A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare

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Introduction

(Shakespearean Criticism)

A Midsummer Night's Dream

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...

(The entire section is 105,904 words.)