bodily transformations required by roleplaying.

In addition to heightening our sense of the corporeal pressures of the lovers' erotic chase and extending the metadramatic vision suggested in the mechanicals' plot, the emphasis on the body in the lovers' plot has another important effect: it intensifies the play's preoccupation with the performing body by continually underscoring the corporeality of the four actors who play the lovers through both literal and figurative references to the body. During Acts 2 and 3, the four lovers and the other characters involved with them repeatedly describe, deride, threaten, and desire the bodies of others: they chase and flee one another (2.1.227ff.); they cling to, push, embrace, and menace one another (3.2.249ff.); their eyes become the conduits for love potions (2.2.26, 77; 3.2.102); each of the men threatens to slay his rival in a swordfight that is magically thwarted by Puck (3.2.401ff.); Hermia threatens to scratch Helena's eyes out, failing in her efforts only because Demetrius and Lysander physically restrain the women as they begin to fight (3.2.298ff.). As they portray the fictional characters who respond to, refer to, and act upon one another's bodies in these ways, the performers who play the lovers enact the constant reminders, which Shakespeare has written into their roles, of the fact of their palpable, corporeal presence onstage.

Like the mortal characters I have been discussing, the fairies also illustrate the Dream's preoccupation with the corporeal medium of theatrical representation. The bodies of these creatures are described as both invisible to human eyes and small enough to hide in acorn-cups. Nevertheless, they are represented onstage by visible, normal-sized human performers. As such they constitute crucial sites at which the literal and the figurative converge effectively in the corporeal presence of the actors. As critics have often noted, while Peter Quince's amateur theatrical company represents dramatists who struggle unsuccessfully with problems of dramatic representation, the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream exemplify Shakespeare's more effective solutions to similar dramaturgical questions. More specifically, the Dream demonstrates Shakespeare's interest in exploiting the versatility of his corporeal medium through the wide range of things which the palpable, human bodies of the fairies are made to represent in the play. A brief survey of fairy associations clearly sketches out this range. In addition to representing fairies qua fairies, the actors who portray the nonhuman inhabitants of the Athenian woods also personify nonhuman and sometimes inanimate elements in nature (Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, Moth, Cobweb); they represent abstract qualities such as misprision and folly (Puck as mistaking deliverer of the love-juice); they embody the spirit of mischief and mischance (Puck as the meddlesome Robin Goodfellow) as well as the spirits of peace, prosperity, and fertility that the play's comic ending invokes for the lovers (the full fairy band's song and blessing of Theseus's household in Act 5); finally, they represent the power of metamorphosis itself (Puck as “filly foal,” “roasted crab,” and “three-foot stool” [2.1.46, 48, 52], Oberon as “Corin” [2.1.66]) as well as the essence of speed (Puck's ability to “put a girdle round about the earth / In forty minutes” [2.1.175-76]).

As C. L. Barber has argued, the success of the fairies on Shakespeare's stage is ensured by the construction of a playful double-vision which continually encourages us simultaneously to accept the illusion of the fairies as “real” and to recognize them as the artificial products of the dramatist's imagination and technique (140). Unlike the apparently ponderous fairies of 19th-century illusionist stagecraft which so annoyed William Hazlitt (“Fairies are not incredible, but fairies six feet high are so”), the fairy creatures which Shakespeare's words conjure up constantly call into question their own “reality” by insisting on their artificiality and winking at their own plausibility: they do not ask for our unconditional acceptance of their reality. I would add that it is precisely the disjunction between the abstract or nonhuman qualities attributed to the human actors who play the fairies, on the one hand, and their palpable, human-sized presence, on the other, that contributes to this playful questioning of the illusion. One of the most striking examples of this kind of self-conscious questioning is Oberon's playfully self-deprecating announcement in Act Two, Scene One, as he notices the entrance of Demetrius and Helena: “But who comes here? I am invisible” (2.1.186). At the same time that this line reminds us that within the play's fictional world, Oberon is not visible to the two mortals, it deliberately points to the fact that “Oberon” is also a visible, palpable human actor. Dramatic fiction and theatrical fact collide here, resulting in an ambiguous moment in which the play only half-seriously posits supernatural status for Oberon, while it simultaneously acknowledges the artificiality of that claim through the counterfactual “I am invisible.” These words, and the presence of this body contradicting them, put the illusion into question and in play expressly between the claims of the supernatural and the claims of the artificial.

Other telling references to the actors' corporeality appear when metaphorical invasions and fragmentations of the body escalate to threats of literal physical aggression as the lovers' night in the forest continues through what René Girard has described as a “process of increasing violence” (190). Alongside Helena's self-deprecating corporeal images, for instance, run the ominous suggestions of rape, mutilation, and violent death with which Demetrius laces his replies to her pleas for his love. Helena declares that Demetrius' rejections only make her love him more, and implies that she relishes the abuse: “I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius, / The more you beat me, I will fawn on you. / Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me, / Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave, / Unworthy as I am, to follow you” (2.1.203-07). Demetrius replies:

You do impeach your modesty too much
To leave the city and commit yourself
Into the hands of one that loves you not,
To trust the opportunity of night
And the ill counsel of a desert place
With the rich worth of your virginity.
.....I'll run from thee and hide me in the brakes,
And leave thee to the mercy of wild beasts.

(2.1.214-19; 227-28)

These threats, although they are articulated within the fictional tale of the lovers' strife and never carried out within it, consistently point to the flesh and blood targets of such aggression—the bodies of the actors playing the characters involved.

That Demetrius' wish to escape from Helena in order to pursue Hermia should be articulated in the form of physical, and explicitly sexual, threats to Helena's person is in keeping with Shakespeare's consistent association of sexual desire with violence against the body throughout the play, from Theseus' wooing of Hippolyta “with [his] sword” (1.1.16) and Egeus' death-threat to the disobedient Hermia to the lovers' quarrels in the woods. Epigrammatic versions of this dynamic abound in the text, especially in exchanges between Demetrius and Helena. “Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit; / For I am sick when I do look on thee” (2.2.211-12), Demetrius cautions Helena when they meet in the woods. “Where is Lysander and Hermia,” he asks, “The one I'll slay, the other slayeth me” (2.2.189-90).

The figurative component of many of these threats and descriptions is especially interesting in the context of the Dream's focus on the body as theatrical medium. Such associations of hyperbolic, figurative violence with sexuality are, of course, hardly original with Shakespeare but commonplace in the conventional discourse of courtly love. But what is worthy of note in Shakespeare's use of these clichés of courtly love poetry is the way in which the theatrical setting confers upon them a potency that intensifies the figurative power they possess in nontheatrical settings, such as conduct books and sonnet sequences. The innocuously figurative erotic invitations and despairing laments that are typical of such poems as Wyatt's “The long love that in my heart doth harbor” or Sidney's “Stella, whence doth this new assault arise” (Sonnet 37 in Astrophel and Stella) are reified when the principals are physically present to each other in the theater. Shakespeare's stage transforms the disembodied representations of sexuality and erotic strife common in conventional courtly love poetry, bringing lovers' bodies and thus the potential for physical enactment off the page and into the corporeal, performative realm of the stage.

This is precisely what happens during the course of Lysander's efforts in Act 2 to persuade Hermia to let him sleep beside her after they lose their way in the woods and decide to wait until daybreak to find their way out. As Lysander stretches himself out beside her, Hermia protests, “Nay, good Lysander: for my sake dear, / Lie further off yet; do not lie so near” (2.2.42-43). Lysander replies:

O, take the sense, sweet, of my innocence!
Love takes the meaning of love's conference.
I mean but that my heart unto yours is knit,
So that but one heart we can make of it:
Two bosoms interchained with an oath,
So then, two bosoms and a single troth.
Then by your side no bed-room me deny;
For lying so, Hermia, I do not lie.


Lysander's request to spend the night beside Hermia is here rendered in witty phrases which elide the sexual component of his desires. This riddling argument, agile as anything Jack Donne might construct, masks the literal, physical sense of “heart,” “bosom,” and “lie” with a smokescreen of love courtesies. Hermia's reply is that of a literalist who refuses to play the courtly game: “Lysander riddles very prettily. / Now much beshrew my manners and my pride, / If Hermia meant to say Lysander lied! / But, gentle friend, for love and courtesy, / Lie further off, in human modesty” (2.2.52-56). Hermia's responses to Lysander's courtly rhetoric in this scene always point away from the figurative and towards the corporeal and spatial referents his words invoke in the theater. Her logic, like many other aspects of A Midsummer Night's Dream which I have been exploring, insists on a recognition of the performing body as the site at which figurative and literal meanings converge, where conceptions become actions, and where a lover's “fancy” must express itself according to the “standard of flesh and blood.”

The intense physical agitation which the lovers enact in the woods, along with the ways in which the play highlights the literal basis for its many figurative references to the body, points not only to the volatile dynamics of aggression, vulnerabilty, attraction, and jealousy set in motion by desire, but also to the fact that while the lovers themselves are fictional, the actors who play them are not. The action and the many corporeal references in the lovers' plot compel our attentiveness to the bodily presence of the actors, just as the mechanicals' dramaturgical decisions and rehearsal anxieties prompt us to focus on their bodies as performance media.

Ultimately, it is sheer physical exhaustion, abetted by Puck's magic, which brings the “long and tedious night” in the woods to an end, as all four lovers finally cease their frenzied chase and fall asleep on the ground. Hermia's weary assessment of the night just before she joins her sleeping cohorts could serve as a motto for all four lovers: “Never so weary, never so in woe, / Bedabbled with the dew, and torn with briars, / I can no further crawl, no further go; / My legs can no longer keep pace with my desires” (3.2.442-45). Hermia's lament about “legs” and “desires” registers in her body the strain under which the lovers have labored throughout the night, playing out the erratic emotions and exhausting actions in which their desires have involved them. The link that is ultimately forged in the play between the erotic escapades of the lovers and the theatrical experiences of Peter Quince's “hard-handed men from Athens” suggests not merely that both groups are “of imagination all compact,” as Theseus contends. It also implies that, as they play out various desires, the bodies of both the lovers and the mechanicals are simultaneously empowered and put at risk by their function as the chief means by which a volatile combination of emotions and responses—desire, fear, ambivalence, aggression, vulnerability, surrender, enthrallment—are both represented and registered.18


  1. For interpretations of the mechanicals as inept dramatists, see Ornstein (78), Young (150), Brooks (cxxxix), and Dent.

  2. From literary criticism, see, for example, Spurgeon, Hodges, Cook, Fawcett, and Scarry; from the history of ideas, see Kantorowicz and Barkan; from theater arts, drama theory, and theater history, see Knight, Beckerman (Dynamics), Goldman (Energies), States, Bevington, Joseph, and Worthen; from semiotics, see Elam; from cultural studies, see Barker, Dollimore (“Transgression”), Stallybrass, Greenblatt (“Fiction”), and Tennenhouse.

  3. Seminal works by Beckerman (Globe), Styan, and Brown, for example, present comprehensive overviews of the Shakespearean theatrical situation that emphasize the physical structure of the stage, performance conventions, the actor's craft, and the audience.

  4. Useful surveys of metadramatic criticism from the 1960s through the early 80s include Calderwood (Metadrama, chapt. 1), Shapiro, and Fly.

  5. Neither was the production of metadramatic criticism completely halted by the appearance of these new critical approaches in the early 1980s. I note rather a general shift of attention in the field. Some of the critics who continued to pursue metadramatic analysis in the 80s are Homan, Hornby, and Calderwood (Negation).

  6. I use both “new historicist” and “materialist” here to acknowledge the different emphases that distinguish new historicism (mainly identified with the work of American scholars such as Greenblatt, Montrose, Orgel, Goldberg, and Mullaney) from cultural materialism (chiefly identified with British scholars such as Dollimore, Sinfield, Stallybrass, Holderness, Hawkes, and Jardine).

  7. For more extended discussions of new historicist and materialist approaches and the distinctions between them, see Dollimore's introduction to Political Shakespeare, as well as Montrose and Howard.

  8. See, for example, Barker, Dollimore (“Transgression”), Greenblatt (“Fiction”), Stallybrass, and Tennenhouse.

  9. All quotations from A Midsummer Night's Dream are from the Arden paperback edition, ed. Harold F. Brooks (London: Methuen, 1979).

  10. The liminality projected by the costumes of both Lion and Wall also captures in a kind of comical freeze-frame the sort of shape-shifting for which Elizabethan actors were routinely reviled in contemporary anti-theatrical literature. William Rankins, for example, complains in A Mirror of Monsters (London, 1587) that “Plaiers transforme their bodies which is the image of Christ into the shape of brute beasts” (B2v). As Stallybrass points out, however, it was not only the actor's profanation of the body which so offended anti-theatricalists, but also the “hybridization located in the actor's body” which, during performance, became the site at which seemingly fixed categories such as “high and low, religion and profanation, male and female” lost their distinctness (“Reading” 126). Lion and Wall, like Bottom after his transformation by Puck in Act 3, Scene 1, epitomize such hybridization, mixing animate and inanimate, man and beast, at the site of the sacred “image of Christ.”

  11. According to the provisions of a royal statute enacted in 1572, actors not officially in the service of a noble household were liable to the same punishments as beggars and vagabonds. See Chambers 269-70.

  12. In The Actor's Freedom, Goldman suggests that the actor-audience relation is always informed by such ambivalence: “The roles playwrights devise for actors … engage a double impulse of attraction and repulsion. We come together to adore their fearful energies, to be infected by their risks and recklessness, to enjoy what happens to them” (13). States explains the “dangers” of the theatrical situation from a slightly different, but equally illuminating standpoint, suggesting that “in the theater our sympathetic involvement with the characters is attended by a secondary, and largely subliminal, line of empathy born of the possibility that the illusion may at any moment be shattered by a mistake or an accident” (120).

  13. Bottom is not alone in this “corporeal” understanding of the dynamics of the actor-audience relationship. His tragic aesthetic in this scene is, for example, remarkably similar to the idea of tragedy expounded by the personification of Tragedy herself in the anonymous play Warning for Fair Women (1599). In the opening scene, as personifications of Comedy, Tragedy, and History compete for control of the stage, trading insults against each other's genres, Tragedy declares haughtily, “I must haue passions that must moue the soule, / Make the heart heauie, and throb within the bosome, / Extorting tears out of the driest eyes, / … / This is my office” (A2v).

  14. It is difficult to determine accurately the corporeal effects of male actors in female roles, or to generalize about cultural attitudes concerning this practice. The censure of transvestite playing suggests an uneasiness, at least on the part of anti-theatricalists, with the blurring of sex roles and sexual difference effected by male bodies onstage in women's roles and apparel. But the attitudes expressed in the anti-theatrical tracts may not be representative of a univocal sixteenth-century response to boy actors. As Lorraine Helms points out, “The convention of the boy actor vexes critical speculation. Cross-casting marks the nexus of character and performer in subtle and shifting ways which historical inquiry cannot recover” (190). For further discussion of transvestite playing in Renaissance drama, see Jardine, Dusinberre, Rackin, and Case (19-27).

  15. Thisbe's claim, in her address to Wall several lines earlier, “My cherry lips have often kiss'd thy stones, / Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee” (5.1 188-89), contains an anatomical pun on “stones” (i.e. testicles) that works in the same way as the reference to “the wall's hole” that I have been discussing. In each case, the physical details of stage blocking and the specific means by which Wall represents the “chink” in performance—with fingers, for example, or with legs spread apart—may strengthen the force of these puns by providing visual equivalents for the verbal hints.

  16. I do not mean to suggest that Flute's experience is true for all Shakespearean actors in female roles, but that Flute's experience delineates one possible version of the actor-audience dynamic.

  17. For a discussion of the various roles Bottom plays in fairyland, see Van Laan (57-58) and Young (104).

  18. An earlier version of this essay was presented to a seminar on “Renaissance Acting” at the Shakespeare Association of America meetings in Montreal, 1986.

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David Wiles (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5372

SOURCE: Wiles, David. “A Midsummer Night's Dream as Epithalamium.” In Shakespeare's Almanac: A Midsummer Night's Dream: Marriage and the Elizabethan Calendar, pp. 114-25. Cambridge, Mass.: D. S. Brewer, 1993.

[In the following essay, Wiles asserts that A Midsummer Night's Dream is effectively an epithalamium—a poem in honor of marriage.]

The closing speeches of A Midsummer Night's Dream constitute the kind of finale that we would expect to find at the end of a wedding masque. No other play by Shakespeare ends quite like it. Love's Labour's Lost and The Tempest celebrate a betrothal, not a wedding. In As You Like It, the appearance of Hymen in a kind of masque suggests that the couples should be understood as married rather than betrothed at the end of the play, but the moment of marriage is left vague. Orthodox ceremonial does not seem to belong in the Forest of Arden. The formality of the ending is the formality of a conventional theatrical finale, with four couples gathered on stage for a celebratory dance. Unlike these three plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream displays a complete lack of concern with the process of courtship. The rites of courtship—a first encounter in a romantic environment, the interchanging of love-tokens, the composing of love-verses—are all completed before the action of the play begins. The play is concerned with the actual physical union of male and female.

For comparison, let us return to Munday's John-a-Kent and John-a-Cumber. Almost certainly, the play was a major source for Shakespeare's plot structure. There seems no reason why we should not follow Greg and identify the play with The Wise Man of Chester (or West Chester), first produced by the Admiral's company in December 1594 and a big popular success. The central figure in Munday's play is a ‘wise’ magican struggling to prove his supremacy over a rival, and the Chester setting receives much prominence.1 It is easy to see how Munday could have inspired Shakespeare through the way he juggles levels of reality. In Munday's play we find a nocturnal elopement and a double wedding. A Puck-like figure serving a magician leads lovers astray by night, and makes them fall asleep. A group of clowns prepare a dramatic entertainment to mark the wedding. The Puck-figure intercalates himself in a performance. I suggested in the last chapter that the transformation of Bottom must be indebted to the scene in Munday where the magician is turned into a fool. For all the similarities, Munday's play is no epithalamium. It concludes not at the bedding but at the church door. The plot represents a power struggle for possession, and it is the tying of the legal knot that is at issue. While the humble players in A Midsummer Night's Dream intrude upon wedding night revels, where one would normally expect courtly masquers to be performing, the players in John-a-Kent perform where tenants should, in the open air. They welcome the bridegrooms on the evening before the wedding, and they provide a musical reveille the following morning to mark the brides' awakening. Further satirical entertainments, aristocratic and popular, take place on the castle green, when the brides have departed on their procession to the church and the men have yet to follow. The whole play is concerned with the public side of marriage rituals, and no heed is given to the private, carnal dimension. The use of an upper level lends support to the conclusion that Munday's play was written for the Rose playhouse, and not for a private gathering.

The finale of Shakespeare's play has all the attributes of an epithalamium. In Act IV we see a reveille, followed by a procession to the church. Unlike Spenser and Donne, Shakespeare omits the actual ceremony in the ‘temple’. He does stage the wedding masque (in a grotesque inverted form), and he represents the departure of the bridal couples to bed. The events within the bedchamber, transposed and burlesqued, are represented through the encounter of Bottom and Titania. At the end of Shakespeare's play it is after midnight, the new day is waxing, and it is time for the consummation. Theseus and Hippolyta, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius have all left and are supposed in bed. Puck evokes the noises and spirits of the night that Spenser warned of in his Epithalamion:

Ne let the Pouke, nor other evil sprites,
Ne let mischievous witches with their charms,
Ne let Hobgoblins, names whose sense we see not,
Fray us with things that be not.
Let not the screech-owl, nor the stork be heard:
Nor the night raven that still deadly yells
Nor damnèd ghosts called up with mighty spells.

When Shakespeare's Puck appears with his cleansing broom, he evokes the same ‘screech-owl’, the same ‘sprites’ arisen like ghosts from gaping graves. Unlike Spenser's Puck, Shakespeare's Puck alias ‘Hobgoblin’ (II.i.40) and his demonic companions cease to threaten and become instead protectors of the marriage bed.

Oberon and Titania arrive with a train of fairies who produce a ‘glimmering light’. This implies that they arrive with torches, like the pages who always served as torchbearers in a masque. The Unton memorial portrait illustrates such child torchbearers, attending upon masked adult dancers, and bearing tapered poles with a small flame at the tip. (The semantic distinction between taper and torch is not altogether clear.) In ‘The Haddington Masque’, the torchbearers are twelve Cupids, each bearing two torches. At the wedding night of James' daughter, the torchbearers were sixteen winged spirits bearing torches of virgin wax in either hand. These last were described by Peacham as they waited to escort the bride from the hall:

With torches' light the children stay,
Whose sparks (see how) ascend on high
As if there wanted stars in sky.

These winged spirits encouraged Donne to interpret all the dancers as fairies:

The masquers come too late, and, I think, will stay
Like fairies, till the cock crow them away.(2)

Titania in the course of Shakespeare's play (III.i.162) instructs her fairies to make night-tapers out of beeswax (i.e. virgin wax as distinct from recycled wax or tallow) in order to escort Bottom to bed. There is no sign that the fairies produce such tapers to honour Bottom, but they do take on the role of torch-bearers at the finale. These tapers or torches perhaps continued to serve a ceremonial purpose once the play was over.

There is an obvious parallel, as we have seen, between the fairies who appear at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream and those who appeared in the midnight masque at the end of Merry Wives of Windsor in April 1597, dancing the shape of Carey's Garter ribbon, and departing to bless St George's Chapel. In Merry Wives the fairies wear ‘rounds of waxen tapers on their heads’ (IV.iv.50), leaving them free to lock hands in the dance. Tapers in A Midsummer Night's Dream have a different symbolism and are clearly hand held. In Merry Wives the tapers are used for a trial by ordeal, but in A Midsummer Night's Dream they are the torches of the masque and procession to the bed-chamber.

The question arises as to who performed the parts of these fairies. An analysis of the casting suggests that A Midsummer Night's Dream is written for a standard complement of sixteen actors: four boys to play Hermia, Helena, Titania and Hippolyta, and twelve adults to play Bottom and the five mechanicals, Lysander and Demetrius, Oberon and Theseus, Egeus and Puck. Philostrate would double with Puck, and the other five speaking fairies would double with the five mechanicals. Supernumeraries would seem to be required to play the trains of Oberon and Titania.3 The role of these supernumeraries is not to act, but to sing and dance, and it is a role that would suit a group of choristers from an aristocratic household. These circumstances would help to explain why two dances seem to be omitted from our text of A Midsummer Night's Dream, along with an exit for Oberon's train in Act II.4 The state of the surviving text is consistent with the hypothesis that the original dances and songs were attenuated when A Midsummer Night's Dream was performed in the public theatre, without an available group of boys and without a wedding night context.

The two ‘trains’ of dancers, choristers or torchbearers are kept apart in Act II, when Oberon refuses to keep company with Titania and dance in her ‘round’; in Act II scene ii, Titania's fairies sing a lullaby around their somnolent mistress; and the two trains return only at the finale. It seems reasonable to infer that Oberon's train must comprise male fairies and Titania's train female fairies. Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed are male, of course, but the logic of the doubling required that these speaking roles should be written for adult actors, not for boy actors.

Oberon cues a lively dance when he instructs both groups (‘every elf and fairy sprite’) to perform a dance that might be a galliard or corranto (‘hop as light as bird from briar … and dance it trippingly’). Titania then seems to introduce not the same but a different dance with the speech which follows:

First rehearse your song by rote,
To each word a warbling note,
Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing and bless this place.

This song is slower (‘warbling’) and formal (‘by rote’), and fulfils Oberon's earlier promise that the fairies would at midnight ‘solemnly’ dance in Theseus' house (IV.i.87). A circular dance would have particular significance because of the link between fairies and fairy rings. Titania's fairy has been delegated to ‘dew her orbs upon the green’, and a circular dance at the finale would lead naturally into Oberon's distribution of dew. The dialogue therefore suggests two unscripted dances, followed by Oberon's speech

Now until the break of day
Through the house each fairy stray …

which appears to introduce and explain the next action in the play. The problem is that no stage directions in the Quarto at any point offer guidance as to the nature and timing of the dances. In the Folio, Oberon's speech ‘Now until the break of day …’ is headed ‘The Song’ and italicized, suggesting that this is indeed the ‘ditty’ which Oberon requires the fairies to sing ‘after me’ as they dance trippingly. Yet the speech starts and ends with instructions, and scarcely seems to fit the term ‘ditty’. The Folio heading may have been introduced in the printing house (along with the italics, which are unlikely to be a feature of the manuscript). Alternatively, the Folio text may reflect the way the actors solved the problem of performing the play without an adequate number of child supernumeraries.

The latent choreoraphic structure that we glimpse in the Quarto text is consistent with the conventions of the wedding masque. In Hymenaei a group of female masquers balances the male group. When the two opposed forces which the dancers represent are reconciled, the males pair off with females. The dancing rises to an energetic climax with galliards and corrantoes, which is then followed by a solemn circular dance as two concentric circles are formed around Reason. ‘Lord Hay's Masque’ represents the norm in having a single group of male dancers, but the piece finishes likewise with galliards and corrantoes, followed by a symbolic round.5 In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the formal reconciliation of male and female fairies within the dance would have brought the theme of elemental conflict to a visually appropriate conclusion. The use of two choruses strengthens the idea that the play is concerned not with psychologically distinct individuals but with types of male and female.

The purpose of the final dance is to ‘bless this place’, and the ‘place’ in question seems to have a double identity:

Now, until the break of day,
Through this house, each fairy stray.
To the best bride bed will we:
Which by us shall blessed be:
And the issue, there create,
Ever shall be fortunate:

This ‘best bride bed’ which Oberon and Titania intend to bless appears to be that of a real bridal pair. If Shakespeare did not have a real wedding in mind, it is odd that he should have referred to a single ‘best’ bed rather than to three beds. The famous issue of Theseus and Hippolyta was of course the tragic Hippolytus, as Shakespeare knew from Seneca, but the drift of the text does not seem to be towards this mythic outcome. Shakespeare continues:

So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be

indicating quite explicitly that the three couples of the play are differentiated from the occupants of the best bride-bed.

The fairies now begin to ressemble the amoretti whom Spenser visualized as a beneficent presence around his bride-bed:

          an hundred little wingèd loves,
Like divers feathered doves,
Shall fly and flutter round about your bed.

Oberon sends the fairies off with ‘field dew consecrate’. This dew, as we have seen, acquires its symbolic potency through association both with the moon and with May Day. It comes now to symbolize the holy water used in the old Catholic ritual of blessing the marriage bed. Using rather similar language, Shakespeare's Catherine of Aragon, as a good Catholic, wishes that the ‘dews of Heaven fall thick in blessings’ on her daughter Mary.6 We may turn for analogies to Herrick. In Herrick's epithalamium to Sir Robert Southwell and his lady, a poem that is classical rather than Christian in its references, it is not the bed which has to be anointed but the door-frame of the bed-chamber through which the reluctant bride has to be forced. When the couple are safely installed in bed, Herrick wishes that the blessing of the spheres may ‘fall like a spangling dew’. The dew acquires distinctly seminal associations.7

There is a certain irony in the fact that fairies bestow the blessing in Shakespeare's play, since one would normally expect a blessing to ward off the influence of fairies. Chaucer's Wife of Bath, for instance, complains that, because of the popularity of blessings, the Elf Queen and her fairies have vanished from the land.8 Oberon promises that

          the blots of Nature's hand
Shall not in their issue stand:
Never mole, hare-lip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despised in nativity,
Shall upon their children be.

His blessing gains force from the fact that fairies were held responsible for handicapped children. Gill in the Wakefield Second Shepherds' Pageant, to quote a well-known example, explains the sheep found in her cradle as a changeling:

He was taken with an elf
I saw it myself
When the clock struck twelve
Was he forshapen.

Shakespeare's King Henry IV had a theory that Hal was a substitute for Hotspur, and had been placed in the royal cradle by ‘some night-tripping fairy’. Jonson describes Queen Mab, the Fairy Queen, as one who deceives midwives and ‘empties cradles, / Takes out children, puts in ladles’.9 The particular role of fairies in substituting deformed changelings for healthy babies must have meant that, in the context of a wedding night, the evocation of fairies touched an emotional chord.

Oberon ends with a compliment to the host of the wedding:

And each several chamber bless
Through this palace with sweet peace;
And the owner of it blest,
Ever shall in safety rest.

It seems odd that Theseus should be blessed at this point, separating him as the Duke of Athens from his propertyless bride. There is no reason why his ‘safety’ should be more important than that of his wife. The real host of a real wedding is a more plausible addressee. In masques, a closing reference to the real host is entirely conventional. Jonson in Hymenaei bids the masquers salute James, who has hosted the wedding at court:

As you, in pairs, do front the state,
With grateful honours, thank His Grace,
That hath so glorified the place.(10)

Likewise in ‘Lord Hay's Masque’ the chorus concludes:

Yet, ere we vanish from this princely sight,
Let us bid Phoebus and his states good-night …

The masquers removed their masks as they approached the state. The same protocol is described in the two masques performed at the Somerset wedding in 1613.11

Puck's epilogue would appear to have been written for performance in the public theatre, where the blessing of the ‘owner’ would have had little force as an ending. Harold Brooks argues in the New Arden edition that the actors' promise to ‘mend’ in future if they are pardoned now makes sense in the context of performance before a regular clientèle.12 It is hard to conceive that a wedding audience might insult their host by hissing the actors (‘the serpent's tongue’). Puck's promise to ‘make amends ere long’ seems to look forward to the jig which followed the play in the public playhouse. Whatever the status of the epilogue, we should note that neither with nor without it does the finale make any reference to the presence of the Queen, unless the Queen be the ‘owner’ of the place where the play is performed. If the Queen were present, the actors could scarcely bless the host at the end of the play and ignore her. The idea that A Midsummer Night's Dream could have been written for a performance at which the Queen was principle guest is not compatible with the protocol that we find in the extant text.

Within the body of Shakespeare's play, Titania's bower is an obvious symbol of the marriage bed. We have seen how Spenser merges the concepts of the ‘bridal bower and genial bed’ by virtue of the herbs and flowers placed inside the bed-chamber. Wither in his ‘Epithalamion’ of 1613 rouses the bride in the morning because the ‘Bride-Chamber lies to dressing’.13 Jonson in Hymenaei speaks of ‘the nuptial-room’ as ‘the chaste bower, which Cypria strows / With many a lilly, many a rose’. In ‘Lord Hay's Masque’, roses are plucked from Flora's bower and strewn about the stage, and the masquers all pass into the bower after they have removed their green garments of chastity. It is easy to see the link between bed and bower when we recall that Elizabethan beds were surrounded by curtains. In performance, whether in the public playhouse or in a private dining hall, Titania would most likely have led Bottom behind a curtain. By extension, a ‘bower’ commonly becomes a metaphor for the enclosing body of the woman, and we have seen how this idea is exploited in ‘Lord Hay's Masque’.

The encounter between Bottom and Titania can be seen as an inversion or burlesque of the real consummation that will occur after the play is over. Like the secluded marriage bed blessed by holy water, Titania's bower is described as ‘consecrated’ (III.ii.7). Bottom like Spenser will sleep on pressed flowers. Titania confidently promises Bottom sexual satisfaction in her bower when she promises to purge his mortal grossness, and to have pearls fetched from the deep. In a double entendre, she tells her fairies to escort Bottom ‘to bed, and to arise’. Bottom's escort of male fairies can be equated with the bridegroom-men whose role would be to lead the groom to the bedchamber. The four fairies are instructed to dance and to feast Bottom before lighting him to bed. Their duty is to ensure that he does not have ‘sleeping eyes’ (III.i.166), but is sexually aroused. The names of the fairies suggest sexual attributes. Bottom's attention passes from Cobweb—used to staunch bleeding—to Peaseblossom—a flower which will grow into a phallic peascod—and finally to Mustardseed—the tiny potent seed which grows into a huge tree. When Jan Kott interprets peaseblossom, mustardseed, cobweb and moth as ingredients for an aphrodisiac, he misses only the element of parody, for these are folk remedies for common complaints.14 We might recall the electuaries which Chaucer's January took in a vain attempt to make himself capable of a bridegroom's duties. Bottom, like January, is the antithesis of the model bridegroom.

When the pair finally re-emerge from the bower, consummation must be deemed to have taken place. Many productions have succeeded in eliminating this possibility by conflating the off-stage bower with the on-stage flowery bank, and so keeping the couple safely in view.15 The text lends no support to this chaste interpretation. Bottom's garland of roses plucked from the bower symbolizes his sexual conquest. Titania still has appetite for more, but Bottom only wants to sleep. Sexually exhausted, he seeks a filled honey-bag. Titania offers him ‘new nuts’.16 Sensing that it is morning, and time to shave (‘I am marvellous hairy about the face’), he accepts the offer of breakfast, with rough music to accompany the reveille. The details owe not a little to The Merchant's Tale, where Chaucer refers to the bristly chin of January in the wedding bed, to his breakfasting and singing in the morning before he falls asleep, to his ‘coltish’ behaviour, and grotesque appearance with nightcap and lean, sagging neck.

The encounter between Bottom and Titania is a parodic inversion. A real bride should be modest, not sexually voracious, a virgin and not sexually experienced. The real groom should display more sexual enthusiasm, yet not surrender to animal instinct. Jonson is clear about the man's duty:

Tonight is Venus' vigil kept.
This night no bridegroom ever slept;
And if the fair bride do,
The married say 'tis his fault too.(17)

Bottom's failure to stay awake is conceived as the ultimate form of inappropriate behaviour in a nuptial context. In the context of a real wedding, we can see how the parody would have a social function of some importance. The night is to be an initiation for both parties, and is a rite of passage that has no modern equivalent. A couple who have only met each other a few times in relatively formal circumstances are suddenly going to meet naked under the sheets, with an obligation to give a good account of themselves the next morning.

The shyness and distress of the bride is a stock motif in epithalamia. Spenser urges:

Let no lamenting cries, nor doleful tears,
Be heard all night within nor yet without.

Jonson in Hymenaei pictures a ‘faint and trembling bride’ on her sacrificial altar, and he urges the thirteen year old girl:

Shrink not, soft virgin, you will love
Anon what you so fear to prove.(18)

For Herrick the bride is afraid of the physical experience which lies ahead, and the groom must be persistent:

O Venus! thou, to whom is known
The best way how to loose the zone
Of virgins! Tell the maid,
She need not be afraid:
And bid the youth apply
Close kisses, if she cry:
And charge, he not forebears
Her, though she woo with tears.

Herrick suggests that the bridesmaids are also likely to be weeping, faced with the loss of youth and companionship. He associates the grief of the bridesmaids with a festive cycle which, as we saw in the last chapter, is linked to rites of passage. A girl goes out with a partner in May, but if she has not secured a husband by Midsummer Eve, she tries at that point to foretell who she will be paired with in the coming spring.

Virgins, weep not; 'twill come, when,
As she, so you'll be ripe for men.
Then grieve her not, with saying
She must no more a-Maying:
Or by Rose-buds divine
Who'll be her Valentine.(19)

While Titania is the antithesis of the shrinking bride in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hermia is the embodiment. She denies Lysander ‘bed-room’ and insists that they behave as ‘Becomes a virtuous bachelor and a maid’ (II.ii.58). Her subsequent Freudian dream of a snake demonstrates her fear of sexuality. Her maidenly modesty, combined with a desire to sleep, results in her losing the love of Lysander. In the peculiar context of a wedding night, Hermia's behaviour becomes no more acceptable than that of Titania. A real bride is required to perform a dialectical miracle, and find an intermediate mode of behaviour that avoids both evils: modesty and lust.

Once the sexual act has taken place in Titania's bower, Oberon is able to obtain from Titania that which he most wants, the boy. Titania's withholding of the boy is the source of all the dissent in Fairyland, and the chaotic inversion of the seasons. Pregnancy is vividly and rapturously evoked, likened to the way a sail grows ‘big-bellied with the wanton wind’ (II.i.129). Titania is custodian of the boy, but after her consummation with Bottom, she transfers the boy to Oberon's bower. The symbolism is clear in an epithalamic context. The boy sought by Oberon parallels the male heir which all bridegrooms seek from their brides. The poets are explicit on this subject. Spenser hopes that Cynthia, who has charge of ‘women's labours’ may ‘the chaste womb inform with timely seed’. Genius is asked to ensure that the ‘timely fruit of this same night’ arrives safely. Jonson calls for ‘the birth, by Cynthia hasted’ in the epithalamium to Hymenaei, and in the epithalamium after the ‘Haddington Masque’ he calls for a babe who will ‘Wear the long honours of his father's deed’. The masculine pronoun seemed self-evident. Herrick echoes the theme, and we notice how dew is again associated with procreation:

May the bed, and this short night,
Know the fullness of delight!
Pleasures, many here attend ye,
And ere long, a boy, Love send ye,
Curled and comely, and so trim,
Maids (in time) may ravish him.
Thus a dew of graces fall
On ye both; goodnight to all.(20)

Aristocratic marriages were undertaken in order that a family line could be continued. Brides were under enormous psychological pressure to yield up a male child. The pressure which Oberon places upon a reluctant Titania echoes that urgent social demand. The entire central action of the play is a dreamlike (or nightmare) evocation of a wedding night. The Athenian scenes are associated with the public, patriarchal aspect of marriage. The young lovers have to obtain parental consent at the start of the play, and in the last act they conform to the social expectation that males will be capable of witty banter, females will be modestly silent. The woodland scenes are associated with the private, nocturnal, female-dominated aspect of marriage. The wood, closely associated with the maying ceremony, functions as an extended May/nuptial bower. As in a nuptial, it is ‘deep midnight’ when the lovers escape to the secrecy of the ‘bower’. Here they fall prey to Puck and other malicious spirits. The long-delayed sexual act is suggested mimetically by the dance when Oberon and Titania hold hands and ‘rock the ground whereon these sleepers be’ (IV.i.85). In the morning when the lovers are woken to the rough music of the hounds, they receive a humiliating reveille. The reveille, as we have seen, was a time when the newly-married couple had to give an account of themselves, and satisfy interrogators that intercourse had taken place. As in the dream, so in reality a hunting song was often used to awaken the newly-weds.21 What the lovers in the play have learned from their experience is not clear, but in the extra-theatrical world of the audience, an actual bridal couple may well have done their share of learning and adjusting. It was not only the Queen who found the conflict between Venus and Diana very hard to reconcile. Every young bride was expected on her wedding night to put aside the cult of chastity and in an instant become a votary of Venus.


  1. See pp. lxiv-lxvi of the New Arden edition, which gives a summary of Coghill's fundamental study.

  2. Campion ‘Lords' Masque’: Works ed. W.R. Davis (New York, 1967) 255; Peacham The Period of Mourning … together with Nuptial Hymns (London, 1789) 35; Donne ‘Epithalamion on the Lady Elizabeth and Count Palatine’, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose ed. J. Hayward (New York, 1946) 105.

  3. The fundamental study of doubling is William A. Ringler ‘The number of actors in Shakespeare's early plays’ in G. E. Bentley (ed.) The Seventeenth-Century Stage (Chicago, 1968). For the suggestion that choir boys were used, see E. K. Chambers William Shakespeare (Oxford, 1930) ii.86. T. J. King in Casting Shakespeare's Plays (Cambridge, 1992) does not accept the doubling of fairies and mechanicals. His method of setting up a distinction between major and minor roles seems arbitrary in relation to A Midsummer Night's Dream. Snug has few lines but a demanding role.

  4. The view outlined here follows that of Dr Johnson, accepted in outline by the New Arden editor. See Brooks' long note 3 to p. cxxiii of the New Arden edition.

  5. Works 226, 230. The final song refers to a ‘round’, and to a ‘centre’.

  6. Henry VIII IV.ii.133. For the dew as holy water, see C. L. Barber Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1959) p. 139, and the fuller discussion in F. Douce Illustrations of Shakespeare (London, 1807) i.180.

  7. Poetical Works 56.

  8. The Wife of Bath's Tale 857-881. David Young notes Shakespeare's ‘reversal’ in Something of Great Constancy (New Haven, 1966) 22.

  9. The Second Shepherds' Pageant 616-19; Henry the Fourth Part One, I.i.87; Jonson Entertainment at Althorpe 65-70; cf. Keith Thomas Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1971) 612-13. For survivals of this belief, see K. M. Briggs The Vanishing People: A Study of Traditional Fairy Beliefs (London, 1978) 93-103.

  10. Hymenaei 420-2.

  11. John Nichols Progresses of King James I (1828) ii. 713-714, 723-724.

  12. Note to V.i.416. Brooks does not consider the possibility that the actors may be addressing a regular spectator in the form of their patron.

  13. George Wither Juvenilia (Spenser Society, London, 1871) 469.

  14. Jan Kott Shakespeare Our Contemporary (London, 1965) 182; L. A. Reynolds & P. Sawyer ‘Folk Medicine and the Four Fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream’, Shakespeare Quarterly 10 (1959) 518-21.

  15. See Homer Swander ‘Editors vs. text: the scripted geography of A Midsummer Night's Dream’, Studies in Philology 87 (1990) 83-108. Robert Lepage in his 1992 production at the National Theatre went to the opposite extreme, allowing Titania and Bottom to copulate on a bed.

  16. Although ‘nuts’ was not a regular slang term for testicles in the Elizabethan period, the metaphorical implications are clear, and were well brought out in Brook's production. See David Selbourne The Making of A Midsummer Night's Dream (London, 1982) 305.

  17. ‘Haddington Masque’ 367-70.

  18. Hymenaei 369, 408-9.

  19. Poetical Works 56.

  20. ‘The Good-night or Blessing’ in Poetical Works 124-5.

  21. L. E. Pearson Elizabethans at Home (Stanford, 1957) 359.


Barber, C. L., Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1959)

Briggs, K. M., The Vanishing People: A Study of Traditional Fairy Beliefs (London, 1978)

Campion, Thomas, Works, ed. W. R. Davis (London, 1969)

Chambers, E. K., William Shakespeare (Oxford, 1930)

Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. L. D. Benson and F. N. Robinson (3rd edition, Boston, 1987)

Coghill, N., Shakespeare's Professional Skills (Cambridge, 1964)

Donne, John, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, ed. J. Hayward (London and New York, 1946)

Donne, John, The Epithalamions, Anniversaries and Epicedes, ed. W. Milgate (Oxford, 1978)

Douce, William, Illustrations of Shakespeare (London, 1807)

Herrick, Robert, Poetical Works, ed. L. C. Martin (Oxford, 1956)

Jonson, Ben, Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford, P. and E. Simpson (Oxford, 1925-52)

King, T. J., Casting Shakespeare's Plays (Cambridge, 1992)

Kott, Jan, Shakespeare Our Contemporary tr. B. Taborski (London, 1965)

Munday, A., John a Kent and John a Cumber, ed. M. St Clare Byrne (Malone Society, Oxford, 1923)

Nichols, John, The Progresses, Processions and Magnificent Festivities of King James the First (London, 1828)

Peacham, Henry, The Period of Mourning … together with Nuptial Hymns (London, 1789)

Pearson, L. E., Elizabethans at Home (Sanford, 1957)

Reynolds, L. A. and P. Sawyer, ‘Folk Medicine and the Four Fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream’, Shakespeare Quarterly 10 (1959), 518-21

Ringler, William, ‘The Number of Actors in Shakespeare's Early Plays’ in The Seventeenth-Century Stage, ed. G. E. Bentley (Chicago, 1968), 110-34.

Selbourne, David. The Making of a Midsummer Night's Dream (London, 1982)

Shakespeare, William, A Midsummer Night's Dream, New Arden edition, ed. Harold F. Brooks (London, 1979)

Spenser, Edmund, Works, Variorum edition, ed. E. Greenlaw, C. G. Osgood, F. M. Padelford and R. Heffner (Baltimore, 1932-49)

Spenser, Edmund, Fowre Hymns and Epithalamion, ed. E. Welsford (London, 1967)

Swander, H., ‘Editors vs. Text: The Scripted Geography of A Midsummer Night's Dream’, Studies in Philology 87 (1990), 83-108

Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1971)

Wither, George, Juvenilia (Spenser Society, London, 1871)

Young, David P., Something of Great Constancy (New Haven, 1966)

Maurice Hunt (essay date winter 2000-01)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11369

SOURCE: Hunt, Maurice. “A Speculative Political Allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Comparative Drama 34, no. 4 (winter 2000-01): 423-53.

[In the following essay, Hunt alleges that A Midsummer Night's Dream functions as a cryptic allegory that criticizes Elizabeth I and the problem of securing a successor to her throne.]

Every so often commentators on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream quote Bottom's judgment on his own “most rare vision” of the Fairy Queen—“Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream” (4.1.203-4)—with tongue-in-cheek reference to their own interpretive efforts.1 Given the frequency with which Bottom's words have been invoked for this purpose, one can be excused for believing that the utterance has lost most of its value as a beforehand deflector of criticism against the commentator's argument. Yet if ever a commentator on A Dream risked appearing an ass to his or her reader, it would be the interpreter presumptuous enough to offer a reading of a topical political allegory in the comedy. That, however, is precisely what I intend to do in this essay. I have in my title termed the political allegory I shall unfold not only “a” political allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream (thus admitting that another one might appear as or more viable), but also that it is a “speculative” allegory. I realize nevertheless that, unless an author has supplied a statement of allegorical intention akin to Edmund Spenser's letter to Sir Walter Ralegh concerning The Faerie Queene, all unfolded literary allegories, political or otherwise, are speculative. Still, my use of the word in my title and from time to time in my argument may in some readers' minds make me appear less an ass in my expounding of Shakespeare's Dream.

David Bevington in the late 1960s identified the largest obstacle to explicating a political allegory critical of Queen Elizabeth in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Citing Edith Rickert's “lock-picking type” of allegorical reading of the play (a 1920s interpretation about which I shall have something to say later), Bevington rejects it with a simple, shrewd observation: “Shakespeare's supposed concealment of the allegory [of Titania/Elizabeth] grossly in love with [Bottom/James VI of Scotland] will not serve, for if Elizabeth with her mastery of decipherment could not read the message it would fail of its purpose. The record seems clear that the play did not offend.”2 Setting aside for the moment the question of the plausibility of Rickert's equation of Bottom and the Scottish king, I want to question the assumptions underlying Bevington's judgment. He assumes that if a discernible allegory critical of Elizabeth exists in Shakespeare's comedy, it would have offended her; and if it offended her, a written record of the offense taken would have necessarily survived.

While Bevington's first assumption is certainly plausible, his second is debatable. It is likely that Elizabeth did not prosecute every author of a literary allusion to her rule that she suspected or knew was critical of it. If the allusion was notably oblique or cryptic, political prudence may have occasionally dictated her silence. The queen may have realized that crying out against every suspected critical allusion or allegory, when its author could defend himself by interpreting it according to a set of literal, harmless meanings, put her at risk of appearing to her subjects overly touchy, insecure in her monarchy. No record exists of her censure of Spenser for critically depicting in The Faerie Queene her treatment of Ralegh in the allegory of Belphoebe and Timias's relationship.

More importantly, Shakespeare possibly may have encrypted an allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream not designed for Elizabeth's instruction, but for the amusing reinforcement of the political opinions of one or more earls and their coterie with influence over the playwright. Granted the danger entailed by such a hypothetical enterprise, Shakespeare might have been inclined to make the allegory especially dark, meant chiefly to be decoded and appreciated by a disaffected nobleman—who may have partly or wholly suggested it—and his “in-the-know” friends. Such an assumption is every bit as plausible as the belief that, if Shakespeare incorporated an allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream, it was intended primarily for Queen Elizabeth's eyes and ears.

Critics have judged A Midsummer Night's Dream the most Lylyesque of Shakespeare's comedies.3 Veiled political allegories inform the comedies of John Lyly, so much so that this immediate predecessor of Shakespeare was identified in the 1580s with this dramatic phenomenon.4 By this logic, Shakespeare very likely incorporated a political allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream. By making Titania the Fairy Queen, Shakespeare begs the recollection of Queen Elizabeth in auditors' minds, especially so because performances of the comedy likely preceded and closely followed the anticipated appearance in January 1596 of the second installment of Edmund Spenser's great poem in praise of Elizabeth, The Faerie Queene.5 The possibility that an encrypted allegory involving Elizabeth lurks in A Midsummer Night's Dream increases severalfold with the realization that the appearance of Shakespeare's play roughly coincides with a surge of contemporary interest in the great allegorical poem of the playwright's lifetime.6

In what follows, I argue that certain features of Spenser's The Faerie Queene—in addition to those of his Prosopopoia—have a greater relevance for the method and substance of A Midsummer Night's Dream than has been generally recognized, and that this awareness facilitates the reading of a Shakespearean allegory involving Queen Elizabeth, the duke of Anjou, and King James VI of Scotland. The likelihood that Shakespeare encoded a political allegory in his comedy concerning relationships between these persons derives strength from a speculated 1594-95 relationship between Shakespeare and Henry Wriothesley, the earl of Southampton, and demonstrable bonds between Southampton and the earl of Essex and between Essex and King James. The fact that Shakespeare in 1594-95 dedicated his two narrative poems—Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece—to Southampton, who may have been the Young Man of the Sonnets, presumes a relationship of some kind between the popular playwright and the play-going aristocrat. Martin Dzelzainis finds in the earl of Southampton's documented political opinions the source of the inferred politics of Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece and possibly his Julius Caesar. As regards Shakespeare's political thought, “the crucial question which needs to be addressed,” according to Dzelzainis, “is the extent to which … [Shakespeare's] earlier work exhibits traits which can be aligned with the political and intellectual agenda of the Essex circle.”7 Elizabeth had forbad all public discussion of the succession question. But through a likely allegory embedded in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Essex and Southampton presumably broach the question and provide an answer.8

Critics and editors of A Midsummer Night's Dream usually agree that an allegory involving Queen Elizabeth most certainly materializes during Oberon's account of how the pansy gained its magical property. Considering the major allegorical readings of this richly symbolic passage early in the play lays the groundwork for my subsequent, more important explication of a political allegory involving the succession question. It does so mainly by suggesting in each case the reconstructed interests of the earl of Essex in the consequences of Elizabeth's fierce chastity and the problem of who would succeed her. “Thou rememb'rest,” the Fairy King tells Robin Goodfellow,

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?


When Puck says “I remember,” Oberon continues:

That very time I saw, but thou couldst not,
Flying between the cold moon and the earth
Cupid, all armed. A certain aim he took
At a fair vestal thronèd by the west,
And loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts.
But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft
Quenched in the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon,
And the imperial vot'ress passèd on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell.
It fell upon a little western flower—
Before, milk-white; now, purple with love's wound:
And maidens call it ‘love-in-idleness’.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I showed thee once.
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.


Since the eighteenth century, editors of this passage have generally agreed that the “fair vestal thronèd by the west” alludes to Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen throned on an island on the western edge of Europe, the monarch who had made the moon the symbol for her personal and political chastity. Oberon's rich evocation of a mermaid, a dolphin, and song strengthens the probability of this allusion. James Boaden in 1832 first asserted that certain details of Oberon's speech configure imaginative elements of a summer 1575 allegorical pageant presented by the earl of Leicester to Queen Elizabeth at the estate she had given him—Kenilworth, fourteen miles from Stratford.9 According to separate accounts of the entertainment written by Robert Laneham and George Gascoigne, the queen, returning to the castle after late-afternoon deer-hunting, at a small lake came upon “Triton, Neptune's blaster,” seated “upon a swimming mermayd (that from top too tayl was an eyghteen foot long).”10 (Gascoigne, in The Princely Pleasures at the Courte at Kenelwoorth, 1575, however, asserts that “Tryton, in likenesse of a mermaide, came towards the Queene's Majestie as she passed over the bridge, returning from hunting.”)11 Triton tells the queen that her mere appearance will be sufficient to make the captor of the Lady of the Lake release the maiden. After several allegorical speeches and the appearance of the Lady of the Lake herself, Elizabeth, according to Laneham, passing farther onto the bridge, encountered Arion “ryding alofte upon hiz old freend the dolphin.”12 (Gascoigne, however, states that “Protheus appeared, sitting on a dolphyn's back.”)13 One concludes that the impressions made on eyewitnesses of this pageant did not exactly correspond. Nevertheless both Laneham and Gascoigne agree that the mythological personage seated upon a dolphin sang a lyrical song and that ravishing music issued from a consort hidden within the sea creature.

Sometimes gentry of the neighborhood were invited to witness the sumptuous shows presented to Elizabeth on summer progress from one estate to another. Some romantically inclined Shakespeareans have imagined a prominent citizen of a town fourteen miles away and his eleven-year-old son watching the entertainment.14 Others posit a Stratford informant later telling the Shakespeares that he had “heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back / Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath / That the rude sea grew civil at her song.” Assuming Shakespeare's firsthand knowledge of the Kenilworth entertainment, a dubious proposition to say the least, is not necessary according to my later argument to justify his interest in evoking some of its details in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is enough for now to say that, since the entertainment involved the earl of Essex's stepfather, Leicester, and possibly his mother, the earl in the mid-1590s may have still been interested in certain aspects of it and that he, either directly, or through Southampton, may have directed Shakespeare's attention to published accounts of it.

Especially telling for adherents to the Kenilworth theory is the fact that Triton in Laneham's account of the pageantry charges “both Eolus with al his windez, the waters with hiz springs, hiz fysh and fooul … that they ne be so hardye in any fors to stur, but keep them calm and quiet while this Queen be prezent.”15 Likewise, Gascoigne has Triton “commanding … the waves to be calme.” “You waters wilde, suppresse your waves, and keepe you calme and plaine,” he orders.16 To this developing collation of details should be added a final ingredient from Leicester's pageantry: the spectacular fireworks that blazed on different July nights in the Warwickshire sky. Laneham describes “very straunge and sundry kindez of Fier-works, compeld by cunning to fly too and fro, and too mount very hye intoo the ayr upward, and also too burn unquenshabl in the water beneath.”17 On an earlier night, Jupiter displayed “hiz mayn poour; with blaz of burning darts, flying too and fro, leamz of starz coruscant, streamz and hail of firie sparkes, lightninges of wildfier a water and lond, flight & shoot of thunderbolz, all with such continuans, terror, and vehemencie, that the Heavins thundred, the waters soourged, the earth shooke.”18 These fireworks represent in this symbolic complex the “certain stars [that] shot madly from their spheres / To hear the sea-maid's music.” For some commentators, one of the “blaz of burning darts, flying too and fro,” depicts Cupid's “love-shaft,” “loosed … smartly from his bow.”

The likelihood of the Kenilworth allusion derives not from any one or two or even three of its elements corresponding to details of Oberon's rich evocation but from the unusual collation of mermaid-dolphin-sweet music-calmed water-and shooting stars in Shakespeare's poetry and Leicester's royal entertainment, arranged for the pleasure of the “fair vestal thronèd by the west,” the “imperial vot'ress,” secure from Cupid's dart, that Shakespeare immediately introduces into his scene.

Many commentators on A Midsummer Night's Dream have discounted all claims for the relevance of Leicester's Kenilworth entertainment for the play, chiefly because they cannot imagine that allusion to an ephemeral, twenty-year-old pageant would mean much to playgoers in 1595. Those persuaded by this argument but also convinced that Oberon's fantastic description draws upon the symbolic pageantry of a summer entertainment presented to the queen have opted for the earl of Hertford's fête at Elvetham in 1591, an event more likely to remain in some playgoers' memories in 1595. At Elvetham, Hertford's laborers dug a crescent-shaped pond enclosing to the north a promontory between the horns of the watery crescent. Hertford literally throned the “fair vestal” Elizabeth on the west side of the pond. Neaera, chief of the Nereids, onboard a ship in this entertainment approached Elizabeth, singing. In an article claiming the Elvetham pageantry as a source for details in Oberon's vision, Edith Rickert, citing a passage in Antony and Cleopatra, asserts that Shakespeare did not distinguish between Nereids and mermaids and that—in a highly questionable claim—the dramatist's phrase “dolphin's back” was a contemporary metaphor for a ship, which was sometimes synecdochically represented by its dolphin figurehead.19 Moreover, fireworks graced the final night of the queen's visit. These fell into the waters of the crescent moon, inspiring Shakespeare—so this argument goes—to write “But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft / Quenched in the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon.”20

Making a Nereid on a boat equivalent to a mermaid on a dolphin seems a bit more forced than the conjunction of mermaid-dolphin-sweet music-calmed water-shooting stars in the Kenilworth entertainment. And yet the Elvetham pageant explains some details of Oberon's speech—the promontory, the throne to the west, the fiery dart quenched in the moon—better than the Kenilworth entertainment does. Incongruities between each entertainment and the details of Oberon's remembrance have led a third (perhaps the largest) group of commentators to assert that Shakespeare simply conflated certain details of both pageants, or that he had no specific entertainment for Elizabeth in mind when he wrote Oberon's speech but drew generally upon his knowledge of the recurring ingredients of this royal subgenre.

Still, Oberon's speech has the feel of topical allegory and only aspects of the Kenilworth entertainment can explain apparently allegorical details of the latter half of Oberon's rhapsodic speech. Obviously the passage is designed to praise the Virgin Queen. When Oberon says—

But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft
Quenched in the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon,
And the imperial vot'ress passèd on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free—

auditors immediately understand that Oberon (and through him Shakespeare) has complimented Elizabeth, whose strong chastity deflects suitors' amorous darts such that her mind is meditative, wise, untroubled by the romantic desire that they see making fools of the Athenian youths in the play. And yet this compliment is qualified—in fact, it disappears—when, upon reflection, the auditor (but more likely the reader) realizes that Cupid's “fiery shaft” (a phallic image) does penetrate the queen, for she was symbolically equivalent to the moon, whether full or crescent. Oberon does say that Cupid's shaft was quenched “in the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon.” The method is typical of the play, in which Elizabeth is complimented at the same time that she is not complimented.

In 1843, N. J. Halpin further developed Boaden's claim for the relevancy of the Kenilworth entertainment for the play by asserting that, when Shakespeare had Cupid's deflected bolt fall upon “a little western flower,” purpling it with “love's wound,” he was directly involving Kenilworth's owner, the earl of Leicester, in his allegory.21 The earl had been one of the queen's most promising suitors; but, thwarted for years of his prize, he in the mid-1570s began an affair with and later in 1578 secretly married the mother of Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex—Lettice Knollys, countess of Essex. At the time of the Kenilworth entertainment, the countess lived in the western part of England. In this allegory, Elizabeth's lack of encouragement, her coldness, deflects the long-suffering Leicester's passion onto a “little western flower.” The countess, who could be considered “milk-white” in her long-standing reputation for purity, became stained (“purple with love's wound”). The widow of Walter, earl of Essex, would become the third and final wife of the earl of Leicester, but not before charges of adultery tainted her moral character. Later, the revelation of his secret marriage forever ruined Leicester's hopes of attaining the queen's most special favor. This allegorical reading indirectly criticizes the blind, categorical power of Elizabeth's chastity by suggesting the frustration and discord it could provoke.

At this point, I am not asking my reader to accept the Kenilworth allegorical reading of Oberon's speech but simply to contemplate it, hold it in suspension in his or her mind while we allegorically read Titania's, Oberon's, and Bottom's triangular relationship. For now, it is enough to note that, in the above-described reading, the earl of Essex's mother, Lettice Knollys, who an angry queen barred from her presence, gets her revenge (as does indirectly Essex's deceased stepfather, Leicester); for it is the essence of the “little western flower,” her juice, that makes the Fairy Queen act foolishly in a degrading erotic relationship with a bestial man. The obvious connection between the Kenilworth reading of Oberon's speech and a potential allegorical reading of Titania's relationship with Bottom involves a complex of Elizabeth, her chastity, and a suitor. Following this train of thought, let us then provisionally read allegorically the Fairy Queen's amour with Bottom, King Oberon's interest in it, and his insistence that the queen give him the Indian Boy to be a “henchman” (royal groom) in his retinue. Besides Leicester, the only other suitor with whom Elizabeth conducted a protracted affair of the heart was Francis, the French duke of Alençon (after 1578, duke of Anjou). In fact, the queen, by several accounts, appeared genuinely to love the homely little man she almost married in November 1581.

At the beginning of act 4, Titania's fairies pamper the ass-headed lover upon whom she dotes:

Scratch my head, Peaseblossom. Where's Monsieur Cobweb?
Monsieur Cobweb, good monsieur, get you your weapons in your hand and kill me a red-hipped humble-bee on the top of a thistle; and, good monsieur, bring me the honeybag. Do not fret yourself too much in the action, monsieur; and, good monsieur, have a care the honeybag break not. I would be loath to have you overflowen with a honeybag, signior. [Exit Cobweb] Where's Monsieur Mustardseed?
Give me your neaf, Monsieur Mustardseed. Pray you, leave your courtesy, good monsieur.
What's your will?
Nothing, good monsieur, but to help Cavaliery Peaseblossom to scratch. I must to the barber's, monsieur, for methinks I am marvellous hairy about the face; and I am such a tender ass, if my hair do but tickle me I must scratch.

(4.1.7-26, italics mine)

Eleven times Bottom addresses the fairies as “monsieur” in this brief dialogue; by excessive repetition, this word dominates these exchanges. In no way has Shakespeare characterized the fairies as French. Editors of the play have rarely offered an explanation for Bottom's form of address. The most notorious “monsieur” in England during the latter decades of the sixteenth century was Elizabeth's beloved, ardent suitor, the duke of Anjou; for “Monsieur” was one of the two names by which the queen regularly addressed her potential royal consort both in her reported conversation and in surviving letters written to him. In a 27 September 1579 proclamation against John Stubbs's pamphlet opposing her anticipated marriage, an angry Elizabeth asserted that his and others' “‘divinations’ … were nothing but ‘forged lies against a prince of royal blood, as Monsieur the French King's brother’” (my italics).22 “The title Monsieur,” in the words of Marion A. Taylor, “was the honorific bestowed upon the brother of a king of France when his brother became heir to the throne.”23 In the summer of 1580, Elizabeth wrote to Sir Edward Stafford, “‘I am sure the [Dutch] States have accorded to the demands of Monsieur. … Oh, Stafford, I think not myself well used, and so tell Monsieur that I am made a stranger to myself. … Let it please Monsieur to suspend his answers unto [the common posts of London]. … I dare not assure Monsieur how this great matter will end until I be assured what way he will take with the Low Countries …’” (my italics).24 The unpopularity of the projected marriage with a French Catholic prince made “Monsieur” a term of mockery with the Leicester-Sidney-Walsingham faction and among other English Protestants. In Shakespeare's play, the word “Monsieur” characterizes the Fairy Queen's oafish suitor more than it does the fairies he addresses.

Elizabeth was fond of giving nicknames to her trusted servants. The duke of Anjou quickly became her “Frog” and Jean de Simier—Anjou's Master of the Wardrobe who in Anjou's absence first courted the queen in England for him—her “Ape” or “Monkey.”25 Elizabeth plied her Ape “with small gifts for Monsieur—handkerchiefs, gloves, or, more significant, miniatures of herself.”26 Later, Anjou would send her from across the Channel fresh flowers and a miniature gold frog as a love token. The twenty-four-year-old Anjou “addressed her in devoted and passionate language, and she seemed to enjoy it, and showed every sign of falling in love with him.”27 In August 1579, Anjou slipped over to England for a secret rendezvous with Elizabeth. “Simier had been assigned a pavilion in the gardens of Greenwich Palace, where the duke was to stay incognito. He arrived early one morning before anyone was awake and Simier put him to bed, writing Elizabeth a suggestive little note, wishing to God she was between the sheets with his master. At dusk she slipped out of the palace with only one lady and they supped with Simier and the duke.”28 The occasion was a great success, causing Elizabeth to believe that the French prince was better-looking than she had been led to believe. But in the eyes of the majority of her courtiers and those subjects who eventually saw Anjou, he was a presumptuous, homely Catholic who threatened as potential royal consort to ruin England through disadvantageous alliances and foolish acts of policy. So hard was believing that the queen could find Anjou attractive that Leicester started a rumor that Simier had been giving Elizabeth love potions.

Shakespeare's staging of the Fairy Queen's infatuation with Bottom reprises the Elizabeth/Anjou affair from a Protestant viewpoint. An ocular love potion—the juice of the magical pansy—causes Titania foolishly to dote upon a lover unworthy of her, a suitor that only she can find handsome.29 Like Elizabeth, doting Titania showers her beloved with little gifts. Like her, she coins an endearing love language for him, leading him into the recesses of her natural bower—a place analogous to the Greenwich garden pavilion where Elizabeth perhaps imagined herself “between the sheets.” In his defamatory pamphlet, John Stubbs had suggested that the likelihood that a dissolute life had given Anjou syphilis was reason enough to discourage thoughts of his marriage with Elizabeth.30 Syphilis, the “French pox,” gets associated with Bottom when he tells Peter Quince that he can play Pyramus “in either your straw-colour beard, your orange-tawny beard, your purple-in-grain beard, or your French-crown-colour beard, your perfect yellow,” and Quince replies, “Some of your French crowns have no hair at all, and then you will play bare faced” (1.2.83-88). While Bottom refers to the gold color of a French coin, Quince puns upon a head bald from syphilis, the “French” disease, and associates this symptom of advanced syphilis with Bottom barefaced.31

At this point, my reader might object that, if Shakespeare had wanted auditors to think of Anjou in connection with Bottom, he would have done well to have Puck transform the rude mechanical into an ape rather than an ass (Simier and Anjou were often conflated in disapproving English imaginations into a composite suitor). Shakespeare and Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen reveals that repertory companies could introduce onto the stage the apelike Bavian of the morris dance, with his comic “long tool” and simian disguise. Oberon imagines that the first thing Titania will see, once Puck squeezes the magical juice into her eyes and she awakens, will be a “meddling monkey” or a “busy ape” (2.1.181). But the notorious example of Edmund Spenser's Prosopopoia: or Mother Hubberds Tale, composed in 1579 and published with his Complaints in 1591, argued against transforming Bottom into an ape. James Bednarz, Robert Reid, and Harold F. Brooks, among others, believe that one of the entertainments proposed in A Midsummer Night's Dream for Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding—“‘The thrice-three muses mourning for the death / Of learning, late deceased in beggary’” (5.1.52-53)—alludes not to the miserable death of dramatist and scholar Robert Greene but to the tone and substance of Spenser's argument in “The Teares of the Muses,” a poem included in the Complaints volume.32 This possibility suggests that Shakespeare most likely opened Spenser's Complaints while he was writing A Midsummer Night's Dream. Edwin Greenlaw in 1910 first read the allegorical beast fable of the latter part of Prosopopoia (ll.949-1384) as a veiled Protestant criticism of Elizabeth's potential marriage with the duke of Anjou.33 In this Aesopian fable, an ape (Simier) and a fox (Lord Burghley) attempt to hoodwink a lion (Elizabeth), eventually stealing her skin. Wearing it, the ape along with the fox tyrannize over all estates until their mistakes of rule and the awakening lion drive them off. A late stanza of The Faerie Queene apparently alludes to a profound dislike that Elizabeth's minister Burghley had taken to Spenser.34 It is quite likely that it sprang from his knowledge that Spenser had cast him as the fox in his poem. It is also quite likely that Burghley's influence with Elizabeth in this respect insured that Spenser would never win from her the material preferment that he thought his long epic in praise of her had earned him. Through Southampton and—behind him—Essex and a circle of Protestant noblemen, Shakespeare would likely have been aware of the disaster that Spenser had brought upon himself by not making his allegorical conceit sufficiently dark. Thus Bottom in my hypothetical reading becomes an ass and not an ape, with the advantage of making possible a dramatic pun on “ass”/“ace” and the connotation of sexual prowess lent by the analogue of the Apuleius story. In summary, the singularity and notoriety of Elizabeth's dotage on Anjou would have made some of Shakespeare's playgoers, admittedly a small audience,35 think of that courtship when viewing the Fairy Queen's affair with “Monsieur” Bottom, especially since it replicated details of Elizabeth's and Anjou's amour.

Before leaving this symbolic dimension of A Midsummer Night's Dream, we should note a connection between the Elizabeth-Anjou affair and that involving Leicester, Elizabeth, and Lettice Knollys. According to Maria Perry, Leicester's spring 1578 marriage to Lettice Knollys was kept secret “until the autumn of 1579, when Simier told the Queen that Leicester was married to revenge himself on the earl for trying to wreck the negotiations for Elizabeth to marry [Anjou].”36 In actuality, Simier “struck back by inducing two courtier allies of his, the crypto-Catholics, Henry Howard and Charles Arundel, to reveal to the Queen Leicester's marriage.”37 Upon this discovery, Elizabeth's rage grew so great that she almost had Leicester imprisoned; she never afterward lost an opportunity to insult Lettice Knollys, and she never allowed Leicester to bring his wife to court. After Leicester died, “Elizabeth made Lettice pay back every penny he owed to the Crown. The countess sold jewelry to raise £ 50,000 and the Queen snatched back estates she had given him.”38 Perry speculates that Elizabeth's realization that her former suitor Leicester apparently loved another woman so much that he was willing to risk the queen's certain rage by marrying her intensified her desire to marry Anjou as compensation for her hurt ego.39

Titania's humiliating love affair constitutes Oberon's punishment of the Fairy Queen for her refusal to give him the Indian Boy. Allegorically, what could this punishment mean? Who do Oberon and the Indian Boy represent? In Book 2, canto 10 of Spenser's The Faerie Queene (published in 1590 and republished in 1596), Sir Guyon in Alma's Castle reads an old book titled Antiquitie of Faerie lond (2.10.70-76), a work celebrating the famous ancestors of Gloriana (Queen Elizabeth). There he finds that, after the “sundry gouernments” of “seuen hundred Princes” (, Elficleos (King Henry VII) “did rayne,”

The wise Elficleos in great Maiestie,
Who mightily that scepter did sustayne,
And with rich spoiles and famous victorie,
Did high aduaunce the crowne of Faery:
He left two sonnes, of which faire Elferon
The eldest brother did vntimely dy;
Whose emptie place the mightie Oberon
Doubly supplide, in spousall, and dominion.
Great was his power and glorie ouer all,
Which him before, that sacred seate did fill,
That yet remaines his wide memoriall:
He dying left the fairest Tanaquill,
Him to succeede therein, by his last will:
Fairer and nobler liueth none this howre,
Ne like in grace, ne like in learned skill;
Therefore they Glorian call that glorious flowre,
Long mayst thou Glorian liue, in glory and great powre.


In this dark conceit, Elferon is Henry VIII's elder brother, Prince Arthur, whose premature death permitted Oberon (Henry VIII) to marry Arthur's widow, Catherine of Aragon. (Thus Henry VIII “Doubly supplide” his brother's place, “in spousall, and dominion”). Spenser stresses that King Oberon's last will and testament named Tanaquill, Elizabeth, his royal successor.41

King Henry VIII as the Fairy King Oberon also materializes in the dialogue of Thomas Dekker's The Whore of Babylon, published in 1607 and written and performed most likely the same year. Drawing upon Spenser's great poem for its conception of England as faeryland and English lords and ladies as elves and fairies, Dekker's ambitious play, which he considered a “Dramaticall Poem,” set forth in “Tropicall and shadowed collours”—in allegorical symbolism, in other words—amounts to virulent anti-Catholic satire based on events of the 1580s leading up to and including the formation of the Spanish Armada.42 Commentators on The Whore of Babylon have long recognized the influence on it of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Throughout the play, Elizabeth, the Fairy Queen, is called Titania, the name Shakespeare first associated with her twelve years earlier. Moreover, in these verses of the Empress of Babylon—“Fiue Summers haue scarce drawn their glimmering nights / Through the Moons siluer bowe” (1.1.47-48)—several commentators have heard the echo of these lines of Hippolyta's from Shakespeare's play: “Four nights will quickly dream away the time; / And then the moon, like to a silver bow” (1.1.8-9).43 Like Spenser, Dekker allegorically traces Elizabeth's royal lineage. Florimell (the earl of Leicester) reports that Elfiline (Henry VII) “to immortal shades being gone,”

(Fames minion) great King Oberon,
Titaniaes royall father, liuely springs,
Whose Court was like a campe of none but Kings.
From this great conquering Monarchs glorious stemme,
Three (in direct line) wore his Diadem:
A King first, then a paire of Queens, of whom,
Shee that was held a downe-cast, by Fates doome,
Sits now aboue their hopes: her maiden hand,
Shall with a silken thred guide Fairie land.


Soon afterward, a king representing France tells Titania that his land is

Of breath so sweet, and of aspect so faire,
That to behold her, and to conquer her,
(In amorous combats,) great king Oberon,
Your awefull father, oft ha's thither come,
Like to a bridegroome, or a Reueller,
And gone agen in goodly triumphs home.


Obviously Dekker's source in this instance is The Faerie Queene 2.10.75-76. Nevertheless, the presence of elements of A Midsummer Night's Dream in The Whore of Babylon suggests that Dekker also may have understood that Oberon in Shakespeare's play figures Titania's royal father and capitalized upon an association known to contemporaries.

By depicting Titania and Oberon as married, Shakespeare allegorically suggests that Elizabeth is “married” to the Tudor line, or to her Tudor heritage. In 1595, she was long past childbearing and the use of a royal marriage to produce an heir. Titania and Oberon's marriage is barren because the aged Fairy Queen was barren. Her barrenness entailed the barrenness, the end, of the direct Tudor line fathered by King Henry VII. Much of Shakespeare's play has the quality and logic of a dream. Dreams usually distort and rearrange the relationships of both present and past reality. By a strange dream logic, Oberon's punishment of Titania by causing her to fall in love with an ass figuratively becomes Henry VIII's punishment of his daughter by making her, to the scorn of her subjects, futilely fall in love with the duke of Anjou. (The futility of the Titania/Bottom amour emphasizes the political futility of Elizabeth and Anjou's affair, insuring by allegorical logic that Oberon/Henry VIII is not really risking a Catholic succession). Oberon punishes Titania because she will not give him the Indian Boy. By in effect burying the Boy in a stereotypically feminized, “Elizabethan” world of bowers, Titania would render him unfit for the stereotypic masculine active world of the hunt and of the activities of King Oberon's train.

Homer Swander has established that Titania's bower (like Oberon's) exists offstage unseen, in mysterious faeryland—not to be confused with the onstage bank canopied with flowers where Titania sleeps.44 Despite this distinction, editors, directors, actors, and playgoers generally conflate the two places mentally if not geographically. This would have been especially the case with Shakespeare's original audience, more familiar than modern audiences with the properties of Spenser's Bower of Bliss in The Faerie Queene, Book 2; for the poet's Bower resembles Titania's canopied bank.45 Thus audiences imagine the bower as a locus of torpor, of sleep, of relative idleness reminiscent of other natural wombs of withdrawal in The Faerie Queene.

Oberon punishes Titania with the silly futility of the Anjou affair because she will not give him an heir to raise. The implication is that A Midsummer Night's Dream is a succession play, a drama partly about barren Elizabeth and the selection of her successor. Elizabeth had explicitly forbad on penalty of severe punishment—John Stubbs had had his hand cut off—any public discussion of the succession issue. Yet Shakespeare does so through an especially dark conceit. Who, then, is the Indian Boy? The answer is an astounding one, and yet it accords with the dream logic of Shakespeare's allegory and with the preference of the patron Shakespeare sought in 1593-95—the earl of Southampton, and through him with that of Southampton's intimate friend the earl of Essex and the Protestant circle of noblemen associated with them both.

James L. Calderwood asserts that “if Shakespeare had intended the boy … to have any importance in his own person, surely he would have put him onstage. By not doing so, he does to him theatrically what Oberon and Titania do to him rhetorically—transform him into a signifier in a system of communication.”46 It is as a signifier in an allegorical system of communication between Shakespeare and a select audience, a communication involving the English succession, that the Indian Boy gains meaning. Throughout the 1580s and 1590s no one mentions a child the presumed age of the Indian Boy as a rightful successor. All the candidates are adult men and women. This fact suggests that the dreamlike distortion of this aspect of Shakespeare's political allegory is perhaps more extreme than elsewhere in the play.

The first thing to notice is Shakespeare's estrangement of the Indian Boy and his mother. The Indian Boy is a changeling, like Georgos, the Red Cross Knight, in Book I of The Faerie Queene. Shakespeare could have easily made the Boy an Athenian rather than an Indian changeling; after all, the fairy wood borders Theseus's Athens.47 Editors and commentators invariably understand Titania's statement that the Boy's mother was “a vot'ress of my order” (2.1.123) to mean that she was a devotee of Titania, a member of an order devoted to worshipping the moon-queen. But Oberon refers to Titania's alter ego—“the fair vestal thronèd by the west”—as an “imperial vot'ress” (2.1.163). It makes little sense to think of the Boy's mother as a devotee of a queen when queens themselves are devotees of a goddess.48 When Titania says that the Indian Boy's mother was a “vot'ress” of her order she implies that the woman was a devotee of her rank, of her order—in other words a queen, an “imperial vot'ress.” By conceiving of the Boy and his mother as Indian rather than Athenian, Shakespeare makes them royal aliens. Puck does say that the “lovely boy” was “stol'n from [a widowed] Indian king” (2.1.22). The potential claimant of Elizabeth's throne mentioned throughout the 1590s who was legally an alien was King James VI of Scotland, son of an alien monarch, Mary Queen of Scots.

In his last will and testament, made on 30 December 1546, Henry VIII had, in default of the issue of his son Edward VI and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, settled the crown on the rightful heirs of Henry's late sister Mary, queen of France and afterward duchess of Suffolk. In the 1590s, that heir was Edward Lord Beauchamp, the eldest son of the eldest representative of Mary's marriage to Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk—Lady Katherine Grey.49 Early in her reign, Elizabeth had refused to allow the marriage of Katherine Grey to Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford. But Katherine secretly married Seymour anyway, and in the summer of 1561 became pregnant with the child who became Lord Beauchamp. Queen Elizabeth sent father and mother to the Tower, insisted that their marriage was invalid, and declared Edward Beauchamp illegitimate. Furthermore, it was determined that the signature privileging the Suffolk line was not signed by Henry himself but that someone had used his dry stamp instead. The questionable authenticity of the will thus compounded the problem of Lord Beauchamp's illegitimacy and his own marriage of disparagement, which had involved Lady Katherine Grey's son in many difficulties. Henry VIII had omitted any mention of the line of Scotland in his will. Given that omission, Elizabethans by the 1590s saw a crowd fill the field of succession. Among the potential claimants of the English throne were the earls of Derby and of Huntingdon; the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, daughter of King Philip II of Spain; Lady Arabella Stewart, descended from Margaret, daughter of King Henry VII; and eight other persons descended from King Edward III, among whom were several foreign princes.50

The problematical status of Henry VIII's will, the indirection of claimants' title, the faintness, even illegality of the blood lines of some of them—these and other factors made a large number of Elizabeth's subjects regard King James VI of Scotland the heir to the English throne.51 James's mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was the granddaughter of Henry VIII's elder sister, Margaret; by hereditary descent, she was next in the line of succession.52 Her treasonous complicity in the Babington plot to overthrow Elizabeth and her execution did not alter genealogical fact. James VI's strongest advocates had always been the Protestant disciples of the earl of Leicester, Sir Philip Sidney, and their circle. In the 1590s they included Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex, and his protégé, Henry Wriothesley, the earl of Southampton. At this point, readers might object that Titania's fervent devotion to the memory of the Indian votaress and to her child, the Indian Boy, hardly squares with Mary Queen of Scots' opposition to Elizabeth's rule, her execution, and Elizabeth's and James's sometimes testy relationship. I have suggested that at times the political allegory of A Midsummer Night's Dream appears distorted, in the manner that daytime events are by dreams. Elizabeth had always refused the request of counselors that she by legislation exclude Mary as her potential successor. Moreover, she had annually paid King James a pension of £ 3,000, a tribute that marked him as successor. (These monies were paid throughout the 1590s, after Queen Mary's execution in 1587). These and other facts likely reflect, at least in part, the positive bond that Elizabeth felt for her royal blood relative and her son and that she attempted to conceal. This bond, however weak or hidden, forms a basis for a psychological phenomenon familiar to Freudians: the conversion in dream of waking animosity to liking or love, a process driven by unacknowledged guilt. Elizabeth's decision to behead Catholic Mary was quite likely the most delayed and agonizing decision of her reign. The Indian votaress's death becomes the catalyst for Titania's profound caring for the Boy; if the real Fairy Queen felt some responsibility for that event, in dream the concern for the surviving son's welfare would be intensified. Banished Katherine Grey had been dead from natural causes for too many decades (since 1568, in fact) and Lord Beauchamp was too illegitimate for them to represent the Indian votaress and her son.

In Shakespeare's dark conceit, King Henry VIII as Oberon claims James VI as his surrogate son and heir as he did not (and, as regards sonship, could not) in his 1546 will and testament. Oberon's wish to “trace the forests wild” with the Boy a “Knight of his train” (2.1.25) replicates James's notorious addiction to the sport of hunting, which was well known in England while he was still king of Scotland.53 Indirectly supporting my general allegorical reading are certain features of Robert Greene's dramatic romance The Scottish History of James the Fourth, a play dated 1588-92, with late 1590 the most likely time of composition and performance. Because the character Oberon, king of the fairies, appears as a kind of chorus in Greene's play, editors of A Midsummer Night's Dream sometimes cite Greene's work as a possible influence on Shakespeare. In the Induction of James IV, Oberon and a fairy Antic dance at night about a tomb, starting from it the spirit of a Scot named Bohan. Oberon and Bohan comment on the developing events of this historical romance from a vantage point outside the frame of the drama. At the conclusion of the play, they enter, and the Scottish spirit says, “And here we'll make ends. The mirk and sable night / Doth leave the peering morn to pry abroad” (Act 5, chorus 5, 1-2).54 After Bohan requests that Oberon allow him to return to his grave, the Fairy King exclaims, “The rising sun doth call me hence away; / Thanks for thy jig, I may no longer stay” (Act 5, chorus 5, 11-12). These verses and this context set the precedent for Robin Goodfellow's warning to Oberon that their rectification of love's inequities “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,

and the Fairy King's reply,

But we are spirits of another sort.
I with the morning's love have oft made sport,
And like a forester the groves may tread
Even till the eastern gate, all fiery red,
Opening on Neptune with fair blessèd beams
Turns into yellow gold his salt green streams.

(3.2.379-82, 388-93)

More to the point, however, is the degree to which Greene's James IV anticipates the allegorical significance of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The historical James IV of Scotland married Margaret, elder sister of King Henry VIII, a union that established Mary Queen of Scots' and King James VI's claim to the English monarchy. Greene's play begins with James IV's and the king of England's protestation of mutual love and friendship based on James's recent marriage to the king of England's daughter, Dorothea. James immediately invests her with a crown, “that heralds may proclaim / Fair Dorothea peerless Queen of Scots!” (I.i.29-30). “Long live and prosper our fair Queen of Scots!” everyone on stage shouts as Dorothea is installed and crowned. Written and performed most likely within three or four years after the sentencing and execution of Mary Queen of Scots, Greene's play includes the repetition of a phrase, “Queen of Scots,” bound to startle auditors and evoke the image of a different, tragic Queen of Scots in their minds. And indeed for most of the play Queen Dorothea's role appears destined for martyrdom, for the play concerns James IV's ahistorical infatuation with Ida, his attempts to win her to his lust, and his consequent plot to have Dorothea murdered. Repentant, however, he begs the king of England's and Dorothea's forgiveness, which she grants him.

Accompanying this fictional romantic plot are several passages apparently critical of King James VI and the contemporary Scottish court.55 Among them are purported allusions to James VI's alleged susceptibility to flattery and his troubles with his nobles after his return from his marriage trip to Denmark. “In the year 1520,” Bohan says in Greene's Induction, “was in Scotland a king, overruled with parasites, misled by lust, and many circumstances too long to trattle on now, much like our court of Scotland this day” (106-9). Yet despite this apparent criticism, Greene projects a model for English-Scottish relationships consistent with the allegorical import of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Bishop of St. Andrews tells James IV,

Thou art allied unto the English king
By marriage: a happy friend indeed
If usèd well; if not, a mighty foe.


Greene's play advocates a harmonious relationship between the English and Scottish monarchs, a conciliatory note after 1587-88 for the 1590s. In Act 5, scene 6, Greene's dialogue works to encourage the English monarch's acceptance of an erring Scottish king. A peacemaker, Queen Dorothea excuses James and tells her royal father,

My gracious father, govern your affects;
Give me that hand, that oft hath blessed this head,
And clasp thine arms, that have embracèd this,
About the shoulders of my wedded spouse.


Enthusiastically responding to his daughter's plea for incorporation, the king of England exclaims,

Thou provident kind mother of increase,
Thou must prevail, ah, Nature, thou must rule.
Hold, daughter, join my hand and his in one;
I will embrace him for to favour thee;
I call him friend and take him for my son.


“Ah, royal husband,” Dorothea tells James, “see what God hath wrought”:

Thy foe is now thy friend. Good men-at-arms,
Do you the like. These nations, if they join,
What monarch with his liegemen in this world
Dare but encounter you in open field?


Dorothea stresses a union that James VI would tirelessly advocate to Parliament once he became James I of England: the merger of Scotland and England into a single political entity. More important, by showing the English monarch forgiving and embracing a Scottish king named James, Greene in a play containing Oberon, king of the Fairies, sets a precedent for Shakespeare in a later play including Oberon as regards the import of his political allegory. Shakespeare's allegory implies that, regardless of his actual will and testament, King Henry VIII (if he could have) would have made James VI of Scotland his surrogate son and member of his train and thus would have informed Queen Elizabeth—Titania—of the person she ought to embrace as her successor.

The remainder of this essay involves speculation about why Shakespeare would have introduced this particular political allegory into A Midsummer Night's Dream. The following scenario depends upon Shakespeare's mid-1590s relationship with the earl of Southampton. Ascertaining the closeness of patron and poet's relationship has proved impossible. Nevertheless, a tradition “coming down from Sir William Davenant, who had known Shakespeare and was in a position to learn, tells us that Southampton gave his poet at one time a large sum to go through with a purchase he had a mind to. It is generally thought that it was this that gave Shakespeare his share in the company which was to become so famous”56—the Lord Chamberlain's company, formed in 1594 with Shakespeare as principal dramatist. The second assumption upon which the scenario is based concerns Southampton's friendship with Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex, and his enlistment of Shakespeare to promote his own but especially Devereux's political agenda. The chorus's overt praise of the earl of Essex in Henry V reveals Shakespeare's positive attitude toward Essex as late as 1599.57

Both Southampton and Essex as boys were wards of Lord Burghley. A nine-year-old ward of the Lord Treasurer at Cecil House, Southampton likely met Essex for the first time there, when the fifteen-year-old Essex returned to his guardian's home after completing his studies at Cambridge.58 As they grew older, the young men grew together in their desire to emulate a Protestant model of homo universalis, Sir Philip Sidney. Sidney's widow had married Essex, and Southampton was to marry one of Essex's cousins. By 1593-94, Southampton was Essex's protégé, part of a circle of brash young aristocrats about the charismatic, impetuous earl, who was rapidly becoming Elizabeth's favorite. “To Southampton,” according to Charlotte Stopes, “Essex became the ideal knight, to whom he was willing to become esquire, or even page.”59 Both Southampton and Essex were poets who assiduously cultivated poets and attended plays, in part because they believed that poetry joined with music and scholarship to complement Protestant militarism so as to form the successors of Sir Philip Sidney.60 Southampton accompanied Essex in 1597 on the latter's naval campaign against the Spanish in the Azores, and he was later imprisoned for his part in the Essex Rebellion. Interestingly (for my argument), freeing Southampton and pardoning him was one of King James's first acts as the new English monarch.

In 1595 both Essex and Southampton fell out of favor with Queen Elizabeth. Early in this year, Essex's “open displays of bad temper and petulance were causing her Majesty a good deal of annoyance.”61 Furthermore, in 1595 a book appeared in England titled A Conference on the Next Succession to the Crown of England, which proved detrimental to the earl's relationship with the queen. “[I]t was prefaced with a fulsome dedication to Essex himself, as though the Earl in some fashion endorsed the contents. It speculated on the subject Elizabeth had forbidden all to meddle with—who should succeed on her death.”62 After surveying the claims of potential successors, the anonymous author, most likely the Jesuit Robert Parsons, suggested that on Elizabeth's death “no other man was likely ‘to have a greater part or sway in deciding of this great affair’—the succession—than Essex himself.”63 To Elizabeth's irritation with Essex's dark moods was now added distrust. As Essex's standing with the queen sank, that of Southampton rose in 1595—but only momentarily so. Elizabeth zealously reserved to herself the decision concerning a maid of honor's marriage, and even her affair of the heart. In September 1595, the queen ceased favoring Southampton when she learned that he, without her permission, had become “too familiar” with one of her maids, Elizabeth Vernon, Essex's cousin.64 Even though he later married Vernon, Southampton never regained the royal favor he lost.

Thus in 1595, a year favored for the composition of A Midsummer Night's Dream, both Essex and Southampton had reason to be irritated with Elizabeth. Southampton was especially fond of Spenser's The Faerie Queene.65 As has been noted, the writing and performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream plausibly falls within the 1595-96 period of London anticipation of the publication of the next three books of Spenser's poem. Essex and Southampton (or Southampton himself) possibly asked Shakespeare to include in a comedy an image of Queen Elizabeth in her popular persona, the Fairy Queen, but demeaningly so, in a veiled allegory stressing the humiliation of her affair with Monsieur, the duke of Anjou. This relationship would be presented in the larger context of the forbidden subject, the English succession—the very topic of the 1595 scandalous book that compounded Essex's difficulties with Queen Elizabeth.

James VI of Scotland clearly was the earl of Essex's choice as Elizabeth's successor. As early as 1589 Essex began a not-so-secret correspondence with James, in which he promised his service and fidelity, via letters written partly in cipher.66 James in that year apparently concluded that he ought to favor Essex as inheriting the mantle—by way of Sir Philip Sidney and Essex's deceased stepfather, Leicester—of the militant English champion of Protestantism. James's negotiations of marriage to Anne of Denmark temporarily interrupted his correspondence with Essex. In October 1592, James wrote directly to Essex in order to persuade him to intervene with a recalcitrant Burghley on behalf of a Scotsman “who had been injured by English pirates and had not been allowed to execute his license to transport grain.”67 In 1593-94, James had to argue strenuously to get his annual pension from Elizabeth. He regarded the Burghleys, Lord William and his son Robert, as his adversaries in this matter; his favoring of Essex increased proportionally to his dislike for the Burghleys.

In these years, Essex and King James could be said to have corresponded indirectly, through letters written between James's London agent, David Foulis, and Essex's close friend, Anthony Bacon, and the reports of these two men to the king and earl.68 Helen Stafford notes that “Anthony Bacon, Essex's confidant, maintained a regular news service between London and Edinburgh, using agents Dr. Morrison, one Bruce, John Bothwell, laird of Holyroodhouse, and Dr. Harris, physician to the French King.”69 Essex had consulted Elizabeth and had replied to James via Maitland that he would hold correspondence with no one without her consent.70 But in this case, Essex certainly meant direct correspondence. Essex could encourage Southampton to urge Shakespeare to write a veiled dramatic allegory proclaiming James's right to the English throne. That text would constitute a witty “correspondence,” not so much between Essex and James as between Essex and more astute English playgoers. “In the spring of 1594, when the Bothwellian trouble was at its height, the King especially recommended his ambassadors, Easter Wemyss and Bruce, to Essex, commanding them to be guided by his advice in all their proceedings.”71

Thus ample evidence exists for Wallace MacCaffrey's claim that “from 1594 on [the earl of Essex] became the patron of James's causes at the English court.”72 As for the English succession, “the French ambassador gathered the impression that Essex favored James, although the Earl was very reticent about it. Certainly his actions bespoke it. At one time he wrote to James, ‘… such as I am, and all whatsoever I am (tho' perhaps a subject of small price) I consecrate vnto your regal throne. … Neither do I doubt, that the minds of all my country men … will jointly unite their hopes in your majesty's noble person, as the only center, wherein our rest and happiness consist.’”73 Ironically, Essex's reticence in endorsing James for the English throne gets registered in the obscurity of Shakespeare's allegory of Titania, Oberon, and the Indian Boy. The playwright, after all, had his own safety to consider.

A venerable critical tradition conceives of A Midsummer Night's Dream as a comedy originally written for private performance during the festivities accompanying the marriage of an aristocratic couple and then performed later, probably in revised form, before a public audience.74 Among the mid-1590s aristocratic marriages proposed for the play's first performance, that of William Stanley, earl of Derby, and Lady Elizabeth Vere, daughter of the earl of Oxford, granddaughter of Lord Burghley, and goddaughter and maid of honor to the queen, solemnized on 26 January 1595, has been advanced. Among its proponents is James Bednarz, who argues that Burghley's presence at its performance during wedding festivities explains certain satirical allusions to Spenser in the play: “It is likely that the lord treasurer's controlling presence behind the marriage acted as a catalyst for Shakespeare's parody of The Teares of the Muses, a work included in Spenser's Complaints volume, which repeatedly attacks Burghley for his barbaric indifference to culture and his unrestrained self-aggrandizement. Clever ridicule of Spenser would find a welcome audience at this gathering.”75 And so by my argument, clever allusive ridicule of the queen and indirectly of Burghley would have found a welcome coterie audience at another, later performance. Shakespeare may have found himself obliged to incorporate topical allusions flattering the opinions of mutually antagonistic, influential persons or coteries more often than we currently realize or are prepared to admit. It is remotely possible that at the same or different stages of the composition of A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare found himself under pressure to reflect ingeniously in his play the prejudices of adversarial noblemen. That he perhaps did so testifies to the courtly rather than folkloric artistry of his Dream.


  1. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, ed. Peter Holland, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon University Press, 1994). All quotations are taken from this edition.

  2. David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 17.

  3. Marco Mincoff, “Shakespeare and Lyly,” Shakespeare Survey 14 (1961): 15-24, esp. 20-22; G. K. Hunter, John Lyly: The Humanist as Courtier (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), 298-349, esp. 318; Leah Scragg, “Shakespeare, Lyly and Ovid: The Influence of Gallathea on A Midsummer Night's Dream,Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 125-34; Patricia Parker, “‘Rude Mechanicals’: A Midsummer Night's Dream and Shakespearean Joinery,” Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 83-115, esp. 102.

  4. See, for example, David Bevington, “Lyly's Endymion and Midas: The Catholic Question in England,” Comparative Drama 32 (1998): 26-46, and books and articles referred to in the notes of this essay.

  5. So Robert L. Reid argues in “The Fairy Queen: Gloriana or Titania?” The Upstart Crow: A Shakespeare Journal 13 (1993): 16-32, esp. 16-18. The seminal article for the relevance of various poems of Spenser's for the artistry of A Midsummer Night's Dream is James Bednarz's “Imitations of Spenser in A Midsummer Night's Dream,Renaissance Drama, n.s. 14 (1983): 79-102.

  6. Paul A. Olson, in “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage,” ELH 24 (1957): 95-119, asserts that, “[l]ike Spenser, Shakespeare uses the shadow country [of the woods] to represent the ‘Other-world of allegory—that is, of Platonic Ideas, which constitute a higher reality of which earthly things are only imperfect copies’” (107-08). Olson is quoting Josephine Waters Bennett. In this vein, also see Jane K. Brown, “Discordia Concors: On the Order of A Midsummer Night's Dream,Modern Language Quarterly 48 (1987): 20-41, esp. 20-21.

  7. Martin Dzelzainis, “Shakespeare and Political Thought,” in A Companion to Shakespeare, ed. David Scott Kastan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 100-16, esp. 107, 109.

  8. Margot Heinemann, in “Rebel Lords, Popular Playwrights, and Political Culture: Notes on the Jacobean Patronage of the Earl of Southampton,” The Yearbook of English Studies 21 (1991): 63-86, remarks that “the very variety of anti-absolutist ideas and oppositional views of history within the Essex circle, openly discussed as they could never have been at Court, may indeed have contributed to Shakespeare's astonishingly multivocal drama” (64).

  9. Boaden's claim has been further established and developed by N. J. Halpin, “Oberon's Vision” in The Midsummer-Night's Dream, Illustrated by a Comparison with Lylie's Endymion, (London: Shakespeare Society, 1843), 16-25, 90-95; George Brandes, William Shakespeare: A Critical Study, trans. William Archer, Mary Morison, and Diana White (1898; reprint, London: William Heinemann, 1905), 65-66; John Dover Wilson, Shakespeare's Happy Comedies (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), 195; and Roger Warren, “Shakespeare and the Princely Pleasures at Kenilworth,” Notes and Queries, n.s., 18 (1971): 137-39.

  10. Robert Laneham, A Letter: Whearin, part of the Entertainment, untoo the Queenz Maiesty, at Killingworth Castl, in Warwick Sheer … iz signified … The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, ed. John Nichols (1788-1805; reprint, London: Printed by N., 1823), 1:420-84, esp. 457.

  11. Nichols 1:485-523, esp. 498.

  12. Nichols, A Letter, 1:458.

  13. Nichols, The Princely Pleasures, 1:500.

  14. Halpin makes a case for the likelihood of the boy Shakespeare's presence at Kenilworth in 1575 (20-25, 43-46).

  15. Nichols, A Letter, 1:457.

  16. Nichols, The Princely Pleasures, 1:499.

  17. Nichols, A Letter, 1:440.

  18. Nichols, A Letter, 1:435.

  19. Edith Rickert, “Political Propaganda and Satire in A Midsummer Night's Dream,Modern Philology 21 (1923-24): 53-87, 133-54, esp. 55-56.

  20. Rickert, 56.

  21. See William Shakespeare, “A Midsommer Night's Dream”: A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, ed. Horace Howard Furness (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1895), 75-91; and Maurice Hunt, “The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the School of Night: An Intertextual Nexus,” Essays in Literature 23 (1996): 3-20, esp. 13-14.

  22. Maria Perry, The Word of a Prince: A Life of Elizabeth I from Contemporary Documents (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1990), 238.

  23. Marion A. Taylor, Bottom, Thou Art Translated: Political Allegory in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Related Literature (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1973), 40.

  24. Perry, 247-49.

  25. Wallace MacCaffrey, Elizabeth I (London: Edward Arnold, 1993), 199, 210.

  26. MacCaffrey, 199.

  27. Jasper Ridley, Elizabeth I: The Shrewdness of Virtue (New York: Viking Press, 1988), 208.

  28. Perry, 237.

  29. In this respect, my argument resembles that of Louis Adrian Montrose in his influential essay, “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations 1.2 (1983): 61-94. Montrose asserts that A Midsummer Night's Dream is a male fantasy of control over Queen Elizabeth: “With Cupid's flower, Oberon can make the Fairy Queen ‘full of hateful fantasies’ (2.1.258); and with Dian's bud, he can win her back to his will” (81). For an allegorical reading of the “old moon” of the play as representing the “ominous repressive power” of Elizabeth, see Richard Wilson, “The Kindly Ones: The Death of the Author in Shakespearean Athens,” Literature and Censorship, ed. Nigel Smith (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993), 1-24, esp. 13-16.

  30. Ridley, 208; Perry, 238.

  31. Two previous commentators have allegorically read Titania and Bottom's dotage as signifying Elizabeth and the Duke of Anjou's love affair: Alden Brooks, Will Shakespeare and the Dyer's Hand (New York: Scribner's, 1943), 95-98; and Taylor 31-50, 131-65. In Brooks's symbolic reading, Oberon figures Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester (95), who marries Lettice Knollys out of anger that Titania/Elizabeth will not hand over to him a changeling, a courtier with whom she had been flirting. Oberon/Leicester's humiliation of her through the pansy's spell backfires in Brooks's reading when the Fairy Queen falls in love with Leicester's rival, Anjou! Taylor anticipates my claim that Bottom's repeated utterance of the word “Monsieur” and his association with the French-crown disease evoke aspects of the duke of Anjou's character as the English understood it (136-39). Otherwise, she essentially adopts the details of Edith Rickert's reading except for Rickert's equation of Bottom with King James of Scotland.

  32. Bednarz, 82; Reid, 26; Harold F. Brooks, “Introduction,” A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1979), xxi-cxliii, esp. xxxix. Critics finding an allusion to Spenser's poem rather than to Greene in the proposed nuptial entertainment usually claim that the phrase “thrice-three” is a parody of Spenser's sometimes labored archaic diction.

  33. Edwin Greenlaw, “Spenser and the Earl of Leicester,” PMLA 25 (1910): 535-61. Rpt. in his Studies in Spenser's Historical Allegory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1932), 108-32. My citation of line numbers in Prosopopoia refers to the text in The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. William A. Oram et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 327-79.

  34. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London: Longman, 1977), 6.12.41. I explore this issue involving Lord Burghley and speculate on its consequences for Spenser's career in “Hellish Work in The Faerie Queene,Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 41 (2001): 91-108.

  35. Margot Heinemann nevertheless points out that the Essex/Southampton faction was as much a milieu as a circle, a larger milieu than is usually supposed, one that “included aristocrats who intensely resented their increased economic dependence on the Court and its ‘upstart’ favourites and the restriction of their military power, but also City Puritan ministers and ambitious army officers; rising diplomats, historians, and Oxford classical scholars; and a remarkable number of writers, playwrights, and poets, involved either as patrons or clients” (64).

  36. Perry, 240.

  37. MacCaffrey, 203. Also see Robert Lacey, Robert, Earl of Essex (New York: Atheneum, 1971), 17.

  38. Perry, 243.

  39. Perry, 240-42.

  40. All quotations of The Faerie Queene are taken from the Hamilton edition.

  41. Shakespeare was especially familiar with Book 2 of The Faerie Queene. I have demonstrated elsewhere that certain details of it constitute a subtext of As You Like It. (Maurice Hunt, “Wrestling for Temperance: As You Like It and The Faerie Queene, Book II,” Allegorica: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Literature 16 [1995]: 31-46). Furthermore, in canto 10 of Book 2, Shakespeare found not only the King Lear story vividly told (2.10.27-32), but also reference to King Cymbeline and his son Arvirage (Arviragus) and the fact that this monarch's reign coincided with the birth of Christ (2.10.50-52), a coincidence that the playwright exploits in Cymbeline.

  42. All quotations of The Whore of Babylon are taken from the text appearing in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), 2:491-592.

  43. See Rickert, 64.

  44. Homer Swander, “Editors vs. A Text: The Scripted Geography of A Midsummer Night's Dream,Studies in Philology 87 (1990): 83-108.

  45. Swander, 96, n.14; Olson, 111.

  46. James L. Calderwood, “A Midsummer Night's Dream: Anamorphism and Theseus' Dream,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 409-30, esp. 415.

  47. This point is posed in the form of questions by Margo Hendricks, “‘Obscured by dreams’: Race, Empire, and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream,Shakespeare Quarterly 47 (1996): 37-60, esp. 41. “But why does he have to be Indian? Why not describe the boy as merely a changeling child? Or, if critical tradition is correct that all the fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream are taken from English folklore, why not identify the changeling as the English boy?”

  48. Critics who have found the phrase “a vot'ress of my order” especially perplexing include Ernest Schanzer, “The Moon and the Fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream,University of Toronto Quarterly 24 (1955): 234-46, esp. 241-42; and William W. E. Slights, “The Changeling in A Dream,Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 28 (1988): 259-72, esp. 261. Attempting to interpret the phrase, Schanzer speculates: “The order of the fairy queen? With human votaresses? It does not make sense … the words ‘vot'ress of my order’ seem oddly chosen. Perhaps some topical allusion is the answer to the puzzle, with Titania at least in this episode standing for the Queen and the votaress perhaps for one of her ladies-in-waiting.”

  49. Correspondence of King James VI of Scotland with Sir Robert Cecil and Others in England, During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, ed. John Bruce (Westminster: The Camden Society, 1861), viii-x.

  50. Lacey, 127; Bruce, ix-xi.

  51. “The line of Henry VIII was about to fail. They must go back to Henry VII. James of Scotland was Henry VII's eldest lineal representative, his true and obvious and nearest heir. Building upon that foundation, the judgment of the vast majority of the people … was clearly in his favour” (Bruce, xii).

  52. Ridley, 131.

  53. Coppélia Kahn, in “‘Magic of bounty’: Timon of Athens, Jacobean Patronage, and Maternal Power,” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 34-57, esp. 56, associates Timon and James on the basis of their passion for hunting.

  54. Robert Greene, The Scottish History of James the Fourth, ed. Norman Sanders (London: Methuen, 1970). All quotations of Greene's play are taken from Sanders' edition.

  55. Sanders, xxvii, xxxiv-xxxv.

  56. A. L. Rowse, Shakespeare's Southampton: Patron of Virginia (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 85.

  57. Henry V, 5.0.29-34.

  58. G. P. V. Akrigg, Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 27; Lacey, 110.

  59. Charlotte C. Stopes, The Life of Henry, Third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's Patron (1922; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1969), 35.

  60. Lacey, 111.

  61. Akrigg, 47.

  62. Lacey, 127.

  63. Lacey, 127.

  64. Akrigg, 47-48; Rowse, 103-4.

  65. Stopes, 42.

  66. G. B. Harrison, The Life and Death of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (New York: Henry Holt, 1937), 45.

  67. Helen G. Stafford, James VI of Scotland and the Throne of England (New York: Appleton-Century, 1940), 73.

  68. Stafford, 117-18.

  69. Stafford, 203.

  70. Stafford, 118.

  71. Stafford, 118.

  72. MacCaffrey, 439.

  73. Stafford, 204.

  74. David P. Young, Something of Great Constancy: The Art of A Midsummer Night's Dream (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 4-5.

  75. Bednarz, 82.

Sharon Hamilton (essay date 2003)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2051

SOURCE: Hamilton, Sharon. “Daughters Who Rebel: Hermia (A Midsummer Night's Dream), Jessica (The Merchant of Venice), and Desdemona (Othello).” In Shakespeare's Daughters, pp. 38-42. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Hamilton analyzes the father-daughter conflict between Egeus and Hermia in a A Midsummer Night's Dream.]

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the father-daughter conflict is presented in its simplest terms. Old Egeus sounds his character note at his first appearance. He comes in “full of vexation … with complaint / Against [his] child” (I.i.22-23). The reason is suggested in the cast list: Hermia is identified as “daughter to Egeus, in love with Lysander.” The problem is that Egeus favors Demetrius, and has given him his consent. Lysander, Egeus claims, has “bewitched” Hermia, “filched [his] daughter's heart” with “rhymes,” “love tokens,” “verses of feigning love,” “bracelets of his hair, rings, gauds, conceits, / Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats”—in short, all the standard paraphernalia of courtship. The charge is made the more ludicrous by the list's detail. The real issue, as it was for Capulet, is the father's pride of possession. Lysander, Egeus charges, has “Turned her obedience, which is due to me, / To stubborn harshness” (ll. 27-38). For retribution, he appeals to the “ancient privilege” of Athenian law, and to its human representative, Duke Theseus: “As she is mine, I may dispose of her,” he asserts, and he puts her choices in the harshest terms: either marriage to Demetrius or death.

This heavy sentence is not long allowed to overshadow the lovers' fate. Shakespeare gives several signs that the play will remain a comedy. The first is the arbitrariness of Egeus's preference: there is no extrinsic bar to Lysander's qualifications as suitor. Unlike Othello, whose future father-in-law also accuses him of seducing his daughter by means of witchcraft, Lysander is of the same race and social heritage as Hermia. Unlike Romeo, he does not hail from a rival family. As Lysander himself vouches, he is as “well derived as [Demetrius], as well possessed” (I.i.99-100). In fact, he is the worthier candidate, since Demetrius has jilted another young noblewoman, “Nedar's daughter, Helena,” who nevertheless still “dotes” on “this spotted and inconstant man” (ll. 109-10). Both the unreasonableness of the father's edict and the accessibility of the rejected maiden signal that the means for a happy ending are at hand.

The other characters' reactions during the public hearing also suggest that the outcome will firmly favor the lovers. At Egeus's request, Theseus dutifully recites to Hermia the party line on filial obedience: her father “should be as a god” to her; having “composed [her] beauties,” it is “within his power / To leave the figure or disfigure it” (I.i.47-51). Hermia is not daunted by this ugly threat. Not only does she defend her preference for Lysander, she appeals to the Duke to mitigate her possible punishment should she refuse to marry Demetrius. Although she makes a show of apology for this “boldness” in overstepping the bounds of “modesty,” her request emphasizes that the Duke is a higher authority than Egeus. Like Desdemona, Hermia cunningly uses her father's faith in hierarchy against him.

Theseus, perhaps moved by Hermia's youth and beauty (he addresses her as “fair maid”), perhaps by the parallel with his own situation, tempers Egeus's black and white dictate. He proposes a third course of punishment, that Hermia “endure the livery of a nun” and “live a barren sister all [her] life” (I.i.70-72). This is slender mercy. Although it would spare her life, Theseus's very language—“endure,” “barren”—suggests that “withering on the virgin thorn” holds few charms in this most earthly of paradises. Nevertheless, Hermia claims to prefer enforced chastity to bearing the “unwished yoke” of Demetrius's love. Lysander's response is a sarcastic retort to his rival:

You have her father's love, Demetrius;
Let me have Hermia's: do you marry him

[ll. 93-94].

He faces down his angry father-in-law with equal confidence: “I am beloved of beauteous Hermia. / Why should not I prosecute my right?”

Theseus, hearing this youthful defiance, restates the exigencies of the “law of Athens,” backing the father's “will” against his daughter's “fancies,” which, he claims, he “by no means … may extenuate” (I.i.118-20). But then he draws away Egeus and Demetrius on “some business” about his own “nuptial.” Is this accident, with Theseus so “over-full of self-affairs” (l. 113) that he does not think through his actions? Or has the tolerant older lover intentionally left the couple alone? In any case, they lose no time in devising a plot to defy their elders. Lysander takes the lead. After her public show of bravado, Hermia turns pale and threatens to cry, signs of emotion that, typically, Shakespeare describes in the dialogue. But her suitor waxes philosophical, first uttering the oft-quoted observation about the rough course of “true love,” and then giving a series of similes for love's transience: “swift as a shadow, short as any dream”—“so quick bright things come to confusion” (ll. 144, 149). This nostalgia, we might suspect, derives less from the character than from the playwright looking, Theseus-like, with a fond eye at the young lovers.

Hermia's response is to preach “patience” in their “trial” (I.i.152). The bolder Lysander proposes a scheme to elude “the sharp Athenian law” by fleeing the city and taking refuge with his wealthy widowed aunt. Hermia must “steal forth [her] father's house” (ll. 162-64)—in other words, leave the confines of paternal authority and, in its extended form, the city walls and the Duke's edict. She agrees with no qualms except about the possible fragility of the proposed match, based as it is on “all the vows that ever men have broke” (l. 175). But she lightens this accusation by couching it in rhyme and agrees to meet Lysander that night.

The way to the dowager's house is through the woods, the usual setting in Shakespearean comedy of confusion, magic, and transformation—the world of dream alluded to in the title. There, the lovers' fidelity will be tested, and the forces that threaten to separate them will go beyond the external. Lysander passes the first test of his integrity, obeying the modest Hermia's request to “lie further off” when they lose their way and are forced to spend the night in the woods. Such a “separation,” she says sententiously, “becomes a virtuous bachelor and a maid” (II.ii.57-59). The supernatural beings who rule this province have no such scruples. In fact, Puck, coming across the sleeping couple, is indignant at Lysander's supposed rejection of the “pretty soul” who “durst not lie” near “this lack-love” (ll. 76-77).

The fairies, led by their King, Oberon, and their Queen, Titania, are openly promiscuous. In fact, the royals are fighting a pitched battle over the jealousy caused by their various affairs. This permissiveness reaches a ludicrous extreme when Titania, drugged into amorousness by Oberon's magic flower, leads her latest lover, the “translated” Bottom, to her bower. She is delicate and lovely; he, in a metaphor made literal, is an ass. Her thoughts are of a situation opposite to her own, the horror of rape, with the moon and “every little flower, / Lamenting some enforced chastity” (III.i.184-85). The mortals follow Titania's words, not her actions, and uphold the usual strict standard of chastity that Shakespeare sets for his lovers. When Theseus and his hunting party discover all four sleeping—Demetrius has meanwhile been reconciled to Helena—he immediately puts an innocuous face on the situation: “No doubt they rose up early to observe / The rite of May” (IV.i.131-32). This placating excuse is directed particularly at the outraged Egeus. But Theseus teases the dazed couples in a way that shows he senses their actual motives: “Saint Valentine is past! / Begin these woodbirds but to couple now?” (ll. 138-39).

All four scramble to their knees and beg his pardon. After a night of confusion, discomfort, and barely averted battle, a farce directed by the mischievous Puck, the rivals are reconciled and the couples reunited. Hermia has proven her romantic heroine's credentials: she was bold in claiming her rights against her rival when Puck's error made Lysander abandon her for Helena, and steadfast in her concern for his safety even after he rejected her. Like Juliet and Desdemona, in a crisis she is resourceful and daring. But unlike those inhabitants of a tragic world, Hermia has not been forced to struggle alone. The wry Puck (whose watchword is “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” [III.ii.115]) is not the only guardian of their fates. Oberon, the fairy king, is there to assure that “all things shall be peace” (III.ii.377). “The pairs of faithful lovers” return to Athens to be “wedded with Theseus, all in jollity” (IV.i.91).

The difference in tone between the insouciant Dream and the later, more somber Tempest becomes evident if we compare the magical father-figures who determine the lovers' fates. Oberon, unlike Prospero, is immortal. He is also unrelated to the lovers and secure in his native element. Having bestowed his blessing on them and their posterity, he can return to the wood he rules, with Puck and the fairy band permanently in his service and the new reconciliation with Titania to cheer his nights. He need sacrifice none of his own well-being for the sake of a loved one.

The suffering falls to the mortal father, Egeus, who, when the lovers return, renews his complaint against Hermia and adds the plea that Lysander, too, suffer “the law upon his head.” He tries to enlist Demetrius's support in punishing their slight to two bastions of male power: the father's “consent” and the suitor's contract of marriage. But Demetrius is no longer his ally, and Theseus steps easily into the breach to decree: “Egeus, I will overbear your will” (IV.i.178). Thus, the Duke, the human analogue to Oberon (their parts are often doubled on stage), assumes the paternal role. Egeus says nothing; his silence shows that he has been completely thwarted, and no harsh word breaks the joyous mood.

The play remains a “dream,” with everyone except the irascible father given their fondest wish. Shakespeare acknowledges, through Theseus, the poet's role as dream-maker, giving to “airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (V.i.16-17). He links him, with endearing self-mockery, not only with the “lover” but the “lunatic” as three beings comprised entirely of “imagination” (ll. 7-8). Shakespeare exercises that imagination once more in a last act that serves as an epilogue to the main action and provides further distance from Egeus's sour view.

The final act consists primarily of a play within the play that parodies the plot of the separated lovers. Some Athenian workmen present to the court their much toiled over “Pyramus and Thisby,” “very tragical mirth,” with “not one word apt, one player fitted” (V.i.57-65). Here it is an external barrier, and an animate one, that separates the lovers: a “vile wall” (l. 131). Coincidentally, the playlet also parodies Romeo and Juliet, written shortly afterwards, in Pyramus's erroneous assumption that his lady is dead, the setting of the deaths in a tomb, and Thisby's suicide with her lover's dagger. In this small comic masterpiece, Shakespeare boldly mocks not only his own material but the conventions of his stage: the absence of scenery, the jog-trot verse, and the boy actors cast in female roles. He mocks, too, theater as a medium and actors as a type—eager for applause, keen on playing all the roles, at the mercy of their audience's indulgence and the limitations of their own talents.

At the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, however, solemnity and beauty return. Oberon, Titania, and their fairy train bestow on the newlyweds all the worldly blessings: “sweet peace,” “safety,” and “issue [that] ever shall be fortunate” (V.i.394-409). These wishes parallel those conveyed to Miranda and Ferdinand in Prospero's show of goddesses. Fittingly, in the simple comedy, the roles of father and supernatural overseer remain split: Oberon blesses the union while the irate Egeus remains conveniently off stage. Shakespeare's tenets for marital happiness remained remarkably constant from the beginning to the end of his career. The poet's alliance with the lover and with the father-figure who would promote wedded bliss, so early claimed, held firm.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320


Holloway, Julia Bolton. “Apuleius and Midsummer Night's Dream: Bottom's Metamorphoses.” In Tales Within Tales: Apuleius Through Time, edited by Constance S. Wright and Julia Bolton Holloway, pp. 123-37. New York: AMS Press, 2000.

Suggests that Shakespeare's use of enchantment and dreams in A Midsummer Night's Dream mirrors the struggle of the psyche in society and illustrates the complexity of the human condition.

Howard, Skiles. “Hands, Feet, and Bottoms: Decentering the Cosmic Dance in A Midsummer Night's Dream.Shakespeare Quarterly 44, no. 3 (autumn 1993): 325-42.

Focuses on the symbolic and traditional meanings of the dances portrayed in A Midsummer Night's Dream and contends that these scenes provide a unique insight into the courtly festivities of England's history.

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 (autumn 2000): 277-312.

Theorizes that the fairy realm in A Midsummer Night's Dream is representative of the lower class and its struggle for acknowledgement from the rest of society.

Lehmann, Courtney. “Authors, Players, and the Shakespearean Auteur-Function in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In Shakespeare Remains: Theater to Film, Early Modern to Postmodern, pp. 54-88. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Examines how the struggles of Shakespeare's role as an author/playwright are mirrored in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Stavig, Mark. “Ill Met By Moonlight.” In The Forms of Things Unknown: Renaissance Metaphor in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, pp. 199-226. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1995.

Offers a symbolic analysis of love, masculinity, and femininity in A Midsummer Night's Dream and examines how the passionate, natural world of the fairies compares and contrasts to the realistic, rational world of Athenian society.

Wall, Wendy. “Why Does Puck Sweep?: Fairylore, Merry Wives, and Social Struggle.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 1 (2001): 67-106.

Asserts that when Puck sweeps away dust at the close of the play, he symbolically links monarchic England with its lower-class subjects and their menial tasks.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vol. 70)



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